Pokemon GO houses fascinating concepts but is a terrible video game.

Pokémon GO is a pop-cultural phenomenon. Since its launch two or three weeks ago, the brand has been returned to the public eye with the kind of attention that it has not felt since its western inception in 1999. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the success story unfold, especially because it concerns a brand that hitherto only seemed to be getting more far afield from its initial boom, instead relying on a small, loyal group of fans to stay afloat. It’s an interesting turn for the series, and one I have been very excited to explore in writing. Above all, I am interested in examining just what it is that sets Pokémon GO apart from the mainline series, as well as asking the question of whether or not it’s actually any good as a video game.

I’ll begin by examining some of the concepts that lie at the heart of Pokémon GO. First and foremost is that Pokémon GO does not only capture the idea of venturing out into the world in search of collectible creatures like the games before, but rather becomes it. There has always been a subtle meta undertone to the mainline Pokémon series: you begin each game as a boy or a girl in their room, with a TV and a games console, but you aren’t allowed to play it. You have to go outside, you have to go and do things. Pokémon has always been subtly trying to influence its player-base to get out more, to exercise and engage with their communities, and to not isolate themselves from the world at large for the sake of video games. With Pokémon GO, we finally see the series succeed in this, not by influencing the player to put the controller down and get outside but rather forcing them to in order to make progress.

This is achieved by the game’s use of GPS to track the player’s movement. They are presented onscreen as a customized avatar walking across an alternate reality map of their local area, made to look as if it belongs in Pokémon’s heavily stylized universe. As the player walks in the real world, the avatar on the screen will move too, and, after long enough, will encounter Pokémon that they can then catch using Pokéballs. There is a readout as well as particle effects on the screen that give some indication of how far away different Pokémon are located. As catching Pokémon is always the sole aim of Pokémon, and is the only route of progression here, the player must leave their home and go on a merry stroll if they are to effectively progress through the game.

With this mechanic we also see the real-world application of another of Pokemon’s major selling points: The explorer/trainer fantasy. I’m certain that nearly everyone who has played the Pokemon games has thought about how fun it would be to be able to venture out into the world in search of creatures to collect and foes to take on. Obviously this was never going to become a reality, but Pokémon GO gets about as close as it comes. The realization of this fantasy begins with the exploration mechanics described above, but is also supported by a number of mechanics that ensure that the experience is not one of isolation, but one that is rather socially and competitively engaging. The exploration of local points of interest also being gamified in Pokémon GO. Once again using the game’s GPS feature, in-game zones called Pokéstops are dotted at points of real-world interest. These exist to mark historical locations like churches and monuments, as well as commercial establishments like pubs, shopping centres and family attractions. But they also serve as a game mechanic. Pokestops offer items to the player such as Pokéballs, which allows them to catch more Pokémon. These stops also offer items called Lures, which can be placed on the stops to attract Pokémon there, essentially making these zones great areas to gather and engage with other players of the game by offering something of benefit to all of them, and, as a result, making the game a very social experience in any area where it is popular. This social function of the game is also enhanced by the fact that these Pokéstop items can only be grabbed once by a player before a cooldown period is engaged. As a result, the player is encouraged to go to a number of them, essentially giving them an in-game incentive the real world exploration of their area as well as engagement with the local community. So we once again see how Pokémon GO takes something from the mainline series and applies it to the real world; that being the sense of being at one with an accessible community that has a common goal.

In addition to Pokéstops, there are also Gyms. Gyms are spots that are placed similarly to Pokéstops, but have a different function. Anyone familiar with Pokémon will know that Gyms are the places where trainers take their Pokémon to fight those of other people. It works very similarly in GO. Past level five, players are made to choose from three teams: Valor, Mystic and Instinct. The difference between the three is purely cosmetic, only serving as much as to provide a way for the game to divide its players into competitive groups. When arriving at a Gym, the player can challenge the current owner so long as they are on a different team. Victory allows them to leave their Pokémon guarding the gym, thus allowing players of other teams to challenge them for the position. They also receive Pokécoins, an in-game currency that is used to buy progress-speeding items. Naturally, this taps into the competitive spirit that has always been a part of the Pokémon brand, and provides yet another avenue for social encounters with the game through its usage of real-world places of interest.

The answer is obvious then. Pokémon GO sets itself apart from the mainline series by applying much of what people love or loved about the brand to the (almost) real world. By using Alternate Reality as the basis for its mechanics, Pokémon has (at least conceptually) become the exploration fueled social experience that it always emulated, and as such it’s no real wonder that it has resonated with such a large number of people. Whilst all of that may be wonderful in itself and bode well for the future of alternate reality based gaming, it also begs the question of whether or not Pokémon GO manages to execute any of these ideas in a satisfactory way. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that it does not.

The biggest problem that Pokémon GO suffers from is its lack of a skill based element. Catching Pokémon, the central activity of the game, is a tiresome affair. As the player walks, the phone will vibrate and Pokémon will appear nearby. To catch them, the player touches the Pokémon on the screen, and the perspective shifts. If the player has AR (Alternate Reality) Mode on, then the phone’s camera is used to create a backdrop behind the Pokemon that is being caught, giving the ‘illusion’ that the Pokemon is there in front of them. The catching itself can best be described as being functionally identical as one of those ‘toss the paper ball in the bin’ games that infest sites like Miniclip. The only difference is cosmetic, and that you can, if you’re really that bothered about maxing experience points, put spin on the throw. Once caught, the Pokemon is added to your collection. There are 250 of them to catch. It’s very simple, in fact it seems as though every element of this game is designed with the intention of accessibility. There is no real difficulty curve. This problem extends to the combat encounters when fighting other people’s Pokémon for the control of Gyms. The perspective once again shifts to view that is a poor farce of the battle screens in the mainline series. I say this because all depth of these screens is lost. One simply taps the enemy Pokémon to attack it, and swipes to dodge incoming attacks. This would be acceptable, but it is rarely the controlling factor. Every Pokemon has combat points, or ‘CP’, and it is due to this that combat really becomes a simplistic affair in which whoever has the highest overall CP wins.

This lack of a skill element also exposes the deeper problem at play here. Pokémon GO is disappointingly shallow, and will lose its charm for many after getting over the initial wow-factor of its alternate reality gimmicks. Seriously. There is nothing interesting about how the game presents its mechanics outside of the social opportunities and fantasy fulfillment that it creates. The only way that a Pokemon’s CP, and therefore combat effectiveness, can be increased, is through the use of two items: stardust and candies. Stardust is accrued by the act of catching Pokémon. Candies are, err, accrued by the act of catching Pokemon. There is only one difference: While stardust is obtained from every catch, candies are not. Instead, you get them by trading in your duplicate Pokémon. While I can respect how it allows the game to sidestep the issue of finding a lot of duplicates in any given area, I feel it does not manage to avoid that problem in an engaging way. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the frustration of getting that sweet phone vibration only to find yet another Pidgey. There just isn’t any excitement to progression in Pokémon GO. Sure, your Pokémon get stronger, and maybe even evolve, and it’s a great moment when you stumble upon a rare Pokémon that you’ve been after. But there is no long-term strategy at play, no room for tactics or anything of real substance, just constant repetition with irregular levels of fulfillment. It might be a laugh at first, especially with friends, but the Pokémon GO gets old fast.

Pokémon GO is also riddled with technical issues. I cannot tell you how many times I have tapped a Pokémon on the screen and nothing has happened. It sends you into a frenzy, you hammer at the screen again and again. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the little bugger just vanishes and you have to walk some more to find another. Either way, it casts some doubt in your mind every single time, and even goes as far as panic when it’s something rare that you’re trying to grab. And that’s it really: you know it’s sloppy design when one of your central features doesn’t even work correctly. There are also issues with catching Pokémon. You’ll put the perfect spin on your throw and get a little ‘great!’ read-out flash up, only for the game to then freeze and crash, leaving no option but to restart it. Most of the time the catch is registered when this happens, but even then it replaces the buzz of the catch with downright frustration at having to restart the app. That’s the other problem: restarting the app takes a very, very long time. You get a stylized safety warning screen and a loading bar, and some chirpy music that smells of adventure but tastes of mockery as the game just. keeps. on. loading.   There are massive problems with the game servers as well. I can think of several occasions that I have opened up the app with full signal only to find that it won’t let me connect. It even went down for more than a day last week; happy hunting indeed. I know this is likely down to the fact that it was never anticipated by the developer that this game would be so huge, but it’s not like they didn’t have time to find a solution to this before the game released in territories outside of the US. Pokémon GO simply isn’t a well polished product, and solving these issues is a priority if Niantic wants this success to be long-term. It currently has the air of cheap production values and shoddy craftmanship, which is actually rather ironic given how successful the game has been. That being said though, I have been playing the game on an old and beaten Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, so you might fare better if you’ve got something a bit more cutting edge.

If there is one thing I will hand to the game’s design as being a positive, however, it’s in how it monetizes itself. The game is free to play, and so it has micro-transactions. But it isn’t pay to win. In return for your money you receive Pokécoins, and these can be used to buy items in the store. Thankfully, you can only buy items that can already be obtained at Pokéstops, such as eggs that hatch Pokemon when you walk enough, incubators that house these eggs during hatching, and lures that attract Pokemon to these stops. You cannot buy stardust or candies, and so outright progress is still made impossible without the player actually going out and making catches on the regular. So while microtransactions will help you on your travels, they will not cut out the need for that travelling altogether. It is a decent way to monetize a free little app like this, and it seems in tune with the game’s vision. I honestly feel that other mobile developers could learn a thing or two from Pokémon GO‘s way of doing things. Then again, it probably isn’t a good sign if the best thing I can say about your free mobile game is that it doesn’t take the piss where the player’s cash is concerned.

Ultimately, Pokémon GO is nothing more than a collection of interesting ideas that are used poorly to mask a terrible video game, which capitalizes on nothing other than brand nostalgia and cheap gimmicks. It’s worth a GO (hah hah), simply for the fact that everyone is playing it, but beyond that it is an utter waste of your time.

Score: 4.0/10

By Matthias Brunwin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interactive Narrative in Portal

Interactive Narrative in Portal

Narrative focused video games are an art form in youth. Relative to cinema, literature, or just about any other kind of narrative art, video games have not had a great deal of time to explore or establish conventions that can serve the medium in its attempts to tell stories. As such, it can be argued that the medium has not reached its full potential, or come to realize its greatest restrictions. Some notable examples of this in industry are the tendency of modern games to borrow heavily from other mediums, instead of using what makes their own form so unique; and how they can often fail to reach cohesion between mechanics and narrative, leaving immersion impossible without anything short of acceptance of contradiction. It’s clear that many lessons are still to be learned if these problems are to be overcome. However, there have been a small number of narrative games in recent years that have managed to avoid these pitfalls, from which we can learn an awful lot about ways in which the medium can progress to reach its potential. Valve’s experimental first person puzzler Portal, released in 2007, is an arguably solid example of this.

One way that Portal manages to break new ground in the effort to establish video games as a unique form of narrative art can be seen from its first moments, with its understated opening sequence. There is no glossy cutscene here, no expository piece to fill us in on exactly what is going on at the entry point; none of the cinematic conventions that may be expected from a high budget game of narrative focus. Instead, Portal opts for a narrative technique that is unique to the medium: full and immediate player control. After being placed unceremoniously within the confines of a glass cell of space age decor, it is momentarily left down to the player to piece together exactly what is going on in this situation.

This invites engagement with the basic first person shooter movement mechanics of the game without making it feel forced.  It rewards this engagement with a touch of story information complete with quirky diagrams that tell of the player’s situation as a lab rat, as well as a gag involving a toilet and a radio. As a result, we see that mechanical immediacy is used to hint at the broader story at work: it introduces the comic tone and theme of scientific progress lying at the heart of Portal’s narrative, and does so in a way that completely immerses the player. No barrier is constructed between the audience and the narrative experience via the introduction of contrary mechanical systems, as the mechanical systems that are introduced are made a part of learning narrative information, and are unified with it as a result.  

A second, stronger example of immediacy garnering immersion can be seen in the revelation of  Portal’s central mechanic: the ability to open two portals at different points in space, allowing the player to step through one to come out of the other. Naturally, this is quite a mind-bending concept to interact with, but Portal does not attempt to even explain it to the player through any kind of expository content. Instead, the concept is placed before them in a malleable form; a portal is opened directly ahead of view; inviting you to experiment, to step through and simply see what happens. Once again, we see that mechanics are made immediately accessible as opposed to being explained, making them feel as one with the narrative, and more importantly; organic to use. The unfathomable becomes the acceptable.

In the end this sequence shows that, through complete narrative and mechanical immediacy, it is possible to comfortably immerse the player in a world that is by real-world logic utterly unbelievable. Furthermore, it presents the possibility of incorporating the teaching of new rules into such a world without contradicting what has been established by the narrative, as the two are unified from their inception.

Once immersion has been established, more exposition is employed to reveal this world in broader strokes. Thankfully, when it does come, it does not feel clunky or forced. It begins with an introduction to GLaDOS, a heard but unseen, ‘evil’ artificial intelligence who is clearly running the show and forms the only real ‘character’ in the game. It is explained to the player by her that they are, for no given reason, in an ‘Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center’, where they are about to become a part of a scientific experiment. This test acts as the central narrative thread, and within that lies an idea that can bring us to an understanding of exactly how Portal manages to blend narrative and mechanical design into one united package.

It achieves this by contextualizing a central feature of nearly every ‘typical’ video game: The difficulty curve, defined as the presence of a series of connected challenges that increase in difficulty with every subsequent step or level.  This is certainly an element in Portal’s level design and sequencing (at least for the first three quarters of the game), but where Portal differs to many ‘typical’ games is that it can also be said for its narrative core. The player, or at least the mute shell which they inhabit (aptly named Chell), is being put through a test of their adaptive reasoning in response to a set of known rules for ‘scientific purposes’. Logically, such a test in reality, or in a believable narrative, would have to possess increasing complexity as an inherent component, in order to allow study of behavioral response to varying challenge and as such monitor learning. 

The difficulty curve actually works to support the narrative’s power to convince us of a believable world. The effect of this is that the player’s application of mechanics to these increasingly difficult challenges becomes this ‘behavioral response’, as their actions form the data that the story has devised a clear reason for being obtained. Overall, this allows Portal to remain true to one base element of what we often call ‘gameplay’ without breaking immersion, as mechanics, narrative and player experience are all successfully unified by the concept. Feelings of frustration from failure, and triumph when you finally have the moment of ‘getting it’, become an internal part of the experience, as opposed to being an external effect of it. Consequently, this world involves you as it challenges you, coming alive in its cohesion between narrative and the uniquely interactive aspect of the medium. You begin to believe in what you’re doing, and because of that, Portal comes close to achieving a common goal of narrative art: complete and utter suspension of disbelief; immersion in something you already know to not be real.

A potential flaw in this argument does materialize in the final act of Portal, in which the player escapes near death at the hands of GLaDOS and with it, the confines of the Aperture Science test chambers. You find your way out and explore the behind the scenes workings of the facility, which are manifested as more puzzles to work your way through. While showing our protagonist transgress the irreverently murderous intentions of the rogue AI makes logical sense as a narrative denouement, a problem lies in that this sequence arguably breaks the trend of the difficulty curve. This is based on the fact that the difficulty of these final puzzles varies in a way that is not in anyway representative of a standard upwards curve.

As a result, that element with which the game’s mechanical and narrative designs are unified by so effectively is, unfortunately, left neglected. The same can also be argued with the final encounter with GLaDOS, which is frankly rather straightforward: a simple repeated process that involves you using portals and a rocket turret to remove an AI core from her ‘body’ before placing it in an incinerator; typical boss battle antics. None of this comes even close to the amount of work you must put in to solve the final ‘proper’ test chamber, which precedes the sequence. This  may appear inconsistent, or even contrived; as the forcing of a conclusion to a game that could, in theory, just keep on going until it beats you.

This line of argument, however, does the achievements of this game a disservice, as something much more profound is clearly at work. While contrast is undeniable, breaking of narrative immersion is not. Instead, it is gradually lessened with this climax, in a way that seems deliberated. The player is so comfortably engrossed within this world at this point that a transgression away from mechanical challenge forms a pleasant way to be eased out of the experience.

The final encounter seems to reflect this, in that the player is more interested in what GLaDOS is saying than in what they are doing, more interested in the narrative than in applying knowledge of mechanics. It is then, through the voice of that character, that the major question of exactly what happened in this facility is answered. The facility is unmanned because she killed everyone inside except you. If you don’t stop her, she’ll finish the job. With that revelation, there is nothing left to solve, and as such there is no need or reason to continue to learn about and engage with mechanics. The lonely adventure has come to a comfortable end. This forms a kind of resolution that should be striven for in any narrative; one that fully realizes the perks of its chosen medium.

Overall, through its abandonment of other mediums’ functional conventions and its exploration of the unique interactivity of video games, Portal represents a level of narrative and mechanical coherence rarely seen in the medium. It is practically impossible to talk about the story of this game without making mention of either mechanics or level design, because these cornerstones are so carefully entwined at every moment; forming the makings of a true masterpiece.

By Matthias Brunwin