Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thoughts of The Walking Dead (ep1)

I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead recently and few stuff popped up that I thought was worth discussing. For those of you who do not know what The Walking Dead is, it is a horror adventure game based upon a comic book (which is now also tv-series) featuring Heavy Rain inspired gameplay. It is developed by Tell Tale (makers of the Sam and Max reboot, etc) and is released on an episodic basis. I was unsure if Tell Tale could deliver a game with this kind of atmosphere, but having played I have to say that it is quite successful. The first episode is not a master piece by any means, but contain a few things worth bringing up.

The comic-book inspired art direction combined with so-so animations does not look all that inviting and immersive. But when you play the game, it works very well and does the job. This even though the drama of the game is mostly about close-up dialog and relationships. I think this is a very important lesson about not having to have photo realistic graphics even though the game is meant to focus on human emotions. I have a hard time saying that Heavy Rain, which as a lot more gloss on its visual, managed to elicit any more emotions from me. However, watching trailers, Heavy Rain seems a lot better in this aspect and I thought Walking Dead looked downright horrible at times. But in-game it turned out not be really matter. This is also lesson in taking care of how you present the game in trailers and such, and make sure that the feelings you get from actually playing the game comes across.

Just like in Heavy Rain, a big feature is to make hard decisions throughout the game. You must choose who to save, whether to lie or not, etc. Most of these are made using timed dialog choices, where you only have a short time to decide what to do. On paper I think it sounds okay, but I just do not like how it feels when actually playing. There is just something that bothers me in knowing that all of these choices are prefabricated and that I the choice I did not make might have been better. And it does not really matter that the choices do not affect the game mechanically (eg like in Mass Effect where bad choice might mean less gain), there is just something holding me back from playing along with it.
I think a big problem is that it is way too obvious that you are actually making a choice. Supporting this hypothesis is that the game by default gives a pop-up hint of the consequences of a choice (eg that a character trust you less), and removing this makes it a lot better (but still not good enough). A few choices are made in a sort of "Virtua Cop"-like manner where you have to point a cross-hair over a target and then choose an action. It is not always clear that these are actual choices, in part because it is much more analog (not just choosing from a list of options) and partly because it is less clear that you can only can choose a ONE of the presented alternatives. These sequences did not bother me at all as much as the dialog options.

Pixel hunting
While the game does a lot to remove annoying adventure game features and make a smoother experience, it also falls back upon some annoying aspects of the genre. The most obvious is that of pixel hunting. There are only really two major adventure-game like puzzles in the game and both of these has the player searching for one or several objects, non-obviously located, in the environment. The worst of these is a remote control that is hidden in  drawer which is not accessible until you have done certain unrelated actions. This caused me to wander aimlessly in the scene for far too long.
I think it is really important to try and minimize this sort of things as it makes you go about exploring the scenes in a very unnatural way. Best is if the player can sort a puzzle out without having to search every nook and cranny for items.

Once you get caught up wandering without any real goal, like I mentioned above, you start doing the same things over and over. This is when you start noticing the slim output of lines that characters have. When asked the same question, they just repeat the same line they gave before. This is especially jarring when it amounts to longer exchange between the protagonist and a supporting character. Repeating canned responses like this really breaks the sense of immersion for me. I just simply cannot role-play when I am subjected to this sort of repetition.
I think the game should have removed hot-spots, given leading answers from characters (especially the protagonist), etc. Anything to push me in the direction and to keep up the make-belief that it is real characters inhabiting the virtual world. Now they just come of as cardboard signs the moment you start wandering off the intended path.

End Notes

I'd say that The Walking Dead is worth playing and being just over 2 hours of gameplay in the first episode it just not that much wasted time in case you end up hating it. While the game did not blow me away, I was pleasantly surprised and am intrigued to see how the next episode will turn out.

If anyone else has played the game, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following.:

- What did you think of the graphics? Was the discrepancy between trailer and in-game also large?
- What did you like the choices? Did it feel like you could roleplay or was it hard to put as side that there was a better choice?
- How did you feel about the repeated lines? Not bothering at all, or a nail in eye each time they were encounter?

    Monday, June 18, 2012

    Can Apps Transform Learning into Games?

    [Originally Published at on 13th June 2012]
    There has been much excitement about the possibilities for using tablets and mobile devices in education. Because they are so easy and intuitive to learn, they do not create barriers for kids. There is much experimentation going on as a result. To date, some of the most successful apps replicate learning games in the classroom but perhaps with a little more fun. Futaba create games that can be played up to four people to help with reading, mathematics and other more rote learning concepts. These games do not provide learning per se but create a set of competitive games where you do better if you have paid attention in class. Kids find it fun but I wouldn’t class it as a learning experience. That said, it is a fun game for adults to play with their kids.
    Beyond this, apps that actually allow for learning that have real potential. On the high end, there is this excellent app that teaches you to visualize higher dimensions. But perhaps more relevant for kids is the magnificent Algebra Touch teaches algebra the right way by allowing kids to manipulate objects (e.g., dragging a term from the left to the right hand side of an equation). It does something that is very difficult to do in a classroom.
    Today, a couple of apps were launched that allow for learning but are clearly games. DragonBox+ is an app that teaches kids to play algebra. It is a puzzle game with animations that are a bit Angry Birds and a bit Fruit Ninja. I tried out this one and to say that the fact that it is teaching mathematics is subtle is an understatement. Basically, you have to eliminate ‘objects’ on each side of the board but you are restricted to moves that, when you think about it, follow the rules of algebra. The idea is that you get comfortable with the game and then can move on to doing exactly the same thing with equations.
    Also launched today is a different type of learning app, PenyoPal Food Frenzy. Before I describe it, some disclosure. PenyoPal is a start-up that is part of Canada’s Next36. This is a very exciting entrepreneurial incubator project that takes 36 of the brightest Canadian undergraduate students and puts them into nine teams each with up to $50,000 in start-up funding. The teams come up with mobile app ideas and then come to the University of Toronto for the summer where they work more and receive lectures in business. I was one of the instructors this year teaching them about competitive strategy. So I have more than a keen interest in the apps developed on the program.
    PenyoPal Food Frenzy is the first of the apps to reach the market. Its goal is to help kids learn Mandarin. Not surprisingly, there is a keen interest in this nowadays but also, in particular, from parents of Chinese origin who want to pass on the language to their kids. Of course, as with all of these things getting kids to learn a language is difficult. PenyoPal want to make it fun.
    As with many of these things, achieving that is much easier said than done. But what PenyoPal’s first app has managed to do is provide an environment where you learn in the game and the more you learn the better you get. It is a little like the Khan Academy that way. The basic idea is that you have to identify Chinese words with particular food objects. But the words can come in a phonetic English form, Chinese characters and even spoken form. It is a little frenetic but kids actually seem to learn. My 11 year old tried out the beta version the other week and he played nonstop for an hour. And this was not playing where the alternative option was normal classroom instruction. This was playing when he could have just played any other game. In other words, for him at least, the game was fun in of itself. But what impressed me is that it could only be fun if you progressed — that is, learned the words. Now my son is actually taking Mandarin at school so it is hard for me to judge how much he learned but the time spent told me something. What is more, as a parent I could view a report to see how far he had progressed mastering the concepts.
    What this taught me about these apps is that there is a way to embed learning in a game. But the learning cannot be like mixing in tomato sauce to make the vegetables taste better. The learning must actually be the achievement in the game. PenyoPal have more apps coming including a very interesting conversational version that requires you to speak phrases properly to progress. Food Frenzy is available for free in the iTunes App Store with in-app purchases giving you more word options. From what I can see, parents will end up being surprised as their kids ask them to buy vegetables!

    If World Leaders Can Misplace Children, What About the Rest of Us?

    [Originally Published at on 11th June 2012]

    News today that UK Prime Minister David Cameron left his 8 year old daughter in a pub. This happened a few months ago but apparently Cameron thought his daughter was with her mother and her mother thought she was with
    SANTA GERTRUDIS, SPAIN - MAY 29:  Prime Minist...
    SANTA GERTRUDIS, SPAIN - MAY 29: Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha Cameron walk hand in hand through the centre of Santa Gertrudis at the beginning of their holiday on the island of Ibiza on May 29, 2011 in Spain. After leaving the G8 summit in France, British Prime Minister David Cameron, with children Nancy (7) and Arthur (5), took a flight to the Balearic island of Ibiza to join his wife Samantha and their baby daughter Florence, who had arrived the day before. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
    him. In fact, she was in the bathroom and neither realized it. Of course, Cameron’s daughter learned of the error first and was safe and sound with the pub owners.
    On the one hand, as those who watched The West Wing know, the story does not paint a good picture for the PM’s security detail who, let’s face it, need to be on top of things like this. On the other hand, sans the whole security thing, this is a pretty plausible scenario. It is one of the reasons Home Alone resonated with parents.
    The ‘joint responsibility’ over child misplacement scenario is actually the milder ones of parents because it is difficult to assign blame. We almost lost our eldest daughter in a crowd in Hong Kong. My wife and I became separated from each other and we agreed on the phone that rather than working out how to find each other we would get in a cab and go to the hotel. She had our two youngest and thought I had our eldest. I thought she had all three. So I was very surprised when our eldest daughter popped up as I was getting into a cab and said, “wow, it was hard finding you.” That was seconds away from disaster although I am fairly confident we would have located her eventually as she knew our phone numbers.
    What can be worse for parents is the ‘sole responsibility’ scenario. That is where one parent has clear responsibility and loses a child. I lost our youngest at Disneyland. As I searched around all I could think was that her mother was going to kill me. I actually had little concern for our daughter’s safety. It was Disneyland after all! They excel at lost children so much so they call their locator service ‘lost parents.’ If a child finds themselves there they have a fun time and an ice cream. Actually, I wonder sometimes that the Disney solution may be so good, parents might ‘accidentally’ lose a child and have a couple of hours rest.
    The point is that if world leaders can misplace a child and all is well, we know there is no reason to truly fret about it. Sadly, as this post shows, the world hasn’t caught up to a more relaxed notion. Sometimes the law freaks out instead.
    [Update: And I should tell you that I am not making this up. While I was writing this post, my son's school rang to ask where my son was. Turns out that he was supposed to go on an excursion and somehow wasn't accounted for. We had left him at school but he had to do something prior to the excursion that was not part of the normal flow of the day. Suffice it to say, when they realized that the school worked out where he was. I can imagine that the 'school responsibility' scenario is not one that teacher's relish.]

    Is There Evidence Free-Ranging on Facebook is Bad for Tweens?

    [Originally Published at on 8th June 2012]
    Emily Bazelon at Slate thinks that the suggestion this week that Facebookmay open up to under-13 year olds would be a bad idea. As regular readers can imagine, I disagree. However, Bazelon has been one of the more thoughtful
    Cover of "Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Chi...
    Cover via Amazon
    journalists on the issue of social interactions amongst children and teenagers and so her thoughts are worth considering seriously.
    Bazelon articulates several concerns and ends up concluding that it would be a good idea for governments to look to restrict childrens’ access to social networks: “Figuring out how to monitor kids online is hard enough as it is. We don’t need Facebook to make it harder.” So what are her concerns?
    First and foremost is bullying. Bazelon haswritten extensively about Phoebe Prince, a schoolgirl who committed suicide after being bullied (including on Facebook). Her concern has been about the criminal treatment of the alleged bullies and how these cases can be more complicated than they might appear on the surface. Since then, Bazelon has had a keen interest in the issue. She quotes Pew data that bullying occurs on Facebook and that “unkind things” were experienced by many, especially 12 and 13 year old girls. But interestingly, she quotes this data without much comment. For instance, the obvious one is that bullying and socially negative events occur to these same children outside of Facebook. Is Facebook a new medium for an old issue or an instrument that increases these behaviors? The data does not say.
    Second, Bazelon turns to research, mainly by Stanford professor Clifford Nass, that 8-12 year girls had more social success when they had more face-to-face communication but also that those who used online communication had more negative feelings about their friendships and were more likely to be friends with others who they think their parents will disapprove of. Nass claimed that Facebook was akin to junk food. It drew activity away from better things.
    This intrigued me so I tracked down the actual study that was the source of these conclusions; published in Developmental Psychology just this year. The associations there were indeed correlations found in the study. But they were just that and in the paper the authors claimed no causal inference could be drawn (even more so because the survey itself was conducted online). And that is important. Because what could be happening is that the types of children hanging out online may be precisely the types of children who struggled with face-to-face communication. In other words, there is no guarantee at all that obliterating Facebook from their lives (and by the way, the study did not single this out specifically nor make any claim it would be a good idea) would improve their social outcomes. It could. But equally, it may be that for those children, Facebook gave them confidence in friendships in a way that stimulated face-to-face communication. The study hints that this may not be the case as those online were less likely to also engage in face-to-face communication. But we would like to work out if they truly were these substitute activities or complements. That matters.
    But even more so, if the goal is to encourage more face-to-face communication, the study identified another potential culprit that took away from this: reading. In some of the regressions this had a bigger negative correlation than online activity. Children who read more also had less socially successful outcomes. Now I don’t believe there is a causal story here any more than I believe that there is one for Facebook but, if you are going to advocate banning Facebook on the basis of this, surely you might at the very least wonder whether reading shouldn’t be getting the large subsidies and active pushing it is getting now.
    Now, as I wrote about the other day, Facebook are not moving to do anything illegal but in fact to make legal a prevalent activity. They will do this by providing a mechanism for parental permission. What Bazelon appears to be against is allowing parents to give permission for their children to be on Facebook. And in the end, she argues that this might be convenient for some parents, quoting K.J. Dell’Antonia at Motherlode: “As a parent, the biggest difference I see between a Facebook that allows children and one that doesn’t would be that more children on Facebook would mean more social pressure to join.” This seemed to me to be the weakest argument of them all.
    There is a thin line between banning Facebook to shield children from social pressure than banning children from all manner of activities because of perceived risk to some of them. This is a theme that Lenore Skenazy has taken up with her Free Range Kids movement. This movement rails against the vast swathe of restrictions placed on parents (both themselves and legally) that prevent kids from developing independence in the world. The same applies for online activities. Do we want children to be shielded until age 13 and then unleashed without any parental instruction?
    My own experience with my 13 year old daughter suggests not. I am blessed that she is on Facebook and is still my friend. That has allowed me to observe her first years of interaction on that medium. In fact, for the most part, it is my only observation of her social interactions. And I must tell you that, for the most part, it has been very positive. There are constant reaffirmations and not about looks — in fact, I don’t recall seeing that. What is more I even saw an incident where someone made a homophobic remark only to have their friends come down on that as inappropriate very quickly.
    And for my daughter I have been able to guide her. For instance, “You can complain about such and such homework but don’t complain about a teacher by name.” Once she posted an insensitive remark in an update that she didn’t realise could be taken that way. She ended up being called on it and apologised. There was real social learning going on there and I could then talk to her about it.
    If you ban parents from allowing their kids to join Facebook at their own social pace, you prevent us from having a role in their social education. Ms Bazelon, do you really think that will improve their social success by denying parents that option?

    Opening Up Facebook is Essential Because Kids Need Training Wheels

    [Originally published at on 4th June 2012]
    The Wall Street Journal reported thatFacebook is considering ways to open up its social network to under 13 year olds. Well, what they mean is finding ways of allowing access to 13 year olds officially. Research by Danah Boyd and her colleagues has shown that they are already there. What’s more, they are there with the help and assistance of parents, over half of whom know that officially Facebook is off limits for their kids but help them get on anyway. Recently, my daughter turned 13 and I took a close look at the legal and official situation. It is, frankly, a mess and does little to protect privacy or children. Indeed, as I have noted, the whole matter has caused confusion as to who might be violating laws regarding under 13 year olds on social networks.
    The report suggested that parents could grant their kids access and control over who they friend. It would also allow them to control applications. This sounds like the right approach as it essentially enables parents who are currently helping their kids on to Facebook control the process more transparently. It should also give confidence to those who shy away from these things to let their kids in.
    It is worthwhile remarking that while I do not believe that Facebook are acting to “get them young” there are some commercial issues that are likely driving this. First, Google Apps for Education has made its way into schools. That gives kids access to Google’s social network — Google +. I’ve seen Facebook blocked at school but the kids just move on to Google+ that can’t be similarly blocked. Facebook have probably noticed.
    Second, the millions of kids on Facebook are currently seeing ads. That means for Facebook advertisers you don’t know if your age-targeted ads are really hitting people of that age. You may be targeting a 17 year old but getting an 11 year old. That’s wasted advertising dollars. For that reason alone, Facebook has no choice but to clean up the age situation. Without that it is crimping the products they are selling to advertisers.
    Of course, it isn’t hard to find someone to criticise these moves. Aspokesperson from Common Sense Media was quoted saying that there was simply no educational value to Facebook and so children should be barred from it. But, in fact, such off the handle views neglect a critical element of online social networks; they are how adults are communicating. Moreover, they are likely to be how children when they grow up will communicate. What that means is that we want children to experience these networks. Put simply, a parental supervised approach is like giving them training wheels for society. There are rules of interaction and norms of appropriate behavior. Either you believe parents have a role in helping kids with that or not. And at the moment what the law and Facebook’s official policy are saying is: when you turn 13 you are on your own. I don’t know about you but my preference is not to throw my thirteen year old into society unprepared.
    In the Huffington PostLarry Magid presents a sane voice of reason:
    I think Facebook should allow children under 13 but, as I said last year, it has to be done carefully and thoughtfully with extra precautions. There needs to be parental involvement and control and Facebook needs to provide extra privacy protections for young children that would include more secure defaults than it has for older teens and adults. There are already additional privacy protections for users under 18, but the company needs to be even more careful for younger children. Ideally, I would like to see children under 13 have an ad-free experience and Facebook certainly must avoid collecting and storing personal information about children other than what is needed to provide them the service.
    I would agree with this mostly but not the last part. If the notion of having children on Facebook is about ‘training wheels’ then they have to be trained to understand what that means. Children need to sort out ads and how to react to them. Children need to work out how to manage their data and privacy. This is part of the mission. I am happy for these things to be under parental control but I wouldn’t require or even insist on Facebook playing a role in structuring the social and commercial experience for kids.
    As a final thought, think about it this way: if your child is your ‘friend’ prior to 13, they are likely to be your friend for a while afterwards. Sure, they’ll eventually likely want to block posts from your view but it would be nice to get a few extra years in to see what’s going on in their lives. Who knows? Start early and they might get used to staying as open to you as they are to the rest of the world.

    Sunday, June 17, 2012

    Thoughts on Lone Survivor

    I just a finished Lone Survivor and because there is so much interesting stuff going on in it, I thought it was worth to write a blog post about it. At first glance Lone Survivor might look like some kind of 2D Silent Hill ripoff*, but there is a lot more to it than what is perceived at first sight.
    In summary, Lone Survivor is basically about surviving in a world where most people been turned into monsters. You play as a guy that have been holed up alone in an apartment for quite some time and who is no longer sure what is real and what is not. It is viewed from a 2D side-scrolling perspective with pixel the size of fists, forcing you to imagine what most objects really look like. The story and atmosphere is very Lynchian in tone and filled all kinds of wonderful strangeness. Most of the gameplay is about conserving various resources, exploring the environment (with a map straight out of Silent Hill) and shooting / avoiding bad guys. I thought the first half of the game was really good, but later on it becomes a bit repetitive and fails to be as engaging as it was starting out. The game is truly a diamond in the rough though and implements some truly innovative features that are well worth discussing.

    One large world
    A striking feature of the game is that you can always go back to the room you started (and most other places you visit). In fact it is vital for your survival in the game. You need to go back to save the game, cook food,  check radio messages, etc. This creates a constant need to come back to your home base and it helps build up a solid sense of place. Also, many locations have characters and objects that reward you when revisited, adding to the feel of a persistent and real world.
    This is not something new for videogames (many rpgs and some adventure games feature similar mechanics), but I cannot name a single horror game that use it. By allowing the protagonist to always have his own place to go back to, it increase the survival aspect of the game immensely. The simple act of forcing you to cook your food at home greatly enhances this feeling, and is so much more immersive eating what you find on the spot. Mechanics like that also make the environment seem more real and objects like stove pop out from the background to become something with a purpose.

    There is a bad side to the open world design though, and that is backtracking. I have covered this subject earlier, and Lone Survivor brings out some new aspects to problem. The intial reaction to backtracking is that it is an annoyance to the player, but on some further consideration it is clear that is quite important. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, having the player revisit areas makes the game's world feel much more alive. Therefore, backtracking in Lone Survivor is a crucial element, and not something that one should simply try and minimize. However, while the backtracking helps build the world of the game, it backfires very easily. Traversing the same section of the map easily becomes repetitive, and you as a player quickly try and find ways to get it over with faster. When you get into this mind set, you are pulled out of the world, thus counteracting the building of presence it should be doing in the first place!
    For instance, Lone Survivor feature a system to travel instantly back and forth between the apartment and last place you visited by looking into a mirror. This is a neat way of fixing quick traversal as it works with the story of the game, keeping the player's sense of presence. However, once the need arise to start going back and forth a lot, you stop roleplaying along with the mirror gazing, and it decays into an abstract tool for accessing abstract mechanics of the game such as saving. The same happens when trying to sneak past an enemy multiple times or even just walking the same path over and over. The travels become an monotonous chore and the feeling of immersion fades.
    So how can this be fixed? First of all, a solution is not to try and remove the backtracking. As mentioned earlier, this is a crucial part of the experience. What should be focused on instead is to make the backtracking more varied and make sure the player does not feel inclined to (or is discouraged from) doing it too many times in a row. The experience should be designed in such a way that even though the player is going back a familiar path, the act of traveling should be in itself engaging, and not just a means to an end to use some kind of mechanic. This does not mean that it must be fun, it can actually be boring, but just that it is presented in such a manner that the player sees the journey as an important aspect of the experience. This is not an easy thing to accomplish especially in an open world design, where the designer has much less control over the flow of the game. But if considered from the start I do not see any problem with achieving it, and to have other mechanics work with it. Which brings me to next topic.

    Combat is a quite a big part in Lone Survivor and comes with a bunch of problems. I think the main issue is that it overexposures you to the monsters of the game. Because forcing the player to deal with enemy encounter is such a big part of the game, one very quickly becomes used to the look of the creatures. This is quite a shame, because the ambiguous pixel graphics are quite good at depicting them in a moody and disturbing way. But after staring at a monster for the tenth time in a row most of the effect is lost. I think the encounters should have been briefer and more sparse.
    A problem that Lone Survivor does avoid is that of combat detracting from the focus of the experience. Normally in horror games, having combat means that the player looks forward to monster encounters, since fighting them is so gratifying. Not so here. You only have a single gun as a weapon and shooting is quite clumsy, but simplistic and mechanically stable enough for it to be easily used as intended. It is not something that you have very fun doing though and mostly you do it simply because it is the easiest way of bypassing a threat (which works great with the story).
    There are more problems to the combat though, and all are connected to the backtracking. First off, the game features a standard "die and retry" death mechanic that I do not think fits very well. Whenever you die, you almost always have to go back the exact same path that you did before and repeat the same sequence of actions. This essentially requires the player to do even more (non-engaging) backtracking, something that is already lessening immersion for the player. Given the strange story and gameplay based on resource management, I think death could have been implemented in numerous other ways without resorting to the standard trial and error way. For instance the player restart from the scene of death, but lose precious resources, gain some kind of injury or just be transported back to bed with any progress intact.
    Having to sneak past enemies is also part of the game's combat mechanic, and at first it works quite well. However, because of the backtracking it soon becomes necessary to sneak past the enemy over and over again. This repetition not only makes the whole gameplay boring, it also pulls the player out of the immersive atmosphere and sneaking becomes an abstract mechanistic obstacle. A big part of the game is to choose whether to use lethal force or not, but choosing the stealth option is far less appealing, not only because it is quickly becomes a chore, but because it pulls you out of the experience.
    In Lone Survivor combat is quite important for both story and gameplay reasons, so I do not think simply removing it would be an option. Instead, I think that having more dynamic enemy encounters could make most problems go away. This way the player does not always have to use repeat a section of stealth when backtracking. Monster exposure could also be better controlled this way. By keeping track of how the player is doing, the game could spawn enemies as needed.

    Dynamic systems
    What was I liked the best of about Lone Survivor was the dynamic nature of the game. The player consantly needs to keep track of health/hunger, sanity, ammunition along with a few other things. These are not just abstract meters the player need to keep in balance, but things that affect how the game plays out. For instance, the game triggers some scenes not based on where the player is located, but on how the current stats are. So for instance, running out of ammunition has a special scene associated with it. The protagonist also constantly comments on his current state in various ways which I thought really helped in building atmosphere.
    Mot having strictly laid out events makes Lone Survivor feels so much more alive. I only wish that the game would have gone full out with it. The path the player needs to take to the game is still quite static, and have little dynamic elements to it. Because the story is so strange and fragmented the game could easily have had a random order of the important scenes. Instead of forcing a strict order on puzzles, items and major events, these could have depended on how the way the player played the game. This could also solve some backtracking problems and make sure the player found certain things in a specific order no matter how they chose to go. Solutions to puzzles could also depend on what the player currently had available. This kind of of design does not have to require any sophisticated algorithms either, but could use simple means and still be very much designed (as opposed to completely random).
    Having a world that shapes according to the world is something I think can be very useful for story focused games. While Lone Survivor does not fully implement something like this, the element that it does have is a good indicator of what could be done.

    Importance of text
    Another thing I really liked in game was the great usage of text. In our age of crisp graphics and high quality voice overs, I think good old text is much underused. Because of the low fidelity graphics in Lone Survivor, writing plays a crucial part in giving feedback to the player. That does not mean that text does all of the work though, rather it is complemented by both sound and graphics, forming a nice synthesis. Here are some examples:

    • When using the radio, a brief sound sample of radio static is heard as the text of the transmission is displayed. This simple sound effect really sets the mood for how the text should be read and greatly adds to the experience. Another great thing about using text in these instances is that it handles repetition much better. Reading the same text a few times is not nearly as repetitive as hearing the same voice-over repeated. 
    • It is through text that most of the feelings of the protagonist are shown. Sometimes this is accompanied by audio/visuals, but mostly it is just presented as pure text. This is yet another great application for text, and while it can be a bit annoying to have to press a button for it to go away, overall it really helps to make the character's mood come across. Also, like with the radio message, repetition is a lot less problematic what a voice-over would be.
    • One point int game, the player is standing on balcony with nothing more than a house front seen in the background. But if you interact at a certain spot, the protagonist describes what he sees looking out over the city. I thought this worked nicely and really fitted with the protagonists situation of being locked inside an apartment complex. I actually think having had some image shown of the cityscape would have been a lot less effective, but when you have a lot of resources at your disposal  it is hard to forget that less might sometimes be more.
    This is just a few samples of the great usage of text in Lone survivor. Of course it is far from the only game  to do this, but I think it is a fine example of its potential.
    Text is much easier to autogenerate and to transform in various ways, lending it to dynamic systems a lot better than voices. It also leaves more to the imagination and can work great when combined with sound and graphics. It is important not to forget about and consider having it as an integral part of the game. As seen in Lone Survivor much of the text based stuff works because so integrated into the experience.

    Multiple endings
    The last thing I want to discuss, is the multiple endings of Lone Survivor. Not the actual story content of the endings, but of how the overall structure is designed. Basically, the player gets one of three endings based on how you have performed during the game. In doing so, it takes a lot of different variables into account (which are actually shown at the end of the game). So the game collects very personal data from you, and yet there are only three (not very personal) prefabricated endings to be seen.
    When finishing a game with multiple endings I always get a feeling of having been cheated. A game with a single ending, even if it is not that good, almost always feel better than a game where I know there are more endings to be seen. Suddenly the game sets up a sort of competitive goal that I was not asking for: "see if you can find all endings" or "now try and get the proper ending" and I get the feeling that I am missing out on the full experience or that what I had was not the proper one.
    I think that a better way of doing it would have been to have a dynamic final sequence tailored based upon the choices that you have. This would have made the ending much more personal and it would not be possible to simply look it up on YouTube. But that is just in theory of course, it is hard to say how it would work in practice.
    Heavy rain does similar thing to do this, and have a certain number of smaller clips that are chosen based upon certain options during the play-through. I did not find this very satisfying either, and the problem here is that it is very easy to look up each of the individual clips. So to avoid that, the final scenes must be quite dynamic and details based on how the game was played.
    Actually, I think the best choice is to not have an ending sequence at all and have the game play all the way to the credits. It is actually a bit strange that having played a game to the very end, we are rewarded with a non-interactive cut-scene. Pretty much every story based game works like this. But if the interaction continued all to the end, I think you could have a lot of differences and it would leave one feeling a lot less cheated.

    A final note on this: In Amnesia we tried to have multiple endings, with the idea that each ending should fit the playing style of the player. So a player that played very aggressively would get a that kind of ending and so on. However we only collected data for very few (two or so actually) events, making any guess on the player style of play close to random. In the end, the endings (or the final sequence for that manner) were not received very well. Even though having multiple endings often sounds good in theory, I do not think we will be used it again, because it has a such a high risk of backfiring.

    End notes
    Lone Survivor is in no way a perfect game, but it is filled with lots of great and original ideas. If you are the slightest interested in horror games you should really give it a go. It is easily one of the most original and fresh horror games I have played for a couple of years.

    *The designer actually did make a so called demake of SH2 called "Soundless Mountain II"