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Now isn't that special: the need for more supplementary features in video games
by Andrew Testerman

Last year, to celebrate blockbuster movie season, I decided to go through both Uncharted games; partly because I hadn’t played them yet, but mostly because their cinematic merits are well-documented. After finishing the Drake's Fortune, I had a few weeks’ wait before the second, Among Thieves, arrived in the mail, and I became slightly annoyed at the prospect of having to go so long without more Nathan, Elena, and Sully. Fortunately, Naughty Dog had my back: included on the Uncharted disc were a series of 'Making of' featurettes that were perfectly befitting of such a movie-esque gaming experience.

I am an absolute sucker for special features, even going so far as to switch to Blu-ray when the movie studios started phasing extras out of DVDs in favour of their hi-def counterparts. I love learning how certain visual effects were accomplished, or what sorts of struggles were overcome during the movie’s production. For me, special features take an already admirable product and puts its efforts into context, helping me appreciate the finished product even more than if I had taken it at face value.

Lately, more games are starting to include special features. Valve has included a developer’s commentary feature in many of its recent titles, including Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2, and both Portal games. Mortal Kombat’s 'Krypt' houses everything from character sketches, to music tracks, to concept art. The Uncharted series includes featurettes on various aspects of development, such as design philosophy, the animation and motion capture system used for the cutscenes, and what it’s like to work at Naughty Dog.

This is a great start, but I would love to see even more games include supplementary extras. Whilst common for home video releases, special features in video games are comparably rare, even today, when individual talent in the gaming industry is more celebrated than ever. With many triple-A studio efforts taking as much time and financial commitment as many Hollywood blockbusters, the opportunity seems ripe to share how games like Call of Duty: Black Ops or Gran Turismo 5 came together.

The ultimate boon to including more special features in games is also the most straightforward one: learning more about the way games are developed. Most folks nowadays understand how a movie is made, but there is still an air of mystery to the art of making a game. Supplemental features could help educate gamers on how their favourite titles are made, and could even spark interest in pursuing a career in some facet of game development.

One of my favourite gaming special features, the developer’s commentary in Portal, has even changed the way I thought about game design. In the feature, the developers discuss how playtesting helped shape their design decisions, and how the game changed according to the feedback they received. For example, in one room, the developers were having difficulty getting players to look up in order advance to the next section of the level. To counter this, they installed an old, decrepit ladder on one of the walls, drawing the players’ eye and allowing them to naturally intuit that they needed to go upward in order to progress. The many small tricks that Valve used to make the player feel smart are absolutely brilliant and well-worth being paid attention to by anyone interested in game development.

Of course, lessons in game development aren’t the only way that supplementary features can be utilised. Several recent, high-profile releases have been period pieces - L.A. Noire, Assassin’s Creed, God of War - leaving an opportunity for developers to illustrate how closely they stuck to their historical source material, or how they diverged for the sake of gameplay. I would love to see a feature comparing L.A. Noire’s depiction of 1940’s Los Angeles to the actual city during the same timeframe, or perhaps examining the novels and films that Team Bondi found most influential to the development of Noire. A look at the real life Templars and Assassins would be an excellent feature for an Assassin’s Creed game, and I would especially enjoy a look at some of the real life historical figures met in both Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, be that Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci or Caterina Sforza.

One of the more fun features of Uncharted was a series of cast interviews with Nolan North, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle, all offering their perspectives on acting in a video game as opposed to acting for a movie or TV show. As someone who has a personal 'top five' list of favourite voice actors, I would love to gain further insight into the talent involved in bringing the likes of John Marston and Ezio Auditore da Firenze to life. Like animated films, video games are starting to attract more and bigger stars - Martin Sheen in Mass Effect 2, Aaron Staton in L.A. Noire, Sam Worthington in Call of Duty: Black Ops, for example - and hearing about how trained screen actors approach voicing a game character would be fascinating for those interested in acting and voice over.

The most exciting part about special features is the narratives they inspire. Imagine hearing some of gaming’s modern Cinderella stories on a future release of the game — the struggles and obstacles faced by the development team, and how the game achieved critical success or cult status. For example, I would love to see a feature on Batman: Arkham Asylum, how Rocksteady basically came from out of nowhere and delivered one of gaming’s best superhero titles; or about Rockstar’s journey in turning a small, Japanese-developed franchise into the sprawling, epic adventure we know and love as Red Dead Redemption. Granted, there’s only so much room for these sorts of cheerleading stories, but they’re inspiring tales of how developers took risks and were greatly rewarded for them, and they deserve telling.

Die-hard fans would eat these sort of supplemental features up, developers would be able to further take credit for all of their hard work, and players looking to take their game further may find inspiration for a new career path. Not every game would benefit from having bonus features - explain to me how supplemental features would enhance my enjoyment of Lumines, for example - but their absence is a missed opportunity.

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- Andrew Testerman

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