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Textured storytelling in an FPS – a genuine opportunity

March 30, 2012 2 comments

Last night’s post spruiking the qualities of bittersweet endings had me thinking on Far Cry 3, and what a great position Ubisoft are in to showcase true change (advancing the storytelling chops of games in the process) in its protagonist over the course of the game. In this context, I mean personal growth, not just the expansion of his arsenal from ‘adequate’ to ‘Bond villain-esque’.

The initial trailer does a great job of establishing a reasonably realistic, gritty tone for the game – we have a contemporary ‘ordinary’ young tourist trapped by circumstance and his own obnoxious behaviour, forced to experience and later commit horrible atrocities to stay alive. In addition to charging around a tropical island machete-ing everything that moves and expending a small war’s worth of ammunition, a more recent trailer suggests he’ll also do more than his share of psychotropic narcotic ingesting along the way – a combination which should (you would imagine) provide optimal conditions to explore the horrors of desperate violence and their devastating transformative effects on a person learning to cope with this kind of massacre-or-be-massacred scenario.

Far Cry 3

Not pictured - a totally mundane, everyday experience.

Of course, great though the first two games were, they have established a precedent of zero dimensional protagonists who regard the development of character facets with the same disdain they regard road and gun safety laws. The series has always been more about exploratory action and compelling combat than storytelling and character, but there have been plenty of recent titles proving the two aren’t mutually exclusive (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Arkham Asylum/City, Mass Effect), so we can hope.

There’s a real opportunity here to move away from the well trodden FPS trope that a character, now matter how civilian or sensitive at the outset can machine-gun all their troubles away, instantaneously transforming into a Rambo facsimile without even the courtesy to the player of a tortured soliloquy about lost innocence. I suspect I’ll be disappointed, but it seems like there’s room behind all the action for a textured* story, and a challenging finale – if we take Ubisoft’s proposed realism at face value, doesn’t that limit our suspension of disbelief as far as the outcomes are concerned?

Far Cry 3

A soliloquy pose if ever I've seen one.

Now, in my mind, he’s either a superhero from the outset or he isn’t (unless it turns out there’s a lot of conveniently mutating radioactive ooze lying around the island). Why bother establishing the characters as normal people in the marketing (I’m not going to say ‘relatable’ here, but I assume thats what they were going for) if its going to be meaningless in the context of the game’s plot? It wouldn’t exactly be in keeping with the series’ established style to borrow mechanics from I Am Alive’s fascinating take on combat encounters by non-skilled combatants, but in my opinion there’s room to take inspiration to flesh out Far Cry’s trademark gung-ho action with a few subtleties.

Ultimately, a tonal mismatch between the character and the mechanics is a smaller piece of the puzzle – from what I’ve seen so far, this is a story opportunity that won’t benefit from being shoehorned into the ‘all’s well that ends well’ category. I’m very much hoping Ubisoft feel the same way.

*Cheers to Dara for the term – it perfectly sums up what these last two posts have been trying to articulate my support for.

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Not so happily ever after…

March 29, 2012 7 comments

There are most definitely spoilers in this post. If you’ve somehow time travelled here from 2007 (we don’t have lightsabers yet, so you may wish to keep right on going) and haven’t played Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption or Halo: Reach, consider yourself forewarned. 

You know what I’d like to see more of? Not-so-happy endings. We’re inundated with games that close with the hero riding off into the sunset, enemy vanquished and glory won (or the contextually appropriate equivalent) – what we don’t have a lot of are games whose endings are ambiguous, sad, concerning or frightening. This is a shame, because these tend to be the endings that provoke thought, evoke emotion and result in interesting discussion. Granted, they’re less immediately gratifying, more challenging and require more thought to appreciate, but thats definitely a trade I’m in favour of. Having played through countless ‘hero saves the day’ stories, I’ve had enough of knowing from the outset how everything’s going to turn out, with only the resolution of some nebulous details to keep me engaged. Don’t you get greater engagement and enjoyment from games with some measure of real risk in the story, without the safety net of a guaranteed fairy tale conclusion?

Red Dead Redemption

You know what isn't going to end well? This.

This is not, of course, an issue confined to video games (if the uproar over the ending of The Sopranos is anything to go by), although as a medium it does have a couple of characteristics that serve to make devastating twist endings less palatable. There are the positive emotions associated with besting challenges, defeating evil and powerful heroes, each a strong influence on storytelling, and relatedly, the idea that challenges require the anticipation of reward to motivate a player’s desire to overcome them. Unique to the gaming format however is the player’s involvement in driving the story, and the subsequent need to foster a sense of personal achievement when the story concludes. (I would also speculate that the majority of multiplayer gaming is strongly pushing the message that only victory is valuable, and losers are to be taunted, booed and teabagged in a manner befitting their station as, well, losers.)

The combination of these things has resulted in a lot of under-explored potential in certain areas of gaming – areas that aren’t necessarily about short term gratification, or that challenge some of our comfortable expectations – and I’d really like to see more happen with them. Dark Souls showed us that a confronting level of difficulty can result in an immensely rewarding experience. Heavy Rain proved that a confronting story line focusing on deeply flawed characters and relationships can make an impressive game, even if the action is infrequent and awkward. Alongside these, what I’d really like to see is more games confronting us with complex, layered, and not necessarily positive endings. As the medium, the content and the storytelling matures, shouldn’t we have more games that explore the effects of all the mayhem games take us through, rather than solely concentrating on ever more inventive ways to make that mayhem more fun?

Not that its rainbows and maypole dancing across the board – there are a few recent examples of endings that, even if the good guys ultimately triumphed, at least went out ensuring that the protagonist (and the player) didn’t get off scott free, and provoked a thought or two in the process. There is however, enormous room to expand on and experiment in this space, and these are a few examples that suggest there’s at least a willingness to do so, and an appetite for the results.

I know a few people who hated the end of Halo: Reach. Not the poignant ‘series-comes-full-circle-while-heroic-music-swells’ part, but the epilogue where you live out Noble 6’s futile final moments against a vengeful Covenant horde. I loved it. I mean, I didn’t enjoy it – as a gaming experience, its very frustrating to fight battles you can’t win, and more so to see the permanent death of a character you’ve inhabited for a dozen hours – but it was an extremely relevant way to end an uncharacteristically dark story, and a satisfying conclusion to Reach’s grim story. Too often do we see characters make a noble sacrifice of themselves (Reach does not represent Bungie’s subtler name choices, I’ll grant you), but we’re only exposed to the stirring, heroic gesture, shown as a few seconds as the person in question bravely readies themselves for death with a macho roar or stoic, defiant silence.

Gears of War

Heroic sacrifice is something these gentlemen are very familiar with.

What we don’t often see is that this sacrifice, presented so positively and so cleanly, must actually result in a desperate, panicked final struggle, ending with the hero overwhelmed and dying alone. Rarer still is the opportunity to actually play out this futile demise from the character’s perspective. By this stage of most games we’ve already moved on with the protagonist, our minds focused on finishing the job enabled by our companions death, shielded from the unpleasant details. This is fine – some of the time – but Reach did a great job of showing that by forcing on the player the harsh, lonely final moments of Noble 6, a much more emotionally impactful ending is created. Clever though it was to tie the final seconds of reach to the opening seconds of the original, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact had we not been forced to live out Noble 6’s death, but instead had a last glimpse of him standing victorious at the shipyard as the Pillar of Autumn fled the planet, his eventual fate only implied.

Though effective, the Reach example is still a sort of ‘happy ending by proxy’ – dovetailing as it does into the beginning of the Halo story, what should be a wrenchingly desolate conclusion is diluted by the knowledge that we know the story of the larger series turns out all right in the end.

There was no such assured future for John Marston – indeed, the amazing final conclusion to Red Dead Redemption can’t exist without the betrayal and death of the protagonist, culminating in one of the most surprising and emotionally deflating pseudo-endings in gaming. Further, the impact of this is largely created by the lengthy, out of character (and lets face it, anticlimactic) final missions – the exploration of the changing nature of his relationship with his wife and son, capping off the titular redemption you’ve been progressing towards for so long. Yes, this pedestrian errand running and son-raising, culminating in the death of the hero is challenging as a gamer – we expect final game missions to be bigger, crazier and more explosion-filled than anything thats gone before. And yes, it does feel unfair after your many (many) hours of adventuring, and the misdirecting tone set by the game that indeed, everything was going to turn out alright. Importantly though, it feels unfair within the world of the story – unfair on the characters, not on the player – this distinction is important in delivering the sense of emotional importance that elevates Red Dead Redemption above being merely an impeccably executed GTA: Cowboys. Even this example is still a happy ending of sorts though – Marston dies redeemed, and his death is avenged shortly afterwards – the loose ends are tied up, the questions are answered. So how would a game take this concept further?

The obvious answer is through the use of multiple endings. Heavy Rain is a good example – in addition to the ‘super amazing’ ending where everyone lives happily ever after, there is an alternative which sees the bad guy win, and several other variations in which a mixture of good and terrible things happen as well. These evoke varying levels of sadness or disappointment, and leave different threads of the story unresolved, but all are thought provoking, guilt inducing and frustrating experiences. Importantly, Heavy Rain doesn’t hold your hand overmuch and lead you towards the good ending – although it isn’t difficult to achieve, as a general rule the game doesn’t go out of its way avoid giving you one of the bittersweet or openly depressing endings, if thats what you’ve earned. That’s one of the key things that could be taken further by other such games, in my mind – each ending needs to be treated as legitimate and canonical, as far as possible. The major issue with most multiple endings right now is that there’s usually a clear ‘real’ ending which the game does its utmost to steer you towards, with the other endings seemingly added to bolster the illusion of permanent choice for the player.

Heavy Rain

When your story contains this scene as well as killing off most of the principal characters, there's a limit to how happily everything can turn out.

Beyond augmenting the ‘real’ ending with a few sad or ambiguous ones, I think even games that employ a single ending could take a lesson from all this – the more story driven the game is, the more likely I am to be interested in and satisfied with a conclusion thats bittersweet, or outright bitter. The caveat to this is that however the story ends, it needs to be in keeping with the game world and the  established tone (I’m not suggesting the next Mario game take its plot conclusion cues from Hamlet, but I’d love to play a game that does), which is why Reach and Heavy Rain are great vehicles for a grim denouement. So many stories I’ve played have these big uplifting finales because the leader of the bad guys is dead, despite the fact that the world is still in flames, the protagonist should be devastatingly traumatised, and the piled corpses of my allies block out the sun. Plot based games are almost always better when they have a point and a meaning beyond the action, and the ending should be one of the most powerful places to explore this. Sadly consequence, reality and the meaning attached to them often trail off in the final act in favour of the happy ending, as if that is required as a reward to the gamer for completion.

Where do you stand? Do you like your endings to resolve all the conflicts, answer all the questions and shower you in glory? Do you feel the ‘good’ ending is your reward for besting challenges and overcoming everything the game’s thrown at you, or is an engaging, challenging (or just different) story sufficient reward in itself, even if it ends in tears?

Choose your own adventure

March 9, 2012 13 comments

I’m really looking forward to picking up Mass Effect 3 on the weekend (fashionably late, I know), saving earth, getting to know crew members new and old, and generally soaking up every detail of the universe.

In anticipation (and also as a procrastination technique while I’m ostensibly studying) I’ve been thinking that in amongst all the horror and shameful antics of the Jennifer Hepler backlash fiasco*, the interesting piece of news about the multiple game ‘modes’ in ME3 went largely undiscussed. Regardless of whether you intend to play either the ‘story only’ or ‘action only’ version of ME3 (I do not), its unarguably an intriguing idea from Bioware. Personally, I feel that both the gameplay and the story of the Mass Effect series are brilliant and I wouldn’t miss a minute of either, but the concept is worth investigating, and I think its something I’d be interested to see other developers experiment with.

Mass Effect 3

Femshep, seen here advancing the story.

Remember, of course, that the fact that the option is there in no way detracts from your game experience if you choose not to take it (we’ll have no fanboy vitriol about people who only want to play the story, or intellectual sneering at those who prefer action here, thank you). Thats the best part of this approach of allowing people to choose the option – there’s no ‘dumbing down’ of the core experience to make it accessible to those who don’t like complex mechanics, nor are they ditching the quality story of the universe to appeal to a wider range of action focused gamers. Bioware is offering a choice of experience, and you get to pick the one that suits you best.

Now, these are some polarising choices, I’ll grant you, but what if other developers started thinking the same way and made the overall experience of their games available in different ways? What if I could get say, the story and character building of Final Fantasy X, without thirty interminable hours of ‘random encounters’ with the same three monsters every time I walk ten feet through the world?

Alternatively, what if I could have the story experience of Heavy Rain without losing my favourite characters to these awful one-hundred-button-combination quicktime events?

Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of any games in which I’d happily sacrifice the story elements for more of the action, but thats probably because I tend to play more RPG’s than anything else these days, and is purely a personal preference – I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’d do the reverse.

Of course, this doesn’t need to be limited to the story or action choice that Mass Effect 3 offers. My last post about Amnesia got me thinking about the possibility of value in ‘less scary’ versions of the game, easily achieved by giving the player character a small amount of power to wield. Would it still be a worthwhile experience if before you started, you could either select to play the original version, or a game mode with slightly more monsters, but also some basic, Penumbra style combat? What if you could collect scarce, flimsy weapons by exploring, and have the ability to fight back against some of the monsters? Granted, you’re making it a totally different game by doing that, but does that make it valueless?

In this case (somewhere in Sweden, Thomas Grip has felt a disturbance in the force) you’d need to really restrict the number of weapons in the game so it retained the ‘survival horror’ feel, and probably also make it risky by forcing the player to use precious lamp oil and tinderboxes to explore the darkest areas where a weapon might be found, but I think it would be an interesting experiment.

From a pure business case point of view, Frictional might opt for this version out of a desire to make the game appeal to a wider audience (and therefore rake in cash to fund more of their awesome games) without wanting to dilute what they feel is the ‘true’ experience they set out to create. Looking at it from the player’s perspective, it would allow more people to share in an amazing experience, even if they don’t like being scared out of their wits for hours at a time.

I really only raise this to debate the issue – I’m not suggesting every game could (or should) do this, or even that its a good idea in the case of Amnesia. There are however, a number of series that over time have alienated their core fanbase by shooting for wider appeal, and I think this provides a reasonable answer to the question ‘how can we convince a wider range of people to buy our series, without pissing off the current fans?’

Given that we know units sold will (almost) always win a fight against preserving the integrity of an existing IP, I think its an option worth exploring further.

Who’s with me?

*Which I won’t dignify by linking to – as a community, we should be ashamed of ourselves. Also, ‘backlash fiasco’ is yet another great name for a band.

Fear vs loathing – the importance of power in horror games

March 5, 2012 13 comments

I recently watched Thomas Grip’s presentation at the 2011 GDC (cheers to tylersnell for the link) which, alongside playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent, has me doing a lot of thinking about horror games and the way so much of what styles itself as horror these days should be looking long and hard at Frictional’s approach.

I strongly advise watching his talk in full – its a fascinating look at the thinking behind one of the more engaging and atmospheric games in recent memory. On the off chance you don’t have forty-odd minutes spare, I’ll amateurishly paraphrase one of his key points as I go, as its relevant to what I’m trying to say here.

I think a lot of the ‘big’ horror games of the recent generations (Resident Evil 5, the F.E.A.R. series, Condemned, Dead Space) have suffered to varying degrees from abuse of power – specifically, the amount of power given to the player character. Thomas makes an interesting point about how the tools you give to the player will define the way they look at and interact with your world – if you give them a gun, they will approach every situation looking for something to shoot. Taking this further, if you give them anything that could be a weapon, they presume it should be, and that wielding it makes them powerful. He relates an anecdote on the studio’s experiences developing the Penumbra games, where in testing they discovered that if the player was given any kind of weapon their first approach when faced with a threat was to attempt to kill it, no matter how ineffective the weapon, or how dangerous the foe.

Dead Space

Watch me take this guy down with a waffle iron.

This is telling, because it illustrates that people in a game scenario will attempt to make themselves a powerful force using whatever means they have at their disposal, and then exercise that power against any perceived threats. This is how games have been training us to play them since the first generation – you play, you remove threats and become powerful so you can you face bigger threats, and become more powerful. I would suggest that achieving power, even by slow degrees, erodes fear.

This point articulates something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a while with horror games, which is that by and large, (and whatever their other qualities might be) they aren’t very good at being genuinely scary.

Before you leap ahead to the comments section to put the boot in, let me expand a little. The games I mentioned above are variously tense, atmospheric or unsettling, and some of them have the odd scary moment. I’m not suggesting they are a pleasant walk in the park to play – I myself am not the kind of person who enjoys being repeatedly startled – its that when playing them I’m nervous about the next monster closet moment, not scared as the character in the world I’m supposed to be inhabiting.

The kind of scares you see in a lot of the above games actually take you out of the game world, rather than drawing you in. For me, this is at the heart of the issue – games are more often about using cheap tricks (like monsters jumping from vents into your face with no warning) to startle the player, in place of creating an experience that is truly scary, around and between these moments. By truly scary, what I mean is an experience which is focused on being immersive and engagingly frightening and happens to be delivered in a game, rather than a game which is focused on fun gameplay and happens to have some scares mixed in.

After watching Thomas’s speech, I’m now convinced that this is because the experience and the ‘horror’ that these games are supposed to create in the player eventually play second fiddle to implementing mechanics that are ‘fun’ to play. Key to things being fun to play, as a general rule, are the ideas of gradual mastery and escalating challenge.

Dead Space actually encapsulates these points perfectly within its first level. The opening sequence is genuinely scary, and correspondingly isn’t very fun. As the game progresses, the story gets more and more interesting, the encounters get bigger and crazier and the game is more enjoyable, but in correlation, the fear decreases. The atmosphere, the environment and the story are still there, all that changes is Isaac’s power – in the opening level, he has no idea what is happening around him, no objectives beyond surviving, and no tools or weapons to combat the threat with. The first time an alien is encountered, it results in a pants-soiling flight through a darkened corridor, where the desire to move as fast as you can is tempered only by the desire to turn around and see how fast the nightmare is gaining behind you – fighting and winning isn’t an option here, you are totally powerless.

After arming himself shortly afterwards, the encounters are slightly different – rather than turning and fleeing, you’re attacking head on, and the original fear is diluted by the familiarity of impending combat – you have a weapon, therefore you expect you have the power. The fear returns in force after four or five shots to the head or torso when you realise your weapon is having little effect, and the beast is bearing down on you with alarming speed. This is still scary – you go from feeling powerful (comparatively) to powerless so quickly that flight starts to once again seem like the preferable option.

Around this time the game introduces you to the ‘strategic dismemberment’ mechanic – the only effective way to defeat the Necromorphs is by shooting off their legs, and then removing any remaining limbs from the now slower-moving and much, much less scary remains.

Dead Space

'This seems easy enough' - famous last words from the Dead Space universe.

From this point Dead Space is a continual game of brinkmanship – Isaac acquires more and more powerful weapons, and is matched against more and more powerful monsters. By and large, what made the first encounters frightening is now abandoned for the more familiar (and easier) method of periodically having a monster leap out of a vent without warning, or making sure one enemy always spawns behind you in a room, so that your confidence in despatching the one in front of you leads to a moment of panic when you’re hit from behind. The interesting thing about this is that somewhere along the way, the creation of genuine fear became less important than the mechanics of being able to shoot the limbs off undead space insects. We know this is the case due to the sheer number of weapons Isaac collects that have been specifically designed for exactly this function. (Honestly, if you aren’t expecting to get boarded by multi-limbed alien horrors, why can I buy gravity-defying circular-saw guns from the vending machines?).

Later encounters with ever-bigger aliens don’t have the impact of the first ones, because the dynamic is well and truly set – you (through your weapons) have the power here.

All this is a long winded way of saying that true fear gets harder to create as you make the player character more and more powerful – (in the case of the F.E.A.R. series, giving the player time-slowing abilities and a Doom-like arsenal at the outset totally precluded it) – its difficult to be scared of something when you’ve dismantled and then curb-stomped several dozen others just like it.

This is where Amnesia shines – without any kind of combat mechanics, the player’s influence on the world is restricted to playing with light and manipulating everyday objects, neither of which can be used to inflict harm on the prowling monsters that serve as your enemies. Reduced to running and hiding, where the light you wield helps your hunters as much as you creates an atmosphere of dread that needs no sudden, nerve-jangling noises or stacked mob spawns to sustain it.

To be fair to Dead Space, I think its in a middle ground here – it does do a great job of creating atmosphere and a very lonely sense of foreboding as you wander the slaughter filled halls of the Ishimura – it even uses a few opportunities to strip Isaac of his death dealing power and setup some frightening encounters, but its nowhere near Amnesia’s league.

Amnesia

Here's a scenario I'm not looking forward to finding out more about.

Of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum there are a litany of things that get in the way of genuine scares in Resident Evil 5. Once again a notable example can be made of one that shows how desirable mechanics were prioritised over genre experience during development. Not content with making the player character the kind of superhero to whom the enemies of the game are a tasty breakfast treat, RE5 adds a partner character – convenient for multiplayer, (and possibly made extremely capable in response to the community trashing of Ashley, the semi comatose wet blanket from RE4) but having an ass-kicking, wise-cracking comrade along for the ride is as much an enemy of fear-building as setting the majority of your levels in brightly lit, open areas (especially when this is one of her uniforms). In this case the desire for the game to be a fun two player experience, and for players to be in awe of how badass this duo are was stronger than the desire for it to be a truly scary experience – game mechanics overrode the ‘message’.

From nothing more than the way the characters are defined, RE5 leaves the player no choice about how the way in which to approach the game – as the kind of badass hero who only pauses in their orgy of zombie ‘majini’ slaughtering to reload, or mutter a witty quip to their equally unstoppable backup. For the most part, FEAR and its sequels suffered from the same issue – the various player characters were powerful enough to gun down groups of enemies without raising a sweat, so there isn’t a lot of inherent risk about being ‘alone in the dark’ here – the game repeatedly teaches you that the monsters should be more afraid of you than you are of them.

Resident Evil 5

The look of terror on his face is infectious.

Given that paradigm, players are more engaged by the power of their own player character than that of their enemies. Every threat is instinctively approached as something which can, and must, be destroyed. The closest you come to fear in these circumstances is the mild panic when reloading at an inopportune moment, or the tense apprehension waiting for yet another ‘dog and window’ moment. Neither is truly representative of the horror genre, or the kind of atmosphere it should be capable of creating.

I mentioned Condemned above because although its guilty of the same issue, it takes a while to really manifest it. In addition to a superbly crafted atmosphere and environment, by largely restricting the player to melee combat with everyday items (rather than a Frost Sword of Doom, or similar), you feel as if every encounter could go either way. Each new enemy is a frantic battle for survival, rather than a fresh set of targets in the shooting gallery.

Of course, by the closing stages of the sequel, the dynamic is exactly that – armed with an M16 and an interest-withering ‘magic shout power’ (which is nowhere near as cool as it was in Skyrim, despite being exactly the same), you parade confidently through the environment, hoping desperately to see a monster leaping from its closet so you have an excuse to use your many toys. Again, this is not what horror could be. Fear was left by the wayside on the road to power, and the game suffers greatly for it.

The most important point that Grip presents is encapsulated in his final thought – “if we want to advance our medium, we must allow it to be expressive – we must not think about how games are supposed to be, but we must think about the kind of meaning we want them to carry”. This sums up what, in my eyes, is the issue with a lot of whats currently called horror – first thinking about what kind of gameplay mechanics will sell, and then coating them in a thin veneer of atmosphere, sprinkling the result with scripted ‘startle’ moments, and calling the result horror.

The gauntlet’s been thrown down by Frictional with Amnesia, and smart money is on their recently announced A Machine for Pigs having a similar intent behind it. Are there any contenders out there likely to answer this challenge? Or alternatively, have I totally missed the point?

If you’ve got any great examples of genuinely scary games that had powerful protagonists, let me know in the comments.

Waking Nightmare (Part 2)

February 29, 2012 5 comments

Disclaimer: This is not a review as such, but it does talk about various elements of a recently released game. If you’re particularly averse to spoilers, or really looking forward to Alan Wake’s American Nightmare you might want to come back once you’ve played it for yourself.

To be brief (and diplomatic), I am disappointed, although I understood before I wrote Part 1 that I’d have no one but myself (and Remedy) to blame if this happened. I’m also a little bemused, primarily because I’ve spent more time trying to figure out exactly who the target audience for this game is than I have playing the game itself. Of course, its reviewing reasonably well so I understand I may be in the minority here, but to me this felt like Alan Wake with all the interesting elements removed (albeit with the remaining ones polished to a mirror-like sheen). Or, to put it another way, it felt like I was controlling Max Payne as he wandered through a poorly written chapter of the Alan Wake story.

Alan Wake

Essential tools of the writer's trade. Apparently.

Alan was a much more relatable character in the first game. Lost in a dark forest, possibly going mad, desperately trying to rescue his wife – these are understandable challenges and motivations that help me care about him as a character. The fact that he’s a writer and not a cannon-toting superman made combat situations genuinely threatening and uncomfortable, and combined with the slightly clunky movement mechanics to create a convincing feeling of Wake as an everyman out of his depth. A big contributor to this was the relative powerlessness that comes from not knowing where your next flashlight battery is coming from, or if you have enough ammunition to reach the safety of the next floodlight. This ever-present threat, and consequently the tension, is conspicuously missing from American Nightmare, for two reasons:

First, ammunition and resources are ludicrously abundant. In addition to automatically changing all ammo in the level around you to match the guns you’re currently carrying, Remedy introduced cabinets generously scattered throughout the levels that completely refill all your resources. The combination meant I really didn’t need half of the ammo I found, and ultimately was able to use the ‘apocalyptic overkill’ strategy for most combat situations without fear of what was around the next corner.

Second, the gameplay has been tightened up considerably – Alan is now much smoother to control both in movement and aiming, making it easier to manoeuvre and to switch between targets during firefights. While this is obviously a good thing, when combined with the super-stocked arsenal, it makes Alan feel like a traditional video game hero – slick, overpowered and disappointingly two dimensional. Admittedly, while this results in much less tension in the combat, it does make it a lot more fun, and allows the game to throw more enemies at you early (both in numbers and types), creating a greater variety of action than the first game achieved. Since the first game was successful more so because it was interesting, atmospheric and unusual than because it was ‘fun’, this leads me back to the central question – who is this new instalment aimed at?

Alan Wake

He's running while he decides which of his many super-weapons to use on them.

There is a plot based explanation for the changes, but the game doesn’t quite pull it off. This time around, Alan is trapped within an episode of Night Springs (which he apparently wrote) and is battling to overcome Mr. Scratch, the villainous doppelgänger revealed at the end of the original. Rather than running for his life, afraid and in constant doubt if what is happening is real or imagined – American Nightmare’s Alan feels instead like a confident detective on the trail of a killer, and seems to be the only character who has any idea of whats going on. That Alan seems to understand the rules of this universe, and instinctively knows what to do (well of course I need to find a Kasabian CD and play it in the vicinity of an oil derrick so that a falling satellite will destroy a wormhole – it makes so much sense) doesn’t help to align me with Alan’s plight – instead of being motivated to uncover the mystery in order to help him, I feel like the character I’m playing is holding back story information from the person playing him – sounds novel in theory, but in practice turns out to be undesirable.

The most disappointing decision in this setting revolves around the environments – with a slim justification in the story, there are several areas in the game that are revisited over and over again, with only minor variations in the objectives and dialogue. Given that one of the consistent complaints with the first game was that the reuse of a few settings dulled their effectiveness, the idea of tackling this problem by deliberately repeating it seems a strange one. Its especially risky given the related decision to scale down the plot elements in favour of action, because there’s much less story to create the level of player engagement required to forgive this kind of lazy level design.

The issue is exacerbated by the quality of the writing, which oscillates wildly between genuinely clever and absolutely awful. Mr Scratch’s monologues from phantom tv’s are the most engaging part of the game – he’s a genuinely dark, unsettling and well written character, and he provides the major driving force keeping you interested in the story. Sadly, his appearances contrast starkly with Alan’s conversations with all the other npc’s, which are, frankly, awful. A ‘herbal suppository’ joke in the first five minutes of the game throws any pretence of atmosphere out the window, and it never really makes it all the way back. The occasions when it comes close (such as a drawn out encounter with Mr Scratch in an abandoned drive in theatre) are unfortunately bookended by stilted, awkward conversations with other characters that do little to advance the story, but a lot to erode any lingering scraps of immersion.

Ultimately, my major criticism here is more about questionable decisions than questionable writing. I feel like I was right in the middle of the target audience for the first game, and for me, this episode wilfully strips away most of the elements that set the first apart from the crowd, while taking one of the major flaws and deliberately designing it into the experience, without making sure the story and character elements of the game are strong enough to make it work.

Say what you will about the increased action focus to make this episode more appropriate to an ‘XBLA’ audience (why the method of delivery necessitated this focus change I don’t know) – its not the prevalence of action that lets American Nightmare down. Its the fact that it doesn’t even try to aspire to the same standard of writing for the story that it has. While the first was a character based mystery/thriller game with lashings of action, this instalment feels like an action game with a thin layer of substandard Twilight Zone dialogue layered on top. If you’re in it for the action, its polished and quite a lot of fun, but if like me you’re looking for more of what made the original so interesting, you may need to look elsewhere.

Waking Nightmare (Part 1)

February 23, 2012 3 comments

I don’t know a right lot about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. This is primarily because I stopped reading about it with a feeling of world weary resignation after hearing the early previews describing the deliberate design decision to prioritise action elements over the atmosphere and story experience this time around.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare

Not pictured: a deep analysis of how this encounter changed Alan as a person

I really enjoyed the first Alan Wake. It was flawed (almost every level is five minutes of exploring a new environment, followed by an hour of stumbling around in a dark forest at night, in the rain) but really interesting, and much like this Dear Esther thing, (which, if well written opinions are to be believed, is at once fascinatingly unusual and reasonably well executed), its exactly the kind of thing our beloved industry needs more of to arrest, or at the very least counterbalance those elements of it that are racing each other to genericise every game to the point of ridiculousness. (Yes, it is generally accepted there are only 7 stories, from which all others are derivative, but that doesn’t mean we only need 7 games endlessly reproduced with only the most minor variations.)

Anyway. Alan Wake’s convoluted story, unusual structure and faux-thriller/low level horror theme were a great experiment, and I will be genuinely disappointed if the only published ‘results’ of that experiment are ‘needs more action to sell more units’. What I feel Alan Wake needed was more exploration, and maybe some alternate paths to complete objectives – both making the most of the great atmosphere and taking advantage of the very interesting world that Remedy created (granted, they overused a small section of that world, but that rainy night forest was amazing the first couple of times). Additionally, allowing for more exploration means you have the option of requiring more exploration by further scarcifying (should be a word) resources, especially towards the later stages. The game was a lot tenser in the opening levels, when you really were scrounging for every flashlight battery and revolver round, and relatedly lost its way a bit once I had enough flares and flare gun ammo to Rambo my way through every encounter. What I don’t recall is anyone making an intelligent case for why a lack of action was at the heart (or even in the chest vicinity) of Alan’s problems – I say intelligent, because it is basically an action game – ‘lack of action’ is only a valid descriptor if we use the Gears of War series as a benchmark for our required minimum. (I’m not implying a correlation between intelligence and Gears enjoying, for the record).

So I switched off my attention on American Nightmare. By a quirk of fate (and an excruciatingly slow Sony PS3 repair process) I have developed a tiny window to play something not in my immense existing ‘to do’ pile, and this short expansion will fit that bill nicely. The other, more important motivation here is to hold my own angst up to some scrutiny, and see if its justified – if it turns out this addition is actually a better game for thinning out the story elements and replacing them with more chainsaws, well, I’ll have learned a valuable lesson about leaping to ill informed conclusions.

And if I turn out to be right, and this is one more disappointing step towards genre and series homogeny, well. We’ll have to clear some soapbox space around these parts, and settle in for some serious whining.

Good Griefing

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

As always, I’m several months off the pace with my thoughts and most of what I’m talking about has been previously documented elsewhere, so this post assumes some prior knowledge about the wonders of Dark Souls’ multiplayer. If you’re not familiar with the specifics, and don’t have the requisite 50-odd hours spare to learn the mechanics by hand, you may want do a quick skim over the basics before reading on.

Jerks are an inventive lot. Over the years, a range of methods for shoring up your insecurities by ruining everyone else’s day have grown into common usage in online gaming, from simple camping to the ludicrous concept of ‘ghosting‘, and none of them make their participants look like balanced members of society.

If From Software’s Dark Souls is remembered for nothing else, it should be the contribution it made to expanding the multiplayer experience, and introducing the idea of griefing as a sometimes necessary tactical option, moving the concept beyond the cheap thrills domain of over-angsty teens and damaged shut-ins. To be clear, there is a significant element of PvP to Dark Souls, and many ways to voluntarily engage in PvP by inviting other players to invade your world, or joining one of several covenants with a particular bias towards that side of the game. For the scope of this post, I’m talking about the ‘involuntary’ PvP and the particular brand of griefing it involves – invading the world of someone who isn’t threatening or opposing you, without their prior knowledge or consent, and attempting to kill them.

Not being a PvP player by nature, I looked upon invaders as people out to get their joy by feasting off the pain of others, (doubly heinous in a game like Dark Souls, legendary for its pain-feasting single player challenges already. In fact I’m surprised – and a little disappointed – that Namco Bandai didn’t sell Dark Souls under the tagline ‘Your tears are delicious’. If you’re reading this marketeers, feel free to use it for the sequel).

The Gaping Dragon

A fair fight, Dark Souls style.

Dark Souls was almost universally hailed for its innovative and complex multiplayer gameplay, but I’m yet to read anything that touches on what I feel is one of the most extraordinary elements – the way it acknowledged, challenged and subverted the role of griefers in online multiplayer. Its no secret that online gaming encourages some malicious behaviours, within the largely harm free confines of various imaginary worlds. It doesn’t matter if the game is a Halo deathmatch or a My Little Pony hair-braiding friendship jamboree, there are going to be players who only enjoy the game if they’re making it worse for someone else. From Software have taken this unfortunate truth, and built a multiplayer experience that at once encourages dastardly behaviour (by offering rare resources as reward for successfully invading another player’s world), and discourages it (by giving invadees access to more than one method of karmic vengeance). Most importantly, it humanises the invader in a way that – at least for me – nullified a lot of the angst I would otherwise have felt against them.

Lets examine further, using my experiences as flimsy anecdotal evidence.

Acknowledgement

Right off the bat, Dark Souls acknowledges that yes, jokes at the expense of others are fun. Giving players the ability to leave messages for others meant it wouldn’t be long before lulz-motivated signs inviting the unwary to leap from cliffs in pursuit of secret treasure flooded every level. There are rewards for leaving helpful messages (as rated by other wanderers) but no penalties for deliberately misleading information – everything about Dark Souls leans towards a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality – if you’re brave/foolish enough to blindly trust anonymous tips on the floor, the consequences (good or bad) are your own to bear. Having said that, its not just that you’re given the means to lure the innocent to yet another untimely death that suggests the developers had griefing in mind. There is so much packed into the game that isn’t explained, so many nasty surprises, and so many secret treasures tucked away that as a player, you’re sorely tempted to gamble on this advice from strangers – the rewards balance the risk so well, and the game odds in general are so overwhelming, each questionable message results in a serious internal struggle of ‘will I or won’t I?’, which (one presumes) ultimately makes the knowledge that your false trail resulted in yet another frustrating restart for someone else all the more satisfying.

Of course, only the least committed griefers would be content with such entry level pranks. Invasion is where its at, and Dark Souls not only acknowledges that this is going to happen, it makes it a core element of the multiplayer experience. It also clips the wings of the invaders a bit, randomly making a match between invader and invadee, as long as they are within 10% of each other’s level. This nullifies the tactic of repeatedly targeting the same person, or targeting someone many levels below you. Additionally, you can’t use your primary healing mechanism as an invader – the health you go in with is all you’re going to get, giving the potential victim a much needed psychological advantage. Adding this kind of framework pushes your sadistic types into a specific ruleset for griefing, forcing it to happen in a way that doesn’t break the game for everyone else.

Challenge

As noted above, I don’t generally do a lot of PvP in primarily ‘single’ player games. I thought on starting Dark Souls I was playing purely for the single player experience, and would suffer through the occasional invasion from some joy-stealing arsehat with nothing better to do than further stack the odds against me. My first such encounter was deep in the Sewers below the undead burg, where I was already beset on all sides by smog-breathing curse-frogs, and my heart sank when I saw the ‘You have been invaded’ message appear.

Most of that encounter was me stumbling backwards in a panic, swinging wildly here and there, dodge-rolling for all I was worth, but by some good fortune I emerged victorious. The righteous thrill when I blocked his final swing and thrust the Drake Sword through his gizzard was better than beating any boss the single player game had served up so far. Against a human, it wasn’t about exploiting a hard-coded attack pattern, it was a vicious, real struggle to the death. For both of us, locked in mortal combat in this dank, horror filled dungeon, that one fight was the game. The random nature of the world invading mechanics meant that once this battle was concluded, there was little chance of the two of us ever crossing paths again. Within the context of my game world, there were no restarts or ‘best of three’ for us – this fight was all or nothing.

Smog Frog

I hate you, smog-frogs.

This set me up to start thinking a little differently about the value of the multiplayer aspect of the game in general, although I still viewed my invader with disdain – surely his only motivation could have been my fear and rage, the reward for his efforts my anguished wail as I died and restarted from an oh-so-distant bonfire.

Some time later, I realised I was wrong about this too.

It was in Anor Londo, when I was ready to face off against Ornstein and Smough – widely acknowledged to be one of the most teeth-gnashingly difficult boss fights in a game which makes its living from them. After attempting it once, and being told (via grisly and extremely rapid demise) that this was not a fight I was going to win on my own, I decided to summon in some co-op assistance and even the odds a little. Using the last of my precious humanity, I summoned in a nearby friendly and we set about our business. The result was much the same as my solo attempt, although this time there was a glimmer of hope there – perhaps if I summoned in two co op players and tried again, we could teach those guys a thing or two about the pointy ends of our swords.

That was when I realised I was totally out of humanity. With no way to turn human, I had no way to summon help. With no way to summon help, I had absolutely no way of winning this fight, and beating the level. I didn’t have many options. (Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ve edited out the part of this story where I now trek all the way back to the Undead Burg and start looking for rats, in the hopes of a random humanity drop. Rest assured it happened. Sadly, that humanity was burned in a couple more futile attempts at this fight.)

And so there I was, slowly coming to the realisation that the game had been waiting for me to arrive at since I picked up the controller. I was going to have to invade some poor unfortunate, kill them, and harvest their sweet, sweet humanity.

I got quite lucky (again) here. When I arrived in the victim’s world, she was already embroiled in combat against two Giant Knights, and not having an easy time of it. Distracted, it was much too easy for me to stroll up and get some easy hits in. My victim panicked and tried to flee, reminding me starkly of myself, many hours earlier in the sewers, stumbling blindly away from my attacker. I imagined all too vividly this person at the other end of the net connection cursing my name, and wondering aloud at what kind of mental deficiency made a person enjoy grief-killing someone as they struggled through this monumentally difficult game. I cut her down as she ran.

I felt terrible. I desperately wanted her to know that it wasn’t malicious – that I had to do this, in order to be able to get the help I needed to defeat this awful level, and ultimately, the game. I wanted this person that I’d never met to know I wasn’t a bad person, and that it was the game itself forcing me into such a dastardly role. (I also briefly considered how ironic it would be, if through some quirk of the summoning system, she was one of the friendlies selected to assist me in my fight against the end-bosses, after stealing her humanity to do the summoning.)

In the end, I made the most of the spoils of my evil – with the aid of some summoned companions, I put Ornstein and Smough into well-deserved graves, and said goodbye to Anor Londo. It wasn’t all smiles though – my opponent had been carrying ‘Indictment’, an item that added my name to an online Book of the Guilty, marked for future vengeance by a shadowy cabal of bounty hunters. I eventually got what I deserved.

Subversion

This whole experience, not surprisingly, changed my perspective on invaders – I was always forced to wonder (and ultimately, chose to believe) that they were just like me, desperate for humanity to summon assistance for a particularly brutal boss battle, and forced to fight me for it. I bore no ill will to those that defeated me, frustrating as it was at the time. Of course, for true griefers, the fun is in hearing the impotent rage of your victim, and their fruitless desire for revenge. Philosophically, it makes no difference – they are free to imagine my furious tears, if thats the value of the exercise. I wonder if it feels slightly hollow(er), knowing that your victim might instead be quietly wishing you best of luck, and full use of the stolen humanity against their own horrible trials? I imagine it does. More likely, the joy of griefing would be diminished by its incorporation into the core mechanics of the game – offering the same ‘reward’ of being able to ruin someone else’s game for your own fun if you so wish, but ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules if you do, and the victims are not without teeth of their own.

The brilliance of Dark Souls wasn’t just in acknowledging that griefing will happen if you give people a forum in which to do it, or in taking the primary griefing method and making it a structured and balanced part of the game. These things alone prevented those surly few from ruining it for everyone. The amazing extra layer was in making invasion a last-ditch (but always reliable) method of obtaining humanity, your only way of summoning assistance from other players altruistic enough to offer their help to other adventurers, often the only way to best this brutal game. Like the moral choice with the Little Sisters in Bioshock, this is a mechanic that answers the question ‘Can a video game make me feel guilty?’

Yes it can.

Did anyone else have a similar experience, or did you manage to get through the game without needing to ruin someone else’s day?

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