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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?

An open letter to the #occupybioware and #retakemasseffect movements

March 21, 2012 17 comments

This post contains no spoilers of any kind.

Ok, something needs to be said about #occupybioware, #retakemasseffect and the related backlash movements against the ending of Mass Effect 3.

Let me firmly state for the record, this is not a defence or discussion of said ending, Mass Effect, or Bioware in general. What this is, is an appeal to reason amidst the frothing angst, wailing and gnashing of teeth that has become the gaming community’s de facto response to any and all disappointments, perceived slights or difference of opinion.

The entitled hysteria needs to stop, because its happening with such regularity that the actions of the vocal minority threaten to tar the entire group and eradicate any credibility games as an industry, and gamers as a community may have established, even amongst ourselves. More importantly, it makes it much more difficult for gamers to have an ongoing, reasoned and constructive discussion with the people who create the games that we love.

Let me be clear – your complaints, your points of view, and your right to voice them as loudly and as regularly as you want are both valid and valuable. The point I’m trying to make is that constructive, useful feedback is very easily lost amongst the shouting and table pounding which is currently dominating this discussion. Worse yet, in your anger you’re rushing to set a precedent that may have very undesirable consequences in future – not just for you, but for all of us. For clarity, I want to separate the useful points of your message from the troubling one:

I hated Mass Effect 3’s ending! Great, lets hear your reasons – its probable there are a lot of people who agree with them, and they should be heard.

I’m not buying any more Bioware games! Ok. If you feel strongly enough about it, articulate a reasoned argument somewhere online, or send it to Bioware, in hopes that future efforts are more in line with what interests you as a gamer. Personally, I don’t believe a creative difference about how a story should have ended warrants such a reaction, but to each their own.

We’re entitled to the ending that we built up in our heads, and we believe we have the right to make and enforce decisions on your creative output – we demand that you change the story you wrote, so it is exactly the same as we would have written it! Unless you do as we say, we will hold your company to (financial) ransom.

Please.

There are a number of reasons why this last approach is both obnoxious and ultimately destructive. Here are a few of them.

1. You are misunderstanding your relationship to Bioware’s intellectual property (and the nature of sales transactions).

When you purchase a product, what you are entitled to is full and unfettered access to the experience of that product. There is no guarantee that you will enjoy that experience, nor are you entitled to one.

Of course, should you be disappointed, you are entitled to react to that disappointment any way you wish. Complain loudly, tell your friends not to buy it, boycott the company or suggest your changes – all reasonable reactions. Reasonable, as long as you understand that the company is in no way obligated to make those changes. Thats one of two key issues here – that you feel that the company owes you, somehow, and that they can legitimately be forced to change their game to meet your every need. The other is the way that this feeling is expressed as screeching rage about ‘betrayal’ of fans, as if the ending was consciously, maliciously designed to shatter everyone’s dreams while Bioware twirls its collective moustache and cackles like a cartoon villain.

Funnily enough, in situations where fans might be entitled to demand changes from the developer (if it doesn’t work properly – like the buggy mess of Fallout: New Vegas, or the massive performance issues of Skyrim on PS3), we don’t see this kind of reaction. There’s some complaining and bad press, some embarrassed apologies from those responsible, and then we all get on with enjoying the games for the awesome experiences that they are.

The paranoia that characterises this latest backlash, seeing persecution of loyal consumers where in fact there is only (at worst) an ambiguous or less than stellar conclusion to an otherwise brilliant series, makes us all look like crazy, spoiled children. You know what? Sometimes great things have disappointing elements. The ending of Return of the King is one of the least interesting and most unnecessary parts of the entire series (except for the fiasco that is Tom Bombadil, and everything he touches). Are we chanting in the streets and petitioning the Tolkein estate to have the bad parts re-written? No. Are we all maintaining that the entire trilogy is ruined by an imperfect conclusion? No.

If you absolutely must find an outlet for the energy created by your enormous overreaction, the accepted thing to do in these circumstances is relentlessly howl your derision into the internet, mocking the culprits for their lack of perfection, until their once legendary creative vision becomes an industry joke (like Star Wars fans did with George Lucas). It might not get the results you want – if it did, Jar Jar Binks would have been retconned out of existence years ago – but at least it shows you understand your relationship to other people’s intellectual property.

We understand that what we as consumers want is extremely important to game developers, and that these wants should (and do) have an enormous influence on the story and mechanics of games when they are conceived, and as they are developed. This influence however does not equate to being able to arrogantly demand that the finished, released product be changed to meet your exact specifications, even assuming everyone universally agrees on what those are (and they don’t).

2. Be careful what you wish for…

What exactly do you expect to come out of this movement? Is it a reasonable discourse with a company resulting in better products and a better relationship in future? Or is it Bioware caving to your demands, and the subsequent ‘victory’ that comes with asserting creative control over something you have no rights to?

So Bioware have said they will keep working on ‘additional content’, recognising that some of their more passionate fans ‘needed closure’. Not that its likely, but what do you think will happen if this content involves changing the original ending? My guess is there may be an immediate backlash against the change by an equal number of people who, even if they didn’t like the original, are even more concerned about the idea of outspoken internet groups holding game development to ransom in this way. Alternatively, some other group will be furious that your proposed ending got used and theirs didn’t, prompting another campaign to change the game yet again. The best case scenario is months of petty squabbling over which ending is canonical. At the end of all this, how much time do you want Bioware to spend managing their PR, creating explanation videos and gently indulging your this behaviour, and how much time do you want them to spend actually making games?

Most importantly, the most powerful message a retconned ending (as opposed to some DLC that ties up loose ends, which is far more likely) would send is that its open season on everything. That the vocal minority somehow deserve ultimate control over the creative output of the industry, and that any gameplay mechanic, story element or character that doesn’t meet with their approval grants them the right to demand a change.

Once we start down this path, and send the message to developers that every significant part of their game needs to be pre-emptively approved by the internet in order avoid a boycott on release, it will be very, very difficult to come back from. Is that really the direction we want the industry to travel? Do you really think that crowd-sourcing the development of complex game trilogies is a great idea? (If you do, consider how many people out there think Farmville is amazing, then ask yourself how excited you’d be about private terminal messages saying ‘Admiral Hackett needs your help planting his corn!).

Cooperative writing projects on the internet aren’t a new concept, but I’m yet to see the output garner many prestigious awards for quality. Cast your minds back to the last time an entertainment project actively allowed internet fans to suggest direct changes during production. Is that what you want Bioware’s next project to look like? I don’t. Consider that the power you’ve incorrectly assumed is yours by right, granted by Bioware, actually extends to the entire community. If changes to future games are going to be made because people demand it, the changes that get made may not be the ones that you asked for. Relatedly…

3. You don’t speak for everyone

As of March 10, Mass Effect 3 had sold more than 1.6 million copies. The Occupy Mass Effect petition, large though it may be, has not amassed 2% of that figure. This discrepancy makes the distinction between passionate arguments and aggressive demands all the more important. You don’t speak for everyone (certainly not for me) so please stop with the pointless, childish behaviour, committed in the name of the wider gaming community.

Ultimately, if you don’t like a game, by all means complain. Stop buying products from Bioware, EA, or anyone else creating things you don’t enjoy, as is your right to do. All I ask is that you stop before you get to the entitled, hysterical demands – you are not entitled to have story changes delivered, and behaving like you are isn’t good for you, the games, or the industry in general. Situations like this are why we have the term ‘pyrrhic victory’.

We need to talk about DLC

March 15, 2012 14 comments

Personal opinions follow. Feel free to loudly disagree with them.

A recent comment (cheers to Liam Brokas) on this post has really got me thinking about my relationship with DLC, which in turn saw it change from ‘largely indifferent’ to ‘annoyed enough to write a post about it’. What with the recent furore around Mass Effect 3‘s day one scandal, this seems as good a time as any to weigh into the whole debate will some ill-considered opinions. So here they are.

Personally, I’m yet to see much DLC that I think credibly fills the gap left behind by the expansion packs that it usurped. Leaving aside for one second the numerous examples of DLC that appears to have actively been designed as either a cheap money grab (horse armour), or an expensive, high gloss money grab (From Ashes), I’m not convinced that small, episodic chunks of additional content are how I want to spend my cash, or play my games. Don’t get me wrong, the current DLC situation is still better than the ‘micro-transactions’ alternative that funds a lot of free to play games, but lets face it, as soon as you can look at your revenue model for a game and aptly describe it with, “hey, at least its not as sleazy as Zynga’s” you need to own up to the fact that the games market is no longer based on the quid-pro-quo relationship it once was.

Mass Effect 3

Few alien-human universe saving teams have been so loved, or so reviled, based on the distribution method of their adventures.

DLC has very effectively supplanted the expansion pack of old – there are still some examples of it, but they’ve largely gone the way of other beloved childhood treasures that died too soon. As the name suggests, they used to be all about expanding the game experience. There have been some examples of disappointing exceptions, but by and large you were getting something that had been cohesively designed to add to the game world in multiple ways, be it new characters, new maps, new monsters etc. Importantly, they were generally large and involved enough to be worth the investment, because in order to justify the $50 asking price, and – more importantly, lure people back to the game months after most people had finished it – the developers had to do something of significance. Diablo 2’s Lord of Destruction added a whole new world area with its own quests, bosses, monsters and importantly, story (such as it was). Expansions over the years to the Dawn of War franchise added new single player campaigns and new playable races. Even Red Dead Redemptions Zombie Nightmare (despite not understanding what made the first game great), and Dead Island’s Ryder White (ditto) attempted to add an experience that changed the dynamic of the original games, expanded the lore, and gave new goals to be achieved.

That last part on goals is especially important, and its why I think the cycle between release and DLC is getting shorter. Personally, once I’ve played through a game, finished it and moved on, I’m not going to be lured back by the promise of one or two more missions that don’t really relate to the story, a few new weapons/cars/npc’s to play with, or 90 odd minutes of extra ‘content’. The more people who are still embroiled in the hype of your game’s release when the DLC drops, the more people will buy it, meaning if you do it early enough it doesn’t need to be large and standalone – it doesn’t really need to be anything more than a few missions and a character swept off the main game’s cutting room floor, with the addition of a price tag.

To get fans to re-engage with your game in spite of the ever-more-crammed schedule of AAA releases each year is difficult and risky. You need something that expands the original game, rather than just extending it. However fun it might be to play, a lot of DLC falls into this ‘extension’ camp. Personally, I think you could make compelling arguments against the Mass Effect Series, Dragon Age series and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, with many more waiting in the wings for a more diligent researcher to discover.

On the subject of timing, as a general rule I’m not wild about DLC arriving while I’m still playing the game for the first time. Cleverer people than me have kicked Mass Effect 3‘s day one DLC from one end of the internet to the other already so I won’t rehash it here, except to say that DLC that I’m hearing about before I even have the game gives me the same feeling I got once or twice as a kid at Christmas. The one when you got something you’re really excited about and have been looking forward to, and then your friends started telling you about how much cooler it would be if it had all the latest accessories, upgrades etc. Suddenly this thing you loved a moment ago has been cheapened by the promise of how much better it could be, if you only spent a little more money. (Full disclosure: I did buy From Ashes, the scandal causing minute-one DLC that I’m currently complaining about. My angst about DLC and related reliving of traumatic childhood memories is likely at least partially motivated by this fact.)

Which is not to say that there isn’t any true expansion content out there. Some of Fallout 3’s DLC basically qualifies as expansion packs, especially the stellar Point Lookout. Whatever my expressed feelings about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare were, I’m glad they didn’t opt instead for the safe route and just tape a bunch of additional ‘quests’ onto the existing Alan Wake, and I wouldn’t have bought and played it if they had.

American Nightmare

Pictured: Six times more expensive than horse armour, and not very good. Still at least six times better an idea than horse armour was.

I did have a DLC ‘strategy’ for a while, where I would fastidiously ignore any DLC that came out, play and enjoy the game, and then months later when I was ready to replay with fresh eyes (or it was a slow month for releases), I’d pick up all the DLC together. I was quite convinced for a while this would provide the truly expansive, adventure continuing experience I was looking for. The theory was that if you bolted enough disjointed pieces of extra content together, they’d form an unholy-yet-awesome frankensteinien expansion, every bit as good as the proper ones of old. (Protip: they don’t). They’re pitched as single, play-hour extending pieces of content. To pick on Mass Effect again, while its DLC mission is a great one, in the context of the entire game, what does it really add? Does what it added to the story stand alone and universe stand alone, or is it forgotten in amongst the slew of similar, later quests? A friend of mine recently noted ‘I didn’t realise it was the DLC until after I’d completed it.’ In this context, is it expanding the game, or just extending it?

This all leads me back to my original point – from what I’ve seen so far, DLC isn’t an adequate replacement for proper expansion packs, even if you wait until enough of them come along to get the equivalent number of hours entertainment. At the end of the day, what you get with an expansion pack is (usually) a cohesive, multi-faceted add-on that is often capable of standing alone as a representative of the game or series it belongs to. However fun they might be in the short term, From Ashes and its ilk don’t fit that mould. Even without its wallet-eroding, face-slapping arrival on the same day as the ‘full’ game (although I’m not sure I can credibly use that term any more), its not an encouraging sign of the future direction of DLC.

I realise this post has an element of whiny #firstworldproblems about it, but honestly, I don’t think DLC is living up to its potential. For those of you who’ve been on the DLC wagon since the beginning, how do you feel about it? Do you long for a return to the good old days of $50 expansion packs that you looked forward to almost as much as the game itself, or do you think smaller, more frequent parcels of new content are a better bet?

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.

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