Archives for category: Editorial

On GAF, at this moment, there is as always a debate raging about “Art Games” and what constitutes one such title and whether or not title X,Y or even an entire genre is “pretentious”.  The entire argument is extremely frustrating to see again and again in 2010, being kept on life support for years after it had any life in it.

The arguements which really “get my goat” have always been those that relagate the “Artistic” movement to sidescrollers and those that propport that a lack of overt narrative means that the game is “all style and no substance”.

Enter Flotilla, made by Blendo Games who may or may not  consist of more than Brendon Chung. Although how one could be more than a game designer who’s being designing since the cretaceous period is beyond my feeble mind.

It’s not a side scrolling platformer, it’s a a combination of Rogue like sensibilities with Homeworld-esque combat.  It also lacks an overt overarching narrative. Hell, it even has a co-operative mode for people to play together. Surely it can’t be an art game? Surely its memorable music and distinct graphic style make it a poser to “meaning”.

This would be about the most incorrect thing you could say to me, assuming that you, the reader, were to exist. The game has a simple narrative, much like most resonant works of art. You’ve contracted a terminal illness and have a less than ideal lifespan ahead of you.  This is all you get at the game’s genesis and armed with this context, you’re forced to tackle the world head on.

And tackle it you shall, for the galaxy is a fascinating place. You quickly become inundated with more wit and charm than you know how to deal with as you encounter a plethora of characters in your travels. Perhaps you feel the urge to fight your way across the galaxy, conquering those beneath you in those oh so satisfying battles. Or perhaps you simply want to explore the hell out of everywhere and experience all the craziness that life has to offer. Well, you can and do. Then you die. Death is sudden and without warning in addition to being brutally final. You feel sad about the whole thing.

However, the kicker to the art is yet to come. Once you die you’re given a score and place on the leaderboards.  You get the high score (this is my understanding) by waging a successful war throughout the galaxy. For everyone who I’ve watched play the game, their enjoyment is largely derived from the non-sequitur encounters. Trying balance your enjoyment in your last three months against your vain desire for a legacy?

Art.

The latest footage from Dead Space 2, EA’s only public surviving legacy of its new IP project, has me worried. It’s a contextless clip of Isaac strapping himself into some sort of industrial mech which is is then launched into the cold vacuum of space in which he dodges arbitrary colonial detritus through what seem to be rocket boots.

While the first Dead Space may have been a fairly derivative survival horror, drawing strongly from established zombie and science fiction plot elements and Event Horizon for it’s visual style, it was a solid implementation of those ideas. It maintained its atmosphere pretty damn well with the exception of a few “boss fights”, which seemed gratuitous.

This trailer however, seems to completely abandon the tenants which made the atmosphere so good. In it Isaac resembles Iron Man more than anything else, nimbly dodging through space debris at insane speeds, in stark contrast to his low key escapades in the first game.

It is reminiscent to me of the tonal shift between Modern Warfare and it’s sequel. For me, Modern Warfare’s tone alternated between the somber, serious atmosphere of missions such as “All Ghillied Up” or the AC-130 Gunship and the desperation of the “Cargo” Ship or the game’s final chase sequence. However in the sequel, (which I haven’t played) people remark upon the great tonal disparity in the sequel between the more solemn moments and the more fantastical. Kieron Gillen writes on RockPaperShotgun;

“As others have noted, the most disturbing part of No Russian is its context. A few seconds previously you’re involved in a high-speed James Bond chase involving snowmobiles. A few seconds later, you’re mowing down civilians. That tonal shift isn’t brutal. It’s laughable. At best, you’re comedy. At worst, you’re cheap exploitative trash. Modern Warfare leans towards the latter.”

This seems like it could easily become the case with Dead Space 2 if the latest trailer is indicative. I cannot help but wonder if having spent the last thirty seconds playing Iron Man in space might undercut future tension about the seriousness of a Necromorph ambush.

Keep in however, that the spaceflight moment is provided with no context at all and that Dead Space 2 is supposed to have a slight tonal shift from the first game, to reflect Isaac’s new role as “hero of the Ishimura”.

Perhaps this second chapter is intended to feel completely different to the first. Perhaps it is all about Isaac’s ability to cope with being the sole idol for humanity, particularly considering that his image is being used to prop up a Unitologist government. Perhaps at the end of the game, the player and Isaac must abandon the Unitologist’s aid (such as the rocket boots) and strike out on their own. Perhaps then the third game could be again different, as Isaac leads civilians in an uprising against the Unitologists of the time who are deliberately unleashing Necromorphs on society.  Dead Space could become “The Saga of Isaac Clarke” perhaps, where the games are linked by a character’s narrative rather than by atmosphere and mechanics.

However, one cannot have their cake and eat it as well. I sincerely hope that whatever tone Visceral Games has chosen for Dead Space 2, that they stick to it. The a snowmobile is fine in a game about snowmobiles.

This is not conducive to "rocketeering".

I decided to make this a franchise, because that is what games are best at. So there.

I was washing the dishes and was thinking about my previous post and the possibility of a blog where readers posted design challenges and I turned out half thought out game ideas every day. The idea scared me as I’m just not that creative, however I wondered if when I applied myself I could think of ideas that do not come to me naturally over the course of time.  So I though about a game based on the tedium of washing dishes.

So the game opens with the player washing dishes at some restaurant and they’re forced to complete some fairly tedious mini-game where they mouse over all the areas on a dish which aren’t enjoyable. I’m imagining graphics which are akin to Cooking Mama or some other piece of gratuitous friendliness.  So the player has to wash these dishes for a day, then it awarded some money depending on their performance.  Throughout the day the player can listen to GTA style radio, with the traditional music or talk back stations.  Then when the next day comes about, the player is introduced to a stereotype of a nice and attractive girl, who’s also going to be washing dishes. Throughout the day the dishes game is interrupted with short dialogue scenes between the protagonist (not player) and this girl, who clearly have some sort of chemistry.  So after the day is over the background changes to some park where the protagonist and lady friend have gone together. The interplay between the two is flirtatious, funny and endearing without any concerns. The player should ideally be enjoying these sequences, at least in comparison to the dull job of washing dishes.

Did you know that "Washing Dishes" in Google Image search auto completes to "Washing Dishes Cartoon"?

The next day passes in much the same manner until the player washes some weird goblet. One or two plates after the goblet a waiter comes in and asks who cleaned the goblet, to which the player responds. He is then brought out to the restaurant, where the owner of the restaurant is amazed at how clean his special goblet is.  He then, unsurprisingly, bequeaths his restaurant to the player.  The game now transforms into a management sim of sorts as the player balances the money spent on the restaurant with customer satisfaction and profit etc.  However the player can now choose to spend time out of his management day and his profit on time with love interest, receiving an enjoyable date scene like the one before. At the start this is liberating, as the player is not only able to spend more time with the lady but also is free of the awful dish washing mini-game. However it soon becomes apparent that the player has to sacrifice his enjoyment (the date scenes) if he wants to succeed at the game’s stated objectives (building a restaurant chain).  If the player chooses to go against the games stated objective of building the restaurant chain then his relationship will flourish, while if he prioritises the chain then he’ll be able to take the girl out to increasingly expensive places but spend less time with her, which is what she ultimately values.  The dichotomy will obviously never be explained directly to the player and they must pick up on the trend themselves.  If they follow the business goals for too long then the relationship eventually breaks down. If the player patriotism the girl then perhaps the game ends with him having to sell off the restaurants and returning to the menial job of washing dishes, but married or something like that to convey romantic success.

That’s my attempt to use game mechanics to naturalistically teach, inspired by the tedium of washing the dishes.

Last night, up late and desperate for biscuits, I found myself navigating to the kitchen via the light given off by the lock screen of my iPhone, which is predominately white.  I’d held the phone up above my head and had to constantly rotate the little source of light, as it was not only fairly dull but also had a very low falloff distance. It did not illuminate the world around quite as much as give the outlines of things in an eerie blue-white. Every fifteen seconds the lock screen shuts off, so the there’s maybe half a second of complete darkness before I manage to again hit that button.  This struck me as a fun mechanic in a survival horror game grounded in real life.

Metro 2033. Any excuse for screen shots.

Imagine your house suddenly goes black, one night as you’re up far too late suffering from “one more turn” in Civilisation or perhaps creeping yourself out in Metro 2033.  Hell, to make this topical you could even by watching the World Cup or E3. Whatever light you live by suddenly cuts out so you figure that a fuse must’ve blown out or something. You pull out your iPhone and the game teaches you the particulars of using it as a light source while you walk slowly to the fusebox, being careful not to trip on the stairs or whatnot. Upon reaching the fusebox you can see that it’s in fine shape, so you guess that the power has gone out. So you light the way to your bed and lie down, silently lamenting the loss of the enrapturing soccer game. As you lie in bed staring at the ceiling (as the player, you may look about here and open/close your eyes) after a few minutes you hear a sudden tinkle, the shattering of glass.  A man swears loudly. You can hear footsteps.  Grabbing your phone, you must now stay alive for the next hour through a mixture of stealth and escape until the power is restored to the area.  You crouch by your bed and dial 000 (911). Nothing, power must be out there too. Or perhaps they’re merely overwhelmed with calls. It’s academic to you though, as the man is getting closer. You tiptoe to the side door, hoping to avoid detection. It’s all going smoothly until he hears your key turning in the lock. You run out into your front garden and hide behind a tree. Your phone’s reminder to sleep goes off and alerts the man. You jump over the fence and fumble the landing, rolling your ankle and letting out an involuntary yelp.

I picture the game as having a more natural darkness than Doom 3, with object outlines visible while the entire thing stays pretty dark. The iPhone on the other hand is a whole lot dimmer and has a very quick cut off compared to the flash light. Less environmental light than Doom 3 as well, being in a blackout.

I envision the game lasting for only an hour or even less perhaps. The high level of anxiety I’m looking to instil in the player would become exhausting after too long and the longer the game goes for, the more cheap reasons why they can’t find anyone to help them I would have to devise, ruining immersion. I like this idea of very personal, one to one horror relationships that games cannot do due to their length.  The everyday scenario also appeals to me because it’s relate able and horror seems most influential when it’s devoid of any abstraction from the audience’s life. The iPhone mechanic would work well with move, although I wonder whether it would be scarier with the ball glowing in a way reminiscent of the iPhone in game, so that the player grabs glances of the environment around them or whether it be off to increase their immersion in the game. It could also work well with Kinect, assuming that the whole “it can scan objects” thing is still a feature, despite not being mentioned at E3.  The player could simply pick up a phone shaped object then, maximizing immersion. Shattered Memories has already proven that the Wii could do such a thing, although Motion Plus would be a requirement so that it need not be pointed at the screen constantly. A recalibration message every half hour might ruin the game.

Uncool part of "The Darkness"

Upon mentioning this idea in “the” Steam chat last night, someone pointed me to a game called “The Darkness” being  facetious.  The same guy also pointed me to “Tunnel Rats” when I thought up a subterranean game after watching the Daily Show a few days ago, when they interviewed a caver. Anyway, upon investigating The Darkness, I saw that it included the ENTIRE film of To Kill a Mockingbird and that some guy said that watching that through was the most authentic romance scene he’d ever been a part of in a game. I’ve clearly not played the game and I have no idea how the scene actually plays out and whether the player has any interactivity. However it’s a damn cool idea.

The cool part

Can you imagine a DS game where the top screen is a movie playing out in real time and bottom screen is a Mass Effect style dialogue between you and a romantic interest, watching it on your couch? Where the game last just as long as the movie does and has dialogue trees miles deep? Where over the hour and a half you really come to understand a person? All the dialogue is spawned off contextual things happening in the movie however it quickly branches off into other things. You might make your love interest laugh or cry, you might get into a fight or end up making love. Because this much time is allocated to a single character, they can be as complex and troubled as a real person and as difficult to read. To get the “best” ending, you’ll be required to really start to understand your partner and there would be no single approach that could work for the entire game.  It’s sort of glorified interactive fiction, not anything revolutionary. Still, it could be a cool thing.  Writing these ideas out really helps to flesh them out, so there might be more of these in the future.

I realise that this isn’t an original thought/complaint/observation about the games industry. However when I was listening to the first e3 Bombcast and talking to a few journalists about Microsoft’s Cirque Du Soleil “Prelude” event I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that not one person really distanced themselves from the analysis of it all. While I enjoy listening to people debating which demographic the event was for and whether it would reach that audience quite a bit, in addition to more analysis of what it looks like Kinect might or might not be able to do.  I like it, it’s why I tune into such channels.

But isn’t there something perverse when noone in the gaming industry stops to appeciate the fun in such an experience? Not in any major way, but in the sort of fundamental way which would come through in their analysis and result in a little less rational detachment from having just been at the centre of such a surreal experience.

Maybe such a person might be the sort who I could relate to as a journalist, who isn’t quite so jaded with the entire business. It’s often said that clowns are some of the least happy people you’ll meet. No one ever identifies this as a problem.

Aside from me of course. I got that poor bastard killed alot.

Except when I played, it was Fisher falling out the window

However, I’m wondering more about how ol’ Sam died as a character in his latest outing Conviction. You see, I’ve had a long relationship with Mr. Fisher. I’ve helped him through his role in the birth of the shadowy organization Third Echelon, I’ve stopped Kobain Nikoladze, the former president of georgia from nuking America. I foiled both the “Pandora Tommorow” plot to bring down the United States via germ warfare and Admiral Otomo’s plan to draw the US into a second war over the North Korean peninsula. Then his daughter died and he was forced to kill Irving Lambert, his closest friend in order to maintain the trust of a north american terrorist group. We’ve been through a lot together.

Yet up until now, he’s never killed anybody he didn’t have to.  Sometimes he’d complain to Lambert when he wasn’t allowed to exercise the “fifth freedom”, yet Fisher would put himself in harms way time and time again to save the lives of his enemies. Indeed he frequently pointed out to Irving and the player that no soldiers were truly enemies, in a way reminiscent of Snake Eater. I, like Fisher, attempted to preserve human life wherever possible. Sure, occasionally a guard or two got knifed because they were a bit too alert, but over the course of four international crises the final body count was probably less than 40.

Which is why it disturbed me so much when I exceeded that kill count within half an hour of Conviction and fisher didn’t even bat an eye. Fisher is portrayed as bitter about both the death of his daughter and furious at the agency which forced him to kill Lambert. He tries to distance himself from everything between games, attempting to leave behind the life which represents nothing for him but tragedy.  I could accept this and even shared his bitterness towards Third Echelon, whom I felt had betrayed me in the last game although I could care less about Sarah Fisher.  However his reaction to the tragic deaths of those around him rang positively false to me in Conviction. The idea that through the death of the two closest two him he loses any and all respect for human life seems faintly ridiculous. His actions are framed through his desperation to reunite with his daughter, however he acts this way even when his daughter’s safety is completely unrelated to the mission at hand. It was for me a huge point of disconnect with Fisher, with whom I’d identified fairly closely with despite his previous lack of characterisation.  Which is a shame, as I found Fisher to be a really interesting character throughout the majority of Conviction, which had some pretty engrossing twists and relationships.  Shame that Fisher was consistently undermined for me by his new found disregard for human life.  Although should his change have been more believaable, reflecting that in the gameplay had a lot of potential to be cool.

A more hardline and agressive fisher I can certainly agree with. In some of the interrogation scenes my frustration with a character was perfectly in line with Fisher's.

Especially if it happened halfway through a game to reflect a character’s emotional arc. Or the player and character were forced into killing for a time and seeing how this impacted the character while paying off the player’s own discomfort.

Cool game though, for such a mischaracterisation to even bother me.

I met with a friend who doesn’t play a lot of games the other day and ended up regaling him with a tale of something that happened to me in  Oblivion earlier that day, where I went to rob a ship while it’s crew was out and it was filled with ghosts who killed me. It’s a funny anecdote to be sure, however in the form I transcribed it above it’s not only dull but soulless. Yet  that is exactly the series of events which I retold, with just a little embellishment to our mutual amusement.

I mention this because I’ve discovered that I enjoy games more when I apply the same principles to my own understanding of what’s happening in the game world. The Sins of a Solar Empire story I wrote up for myself was born out of simple and uninteresting elements, such as my race being called the TEC (which I extrapolated to mean Terran Economic Confederation) and a ship that was built to colonise some pacified planets  which took ages to die after I was betrayed.  From this I spun a narrative to myself about a government formed by mega-corporations, Avatar-esque exploitation of planets and colonial subjugation and ultimately redemption and honour.

In Oblivion enemies frequently find themselves stuck behind a table or rock feebly swing their swords at me from meters away while the AI attempts to correct it’s pathing issue. Other times I find myself running backwards peppering a pursuer  with arrows for kilometers, or having him or her chase me around a table in a small bar for upwards of five minutes while I wait for my magic to recharge. Each of these is pretty immersion shattering and naturally leads me to start thinking about how broken the game is in many ways. However by forcing myself to visualise each of the events as something which makes sense, like an enemy tripping over himself trying to get around the table or my character tripping and stumbling as she desperately tries to get a shot off at her attacker while sprinting away.  Although having to forcibly visualise something different to what’s occurring on screen is immersion breaking in itself, I find that once I begin to do this that I firstly drop back into immersion more quickly than when I find myself thinking about reasons why the AI might act in the way it does and secondarily I associate that particular AI malfunction with my real world justification and stop noticing it as much when it crops up later.

I wonder if there isn’t a way to encourage this sort of interactivity in games, to properly facilitate players sealing their own fantasy on a more conscious level or to craft their own narratives which are separate from the game mechanics which inspired them. To bring this article full circle, we’ve all told stories about the crazy things that happened to us in games, however the ones which stick with us are those that are not a direct telling of what happened but rather stories which were inspired by the events in the game. More Alice and Kev than the STALKER anecdotes we’ve become inundated with, as entertaining as they are.It seems that games which encourage a player investment, from the simple act of naming ships and planets in Sins to nurturing characters in X-COM or Oblivion alongside complex systems governing the game result in most of these stories although I whether there aren’t other elements which would bring this out.