Archive for game mechanics

Horrors in Their Mediums

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by trivialpunk

Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?

We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.

Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.

Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

caligari

This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.

Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages.  The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.

Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…

lovecraft

To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60’s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.

Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.

At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.

Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…

Dawww

The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.

Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.

fatal-frame-1-screenshot-ghost-battle-capture-circle-ps2-xbox

Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.

What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.

We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.

For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.

That’s enough for a multi-player experience and,  relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.

The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.

Repetition, Survival-Horror, Horror and Repetition

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2013 by trivialpunk

Oh man, two posts in a row about Silent Hill? I must be tonguing the bottom of the barrel here. Not particularly. There are a host of new horror IPs coming out this year, and I want to get a little theory down before I get to the straight-up reviewing. One of the most enjoyable things about it is that the new generation of games may prove me dead wrong. It becomes an incredible learning opportunity, because now my deviant thoughts are in cold, hard pixels. It’s much easier to think about what the newer games are teaching me if I know where I started.

Let’s get down and grungy, then, and slip back into the bound-to-be-occupied waters of Silent Hill 2. Actually, despite being the second post, I thought about this topic first. Last post was kind of a tangent that got away from me. Oh well, there’s no harm in following a thought to see where it gets you. This post came about because I was watching Cronenberg’s “The Fly” the other night. It got me thinking about the type of horror he was creating. The arc. The engagement. There are maybe six shocking moments in the entire movie, and the rest of it is build-up and pay-off. The first half an hour is all foreshadowing. In fact, the creature’s final form doesn’t come until late in the flick and the primary horror up to that point is existential and transformative in nature.

Naturally, this brought me back to horror games. It made me think about what I spend the majority of my game doing, because it sure as hell isn’t empathy building. I’ll be primarily talking about Silent Hill 2, but the points here are pretty applicable all over. Although, SH2 doesn’t cover it all, so I’ll be reaching out a bit to other games. This is far from comprehensive, but it’s something to think on.

Most of my game time is spent running around, picking up items and killing things. Hundreds of things. How does that stay engaging? Horrific? Movies, like “The Fly,” have a distinct advantage over games in that they are much shorter. If there’s anything that kills a creature’s frightening nature, then it’s repetition. Unless, that is, it’s approached correctly.

Keeping your audience engaged is the biggest challenge. It’s one you have to approach subtly in a survival horror game, because you can’t just go around changing how the rules work. Continuity of experience is a key factor in getting absorbed into a game. Once you intuitively understand how the game universe operates, you’ll undergo kinaesthetic projection. You’ll cease thinking about the controller and start thinking about the character on the screen. Yet, you can’t let your players check out completely. CoD: MW tackles this problem by maintaining the same aesthetics of play within a framework of different types of engagement. SH2 uses the same method.

The rules of play never change, but the circumstances and enemies do. They’ve also got enough flexibility to present different challenges in different situations. Think of the standard bread-and-butter enemy

This lovely little guy

This lovely little guy

He may not look like much, but he’s hella engaging. He can hide under cars, necessitating care around the vehicles out-doors. He both stands and crawls, allowing for different forms of attack and different levels of threat. He can spit acid/tar at you, meaning he’s still a threat at range, allowing him to act in a support capacity, if necessary. He’s bizarre looking, but recognizable enough that you may feel a bit off-put by his plight. You have to kick him when he’s down, but he can squirm away and stand up or crawl around and hurt you, creating a really weird version of DDR in the process.

Like all enemies (save most boss monsters), you have the choice of running away. You can undergo combat at range or in melee. You can try to sneak by or just slog through. All of these choices represent limited resources that you’ve got to manage. Ranged combat costs bullets, but usually prevents health damage. Melee is effective and free, but you’ll probably take damage. Running away presents the option to get away without spending anything, but there’s the risk of being taken down while you run or just being cornered. You might end up having to fight any ways, but you would have lost some health in the process.

All of these things – resource management, avoidance, combat types – fit within the framework of the game-play. Even the number of monsters changes things dramatically. At a given time, one creature may be squirming on the ground, another firing at you from range and still another flailing at you within melee range. And that’s just the basic straight-jacket creature.

Going into each encounter, you’re asking yourself questions about how best to engage and, even, whether or not to do it. Each offers a different time of engagement, and, aside from influence from the level design, the experience maintains an organic sort of nature. It’s like they dropped  a bunch of behavioural routines in some corridors and said, “Okay, how are you going to get past this? Think.” Well, actually, that’s exactly what they did. Only, the routines were slavering monstrosities and all they did was laugh maniacally.

Combat is a bit fluid, which allows for different types of engagement within the sphere of combat. However, they flesh out the strange, strange universe in other ways, as well, through puzzles. Remember how we learned waaaay too much about Umbrella just by figuring out how to open their doors? It’s kind of like that. The puzzles operate in two capacities: they flesh out the world, and they provide another form of engagement. In Cut-The-Rope, you cut a rope to deliver some food to an entitled little lizard dude. That tells you everything you need to know about that world. In SH2, you do stuff like melt a wax doll into an empty hand-hold groove so that it’ll hold a horseshoe in place, thus allowing you to open the trap door. And that should provide you an equal amount of information about THAT world.

Almost more important than this is breaking up the combat sections. One type of game-play will always get boring after a while; it will completely fail to engage you. No matter how condensed it is, every game needs to present you with multiple ways of thinking about its game-play. Otherwise, you’ll just check out. If you do that, then no horror game can touch you.

There are other ways of dealing with this, as well. You can even skip right past the combat and avoid the risk of repetition altogether. Games like Amy and Silent Hill Shattered Memories had interesting approaches to this. Think:  Stealth vs. Action games. These games are pretty much all about avoidance. However, there is a happy medium that I’m always glad to talk about: Clocktower.

Clocktower 1 and 2 let you kill things at specific points and, even with the limitations of the time, provided you with different types of engagement (If I’m losing anyone by saying engagement a hundred times, I’ll do a post specifically about that). Clocktower 3 was a little more direct. It took the Resident Evil 3 approach and provided you with an unkillable monster. You spent the lion’s share of the game avoiding combat as vehemently as possible, while still looking around, exposing yourself to danger. At some point, I may go into the specifics of the game, but you’ve been reading a while, so I’ll skip ahead a bit. At the end of each section, you undergo a bizarrely-out-of-place Magical Princess transformation and switch over to combat mode. Suddenly, all the attacks you had to avoid during the running sections change their meaning, because you have to avoid and retaliate in the same breath. Then, once the fight is finished, you’re helpless again and back in exploration mode, switching over to run-like-a-frightened-jawa mode when the psychos come calling.

It would be remiss of me to talk about Silent Hill without mentioning Pyramid Head. He’s practically the face of the franchise now. I can’t say I’m too stoked about that, because exposure significantly impacts his presence, but whatever. In his first appearance, he was a looming shadow. You see, you can’t just litter your game world with engaging fodder monsters; you need to have something else to fear. Much like RE3’s Nemesis, Pyramid Head is an overwhelming, omnipresent threat. You can’t even physically damage him. Yeah, you might be able to claw your way through a slough of lesser monsters, but there looms a larger threat. Everything about his character screams unknowable violence. Even your boss fights with him aren’t won by strictly killing him. Cat. Mouse. This is a huge change from how the rest of the game works, and it’s yet another example of how a small change in mechanics can alter your experience of a creature entirely.

As you can see, large portions of these games are dedicated to switching up your game-play so that you don’t get bored. Yet, they maintain the same basic controls and aesthetics, except perhaps Clocktower 3, but there are arguments for both sides there. This is because horror games face a unique challenge. They’ve got to stay scary in the face of repetition. Yet, repetition and over-exposure of the beast is the usually the death of horror. So, they use different methods to engage and get players to think about different types of horror. Like “The Fly,” they can flit around, picking up bits of existential terror, shock-value gross-outs, the macabre, anything. As long as it creates a continuous world, devs should never shy away from using all the tools available to them to create a feeling of tension: of carefully crafted horror.

Bastion – Spoiled Rotten

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. Welcome back to part 2 of our look at Bastion, the action-RPG from the lovely developers over at Supergiant Games. The first part of this literary tongue-bath looked at the art-style of Bastion and how its aesthetic assisted… nay, was an integral part of… game-play. If you want to take a look at it before you read this one, then it’s the post directly before this one. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by linking to it. Today, we’re going to look at Bastion’s story, as well as some of the game mechanics and game-play features that added an extra punch to its narrative. It’s going to be an avalanche of spoilers, though. So, if you haven’t played Bastion, and I very much suggest that you do, then save this post for a rainy day. That, or go buy and play it. It’s worth your time. If you don’t have the time, then I hope you enjoy my look at it! Maybe if you close your eyes and let your imagination take over, you can explain to me how exactly you’re reading with your eyes closed.

Bastion-Now-Has-100-More-Linux-Shows-Up-on-Steam-for-Linux

We begin the story of this isometric hack-and-slasher with a boy’s bedroom floating in nothingness. The hauntingly epic voice of Logan Cunningham begins to narrate the tale. Here we see the first example of the combination of narrative and game-play integration that will become the staple of your Bastion experience. Nothing further happens until you move the control sticks. Then, your character, The Kid, will wake up and get to his feet in response to your movement. This will trigger another piece of exposition from the narrator. At triggered points, the narrator will break in with an explanation of what you’re doing or with subtle directions to your next objective (Occasionally assisted by giant blue arrows). However, they’re not fourth-wall breaking most of the time, because the game is framed as a third-person perspective story. So, it makes sense for him to be recounting your actions. By keeping the story tight and the levels small, Bastion is able to ensure that you’re never quite without direction or observation. Of course, the narrator isn’t omniscient, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

The events that trigger a bit of exposition are varied. There’s one part early on when you get your first weapon and fight your first monster that illustrates how these triggered exposition flashes can bring you into the story and make you feel like you’ve got an effect on events. In the area you receive the weapon, there are a lot of boxes and assorted bazaar paraphernalia. If, after the fight, you stay around to test your weapon on the scenery, the narrator says, “The Kid just rages for a while…” However, if you don’t, then that line is never spoken. Doesn’t do much for those of us that just moved on, but if you stuck around to wail on things, then it only added to the world and your sense of immersion within it. It’s also a good example of the developers’ understanding their players. They knew that if they handed you a weapon, then the first thing you would do is take your curiosity out on the surrounding scenery. So, they wrote it into the narrative. This is one of the advantages of linear game-play. If you plan far enough ahead, then you can make your players feel like they’re having an effect on things, being allowed more freedom, than even most sandbox game can allow. Or, should I say, especially most sandbox games. That genre’s getting out of control, guys.

Other than brief moments like that, the exposition comes before, after and between combat sections. By keeping the wording succinct, punchy and symbolic, Bastion manages to let you enjoy a deep narrative without being distracted from the game-play. It doesn’t shout important lines at you when you’re trying desperately to keep your eye-sockets pick-axe free; it makes sure that you understand what’s going on. You’re aware of the stakes, so they become a part of the experience. By becoming a part of the experience, they alter the game and make you think about the implications of the events and your part within them. This is the kind of immersive, linear story-telling that Far Cry 3 and BioShock: Infinite got so right, but without the first-person perspective. I think this demonstrates quite heartily that you can use a directed story-telling method in any modern linear game without sacrificing immersion, even if you’re not playing as a 5’9” camera on legs.

Bastion-review-1

Let’s come back to that standing up thing again, because it’s soooo fascinating. Well, actually, it is. When you’ve got a limited number of actions and animations, then you’ve got to pick and choose carefully which ones you want to employ. Then, you’ve got to use them effectively to tell your story. Far Cry 3 has a massive range of available animations, and they could make new ones on the fly, but Bastion reaches back through a long-standing tradition of communicating through simple sprite movements. One of my first memories of something like this was in Mario RPG. At one point, you were asked a question and then responded by jumping. It seemed like an enthusiastic hop and came to perfectly describe Mario’s personality, despite the fact that it was one of a very limited range of available animations that he did. I mean, Mario jumps. That’s like… his thing. The Kid, however, gets tossed around a lot, either during travel or by falling off of ledges, so his thing is standing up. It’s quick and simple, but it’s also very effective.

There’s a portion near the very end of the game, after the climax with Zulf, where you travel back to the Bastion. After the game finishes loading, we find The Kid sprawled out on the grass in his normal fashion, but something’s very different. He was clearly hurt by that last encounter. He’s tired; it has been an extremely draining adventure with almost no time for a proper rest. He’s weathered it all, but you can only handle so much. His body is beaten. His mind taxed. You try to get him to move; his body responds sluggishly, lifting him slightly. But, he collapses. The screen fades slightly. The narrator gives a heart-felt, “Come on, Kid. Get up.” You try again, and he moves a little further, but the effort is too much. He collapses again. The screen fades a bit more. The narrator’s heart is breaking. You give it another go and slowly, achingly, you bring The Kid to his feet. It’s not a lot. It’s just the same animation you’ve used throughout the game to get up with a couple alterations, but it’s used to great effect. It’s also a big part of what we know about our character: he always stands up. Him struggling with that tells you exactly how taxed he is. It’s elegant and engaging. Bam. There’s no half-cocked joke here. This is how you use your mechanics.

Let’s talk choice for a bit. Bastion isn’t a game about building a character around a set of moral choices, but it does a good job of communicating who The Kid is through a couple of key junctures. It doesn’t change anything about the overall game-play. That’s okay. The story is our primary means of engagement. So, let’s start with the climax with Zulf. When you go to wrest the last shard from the hands of the Ura, you end up wiping out waves of their people. This, understandably enough, they aren’t happy with. Far from only blaming you, they also don’t take kindly to the man who led you here, who taunted you into attacking. The man who also tried to warn you away from the Bastion to save your life. So, they assault him. You find him on the ground, broken body bleeding, close to death. At this point, you’ve got a kick-ass special weapon. It’s a blessed bull battering ram with the power to literally rain fire from the sky. Zulf needs help, though. You can’t carry him and fight at the same time. You have to make a choice. Do you pick him up or leave him to die? (Remember that point about omniscience? This is where the narrator’s knowledge runs dry. He has no idea what you do here, so the choice is left up to you.)

If you don’t pick him up, you use your amazing battering ram to fight your way home. After the final fight, you arrive back at the point I talked about with the standing up mechanic. However, if you choose to pick him up, then an entirely different thing happens. You still run through the same gauntlet, getting fired at from all sides, moving slowly under the weight of Zulf’s body, trying desperately to stay alive, but something happens. Eventually, the Ura begin to fire on you less and less. Finally, near the exit, one of the Ura kills the last remaining soldier still firing at you. Clearly, that guy was committed to your death, even as the rest of the Ura honoured your commitment to Zulf. Your commitment to saving what you could. Putting your body on the line for your ideals. Between the music and the pacing, the sentiment and the story it tells through simple symbolism, this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the game. Following it up with the scene where The Kid is trying to stand up brought me closer to tears than I’d like to admit on the internet. That is, it brought me to them. It’s incredibly memorable.

What makes it so effective? It follows the video game adage: do, don’t show. You can feel the slow, desperate struggle of The Kid as he walks through the gauntlet because you’re moving at that pace. You can almost feel his health bar dropping, and, by the middle of it, you can’t help but feel that you’ve made a horrible mistake. This is how your life ends. There’s nothing you can do about it, except try to carry on. You might say that you could put Zulf down, but that’s not who The Kid is. See what I was saying? Excellent character development. What are the motives of the Ura? Well, the Ura are basically a quasi-samurai-like race. So, I’m tempted to say they’re moved by your sense of honour. Either they’re given an order not to kill you, or they all believe in their way of life enough that they draw the same conclusion about your actions and cease attacking. It could be both, even. But, you still represent a lot of evil deeds to them, and more losses, so it’s easy to understand why that one guy keeps attacking you. To him, you’re a monster. Then, when he’s put down, it’s either because he is disobeying orders or because it’s the only way he’ll stop attacking you. Couldn’t have been easy. One life for another. It’s a harsh world. A harsh culture. A harsher lesson.

These are all things you understand intuitively through the game-play. You don’t have to sort it out in your head. You can just look at the deeds of the characters, the Ura, whose actions are all expressed within their normal game-play animations mind you, and say thanks. Thanks for understanding and giving me a chance to make this right. Simple and effective story-telling that’s executed so beautifully that my mind almost revolts at calling it “simple.” Yeesh, I’m going to have to pick a truly horrible game to hate on next week or you guys will think I’ve gone soft!

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That brings us to the final moments of Bastion and the choice that defines the game’s meaning. Up until the 9/10’s mark of the game, the narrator is speaking as if to you, using a third-person perspective voice. Then, as you enter the final level, you find out that he has been talking to Zia, the singer, this whole time. He’s been telling her the story that you’ve been playing through during the moments leading up to when you get to activate the Deus Ex Machina. You see, a great cataclysm tore through the land and shattered the world. Thus the floaty platforms and ash-statues. It’s an allegory for nuclear war, obviously. Well, actually, just for the apocalypse. The Bastion, the structure you’ve been rebuilding, can take the memories stored within the Cores of the City and the shards of the Wilds to and use them to restore the world. The entire world. You can jump the clock back to before the apocalypse. It’ll never have happened. However, in the closing level, the narrator reveals that, while he designed The Bastion, he was never able to test it. Even if he had, there would be no way for him to know if it worked, because he would be reset to before he knew the results of the test. That being said, there’s no way of knowing whether The Bastion has already been used or not. Even if you undo the apocalypse, there’s no way of knowing if it will happen again… or not.

In the final moments of the game, the narrator turns to you, addresses you directly, and asks you to make a choice. Do you wind back the clock to the way things were before or use The Bastion to evacuate and start a new life in a changed world? This may seem easy — you prevent the apocalypse, duh — but it’s not. You see, an apocalypse is just a great change. It’s a sweeping reordering of the current world. Bastion asks you to consider if setting things back to the old order is really the answer. It suggests that, perhaps, the structure of that world was what brought it to its end. After all, in the old world, you’re an orphan without a cause. The narrator is an inventor working for the City. Zia is a peasant girl. Zulf is, well, he’s doing fairly well. In the world changed by the cataclysm, you can forge something new. Will you be able to learn from the mistakes of the past or do you not feel like you can make that choice for the millions of lives that The Bastion will restore? You might realize, then, that it’s not just the people that are to blame for the cataclysm. It’s also the world they live in. You might even be able to change something if you wind the clock back, but you won’t have any memory of the events you’ve struggled through. This world, your new family, will be undone so that the old one can re-assert itself.

Will it make a difference? Or, will you end up back at the cataclysm? This is suggested by the New Game Plus option. You start back at the beginning and the first words of the narrator take on a whole new meaning, “A proper story is supposed to start at the beginning…” Where, though, is the beginning in the story of The Bastion? It’s a time loop, a paradox.

Using this framework, Bastion also asks us a couple of other hard questions. Is setting things to rights (Read: the way they used to be) justification for doing ill now? Is it okay to murder someone now because they’ll be resurrected by the time-loop? What happens to that justification if you decide to evacuate? You’ve got so much blood on your hands. Can you possibly just move on from that? If that justification is so flimsy, so reliant on a future promise, is it any justification at all? Is it an excuse for forwarding your own morality? There’s an uncomfortable truth about the way we tend to look at the world in the narrator’s words, “Don’t let anything you’ve done get to you. You can save all these creatures here and now.” “Save” is an interesting term here. The Cores represent the memories of the past that hold the world in place the way it is, but that raises a greater existential question. Are you saving those creatures or just a copy of them? Yeah, the Cores may be great big USB sticks for the God-puter, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not still deleting the original file. Or, is it the original? There’s no way to know.

This is the narrative that unifies the game. It’s complex, tragic and unfair. It asks questions that we can’t possibly answer and explores morality through intuitive choices that aren’t easily made once you think about them. By the way, if you save Zulf and choose to evacuate, then he’s in the closing credit pictures with you, escaping on The Bastion. If you don’t save him, well… There’s no ticket to the past. I’ll close with a quote from the narrator, Rucks, that plays if you choose the evacuation option:

“You could have undone the calamity itself, but, instead, you want to stay in a world like this… we can’t go back, but I guess we could go… wherever we please.”

Don’t be afraid of great change. You can choose to move forward.

That’s how you tell a fucking story.

Bastion – Unspoiled

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

This week, I sat down to play a game from my list of “Have to’s.” You know the ones, like Portal, Amnesia and SpecOps. The ones people won’t stop going on about. It’s rare that I’m disappointed by one of these games. In fact, with the exception of SpecOps, I’ve usually ended up playing them through in a sitting or two. I tried doing that with Skyrim and almost failed a class. I also ran dangerously low on snacks, but that’s another story altogether. My point is that this week, I span-up Bastion and gave it a go. And, in stark contrast to the way this usually goes, I finished the game in one sitting, then decided to play it half-way through again. Then, I slept and finished it for a second time. So, if anyone was wondering where I went for that couple of days. Yeah, that’s where. By the end of the second play-through, I had so many notes covering the four-page spread I keep by my computer that it looked like the scribbling of a mad man. In truth, that’s kind of what it was. I’d lost it, fallen absolutely in love with the game. At the end of the experience, though, I looked back and couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t exactly ground-breaking. I’ve played games with better combat. Better graphics. More nuanced stories. I was flummoxed. So, I loaded it up again. I realized, while playing through for the third time, that I’d simply been suffering from a broken heart. I couldn’t see the positives of it, because this game isn’t something you can just pick apart and expect to hold up. Every element of it has been polished and placed with care. Like a well-made BLT, it was the combination that elevated it. In combining so well, it had created an atmosphere that drew me into its world. Once it was over, though, that world ceased to be. Then, like a rejected cultist, I was forced to sit outside and think about what I’d done. What I’d done was spent 16 hours playing a 7 hour game (give or take, depending on whether or not you do replay + and finish all the challenges). I’d lost myself in the world, but I couldn’t get that part of me back. So, all I wanted to do was criticize it.

So, that’s where we’re at now. Part of me is forever lost in Bastion. However, maybe with enough analysis and a couple snippets from its truly excellent soundtrack, I’ll be able to get through this without crying. More than the once I already did. If I’m really lucky, I’ll be able to take a page out of Bastion’s manual and rebuild myself from the shards of the game I get by killing… windbags… Does that mean I have to commit to brevity? No, that’s never going to work. Oh well, roll the dice. I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to go over everything I wanted to without ruining your experience of the game. So, I split the post in two. This one will focus on its art design and some of the game-play mechanics that interact with it. Next post, I’ll talk about its story-line, narration (<3) and the mechanics that interact with that. Then, I’m going to load up a good old-fashioned horror game and cleanse this warm-fuzzy feeling from my cartilage.

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Let’s get a little background first. Bastion is an isometric hack-and-slasher with customizable difficulty from Supergiant Games (Published by Warner Bros.) that emphasizes rebuilding your shattered world from the remains of your once-great civilization using a powerful Deus Ex Machina. As you wander through the levels, the world forms underneath your feet. However, it’s only reformations of structures and places that once were, so there are edges to it that you can fall off of. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “An isometric game about platforms that float in space that you can fall off of? That sounds like a nightmare!” And yeah, it really could have been. Knowing your precise positioning in a game like this is crucial. They didn’t have much margin for error. One tiny step in the wrong direction could have made this game an absolute pain to play, but Supergiant pulled it off without a hitch. It’s quite an accomplishment! So, let’s talk about how they did it.

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Open up the picture in a new tab. It becomes quite large, so you’ll be able to see exactly what I’m talking about. Supergiant had a couple big challenges with this game right off the designing board:

1. Creating a fleshed-out, atmospheric world with limited levels on platforms that were easy to navigate, even as they were forming up underneath you.

2. Making the characters fit into the world, while still allowing them to be easily discernible for the more hectic portions of combat.

We’re going to use that one picture as our primary example for now. Like much of the game, it features a central platform connected to others by bridges and smaller sections that appear under your feet. It’s pretty easy to tell where the edges of the larger platforms are in this one, but I want you to appreciate with me for a moment how fantastic the art in this picture is. How incredibly detailed it is without being cluttered. For the most part, it’s those details and differences that let you know where the edges are. Between railings and embossments, it makes sense from a design stand-point. That’s how you would make a bridge. That understanding helps us to define those boundaries. It’s also intuitively ergonomic. The center of each area is where most human interaction would take place, so things like barrels and benches line the outside. That all being said, it also happens to be perfect for combat.

To get from place to place, the bridge platforms form up in front of you in relation to your walking and rolling speed, so you’re never stepping out into thin air. It’s designed well enough that you soon get a feel for where you can and should not step. If you’re right at the edge and one isn’t popping up, then I’m sorry to say that nothing’s going to be breaking your fall, except perhaps the ground. I’m not even kidding, when you fall off the side, you get blasted up by a wave of tamed wind that thumps you right back on the platform again. Face-first. The wind-taming narrative mechanic is actually brilliant here, because it gives the game an excuse for getting you right back up on the platform and provides you with a primary mode of travel between levels. That way, they can stay disjointed but accessible. The timing of each fall is short enough that it doesn’t become frustrating, but it stills punishes you by taking away some of your life and breaks your combat flow a bit. It’s a lovely balance. They also give you quite a bit of leeway when it comes to being “on” a platform. You’re basically wearing snow-shoes.

For those of you that pay attention as psychotically as I do, you’ll probably have noticed that the picture features four different art styles crammed into one. Well, I say crammed… but that’s because it sounds better than masterful combined. I feel like I’ve worshipped enough for one day. The background is a beautifully detailed, high-definition watercolour. The platforms look a little more computer-rendered, but bathe in the same static art-style as the background, relying on shading detail and simple animations to bring them to life. The Kid, and the other characters you interact with, are a little more dynamic again, constantly moving to help them pop out of the background. At the very foreground of the screen is a screen-saver like effect. In this particular picture, you’ll notice leaves on the screen. They and other objects, like feathers, drift straight down to give you a thematic sense of the level. It’s kind of like how liquor commercials always feature really attractive people. They have nothing to do with the actual product, but it’s an encouraging association.

These different art designs are wrapped together by their placement. More detailed movement takes place closer to you, adding another layer to the fore-shortening perspective tricks that make up isometric geometry. They all also share a common pallet. The platforms are slightly different designs based around the same theme with colour-schemes that alter only enough to let you know they’re different platforms. Nothing bleeds into the next thing, but they’re also quite unified. Talking about pallet actually brings us neatly into character design. For this we’re going to focus on The Kid, as opposed to the stock-samurai, the tooth-paste creatures or the old guy, so let’s get a look at him…

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There he is! Sombre little guy. Now, let’s toss in one more landscape shot just for good measure.

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Notice again the criss-crossed boards and crumbling walls that define the edges. Now, take a look at The Kid. He’s got white hair (yes, they address it), darker skin, a red scarf, dark-brown boots, grey-green armor and a dark shirt. Now, look at the environment. Each and every colour on The Kid is echoed in the environment. There are hints of white everywhere and accents of red all over. The boards are similar to his skin and the lanterns reflect his armor. Without being too obvious about it, they’ve made us intuitively aware that he’s a part of this world; he belongs there. Look at his trade-mark weapon: The Cael Hammer. The handle is his hair, the head is his skin, the end of the handle is his armor and it’s even accented with a red slash. It’s basically him, but like… a hammer.

Of course, all this palette resonance might have made him difficult to see and, in an isometric game, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where your character is facing at a given moment. For hack-and-slashers, these things can be devastating, especially for the block-shield-counters. That’s why The Kid has an asymmetrical design. You’ll notice that his shoulder plates and glove stand out, so you can easily tell which direction you’re facing in terms of left or right. For forward and back, there’s a big, bloody hammer to assist you. However, there’s more to it than that. Look at the details and you’ll notice that every point on his body is accented by a bit of white/grey: hair, wrist-wrap, boots and shoulder. In combination with the dynamic quality of his idle and run animations, you’ve got the perfect recipe for a pseudo-point-light-walker. Our brain is very good at reading patterned and biological motion in these cases, and Bastion takes full advantage of that to let us see where we are in relation to the things we’re bashing over the head. Or cutting open. Or shooting. I’m not going to judge you for your combat preferences. When you run, you also leave tiny dust clouds behind you to let you know what direction you’ve come from. This, alongside a static-dynamic camera, is a big help in creating a realistic sense of motion.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got to say for the art direction in relation to game-play. The rest of it is basically going to be you applying what I’ve hinted at here to understand how the game’s art makes its mechanics more tenable and its world richer. Creating depth and atmosphere can be difficult, but if you unify everything, from the palette to the design, then you’ll have an easier time of it. Every part of a game is going to influence every other part when it’s experienced by the player, so its important to keep unity in mind during development. That’s why everything in Halo is so bloomy-shiny. That and, you know, the engine. Geeze, will you look at the time? We’ve still got plenty of space. Let’s talk combat.

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You didn’t think I was going to talk about a hack-and-slasher without at least mentioning the combat, did you? The things I’ve mentioned about the environment are inversely applicable to the enemy models. They share almost none of the same palette as The Kid, so you don’t really confuse the two. They’re mostly blue-green. However, their palette, again, reflects the environment, while small accents of brown reflect The Kid. They also move in very different ways. The ninjas dash. The gasfellas float. The scumbags… skid. So, you’ll never really lose yourself in the fray, no matter how cluster-fucky it gets. Biological motion. Yee-haw.

All of the weapons experiment with difference aspects of the combat engine. Some of them do great amounts of damage at large distances very slowly. Some quickly do a lot of damage at close range. It’s the standard play with the variables of range, speed, damage, influence on enemy placement, armor-penetration and personal manoeuvrability gambit. It’s pretty effective, too, because the levels you find each weapon on are designed to showcase their usefulness. Of course, you can switch back before too long if you don’t like the style. Each item also comes with its own training ground that you can use to improve your skill with the specific features of a given weapon. Do well enough and you’ll unlock items or special moves. Oh yeah! Each weapon also comes with its own special move that you can equip one at a time and use. They draw from a small pool of uses, but you can increase that pool by equipping Spirits. You know, like liquor but magically formulated to improve your dexterity, in stark contrast to the way spirits usually affect you. Different liquors have different passive buffs and you can equip up to ten at a time, one for each level you gain. Weapons can also be upgraded to improve and compensate for their various variable features to further fit your own personal combat style. So, combat-style is quite customizable. Each level of weapon upgrade makes you choose between one buff or another. So, you can make a really middle-of-the-road weapon or pimp yourself out for doing one thing really well. You can always change your mind for no cost at any forge, though, so you’re free to experiment.

You must be thinking that, between levels, spirits, weapon upgrades and a full range of customizable combat-styles, your enemies aren’t going to be able to stand much of a chance. You’d be mostly right. The base-line enemies are still challenging, though. They’re not going to give you a run for your money, but you’re not going to be so bored that you fall asleep mid-session. HOWEVER, you can upgrade their combat abilities, as well, by evoking the power of the Gods. One of the later buildings you unlock allows you to evoke the various idols of the Pantheon of the Gods of the old world. Each idol you evoke gives you a small money and exp bonus, but also provides your enemies with increased capabilities. You start out with only one, but you can unlock more through play or buy them at the store. It’s a sort of free-market Godconomy, if you will. So, if you’re ever feeling cocky, then take on fast, damage-resistant, randomly reflective, self-healing, occasionally invincible, heavy-hitting, enemies that injure you when you collide, don’t drop health tonics, damage you when they die and slow you with each hit. You might not be stopped in your tracks, but you’ll definitely be frustrated. Then, try the final, unlockable, Game-plus gauntlet with all those on. I assure you, it’s a challenge.

So, that’s Bastion. There’s lots more to talk about, but I think you should experience it for yourself. Next post, I’ll be talking about how its mechanics and narrative coalesce to create an immersive, or at least interactive, experience. It’s going to be a raging spoil-a-thon, though, so read at your own risk. I urge you to play the game first. It’s cheap and well worth your time. I promise you. Also, use an X-box controller. It’s just better. Take care and I’ll see you on the other side!