Archive for game reviews

Subjective Objectivity

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on February 5, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! I was going to sit down today to write you a brief treatise on Hearthstone, so that I could get back to playing more Hearthstone, but, as I thought about it, one of the little worms that lives in my hair crawled into my brain and took it hostage. “Crap!” I thought, “Now I’m going to have to accept its demands or risk never again feeling the warm touch of a greasy controller in a hot-seat hockey match.” So, it was a close thing. But, here we are; you know which decision I made. I’m going to keep this brief, because you don’t come here to be held hostage to the whims of my brain-worms. That’s my job. No, you’re here to root through the words I cobble together for spelling errors. Aren’t you? Someone has to worry about that…

Anyways, the topic of today’s “conversation” is subjective-objectivity. That may sound like a conflict of terms, but it’s more accurate than you’d think. If you were alive in the Double O’s (and if you weren’t, I’m surprised that you’re precocious enough to be here), then I’m sure you were aware of the explosion of the popularity of abusing the term “objective”. The internet and Facebook were beginning to flower, so we needed a way to interact that made sense. Enter: Objectivity. When you lack a lot of cultural common ground with people, it can be difficult to communicate. That’s why phonetic kittens became the most popular form of greeting. It was something almost everyone could agree on, he said glibly.

But, I’m here to tell you that our worship of objectivity hasn’t died down. On the contrary, we’ve canonized and deified it. It cackles gleefully as we praise charts and graphs. It draws life-energy from those who worship science without understanding it. And it lives in game review scores. You see, the problem with objectivity is that it requires a standard to be measured against. Mathematics has proofs. Psychology has models and experience. Physics has Maths. The internet has one person yelling at the other until one of them logs off. (Both of them considering themselves to have been validated) When you say something is objectively better than another thing, you’re saying that it is better on a theoretical scale. That scale is where subjectivity comes into play.

You see, the scales themselves are usually developed through rigorous testing and prediction. We don’t just throw together theoretical models willy-nilly, unless you’re me deciding how I feel about a game, but we’ll come back to that later. Personality scales and universal models both rely on a core of tested principles. However, and let’s get specific here, are those models objective? Noooo, they’re the product of their time and place. Let’s look at I.Q. scores, because, as a member of the psychological community, I hate seeing them abused.

Based on my I.Q. score, I’m way above average, but what does that even mean? I mean, you’ve read my writing. I’m groping in the dark here! Seriously, what problems could I have with a systemic, trusted model that reinforces the words that drip from my fingers? Well, for starters, it’s broken as a universal model. Many of the questions used in the old standard I.Q. tests were culturally biased. In fact, they were used early on to confirm the old Imperialistic notion that Westerners ruled and everyone else drooled. Unfortunately, it was a forgone thing, because non-Westerners were failing the sub-textual Western Culture portions of the exam. You know when a piece of pop-culture trivia randomly helps you pass a test? Yeah, it was like the opposite of that.

Even worse, I.Q. scores don’t stand the test of time. If you get tested when you’re a kid, then you’re going to need to go again. Not unlike STI tests, the results will vary as you live your life. It’s a pretty ephemeral measure of intelligence, honestly. Not that intelligence was ever a solid thing to begin with. Whip out your intelligence right now. Come on! Do it! Let’s compare sizes. Sorry, I was having a forum-flashback. It gets worse as you approach the upper ranges.  Roughly 66% of the population falls between 85-115, and the percentages you start dealing with past 125 are portions of 5%. Since, everyone’s I.Q. measurements fluctuate daily, you’re not really in a hard-fast ranking system as much as you are a ranking swamp, drifting in a milieu of people around your intelligence range, never sure where you belong. (Pro-Tip: It doesn’t matter that much. How you use your intelligence is far more important and reflective. Look at me, I write about games and culture. >.>)

It was originally developed to test for average intelligence, so it’s not properly calibrated to sense differences past a certain point. You know how you can tell the difference between a warm and a hot mug of tea, but you can’t discern the subtle temperature differences between a branding iron and a glowing stove-top? Part of that is because of (I hope) a lack of exposure to both, but another part of it is because your body hasn’t developed the tools necessary to know the difference. It has never needed to. Generally, exposure to extreme temperature requires one response: Get The Fuck Away. GTFA for short. By the same token, we’re measuring average intelligences and how they stack up. Where on the spectrum they are.  I’m sure we could calibrate a genius-level test, and some people have spent a good deal of time working on this for ostensibly non-narcissistic reasons, but would it really be helpful?

Knowing if someone is below 70 I.Q. points has legal ramifications in the states, but we don’t have any I.Q. requirements linked to high I.Q.s. Except Mensa. And, honestly, Engineering-focused Universities SHOULD have an I.Q. cap built into their student recruitment procedures to reduce the sheer number of super-villains they spawn from Mensa’s ranks. Biosci and Robotics programs, too. Thanks for reminding me, Spider-man. Prevention > Cure

Right, yes, the point of all this was to illustrate how a carefully designed, rigorously tested system can have short-comings in some areas. I.Q. examinations are purpose-built tests, and we should be aware of what that purpose is when we employ them. This applies to every model we have. They exist, and function best, in the systems in which they were developed.

But that doesn’t always last. Behaviourism was considered the be-all of Psychology at one point. The motto was: Pay attention to and mold the behaviour. Behaviour is everything. You can’t prove the other stuff. Eventually, we discovered that the principles of that system didn’t hold up. I mean, to anyone with cognitive thought, it can be ludicrous to consider that there might not be cognitive thought. That is until you try to prove it exists objectively. Think of it this way: a behaviourist can alter the behaviour of an organism without the organism knowing about it at all. So, what’s the point of knowing? Does knowing even come into it? It was all unprovable rubbish to the psycho-orthodoxy, either way.

Before that, we had Freud. If you disagreed with him, well, then he’d say you were in denial or make some other equally unprovable claim. The point is, if you stuck both of those people in a room, and made them watch a third party doing something completely innocuous, like smoking a cigarette, they’d come up with different reasons for why they were doing it. One would be based on an oral fixation hypothesis. The other would probably revolve around operant conditioning and social learning theory. By today’s standards, both of these would seem false to a degree. Now, we’re all about Neuroscience and addiction. Each of these three explanations is backed up by years of study. The models they appeal to were rigorously designed. They all make predictions, and, in this case, they’ve all been validated. But, which one is right?

There’s a pervading belief that there’s a right answer. Well, I’m here to ask, “A right answer according to what?” Having a model or a scale, a graph or a chart, doesn’t mean anything without interpretation. That’s why two people can look at the same climate-change chart and have two very different reactions. One will call it a climate shift in keeping with one of our current models. The other will begin digging a shelter in a backyard somewhere in Canada. Yes, we can objectively see that one part of the graph is higher than the other, but what does it mean?

Models for climate change and human behaviour are pretty abstract. With a proper understanding of Maths and a free stats package, you can bend numbers to your will in unbelievable ways. Even the concept of an outlier is mind-blowing when you think about it. “Why is that one point way over there?” “Oh, don’t worry, it’s obviously not part of our set. We just won’t include it.” The logic there is both hilarious and accurate. Something about that dot on the edge of the graph put it apart from the others, but what? We’ll never know unless we look, but we rarely look, because we can explain it away. So, interrogate graphs thoroughly, don’t skip the thumb-screws, but, also, don’t make life-decisions based on graphs. You have no idea what went into the making of one. Look to the source data or approach it skeptically. Even the source data isn’t above being tampered with.

And even if the primary source wasn’t damaged, is it accurate? There’s a practice in the scientific orthodoxy that has always pissed me off, because it’s ridiculously irresponsible. That practice is only publishing positive results. Again, makes sense, because why are you publishing something if you found nothing? Precisely because you found nothing. Why did someone else find something? What method did you use that screwed it up? Why are we throwing this away?! It’s as valuable, if not moreso, than a positive result, because we have no idea how many times we did something before it worked. How many unpublished papers lie discarded somewhere because they didn’t prove anything, except that another paper, somewhere else, failed to replicate its results. A negative result is a result, and I wish the scientific community would acknowledge them more actively.

If you’re interested in this issue, then I encourage you to look into it, because it’s going to be an important criticism of the ancient orthodoxy in the coming years as papers get cheaper to publish and distribute. It also means that scientists -and people in general- are going to have to be more careful about what they accept off-hand. Don’t worry. It’s not all meaningless. Often, famous papers will be discredited if no one else can replicate them, but I still think we can learn a lot from what doesn’t work out. Science is… a journey. Our Second Great Trial, after not killing ourselves off.

Let’s bring this back around to games and subjective-objectivity now. That barb about game review scores wasn’t thrown in haphazardly. Review scores are interesting, but they aren’t definitive. The reason I say this is because this last year saw a lot of crap being slung about games not getting perfect scores from reviewers. I think I even wrote a something about GTA5 not getting a perfect review on GameSpot and the complaints that followed. Some people take these things very seriously, especially people who run gaming companies, but we have a small advantage over them. We -can- not give a shit.

Seriously, if you like a game, and it gets a shitty score, remember that it’s essentially meaningless. Even MetaCritic, one of my favourite game-review sites, suffers from the fact that a relatively small number of reviews are collected. Of course, it’s an improvement over the old days when review scores were presided over, almost solely, by gaming magazines and V&A Top Ten. *shudder* That being said, your views might not be being represented. For years, we thought the world was round and boy-bands were cool, but we just weren’t looking at them from the right angle. The metric we were using to measure their value: their popularity, was a poor one. But it worked at the time, so who’s to say?

What do you do, then? Do you start a review blog to compete with Trivial Punk? You choose your opponents well, but what metrics are you going to use to judge a game’s quality? A vaguely positive or negative feeling related to a number somewhere between 1-3 or 8-10? Do you charge people money for good reviews? (That joke was topical a few years ago. Checking it off my list…) Even so, what standards do you hold the game to? Cinematic? Literary? Engagement? A hodge-podgy spectrum? Some sort of superior inter-internet dialectic about quality? You could take any one of these perspectives and be absolutely right, if that’s what you’re looking for. For example, Ebert is a film critic that you might know from his pairing with Siskel, and, for a while, there was a big fuss made when he said he didn’t believe that games would ever be art. To which I respond, in my heart-of-hearts, that he’s a fool. But, in my more diplomatic public persona, and in my brain; where I keep all the thoughts that aren’t related to Power Rangers, a vague childish need for approval  or how much I love chocolate; I recognize that they might not seem that way to someone with very different, highly refined (Read: specific) tastes.

Ebert and I don’t have to agree. In the money, influence and power driven world of The Entertainment Industry, things like review scores and “objective” measures can make a real difference. And, yes, that can trickle down and affect me. We may never see another Banjo-Kazooie game, because a lack of popularity leads to a lack of influence and sales, and a lack of money. Therefore, no company is around to make it. Whereas, popular I.P.s can see a loaded fuck-train of new releases. See Call of Duty for that particular example. That could be something to complain about if these titles really upset you. But, is giving a CoD game a low review score because it’s unoriginal any more objective than giving it a high one because it’s a technical masterpiece? Is the solution to just average the two the way MetaCritic does? Yes, that makes a lot of sense, but don’t consider it to be true anymore than anything else I’ve addressed.

Finally, let’s get back to how you should score your games. You can use a score, because people understand those very intuitively. A high one is good; a low one is bad. Sums up your feelings pretty quickly, and there’s nothing wrong with using it, providing you explain yourself. From there, people can harp on about them all they want, but, as long as you’ve explained yourself, they’re just being lazy. You could do review scores the way I do them. Take two metaphors and compare them. The content of the metaphors tells you about the experience I had playing it, while the comparison between the two tells you what I thought of its overall quality. Think of them as feely-fractions. Or, you could come up with your own system. Use bar-graphs or whatever. As long as people understand what you mean, then it won’t be a problem.

And that’s really the important thing. If you know that the people you’re talking to understand what you’re saying, then you’re in the clear. Electrical engineers have had the positive and negative symbols flipped on their schematics for untold years, but it’s a convention, so people understand it. We’re not as monolithic a culture as we once were, and, to some people, especially untrained engineers working with schematics, this can be pretty shocking. But, as long as we approach the world with an understanding of subjective-objectivity, we won’t be that upset when someone gives us an 8/10.

And if none of that convinces you of the pervasive nature of subjectivity, then consider this: For the concepts of Good and Evil to exist, you need some sort of Mannequian universe. For something to even just BE good, you can’t be talking to a relativist. And, if you want them to concede that something might be better, then they can’t be a nihilist. The things we are willing to accept as true or valid are weird, and they have a far larger emotional component than we’re often willing to admit.

Objectivity exists on a scale, and it’s usually purpose-built. We’re only able to be objective because we became aware of how subjective we were being. Yet, Awareness doesn’t cancel out Subjectivity any more than having someone call you on your argumentative strategy makes you wrong. Unless you were being fallacious on purpose to make a point. Then again, they could be doing the same thing… I’m going to work through this… and when I do, I’ll see you on the other side.

GTAV, Art and Dat GameSpot Review

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ll post the review I wrote later. This needs to be discussed.

Yesterday, I pulled up a video game review on GameSpot and read some of the comments related to it, both on Twitter and on the site. Some people seem to be lining up on two fictitious, dichotomous sides on this one, and I think that’s terrible. I also think that’s pretty normal, honestly. However, I do believe that we need to develop a dialogue if we’re actually going to do some good here, so I’d like to invite you to read the article first. Don’t worry, it’s for GTAV, so it’s topical. You’re not really going to get what I’m talking about unless you do, so I’ll wait. Read some of the comments, too. Select “Top Comments” if you want to get some more perspectives on this. At time of writing, they haven’t descended into drivel. … Got it? Good.

I’ve never had an answer to a question concerning art or society that didn’t come with a caveat. Life is a complicated thing; you and I both know this. Society is infinitely more so. Keep that in mind and always dig. Always ask questions; never be satisfied with an answer if it seems too simple. That’s what I’m here to do today: ask questions and ruminate a little. I invite you to do the same. This is still through my eyes, though, so feel free to add your own perspective.

GTA_5_WALLPAPER

If you read the article, then you’ll know by now that we’re talking about a review of GTAV by one of the ladies over at GameSpot. Apparently, she didn’t think it was perfect, so she gave it a 9/10.

That’s when everyone went crazy.

Of course, a gentleman over at the Escapist gave it a much, much lower score because the protagonists were depressing, and I have my own problems with the idea that we shouldn’t have evil protagonists, especially in a game where you pile up chopper kills like the vicious individual your character is, but that garnered a whole different type of hate.

The GameSpot review marked the game down for two points: 1. Being profoundly misogynistic. 2. Occasionally inconsistent character behaviour.

Now, if we’re talking about deeply flawed characters in a sub-culture that practically breathes coercion, I’m not sure you CAN have an inconsistent character. I have never met a consistent person in my life. Individuals piece together ideas of consistency and, in large part, we may appear consistent, but there will always be times in your life where you act outside of the norm for who you believe yourself to be. So, how can characters as fleshed out as they are in the game act inconsistently? I’m not sure, I haven’t played it through yet. Even so, it’s up to you to judge.

That’s only a side-note, though. We’re really here to talk about the idea that the game is misogynistic, how people reacted to the proposition and what kind of issues we’re really facing as an industry approaching an art-form.

Some people took this event as an opportunity to reconfirm their ideas about “femi-nazis.” Others took it as an opportunity to communicate the lack of attention women’s rights are getting because of how our society is organized. I don’t see a comprehensive answer in ignoring either of those perspectives. You see, when we approach society, we must always remember that it is a great, amorphous, fractured thing. As much as it’s unified, it’s also made up of billions of individual people that started their life, and therefore their development and experience within culture, when they were born. We’ve each got a limited perspective, and we’ve each had valid life experiences. Temporarily entertaining that notion is the price of entry into the next bit of this post, so I hope you’re on-board.

Is GTAV misogynistic? Does it hate women? That’s a complicated question. Do the characters in the game treat women well? When you see a woman, what is she doing? How are others treating her? How do you have the option to treat her? How are women, in general, portrayed? Why?

These are important questions, because misogyny is never about saying you “just don’t like them women-folk very much.” At least, it isn’t usually. But, that definitely happens. Misogyny is about organizing events and representations of women such that they are treated and perceived in a negative way. Everyone knows that literally not treating women as citizens was a dick move and obviously misogynistic, but misogyny has less-obvious forms. Depictions of women in films as either bitchy man-haters or flimsy stock-characters is a form of it. It might not seem like much, but those depictions help inform your understanding of society, and it WILL feedback into how you understand the people around you, especially if you see more television than people. You’re not stupid, though. You question those things when you see them, but you’ve glossed over some of them. I’m pretty sure most people have; I know I have. No one I know is perfect, and that’s okay.

So, I ask again, how are you invited to understand the women in this world?

We’re not done here, though, this is a deep, deep rabbit hole I’m inviting you down. The Escapist review of the game marked it down because the main characters were –using his word here– evil. So, based on that, how are you invited to understand the world’s men? Consider it carefully. Finally, let’s combine the two: how are you asked to understand people and their interpersonal dynamics? What relationships exist in this world to act as representations of humanity?

Okay, that’s the surface layer. As people, we must realize that there are many, many different lives going on all around us. The world teems with secret sub-cultures and worlds beyond our experience. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time delving as far into as many of them as I can, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my –local– culture. That being said, somewhere, there are people similar in personality to the individuals in the game. As a series, GTA has always invited us to step into their strange worlds. These are lifestyles most of us won’t brush up against, let alone experience. This comes down to my next point: a sandbox is not necessarily an RPG.

Yes, we’re role-playing, but we’re not really character building. The scripted events and available choices you have will always narrow down who your character is for you, whether you realize it or not. Is there an option in the game to sit the fuck down and go to night-school while you work early mornings as a garbage man? Can you progress the storyline that way? No, I didn’t think so. For all the talk of freedom, we’re still limited, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s how you tell a story. A story about everything is a bad, impossible story.

While we are quite free, we’re still living in someone else’s life, in a sub-culture whose exploitation of women for money is, traditionally, stereotypically, beyond despicably common. That’s who these people are; that’s the story we’re telling. Could the game tell its story and not involve heavy layers of misogyny? Not if we’re going to be true-to-life. Could you do a protagonist sex-swap and tell the same story in exactly the same way? Not in the circles you have to run in in the game. I’m not saying that all career criminals are women-hating gadabouts, I know a fair few progressive ones, but the culture that surrounds the main characters is steeped in feminine exploitation. You’d have to tell a hell of a different story of clawing your way to the top.

Exploitation is an inescapable part of the game’s story, but how does the game itself handle it? Again, I can’t answer that for you.

I’ve heard that the game’s extreme celebration of masculinity is supposed to be satirical, and that’s definitely one way to look at it, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation, too. You’ll have to remember when you play it that an important part of satire is commentary. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? Are we to understand that the massive explosions and impossibly over-the-top story-missions are a portion of the commentary? Juxtaposition is a powerful tool, after all.

Another point I’ve heard brought up is that it’s just a game. It made me cringe a bit, but lots of people see games that way, even some gamers. There are a fair few people who see it as an emerging art-form, and I’m one of them. Again, sorry, the price of entry here is entertaining that premise. If games are art, then they need to be able to explore tough topics. They need to be able to show us and comment on uncomfortable aspects of society. However, that doesn’t preclude them from criticism; it invites it, in fact.  This game is a cultural artifact that has been created to represent our society, all of it, not just the salient, criminal aspects. More importantly, it’s an interactive artifact that invites us to live a portion of our life through it. This makes how it does so that much more important.

Again, though, we understand that it’s a game. It is something we experience and, so, something we judge. By experiencing the game, we can be brought to question, or we can be taught a way to think. This isn’t going to affect everyone universally. We are going to have individual reactions to the game. One of the reasons it’s a Mature-rated game is that it requires a critical eye to fully appreciate. After all, it wasn’t until much later in life that I asked why all the White Mages in Final Fantasy were women. It could be a world thing or a monastic Order thing. That’s not the present issue. The issue is that I didn’t notice or question it at the time. This isn’t exclusively a youngin’ thing, either. Humans can’t think about everything that crosses their path. They just can’t. Like, literally.

However, the difference between this game and Final Fantasy is that GTAV has direct manifestations within society. I’m not saying you’ll definitely be affected by it, but you must consider the idea.

Again, I’m not telling you exactly what I think. I want to stir discussion, not dispense a fully-formed opinion. So, how does knowing it’s a game affect your experience of the events within it?

You might be asking yourself, why is this an issue now? GTA has been a long-running series, and it hasn’t deviated from itself much. It’s still a ton of fun; no one is disputing that, but we can’t pretend it hasn’t been questioned in the past. The difference is, I’m not saying it’s a murder simulator. BUT, I am saying that if games are to be taken more seriously, then they Are going to come under harsher critical scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons gender politics have been popping up more and more in relation to gaming. Portions of the gaming community have a long history of treating women, both on-screen and on-line, poorly. Getting better, but still pretty bad. I’ve heard people say that it’s not enough and complain when people bring up examples of our progress, BECAUSE it’s not enough. I’m going to blow your minds: I think they’re right. HOWEVER, I do think that we need to acknowledge our strides.

It’s not the 1950’s any more. It’s certainly not the utopian future either, though. Either way, you can’t change the world, or people, overnight.

“Why do we have to bother with politics?” I’ve heard time and again, “It didn’t used to matter.” Well, actually, it did. Many of us just didn’t pay it much mind. We can’t really do that now. I mean, if you just want to play games, then more power to you, but the industry needs to pay attention. Art cannot divorce itself from politics. Of any kind. It’s the duty of art to comment, represent, pose questions and stir inquiry.

If nothing else, GTAV is doing that. But, what is it doing as a piece of art that represents society and allows you to explore it? In other words, what part of you is represented in GTAV? Take a minute.

Alright, let’s take a step back from that and return to the review. If you’ve been following along with my little questions, then you’ve got all these things bubbling away in your head. Bring up the part about how the game represents, and invites you to treat, the average woman within it. Now, how does experiencing that treatment make you feel? If you’re a guy, then how would that make you feel if they swapped all the sexes around? Really consider it.

Well, it didn’t make that GameSpot reviewer, Carolyn Petit, feel very good. Put yourself in her shoes. You’ve got a great game in front of you, but you can’t shake the feeling it gives you. What do you do?

It’s worth remembering that reviews are subjective things. You can’t actually do an objective review of the experience of a game. That –actually– doesn’t make sense. When I review a game (Yeah, it’s been a bit. Don’t worry, got some coming), I find it helps to start with how the experience left me feeling. I also record mid-game feels and pre-game expectations. Then, I dive into the mechanics of the game, what I know about the state/history of the industry and the story of the game itself. After that, I go through and try to piece together how that experience was achieved, where it fell short, where it excelled and why I felt the way I did.

Carolyn gave the game a 9/10, because she felt there was an issue with this incarnation of the series. I know we’re used to score-inflation, but 9/10 is amazing. I don’t think her integrity could have let her say it was perfect. I know if I had an issue I cared about, I wouldn’t say a game that I felt handled it poorly was perfect.

For example, one of my grandparents is from a group of people that experienced near-complete genocide. Do you think I could 100%-awesome a game that I felt treated it like it wasn’t a big deal, even if it was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical fantasy about something unrelated? No.

If the duty of a reviewer is to critique games. And being an art-form invites critique. And art cannot be divorced from politics. Then, Carolyn acted bravely and correctly. This is my conclusion. So, kudos from me to her, because she’s getting a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. These may be the growing pains of a developing artistic medium, but that doesn’t lessen the force for those who experience it. Phil Fish would certainly agree.

Maybe she didn’t feel like anyone else would comment on the issue. Maybe she felt that she needed to stick by her guns. Maybe she felt like injecting the idea into the community. Maybe she believes we need to move forward in the same way I do. Whatever her reasons, integrity is what we want in a reviewer. Without integrity, we’re just for sale. The minute the content of our words is for sale, you can’t trust a damn thing we say.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m going to wrap up with one last consideration. Should this game have been made to be accessible to everyone? Yes, art needs to be bold to make a point, but games are a special brand of art-form in that they’re also, directly, an industry. An industry in which GTA is a massive player. Rockstar Games KNEW that it was going to be released to, and played by, almost every gaming demographic. Did they have a responsibility to make it so that it could be comfortably played by everyone? Is being comfortable really what we want right now? To be complacent in an artistic medium can be dangerous.

Again, it’s more than an art-form; it’s also an industry. Making a separate campaign to appeal to another demographic would have been expensive. Would it be fair to ask them to spend even more money to realize another universe within the game? Should we question the artistic integrity of an industry that literally runs on money? Are we willing to judge it by its artistic merit and hold many interpretations in our mind? Because, like people, like society, the gaming industry isn’t universally consistent. It’s a fractured, amorphous thing.

We should expect that a piece of art as inflammatory as this will make some people uncomfortable. We should also listen to those people, because they may see something we don’t. After all, we can’t see everything at once. Maybe part of what we can take away from the reaction to this game is that we need to respect each other a bit more.

We can be a badass, cop-killing, helicopter-crashing, car-stealing mothafucka all we want in-game. It’s part of what the universe invites us to do. However, out here, respect means more than a double-tap. It means listening to and thinking about other people’s perspectives.

There’s no right answer here, no matter what anyone tells you. There are definitely better and worse answers, but we’re not here to judge. We’re here to inquire.

See you on the other side.

P.S. I invite you to openly critique my conclusions. Also, this week’s house-cleaning: The new story is up. Here’s another video. It’s part 2 of Psychonauts this time! Cheers!

…It’s Always Such a Pleasure

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My computer’s in the shop again, and my projects sit on it, unfinished. Even today’s post is in its embryonic form somewhere on my D: drive.  Thankfully, this week’s story was sitting on my Google Drive, so it went up, along with today’s Let’s Play.

The post? Well, we’re just going to have to wing it, aren’t we? You all know how I love to harp on old topics, so let’s talk about the critical responses to The Last of Us.

Enough time has passed since the game dropped that we’ve gotten quite a few opinions on the much-vaunted game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others are completely indifferent. Still others wonder why it was made within this generation at all.

I’m not here to comment on the game specifically. I still haven’t played it yet. Whoops! Did I type that out loud?

Unfortunately, I’m in a PC household now, so we didn’t have the hardware to play it. I was, however, privy to its critical reception. Again, I’m sure you can figure out why people liked it. Also, probably, why “the people that didn’t like it” didn’t like it. I read and listened to quite a few of them, but there was one thing that I wanted to discuss at greater length. That thing is the notion that the game was boring because it used stale mechanics.

Now, some of you might not have thought the game was boring, and that’s totally cool. I’m not here to reiterate the opinion. Again, I can’t possibly have one, because it’s a game I haven’t played. So much of a game relies on your engagement with it that it’s almost meaningless to write a review of a game without having played it. Sure, you can criticize things about it, but, as a holistic experience, you’ll be missing something if you don’t spin it up. Granted, you can rely on past experience to figure out what it would be like to play it, but you may still miss out on something integral to the game if you play it like a movie.

That over with? Cool, let’s talk about reusing mechanics. If you watched this Extra Credits video, then you’ll know that one of the best ways to start a game is to begin with a set of mechanics. This means that narrative is usually going to take a back-seat to game-play.

But what if you’ve got a story you want to tell? Well, you can use a franchise to do that. A franchise is a sub-section of genre, really. It’s a collection of mechanics that are wrapped up in an identity.  Look at the Halo and Silent Hill (you knew that was coming) franchises. The first games set the stage for narrative, but, more importantly, they also tested out the mechanics. Knowing how those mechanics would affect their audience, and how it would all fit together, provided the designers with the space to tell a story.

What if you want to tell that story without a franchise? Well, you can use the same techniques that Halo and Silent Hill used: you can learn from other games. As much as I hate to admit it, Silent Hill came after Resident Evil. RE dropped three years before the first Silent Hill. Games aren’t made in a vacuum, so you can’t possibly imagine that one didn’t affect the other.

In fact, if you really think about it, survival horror games would utilize the mechanics tested in the original RE game for years after its initial release. Few of them would truly add anything revolutionary to the formula, besides a new story. Now, I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, because games like Silent Hill 2 improved on the formula in many ways, besides through story-line, but you can see the similarities.

Fast-forward a little bit and we can see that trend blossoming behind us. We had the bloom of the first-person RPG, in the ancient days, with games like Deus Ex and System Shock. They would later evolve into the sleeker FPS with RPG elements of today, but that’s a different post. There was the era of the platformer, where every movie tie-in that had a story to tell became a jumping-puzzle game. Let’s not forget the Eldritch days of the point-and-click adventure. Or the sweet petals of the third-person shooter with RPG elements, still fresh upon the bulb.

I know, we didn’t really want another third-person shooter with stealth elements. Most of us have played Tomb Raider or Uncharted, so The Last of Us isn’t exactly fresh. I’m sure it doesn’t help that The Last of Us and Uncharted are both from the same studio. Nor that it’s a zombie game. If it smelled anymore like compost, we could use it to fertilize our vegetable gardens.

BUT, is that inherently a bad thing? Okay, sure, we can over-do things sometimes, especially in the video game industry. Playing through two very similar game-play styles in two different titles can be a bit of a pisser, because a video game is a long time commitment. Two similar movies, okay, that’s four hours. Two similar games? That’s at least twenty hours for two AAA titles.

Still, by all accounts, The Last of Us had a great story and solid game-play. Hell, I’ve read through it, and it made me wish I’d been able to play it, just to experience it. Maybe I’d have gotten bored after the sixth hour, I don’t know, but I can see what it was trying to do.

Video games get a lot of flack for telling bad stories, and that’s not undeserved. Many of the epics of our past are, from a strictly literary perspective, quite silly. Or simple. Even lame. Part of that is a haphazard approach to story-telling, and some of that is the result of completely disregarding it in favor of game-play. That’s not to say we haven’t had some amazing game stories, but Mario? Come on.

We don’t always need a great story for a great game. We can stitch it together through game-play or experience it through the world; that’s the sweet alchemy of video games, but what if you want to tell a story? A specific one. What if you look at a game and think, “I know exactly what story I could tell using that as a vehicle.”

Do we want to, on those grounds alone, muzzle creativity? Like or dislike a game all you want on its own merits. Maybe, you’re bored of the mechanics; that’s legit. Hate away. I think that’s awesome, and we can always use another voice asking for originality. However, I would caution anyone against pronouncing something stale simply because it’s similar to another thing. The deployment of a set of mechanics can be horrible, but the mechanics themselves are tools.

Don’t say that a mechanical paradigm is inherently dull. The industry listens to that kind of thing. Say that it was used badly. Say that this particular game could have benefited from X instead of Y. Say that you’re tired of hearing about zombies! Say anything, but remember that what you say will be heard. We’re part of the creative process. When we criticize better, the industry becomes better.

I know I hold this stance because of how important stories are to me. I admit that without any shame to provide you with full disclosure of my bias. I’ve read through horribly written books for a good story and vice-versa. I’ve watched terrible movies for analogical reasons: to learn something about them and myself. I approach games in much the same way. I believe that some games should exist because they tell a story. Others, because they are fun games. Other because we want to learn how to type faster while we kill the undead.

We wouldn’t have Megaman X without Megaman. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2 without Resident Evil. We wouldn’t have SpecOps: The Line without CoD… or SpecOps. You know where I’m going with this.

Actually, SpecOps: The Line is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Think about it. It wouldn’t exist without the games that came before it: without a profound understanding of the mechanics they used. Maybe The Last of Us didn’t utilize the mechanics it had perfectly, but if we didn’t try that sort of thing, we wouldn’t have games like SpecOps: TL. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2.

In other words, gaming would be the lesser for it. So, don’t get down on rehashing mechanics. Get down on doing it poorly. Or, just get down.

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Crying Over Cry of Fear

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

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It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

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Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Resident Evil Retrospective: From Survival Horror to Splatter Thriller

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 1, 2013 by trivialpunk

It’s that time again! Today’s reference letter for interesting articles come to us from my love for the Crysis series. I’m pretty in love with its design, and the first article of the day shows a ten minute clip of Crysis 3’s beta. Sweet Jesus, listen to those gun sound-effects! I know it’s a weird thing to mention with all the pretty bloom kicking around, but I really appreciate guns that sound like… well… guns. Halo 4 sort of kicked it for me there. http://whatsyourtagblog.com/2013/01/31/i-suck-at-crysis-3/
Next on the chopping block (?) is an article about the Top Ten Comic Book Movies (Without Superheroes). It seems pretty self-explanatory, but many of these movies are amazing, so I think the list deserves some (more) attention. http://houseofgeekery.com/2013/02/01/10-comic-book-movies-without-superheroes/ Oh, also, listen to Caravan Palace! It’s electro-swing, and it’s terribly addictive. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RaKSRU60bw&list=PLZh2pDMvoNNMFkxu5cOqJXq3F5M3ug0JL

With the introduction-introduction out of the way, let’s get down to why we’re all here: video games and video game accessories, Specifically, horror. I’m still playing Resident Evil 6, because it’s been a busy month, but, honestly, I could do the review now. The reason I’m not is because I want to address another topic first. I’ve been bashing Dead Space a bit for… well… go read the article “No Time for Horror, Doctor Jones” It’s the one immediately before this one. If you want to save some time, then I’ll sum it up thusly: the timing of a game affects how it engages the audience. Without time to appreciate danger, or any reason to fear it, then the game loses some weight. Putting your character in a scary situation will not chill the player down to their core. You need to think about how they’re reacting and being engaged. A big part of this is how fast they must react and what kind of commands they can issue. As well as the player’s level of kinaesthetic projection (I’d like to do a study on improving the rate at which this occurs someday, but…). It also helps to make them dread dying without being annoyed by the death. Silent Hill and Resident Evil were both games that could involve a lot of combat (you would also run away… a lot), but were able to use clever, albeit clunky, designs to engage the player in a way that demanded attention, but didn’t give them enough power to feel like they were cutting swaths through the enemy ranks. It was an uneasy balance that was bound to topple. I’m going to blow your mind here, because I really think Dead Space is going in the right direction. Despite my constant ragging on them, I think I see the problems they are trying to address. At the same time, I don’t think they’ve quite gotten the hang of it. It all feels a bit… obvious. Subtlety, though, comes from refinement and sophistication, and we’re just stepping up to this problem.

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I do a lot of speculation on this blog. However, today, we’re jumping on the speculation-train, destination: Nannerville. So, hold onto your shoes, or they’ll fly right off. Originally, I was going to do a side-by-side of Silent Hill with Resident Evil. I’m sure I’ll make mention of it, but I think, for the sake of brevity and not beating an undead horse, we’ll just address Resident Evil. Let’s go for a retrospective ride on the Resident Evil death-train! Chew-chew!!
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Let’s start with Resident 1, because it kicked the series off. If you were playing survival horror games around this time, then you’ll probably have a couple points of reference. There was the Clock Tower series, Dino Crisis, Resident Evil, Silent Hill and a list of other one-off titles that didn’t get picked up with quite the same verve. You’ll probably notice similar movement systems. Not exactly the same, mind you, but they’re related through the time-frames they create. Of course, Dino Crisis introduced a proto-quick-time event, and had jump-scares closer to Dead Space than Silent Hill. Clock Tower was more like a point-and-click, at the time of RE1, than a third-person shooter, but the time-frames they created were similar in their most basic elements. Between an encounter and making a decision, the ratios are remarkably similar. Remember that, because we’re coming back to it later. This is why the remarkably agile dogs, Hunters and Lickers always faffed around for a while before attacking you. They were coded so you’d have enough time to panic slightly, take aim and fire. Then, you’d either have to take clunky evasive action, or keep pumping out bullets. Of course, they could still jump at you from off-screen, but that’s more of a camera-angle/jump-scare issue. (Oh man, I just opened the RE Wiki… I’m in trouble… forty minutes of thoughtful clicking later…)

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Alright, let’s get off just movement for a bit and get down to game-play. RE1 used zombies as their primary enemy, because they were slow, menacing, and easy to defeat. It also opened up many other possible designs through their use of the game’s Phlebotinum, the T-Virus. Like the Pyramid Head fight I mentioned last week, many of the enemies in this game attack along certain vectors, so you’ve got a fighting chance to avoid them. Upon release, RE1 was particularly memorable for its voice-acting and elaborate mansion: The Spencer Estate. Many of the puzzles were so unusual that they gave the game a surreal quality in the midst of a seemingly normal mansion with a standard under-ground laboratory. Zombies created by viruses are one thing, but what kind of twisted forces created the mansion and the abominations within it? Yeah, it’s Umbrella, but ssshhhh -Spoilers!- it was just off enough to unnerve, while retaining enough atmosphere and originality to spook players. Zombie foot-steps echoed through the halls. People kept disappearing. There was a giant fucking shark in the water-filled area. Despite its many flaws, it was still memorable enough to fuel the creation of an entire series.
ImageEventually, the game would be re-mastered. They actually made significant changes to the game-play through the introduction of super-zombies. Thanks to the regenerative power of the T-virus, a zombie that wasn’t burned after it was killed would come back to life stronger and deadlier than before. I should also mention the save-ribbon. Saving was done at typewriters and was limited, on Normal difficulty and up, by the number of ink ribbons you had on you. Both of these elements, the burning and the saving, respectively, were limited by the amount of gas and the number of ribbons you could find. This created a kind of Sophie’s choice tension for gamers that didn’t want to fill up their limited item slots or waste those precious resources. You had a storage chest, but those items weren’t very helpful in the heat of battle. Saying no more about that, let’s move on to RE2!

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RE2 didn’t change much in the way of game-play. It had a graphical up-grade, but most of the controls and game-play elements from the original game were moved over. It had some different enemies, like a crocodile that was one of the few creatures alive that could relate to the shark from Jaws. The big thing it did was introduce the city. RE1 took place in a mansion and its underground laboratory, so it was a pretty tight experience. RE2 was still just as tight, but it took place in Raccoon City. Now, the entire fabric of society was breaking down. Zombie howls echoed through burning streets instead of wooden doors. It also introduced Claire and Leon to the series. These two, along with Jill and Chris from RE1, would go on to be forever hunted by horrible monstrosities from beyond the budget of most pharmaceutical companies. Now, the surreal horror of the mansion comes into its own as we see exactly what Umbrella can, and will, do. The true monster… IS MAN!
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You can’t say you didn’t see that one coming. There’s something to be said about the break-down of society. You’re very purposefully led to locations one would normally associate with safety, like the police station or city hall. This is intended to bring the full reality of the break-down of the city to the player and get all confrontational about the future of the rest of the world. Moving right along…

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RE3 introduced another element of horror that I adore: a recurring, unkillable bad-guy that’s out for your, and mostly your, blood. Okay, not unkillable, but that machine gun isn’t going to do much. Other games had recurring monsters, but Nemesis made a habit of popping out of everywhere, and disappearing just as fast. It gave you the feeling of being pursued by a mechanical, intelligent monstrosity of science and English dentistry. I think my favorite set-piece for this game was the hospital, because… hospital… patient 0’s. That sort of thing. Then, there was the giant worm in the park. The game also included a few puzzles in the general city area that were just as insane as the ones in the mansion. Which makes the player wonder if Umbrella controlled more than we thought, or if the RE designers were just crazy. Either thought was unsettling 2 hours into the game. The game itself ends with a bang, but, in my mind, the most effective explosion is the one near the middle. Having managed to signal an Umbrella helicopter for a ride (think of an umbrella helicopter and capitalization seems far more important), you’re waiting on the rooftop for pick up. In the distance, you see the helicopter approaching, and everything seems hunky-dory. “I guess we’re switching to another charac…” BAM! That’s when Nemesis, with his magical disappearing rocket-launcher, shoots down the rescue bird. After all that effort, you’re sitting on the roof of an infested building, surrounded by death, with imminent destruction at hand, and the seemingly unstoppable killing machine just gave you a huge middle finger. Not only that, but HE HAS A ROCKET LAUNCHER NOW?! HE CAN USE WEAPONS?!?!?!? With that thought in hand, let’s move right along…

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Resident Evil: Code Veronica was most memorable for its look into the curious, insect-obsessed lives of the owners of the Umbrella Corporation. It also gives you some background on the virus, left you trapped on an infested island, and brings back Albert Wesker… but with powerful up-grades. I can’t remember why there aren’t more over-powered monsters like Wesker, but whatever. It’s Resident Evil. If we worried too much about plot holes and retcons, then we’d have exploded by now. The game didn’t add much besides those things, and felt a bit… like a formula game. Instead of a mansion, it’s an island. Claire and Chris make another appearance, though, so it’s alright. Moving along to RE0!

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Resident Evil 0 took a chance, and added dual-character game-play, along with a serious graphical up-grade. Now, you could switch between different characters to solve puzzles. It was an interesting mechanic. However, it somewhat limited the sense of isolation that the series was, at least partially, shooting for. Most of the time, you only met people tangentially and then passed like ships in the night. Also, there were leeches. Again, there wasn’t much of a change in the game-play’s combat department. Although, now you had to manage two inventories and constantly juggle an AI ally. Thankfully, they didn’t do too much besides follow you.

It was around this time that most people were grumbling about the combat. “Why can’t you aim for the head?! It would be easy to survive the zombie apocalypse, or at least stop Umbrella, if we could just shoot slightly up!” Until that point, you could only aim at three different angles that, roughly, corresponded to Up, Forward, and Down. From there, your character had to be relied upon to auto-aim. So, most bullets just went into your enemy’s chest. As we all know, that’s just silly. Along came Resident Evil: Dead Aim (Biohazard: Gun Survivor 4 in Japan)

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As we can all tell, there’s a 4 on the end of that! So, this wasn’t the first FPS, light-gun, Resident Evil game. Clearly, Capcom had been working with their silly systems for a while. Before we get on to how the two systems were pronounced lawfully wedded, let’s look at Dead Aim.

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You could switch between third-person running and first-person shooting with the light-gun. I should also mention that the light-gun worked extremely well for this game. So, if you’re going to play it, then I recommend finding one. It was most memorable for its androgynous, electric-powered villain. Oh, there was a cute Chinese lady, too. The male lead was basically Jeff Foxworthy. I’m not going to bring up every game, but the damage ratios in this game were well balanced enough to show us that being able to aim for the head wouldn’t destroy the balance of play, if it was handled correctly. Again, this is speculation.

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The story wasn’t particularly memorable, but it introduced the t+G virus, and it took place… wait for it… here it comes… on a boat. The slight rocking motions, interesting monster designs, and use of sound effects makes this one of the most atmospheric light-gun games I’ve ever played, and I drained my bank account in the arcade more often than I’d like to admit. It did have the small problem of being beatable with the starting pistol, but it still required fast reflexes and too much caffeine, so I’m going to call it a success. Now, the moment we all knew was coming…

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This was Capcom’s magnum opus. It’s still one of my favorite games, and for good reason. It married the FPS design with the third-person camera, allowing for situational awareness with full-bodied actions and accurate aiming. It include an intuitive inventory system and one of the most memorable merchants in gaming history. It also had one of the most endurable escort components since ICO. Every piece of this game dripped with atmosphere and was so very camp that is was hard to be scared by it. Although…

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Now, we’re getting back to the timing problem. With the introduction of the free-aiming system, it was obvious that you couldn’t have zombies shamble slowly up to you. Even the massive hordes of Dead Aim wouldn’t prove much of a challenge for a character that could easily strafe in circles and run freely… as well as kick down ladders, jump out of windows, close doors, move furniture… In terms of a video game that can be beat, it wouldn’t do to plunk you in the middle of a city and make you fight the 200 zombie hordes it would take to challenge/horrify you at this point. I’m sure it could, because an unstoppable, encroaching mass of mindless flesh is still frightening (see: the mall on Christmas), but it wouldn’t make for a very varied or fun game. So, they introduced the Las Plagas. It was a parasite that was the game’s replacement for the T-virus. Now, the zombies were smart. Well, they were more like villagers, really.

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You may have noticed a bag-headed fellow featured prominently in the two pictures I posted. He’s the first true threat you face in RE4. They introduce him with a few other villagers in a brief cut-scene. They then proceed to chase you around their homes with scythes and blood-thirst. Oh, there’s a chain-saw, too. You may be thinking… “Wait, isn’t that what Dead Space did? Didn’t you complain about that?” Yes, but there are two key points to recognize here.

First off, RE4 represented a real shift in tone for the series. It started tackling the problem that Dead Space would later run into. In a game with an action-heavy protagonist and freedom of movement, as well as mounds of heavy, upgradeable ordinance, how do you design creatures that are challenging, fair, and frightening? I didn’t mention this earlier, but while the timing is different, the time ratios between Dead Space, RE3, and RE4 are similar. The difference is that you don’t have the extra seconds that the clunky combat of RE3 provides to worry about being attacked or scared. It’s either do or die. Much the same way that ripping off a band-aid, or taking a test, is more painful to think about than actually do, preparing for action is more frightening than actually shooting a gun. In a game. I bashed Dead Space for how it handled the situation because it introduced soldiers and monsters by having them murder people in front of you. This, effectively, eliminated most of the mystery or suspense. This brings us to some of the creature designs in RE4, and how they handled the problem.

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I wasn’t in the planning room, but much of the horror of monster designs in RE4 came from everything but the combat. This particular baddy would have to be kited around, in relative silence, because it hunted by sound. Then, it would dash towards you like a demon out of hell and strike. His weak point was on his back, of course. El Gigante was a huge giant that had to be brought down with lots of bullets before it could be directly injured. The Regenerators were really creepy sounding monsters that could only be killed by shooting the parasites in their bodies with a sniper-rifle equipped with a heat-sensing scope. Notice anything odd? All of these creatures have to be moved around, kited, or dealt with in a specific way before you can begin chipping away at their invisible health bars. The horror came from the anticipation of the fight, and from the relative permanence of your obstacle. It created the same kind of time to consider the situation that the original clunky combat did. Only now, the creatures are faster, so you have to be, too. This sort of unites the constant tension and dread of the Dead Space and Silent Hill systems.

Lastly, let’s look at the guy with the bag on his head, because he’s pretty much the quintessential version of what I’ve just outlined. He’s shown with a chain-saw, so we know he’s menacing. He has the added bonus of an obscured face and an almost direct resemblance to Leather-face. He’s introduced in the first area, so you’ve only got a pistol, and very little combat experience. There’s a shot-gun in the village, but if you don’t know where it is, then he seems incredibly powerful. Even shooting at his head and moving gracefully around, two advantages that, until that point, have been your aces in the hole, are meaningless with only a pistol at your command. It’s a real rat-in-a-maze feel. With a cat. Also, the cat has gas-powered teeth. You don’t see him cutting anyone up, so you’re left to imagine the result of his weapon meeting your soft, squishy bits. This makes it extra effective the first time he tears into your flesh with it. I was sort of stunned the first time. I wasn’t ready to believe that the game would just kill me like that. I actually looked away, because I didn’t want to witness the brutal, graphic death I had experienced at his hands. It was a truly stirring moment. RE4 wasn’t fucking around. Let’s recap. He’s effective because, while obviously menacing, he’s left to wreak havoc on you first, leaving everything before that up to your imagination. Plus, he delivers on the threat by destroying you absolutely. For all your new-found movement and fire-power, you’re nothing before a whirring chain-saw. That is, until you get a shot-gun, or learn how to kite him. Then, it’s pretty much over.

I could go on about the one-hit-kill head-parasites that caught me off guard. The occasional trapped wires that make you extra aware of your surroundings, and reinforce the hostility of the entire environment. The unbelievably corny dialogue, and standard Resident Evil plot, but I won’t. I want you to try the game. It’s worth your time, even now. Next stooop!

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Resident Evil 5! Like Dead Space, this game was sort of pre-empted by RE4. Space-zombies are a cool concept, and really well animated, but, eventually, the idea-bucket runs a little dry. RE4 had so much packed into it that RE5 didn’t have much left to work with without blatantly ripping the whole thing off. Then again, they sort of did that anyways. The game got a graphical up-grade, thanks to the next generation of consoles, and a more refined environment. However, it also added an AI partner that was denser than lead shielding. I don’t know anyone that didn’t hate Sheva because of how her AI played. If you’re going to play this game, then grab a partner. It’s not worth the agony otherwise. The inventory system was cut down from the intuitive briefcase system to a standard slot-system to accommodate the introduction of a partner that you could trade back and forth with, a’la RE0. Only, you couldn’t take control of Sheva directly, and you couldn’t trust her, either. If you gave her health items, then she squandered them. If you gave her bullets, then she’d waste them. Don’t get me started on rocket launchers and grenades. She tended to walk in front of your line of fire and just generally derped around. It was like she didn’t know she was in a survival horror game or something. The rest of the game played almost exactly like RE4, but the tone was absolutely destroyed.

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As this picture might illustrate, there were some allegations of racism in RE5. RE4 got some flack for having a village full of Spanish-speaking peasant-zombies, but they didn’t feel blatantly exploitative. As I mentioned earlier, the whole thing had this ironic sense of camp about it. RE5 did that adorable thing that Resident Evil games do and took itself seriously. The opening was an infected village that looked like it might have, believably, been from a poverty-stricken portion of Africa. I’m not sure. Mud huts belonging to grass-dress wearing, spear-wielding Africans are a little more questionable, though. Capcom aren’t bad people. I would like to think that they’re just a little mis-guided. Although, let’s be honest; my limited exposure to the African continent basically ensures that I can’t empirically prove that there isn’t one village like that somewhere, albeit less fetishized and infected.  Maybe that’s what they were hoping for. Either way, I did feel kind of uncomfortable walking through it snapping off head-shots, so maybe it did its job properly. Again, the true monster IS MAN!!

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As you can probably tell, I wasn’t that big a fan of RE5. Besides this guy, who moves suspiciously like Pyramid Head, and some questionable ethnic representations, the franchise has finished its shift to Splatter Thriller. You’ve got a wise-cracking side-kick, free movement, enough ordinance to blow up the entire mansion from the first game, a portion where you’re in a volcano punching boulders into lava, and a hilarious end-scene where you do an anime-style back-to-back double-rocket launcher finishing move on, you guessed it, Wesker, who has transformed into a mutant monster swimming around inside said volcano. You also fight a giant crab. Some scenes are disturbing, and may legitimately frighten you, but there’s no fear, and hardly any tension.

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I’m doing a full review of Resident Evil 6 pretty soon, so I’m not going to jump into it here. Suffice it to say, I’ve got some good and some bad to say about it. As usual. RE5 mis-stepped pretty hard, but it wasn’t that far removed from RE4. So, you can see how fine an edge horror stands on. Dead Space 1 was like the RE4 of the series. There were still things to be surprised by and a certain amount of pacing. As you can see, it’s not just the combat that can destroy a game’s tone. In my earlier overview of horror combat pacing, I criticised the game for its approach to horror, going so far as to re-categorize it. I stand by that, but I wanted you to realize exactly how difficult it is to create fear in today’s industry. We’ve seen a lot, but not everything. The margin for error is smaller than ever. High definition makes it harder, and less desirable, to obscure our antagonists. There’s a definite feeling of inertia that encourages games to stay within acceptable boundaries and play the same old tricks, especially with the sheer cost of creating current-gen games. That won’t do with horror, though, because there’s nothing less scary than something you’re expecting. Unless, of course, you don’t want it. Then, it’s terrifying. Maybe Dead Space made its combat too viscerally fun. Maybe it was the way it introduces its creatures and has them engage the player. Maybe it’s their vulnerable nature, spindly scab-monsters that they are. Silent Hill made many of the same mistakes in its new releases. With an upgrade in graphical and processing power, there’s a push to make characters more animated. As a result, they’re expected to speed up and move more fluidly. Silent Hill Homecoming’s combat rolling is not the answer, though. Silent Hill Downpour made similar mistakes with its big-bads by making the glowing red ball of light visible and… not at all scary. Oh, there’s the hammer-guy, too, but he’s just Pyramid Head with a hammer.

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So, it’s a challenge, but that doesn’t mean our industry will go quietly into the good night. There are plenty of new approaches being tried. Maybe they’ll even revive the Clock Tower IP, but they better be damn careful with it. There’s A Machine For Pigs coming out, with Amnesia: The Dark Descent as its grande herald. We got where we are today in a very logical manner, and I want to give props to the Dead Space team for their progress on an incredibly difficult task: making my dried-up husk of a child’s heart beat with terror once more. Then, all I have to do is implant it once more and the device will be complete.

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Dread Space Another One

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

Contrary to the words I wrote mere seconds ago, I’m going to be starting my penance next week. Right now, I’ve got way too much of a headache to focus on reading. Why am I typing, you may ask? Well, Dead Space 3’s demo came out recently, and I’ve got to say something about that shit! As my regular reader may know, I’ve got kind of a thing for the horror genre. If it were a lady, I’m pretty sure we’d be moved in, vowed and raising three li’l ones by now. However, recently I feel like most of my lovely courtesans have been getting bored with the shock-a-day lifestyle, and seem to be flitting towards the action-adventure genre. I worry, because we’re starting to have less and less in common. They’re out and about with slimy space-monsters wearing leather jackets and exploding their way over cool jumps, and I’m sitting here on the kitchen floor mournfully cradling a cleaver. It just feels like we’re both going to end up having extramarital affairs sooner or later. Either way, there will be blood, and maybe that’s enough. To that end, let’s peek into the diary of the Dead Space franchise and see what the little minx has in store for us.
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Things started off a bit worryingly when the snow animation looked a bit 1999. Not the sky-boxes, mind, but the snow trailing around my feet. My jealousy became aroused even more when a couple of enemies came screaming out of the door of a hangar, flailing their arms and praying for bullets. BUT, what really caught my breath in my throat, wrenching my heart in a vice-like fashion, was the weapon customization. Let’s break down why I’m jealous, then maybe The Note will make more sense when it shows up next to our bloated bodies.

Part of what kept Dead Space consistent was the level design. Not the way it was put together, but the aesthetic. It was all pretty samey and shippy, with the occasionally rocky mesa to spice things up a bit. As a result, there wasn’t much to worry about with regards to keeping all of the animation on the same level. With the introduction of snow into the environment, the programmers had to be very careful to make sure that its graphical and animation quality matched that of the rest of the environment. It did not. The whole thing almost pulled me out of the experience before I’d even got a chance to pick up my first stasis pod. I can only comfort myself with the hope that they’ll have improved it by the time the final product ships.

If that snow animation thing seemed a bit small to bring up, then I should probably back up a bit further. Horror is a genre that’s centered around creating an emotion, evoking a response. You’ve got to know your audience and craft the experience accordingly. Any little thing can pull you out of it. Of course, a tense, well-drawn story-line, and the rest of the bloody game, can make up for the odd quirk (see: Resident Evil… Survival Horror Voice-Acting), but that requires a considered approach. Dead Space 3 eschews that by throwing more over-baked bacon-crab monsters at us right off the bat. There’s no sense of build-up. There’s very little time for tension, because we’re too busy smacking them around with the God-Hand and Boot of Isaac. I know it’s hard to create tension when everyone already knows what all the bloody monsters look like, but maybe that means we’re done here. I’m sure you could use some of these monster designs in other games.

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Speaking of monster designs, Dead Space sort of packed it in for me with the troops. You fight soldiers. With grenades. Sometimes, they’re fighting you because a squid-baby nestled its way into their armor with all the grace and elegance of Earthworm Jim, but a monster should be disturbing on more than just a cognitive and visual level. Let me explain with an example from my favorite series: Silent Hill 2.
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This monster, shown here in high-definition, is the manifestation of the hatred one of the other characters has for her abusive father. The game makes this quite clear through dialogue, cut-scenes, and game-play. It’s just… strange. It makes unusual noises, it moves in a weird, languorous, counter-intuitive manner, and it leaves a thought-provoking corpse. However, it also represents something disturbing in relation to what it represents about the character’s past, a fact that is made more disturbing by its face-rape method of attack. Lastly, it’s either thrown in your face, or it hangs out, just out of sight, taunting you with its… sound. It’s a good creation. However, it only really shines because of how it’s presented.

Let’s contrast this to the mildly disconcerting baby-head squids. It shows you how they take over a soldier’s body, which, while mentally unusual, leaves nothing to the imagination. Here, imagination is your most powerful tool. I’m not left thinking, “Oh man, what’s he doing to me?!?” It’s more akin to shouting, “Oh fuck, I’d better kill this thing before it tries to use me as a host.” I understand that, and I’m not afraid of it. The whole game is about killing shit that wants to kill you. Oh, and we can go anywhere to fight soldiers. We know soldiers. We get grenades. That’s not going to turn any heads, or any dreams, into nightmare-vessels.

So, the monsters aren’t anything new, but the pacing doesn’t really give us a chance to appreciate their inherent creepiness, anyways. Of course, someone brought up that, being a demo, it’s probably trying to shove us straight into the action. If that’s the case, then what are they trying to show us? How much like Resident Evil 6 they want to be? Even if it is parachuting us in, in medias res style, then aren’t they giving a bit much away? No matter how it starts, I now know that I’m going to end up on some shit-cold mining world fighting soldiers. If part of horror is what you know, then I know too much now. I can only hope they’ve kept the best for the reveal. Some of the cut-scenes certainly let us glimpse gems of glinting potential, but I feel like the multi-player could seriously undermine the whole thing. Think about it. Isaac has always been alone, and that’s part of what gave Dead Space its feeling of oppressive desperation. Adding another character into the story, or even having to balance it around there being one or two players, is going to be difficult, and take an infinite amount of finesse. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if they end up being another hallucination, then I’m packing this franchise in for myself. That’ll be the end of it. I’ll have to fold my arms and wait for “A Machine for Pigs.”

If it seems like I’m being a bit harsh, then it’s because I love this genre so, and this series enough to call it back for at least another sequel. However, I just don’t feel like it cares any more. I’m afraid it’s just going to start phoning it in. There are additions, though. Dead Space has always added something neat by way of movement mechanics, and this game is no exception. While it’s not zero-gravity, it does have a lot of potential. They put in a climbing-rope for you to belay down. I look forward to the giant pits it will ask us to climb down, and the quick-time events therein. Honestly, it could be neat. Dangling on the perspective edge of oblivion, with only a small rope holding you up, as the ground begins to shake, your grip-bar weakens, and you’re forced to fight for your life against the coming onslaught. Or is that Shadows of the Colossus. Either way, I look forward to seeing how it’s implemented.

Lastly, I want to talk about weapon customization. It looks deep, or at least complex, but I don’t think that’s really a point in its favor. The original weapons had elegant designs that fit well into the theme. Even the plasma cutter made some sort of sense, as well as being an awesome weapon for intersecting the perpendicular plane created by a monster’s flailing arms. In fact, most monsters are designed with that sort of mechanic in mind. So, either the weapons will have some constraints, to the point where it’s all just a bunch of cool-but-pointless faffing around, or the enemies are going to be so needlessly varied ( or more likely, so vanilla-chilla) that it’s hardly going to matter. Striking a good middle line will take some skill, and I’m hoping they’re up to it. Of course, the whole thing smacks of a change of tone. We’re not desperately searching for the closest tools that will allow us to survive, plasma-cutter-style; we’re actively building an arsenal. We’re confronting this alien enemy, and fighting it to the last. The minute that’s scary is the minute that I start exclusively reviewing CoD games. Hopefully, that’ll fall into line, too, but there’s an awful lot of “hopefully” in this review.

Oh, and if multi-player might compromise the experience, then throwing everyone’s favorite motion-peripheral into the mix can only make matters worse. I’m just saying.

I was a bit thrown by the demo. I really liked the series, even as it leaned towards a more action-oriented play-style. It kept just enough of its horror-theme to maintain a certain level of respectability. Now, though, I’m not too sure. I’ll have to play the game to form a full opinion, because there are cut-scene glimpses of superb competence, but I’m not sure. Maybe Resident Evil 6 has left me feeling a bit jaded, but I’m still going to try the game, so that should say something, too. If Dead Space wants to be a super-gory action game with bizzappy weapons, then that’s cool. It’ll do a good job! If we’re shooting for horror, then, well, we’re going to have to aim a bit higher, aren’t we?

XCOM: XCOM

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by trivialpunk

I think I long ago abandoned all pretence of being a horror-focused blog. Horror is my favorite genre, but it’s not really breaking a lot of fresh ground. Or even old ground. Hell, you’d think with all the undead lying around that someone would have turned some fresh soil. Oh, I know, I’m just whinging as a set-up for this entry. Gaming has come a long way, and will go even farther, so it’s always nice to see something like XCOM: Enemy Unknown float across my screen, and then roost there like a fat spider picking away at both my time and waning sanity in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a refreshing re-imagining, and a well thought-out game. Titles like this, The Walking Dead, and Spec Ops are proof of the growing awareness of various developers of the value and flexibility of the medium they’re utilizing, as well as the creation of the sort of business models that would allow for this kind of experimentation. Not only that, but it also points to a growing community that cares about quality, with the infrastructure to make itself aware of the real creme of the crop. These weren’t cheap to produce, and they took some pretty crazy chances. So, for all the risk, effort and time that was taken in the creation of XCOM, let’s spend some time picking it apart. However, as a result, I’m going to be spoiling large swathes of the game. I posted an un-spoiled review earlier today, so feel free to skip this one and go to that one if you don’t want to be playing XCOM: Enemy Inconvenient.

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In my previous review, I remarked that, when you’re playing XCOM, time is of the essence. That’s true in more than just a cliche way. A large portion of the game comes down to making the right decisions, and sacrifices, in order to have the right gun in the right place at the right time. On the whole, it’s sort of a time-management game for the tactically-oriented xenophobic in all of us. This is part what makes the game more addicting than crack cocaine. There’s always something to do, and you’re always being rewarded for your efforts on a delayed schedule. That means that, at any moment of game-play, there’s either something to do, or something coming off the assembly line. There are always decisions to make, and a steady stream of improvement and revelation. Basically, you’re being drip-fed behavioural reinforcers (to borrow some old psych jargon) on a semi-random schedule. Designing a system in this way is the absolute best method for reinforcing a response (encouraging a behavior). That being said, the value of the reinforcer depends on your investment in the game. Getting the kick-ass interceptor, building, equipping and launching it, is only reinforcing if you value the outcome of the game. This is, in part, reciprocally aided by the reinforcement, but is also aided by your level of immersion and commitment.

XCOM has a really well unified aesthetic. Even though the tactical and base development sections of the game are radically different, they are connected through cut-scene sequences that ensure a steady narrative. You never just cut away to the base. You take off, you fly, and you land. Then, you’re back at the base. Very little time passes in the intermediary, but XCOM goes through this song and dance every time to ensure that your experience is consistent. As a result, you’re never jarred out of the narrative, and you’re always following the fire instead of the smoke (Community plug: six seasons and a movie). The game moves forward based on events that take place during game-play, so there’s no real sense of level progression, unless you’re looking for it. Changes come gradually, and aren’t too jarrying (even the best suits of armor are a bit toned down), so you see the results of your work slowly come to fruition. The beginnings of most levels have a quietly-creeping-forward section during which you explore the map. XCOM could throw you right into the fray, but it knows that by making you take the time and make the effort, you’ll appreciate it that much more. It shows a real commitment to pacing. These things, as well as the sound-effects, cut-scenes, technology-levels, and plot-devices, all work together to deliver a fairly consistent experience across all modalities.

Of course, pacing and schedules of reinforcement (SoR) aren’t the only temporal toddlers in the XCOM sandbox. There’s an adage I once heard that says that all aspects of a game should feel similar to create a unified experience. Doing this requires that all the aspects of the game fit a similar arousal curve. XCOM is all about delay, tension, delay, then resolution (payday!). Sure, your soldiers only need a few days to recover, but a lot can happen in six days. Yeah, satellites only take twenty days to build, but you can lose more than one nation in a month. Okay, you’ve already built your psi-school and done your relevant research, but will you be able to find and train enough psychically-gifted youngsters before your professor gets paralysed and has to wait until his floaty-chair gets built to start teaching again. That, or the doom clock runs out. The absolute worst culprit, and easiest to demonstrate, is the dynamic camera-angle shots. First, the camera zooms in, then there’s a pause as your character takes aim, another over-long pause, and then the shot. Even with all the build-up, there’s no guarantee of a hit. Aliens do the same things, and it’s never gratifying to have to watch a slow-motion cut-scene crit your characters to death. There’s a palpable tension, though, as you watch and wait, especially if the odds of a hit aren’t in your favor. That eustress, combined with the risks of taking any action, keeps you coming back for more.

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Risks you say? Oh yes. You see, as I mentioned earlier, this is basically a time-management game. You’re always racing against some sort of clock, and betting one variable against another. This takes a back-seat in the tactical game-play (aside from the terror missions), but it’s arguably present in all aspects of risk-assessment. What I mean, when I talk about risks, is present primarily in the base management portion of the game. In order to progress, you’ve got to spend time researching the latest alien jijaw, or technological doowhatzit. This takes the attention of your research team, however. As a result, you may not be researching the latest weapons. However, because you researched the plot-sensitive item, the plot will move forward, so the aliens will get stronger. You can’t just spend your time researching weapons, because you’ll need resources to research and build them. You need to go on missions to acquire alien resources, and specific missions to acquire money. That, or wait for your monthly-stipend from the not-the-UN. To increase this, and your chance of getting missions (which happen semi-randomly), you’ll need satellites, interceptors, weapons, and healthy troops. Again, though, you’ll need money and resources for these things. You’ll need to spend time to gather the resources necessary to produce them, and still more time to put it all together. However, the more missions you go on, the more troops will be injured. The more often you get missions, the fewer troops you’ll have unharmed for each mission. So, you’ll need more troops, more missions to train them on, more interceptors, more satellites, and anon. That’s not even mentioning facility development. You see how I said there’s always something to do?

All of these considerations are being weighed against the overall clock. If you lose eight nations, or the doom clock counts down, then you’re boned. Every mission you embark on (except the terror missions) increases the panic level of two countries while lowering that of the one you did the mission for. As a result, every time you hit the field, ready to combat the alien menace, you’re moving closer to destruction. Every mission is a chance to lose a soldier. Every nation you want to cover is one more satellite (etc). Every nation lost is one less source of income. Many missions will give you new things to research, which require more time. Time, though, is one luxury you don’t have in abundance. One nice thing is that they won’t ramp things up too far until you’ve performed the requisite objectives to make things move forward. Assaulting the base, after you’ve captured a living crystal, is an example of this. You don’t start seeing the really hairy troops until after this. Then again, this is another dagger in disguise. It makes you want to ease into the transition, and bulk up as much as you can, but if you faff around too much at that point, then you’ll have even less time in the later missions. It’s not difficult to lose a nation if you do too many missions. As I said, you’ll always be receiving a panic increase on some nations, and it’s difficult (read: impossible) to protect everything, even with the satellites. Sometimes, you won’t be in a position to do anything. Sometimes, you’ll back yourself into a corner. Sometimes life (read: XCOM) is unfair.

So, aside from pacing, SoR, and a unified aesthetic, there are a lot of variables to juggle, with a very Sophie’s Choice decision-making game design. These temporal tots weren’t raised around teratogens, though. Besides creating a very addicting game, they also serve up the narrative experience on a silver platter. By your third hour, you’re in the thick of it. You’re invested in this all-or-nothing struggle against a terrible enemy, and with that commitment comes the true effect of all of these temporal shenanigans: stress and immersion. You really start to value the victories and dread the failures. So much planning and busy-work has gone into the game that you not only want to win, but you don’t want to lose. That, more than anything else, mirrors the plight of the XCOM commander better than anything else, except for one slight difference: it’s not “want,” it’s “can’t.”

Two more things before we round things off. I mentioned in my previous review of the game that I had trouble figuring out the depth of the game. There were cues worked into it: the limited number of psychic abilities, the strength of the enemies, the bewildering research speed, and the wording on my armor sets (“est” is by far the most over-used suffix in gaming history). I guess I just wanted there to be more. After all the build-up, the end is kind of lame. I’m not even getting into the physics that don’t make sense, or the obvious sequel set-up that is obvious. There’s only one additional type of interceptor. There are only three tiers of weapons, armor sets, and enemies. There’s only one type of robot, with a couple variations. There aren’t very many huge maps, and the last encounter is disappointing to say the least. I only lost two soldiers on that mission, and they fell to the sniper fire of my own mind-controlled unit. The random encounters, multi-player, and different modes give it definite replay value, but it’ll lose part of the mystique. It’ll all be a bit “been there.” Still, it’s an experience that every gamer should have, if they can. Hell, non-gamers, too, if we can swing it. I recommend travel agents and short-order cooks for their time-management skills and long-term planning abilities.

Lastly, I’d like to list off all the things in this game that require time (as a resource) as a sort of supplement to the overall article.

Research. Elaborate engineering projects. Healing after a battle. Rebuilding an interceptor. Repairing a robot. Launching a satellite. Transferring an interceptor. Customizing the load-out of an interceptor. Excavating. Forge research. Building new facilities. Hiring new soldiers. Psionic testing. Scanning the globe. Battlefield skirmishes.

If I’m missing anything, please let me know. Basically, this just serves to illustrate exactly how much of the game relies on time as a resource. Until next space! (six seasons and a movie!)

Alan Wake and the Manuscript Pages of Decent Health

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on December 29, 2012 by trivialpunk

The holiday season is finally half-way over! Hurray! Now, there’s just New Years to enjoy and it’s back to classes. Or rather, there’s a few days to myself and then classes. I figured, in the interest of stretching my academic muscles, I’d write on something a little more scholarly. So, while you’re fetching your pipe and slippers (I already have mine), I’ll start in on Alan Wake.

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Alan Wake is the eponymous hero of his very own 3rd-person, run-flashlight-gun psychological-thriller (read: horror) series from Remedy Entertainment. Alan’s the most physically fit writer I’ve ever seen in my life, and he has a straighter shot than most trained police officers. The entire story is dripping in symbolism, a bit more obviously than most, and I could spend a lot of time picking the story apart. Of course, that might seem a bit redundant because the game sort of does that for you… about three times. The environments are well put together and the characters, while occasionally frightening to look at, and a bit thick, are interesting and engaging. I honestly think the best part about this game is the narration. It lulls you right in. Which is great, because this is horror, so immersion is ever so important. Alan Wake both succeeds and fails at this.

It’s not so much the game-play, or the story, as the format. Like, if you were to pick up a book and the glossary was on the first page, and the index was near the middle, but the table of contents was on page nineteen. See? That’s bad formatting. Alan Wake does something similar to this, but it’s not the in medias res I’m talking about, it’s the “Episode” endings and beginnings. Every time you beat a section of the game, it’s immediately book-ended and cordoned off by a “Chapter End” and a “Last Time on Alan Wake!” like it was a television serial or a book. It totally interrupts the flow of the game, and sort of takes you out of the experience. It’s thematic, but redundant and gimmicky. It makes you feel more like you’re watching something than playing something. Large portions of the game take place in cut-scene and the ones that don’t are often inconsequential. It’s a lot of travelling through eery forests, abandoned mines and haunted logging mills. Great, atmospheric locations, but it’s all travel-time. The fun is in the combat and the puzzle solving. It’s awesome. I’ve played it through twice, but that’s not the reason we’re here. We’re here because it does something really interesting. It juxtaposes literary text directly with game-play text.

This last little while, I’ve been looking at some of the key differences between the various mediums we use to entertain, and communicate ideas. I wanted to just write “Games and books are different!” and knock off, but that would hardly say anything. Instead, I’m going to focus on two pieces of Alan Wake that really illustrate the point. The first is the Manuscript Pages and the second is the enemy design.

The manuscript pages are pages that Alan wrote, before he got amnesia, that a dark power is using to create reality. You collect them throughout the levels and they tell you what’s going to happen next in brief snippets. It’s a concept I’ve grappled with a bit. On the one hand, they’re a perfectly framed narrative device for any sort of exposition. Many games ruin their environments by dotting them with little exposition drones that exist solely to tell you about things and warn you about monsters (to build them up). Alan Wake, on the other hand, has scattered manuscript pages that can describe any event. Not only that, but you’ll get out of the story what you put into it. If you want to know more, then you can search for the pages. If you just want to get through the game, then you can enjoy that, too. It would be kind of a Silent Hill 2 approach to story-telling, BUT, Alan Wake also conveys much of the story in cut-scenes. You just have to deal with the redundancies, but there are a LOT of redundancies.

There’s a point to redundancy, sometimes, when you’re creating immersion. For instance, sometimes you’ll complete an event, and, later on, you’ll come across a radio and the announcer will be talking about, among other things, something you were just involved in. This is excellent for improving immersion. In many ways, Alan Wake does a great job of creating a living world. However, sometimes, you’ll find a manuscript page and it’ll tell you about an event, then you’ll play through the event, then it’ll be narrated, then you’ll hear about it later. By then, you’re absolutely sick of hearing about it. Still, you can’t help but feel that there was some thought put into events. It’s like they’re bringing the game’s writing down to the bare bones for us to see. You play the events you read, so you can see the direct differences between literary text and game-play text, and how those differences change our experience.

Creating immersion is one thing, but the manuscript pages will occasionally give away plot-points later on. Not only that, but by getting a page that describes much later events, you’re made well aware that Alan is going to be fine through most of his ordeal. It’s like… what’s the opposite of the Sword of Damocles? The Manuscript Pages of Decent Health. Part of the visceral terror of a horror game is the threat of death. The knowledge that the character, and the part of you that was committed to exploring a world through this character, may die is part of the game. It’s a message that’s incongruous with the events on the screen and you can feel it as you play. It frames it a little too perfectly as a game-play construct. It’s a weird instance of the mechanic fitting the role too well.

Still, there are excellent uses for it, as well. They’re used to build tension. You know how when you’re watching a movie, or reading a book, and you know… you just know… that there’s going to be something frightening behind a door, and, if you’re really into it, you’re sitting there, blanket-to-chin, cringing as the character’s hand reaches for the door? Well, the great thing about games is that it makes you open that door. Instead of watching, you are directly involved in the process. It’s your decision. You walk down the hallway. You slowly pull the door open. You get your face torn off and worn at the next fashionable, extra-dimensional, invite-only wedding reception. When designing with that in mind, there’s a tension between telling you too little, and too much. Too little and there’s no reason to be afraid. Too much and you’re not frightened, because you’re preparing for it. Your fertile mind will always be better at getting you ready to be scared than any video game. You see why I was a bit hard on the manuscript pages for letting you know you’d live? Certainly, but there are more frightening things than death (like preparing for death).

For instance, having to face frightening circumstances can be terrifying, even if your life isn’t being directly threatened (see all horror media ever). The manuscript pages do a good job of letting you peek at the horrors that lay in your path. Just a peek. It’s enough to get you wondering, and plays the same role as the exposition bots I mentioned earlier (think dying soldier on a battlement that warns you about a dragon). However, there are some points where it just messes things up. SPOILERS!!! The rest of this is going to be a spoiler-tsunami, so if you haven’t played it (I recommend you do), and you don’t want it ruined, then turn away now, ye wary adventurer. SPOILERS!!!

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Okay, let’s start with the girl that drugs your coffee. You can find a page that lets you know that one of the characters is going to be influenced by the darkness. That’s fine, but then your character goes and trusts her completely, even though she’s wearing a big sign that says, “I Am Possessed.” My problem with it is that the manuscript pages are woven so completely into the game, but don’t have any effect on it. What’s the point of writing a manuscript to help you combat the darkness if you’re not going to use it to do so? Maybe he was just following it to ensure its occurrence. Of course, you only get this page in Nightmare Mode, after you’ve beaten the game once, but I don’t think it should have been included, in its present location, at all, if it was going to clash so much with the narrative. If you’ve got the page, then it makes sense for him to accept it as inevitable, assuming that we’re committing to that view-point. However, if you don’t have the page, then his behaviour seems a bit ridiculous. Furthermore, if you don’t believe that he believes that all the events have to occur the way they’re written, then it’s all even more absurd. Even the fact that it raises those types of questions makes it a poor choice of placement, because you’re busy thinking about his ridiculous reasons instead of being immersed in the game. It feels a bit like they painted themselves into a corner. They had to keep the manuscript within that chapter, according to the pattern they’d developed, but they didn’t want it to spoil too much of the plot. I think making it solely available in a second play-through was a good compromise, but it was still a compromise and you can see the stitches from the fix. There are many other mechanic-narrative interactions, as well, but we’ve been on about this for a while. The manuscript pages are a really interesting mechanic, and you can tell they put a lot of thought into how and what they presented, but the margin for error is tiny.

Speaking of errors, this is a cozy place to segue over to enemy designs. Video games often employ fodder enemies to give you something to combat and fear in the depths of the dark woods (when there are dark woods), and Alan Wake is no different. However, the tone and thought of the piece borrow heavily from the literary world, especially Stephen King. Nowhere does this show more than in the enemy designs. A shadowy, unseeable figure wrapped in darkness pursuing you through the woods is a frightening thought, but it loses something when you have to be able to see it and kill it on a regular basis. Moving animated objects that fling themselves at you (we’re talking truck-sized objects) are terrifying, unless they hover in the air before taking individuals passes at you, can be destroyed by a flashlight, and are easy to dodge. These are game-play designs that makes them good enemies to fight, but would be better suited to a literary world where they can be themselves. Part of what makes these enemies scary is their unpredictable alien nature. In a literary world, they can be unpredictable, while still retaining their form. Game-play, by necessity, makes these enemies predictable. The same can be said for the loggers and the quick-shadows. That brings us to the ending…

The ending was disappointing as all hell. A tornado of darkness that threatens to tear the world apart is one thing to read about, but it’s another thing to see in-game. It’s not difficult. It’s not threatening. You shoot some flares into it and weep. It’s kind of a let-down after all the build-up. However, it’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to translate into the visual, interact-able world of game-play. Horrible, unknowable evils can easily become over-exposed, like zombies and vampires. Used correctly, those things can be terrifying, but not in the way Alan Wake uses its monsters. One or two of those loggers, surrounded in darkness, chasing you through a labyrinthine warehouse, while you figure out a way to kill them without a flashlight, would be frightening, tense even. Clocktower 3 did something similar to this in most of its levels, and it succeeded at providing a horrifying experience, despite its atmosphere.

There are certain elements to any medium that make it useful for creating tension and terror. Literary texts require you to engage with and animate the experience for yourself. It allows for paradoxical, half-made concepts, and missing information within an experienced event. Game-play texts require concrete interactions, and aren’t rooted in the understandings produced by the individual, but allow the player to explore and directly engage the experience within the boundaries crafted by the game designers. The two do not always meet half-way on some things. Literary jump-scares are few and far between. Literary horror is more about winding you up and letting you scare yourself, while providing you a template from which to draw. Game-play horror has difficulty with simple terror, and insubstantiality, but it can still wind you up with a totally-crafted atmosphere. More than that, it can follow through, as well. Having you make decisions, or try to figure things out, while keeping you on edge and threatening terror around every corner you choose is a strength that game-play can pull from. Hell, Resident Evil made a franchise off jump-scares and atmosphere. The doors. The Resident Evil doors are genius, too. I’ll get to that another day.

So, what’s the take-away from all this? Just because you’re creating a video game, doesn’t mean you need throw-away monsters. Literary villains must be interpreted and used properly in a game-play setting to adjust for the differences in mediums. When providing information in a horror game, you must be absolutely aware of what you tell your player when, and how this knowledge will affect your player’s experience of the game. Pacing is important. Play Alan Wake.  Image