Archive for retrospective

Horrors in Their Mediums

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

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

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

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

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

caligari

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

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

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

lovecraft

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

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

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

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

Dawww

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…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.

images

Gaming Retrospective: A Stunken Drumble Down Memory Lane

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , on July 20, 2013 by trivialpunk

It seems I’m destined to write you while tipsy this week. Okay, well, “destined.” Either way, what better way to wrap up this rose-coloured retrospective week of what video games have meant to me than with a glass of vodka in hand and a bottle of Tylenol on the bed-stand? Okay, it’d be nice to have a watermelon, but these are the sacrifices we make when we choose to make a living writing. I mean, where was I going to get a watermelon in my boxers? Oh, also, before we start, I’m starting a new letsplay series with my friend Boris the Illithid. Come check it out!

We’ve talked enough about my love of games and the way they’ve brought me together with some of my best friends this week. So, I’m going to just let go and talk about whatever. Next week, we’ll get back to the thin veneer of professional cogency we both pretend I have.

I played a lot of Mario and Duck Hunt when I was a tottle-spawn. As I got older, I played Battle Toads (Yes, that one) and R-type. These were my introductions to the action genre, and they felt so absorbingly, edge-of-your-seat epic that I used to sit, mouth-agape, reacting on instinct, eyes unfocused, fingers reacting, in a zen state of mind-blown tranquillity. This was the height of entertainment, I thought.

Yet, I kept having my mind blown. Star Fox for the SNES would follow. Thinking back, I guess I didn’t really play any of those expansive PC games I hear so much about nowadays. I’ve got them kicking around somewhere for educational purposes, but I suppose I have action gaming to thank for my reflexes and hand-eye coordination, so that’s alright. Despite looking like something you’d find in a high school art class today, Star Fox was amazing to me. We’ve got a lot of these early games to thank for the graphics capabilities and game-play we have today. The shoulders of giants and all that.

When I sat down to play it, the dim light of the living room faded and I was in the game. Dodging around grey-metal buildings that rang with a pleasant “ting” every time my lasers hit them and aiming for the flashing weak-points filled my mind. I was the Arwing. After that, the next things I can remember are Mario All-stars, LoZ: A Link to the Past and Megaman X. I remember renting Yoshi’s Story one evening, only to find out that my RF switch had been shoved into the television wrong too many times and my game wasn’t going to work unless I replaced it. Sheer bloody panic! My local video store only rented games overnight, so I pleaded and begged my dad to get me a new one. He ran out and got one, rented the game another night, and I was soothed, awash in the sounds of the tracking egg and the up-beat soundtrack. They’re almost elemental to me now, so essential as to be singular.

I have my dad to thank for my gaming habit. He nurtured, funded and encouraged it. Actually, I think I’m going to call him tomorrow. He did a lot for me; he deserves to hear it once in a while. Anyways, drunk-dialing your parents in tears to thank them for RF switches from over a decade ago probably isn’t a good idea. Come to think of it, Snowflake Video played a big part in helping along my gaming obsession. It was there that I got the first game that truly blew me out of the water, the first game I played that felt like an epic tale of victory (Yes, even moreso than LoZ): Mario RPG. I won’t play it now, because I know I’ll ruin it for myself. I still have it, though. True to form, the owner of Snowflake actually held on to the store’s copy of Mario RPG for me, because he knew I rented it so much. He offered it to me for ten bucks. I’m still kicking myself for not accepting it.

Over-night rentals and a regular school week meant that when I rented a game like Mario RPG, and didn’t manage to finish it in a weekend, there was no guarantee my save-file was still going to be on it. It was stressful! I still remember running home, game-box in hand, shaking with the anticipation of getting the game back in my machine to see if the hours of progress I’d logged were still there. I developed strategies to make sure they stuck around. I always saved in the second or third slot, and I named my games stuff like, “EraseandDie” or “IAmWatching.” I’m sure someone got creeped out by that. It made the in-game dialogue funny, too.

Secret of Evermore, Kirby Superstar, Turtles in Time, Super Mario, Gradius, F-Zero, Mario Kart, Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, and Earthworm Jim, oh my! The Super Nintendo was an amazing machine. I still remember getting a Game Genie and staring at it like it contained some awesome mystical power, so much was my respect for the machine it entranced. These were heady days, but it was only the start. The best was yet to come.

Doom, Duke Nukem, and King’s Quest. These were games that I remember pulling me in and not letting go. Even to this day, I can look back and remember the awe of stepping into those game universes. They were so foreign, so “mature.” They felt like experiences meant for someone else, but their alien nature made them all the more compelling. I drank deep from their cup of knowledge.

Pokemon was a major milestone for me, too. It was the first time I used the night-light at the end of my bed for anything other than reading. I finished it for the first time in the basement of my friend’s place while I was supposed to be visiting. This was before I knew about the Rare Candy cheat or, indeed, used the internet. Blastoise and I all the way. Although, he did fall in the final battle – a truly emotional moment for me – we won the day. I’ve never forgotten his sacrifice. Also, he ran out of MP for Hydropump, so there wasn’t much to be done.

The N64 followed. Along with the Playstation and the Dreamcast. Let me tell you, I thought there was no limit to what these dream-machines could produce. The first time I played Mario 64, I was a gamer for life. Up until that point, I’d enjoyed games, but the free-movement of Mario 64 and the 3D world felt so real. I know, it looks like polygon butt-cheeks by today’s standards, but compared to the 3D in other games, it was amazing. Wave Race (my sister still holds the high score grrr….) and Banjo-Kazooie sealed the deal. Every now and again, I’ll feel nostalgic and throw on a letsplay of it, but I can’t help cringing when they run past everything. I’m a survival horror gamer, what do you expect? Eventually , Final Fantasy 7 would blow the bits of brain-matter remaining into smaller, neater chunks, but it was around this time that I got my hands on a game that would change my life forever…

Silent Hill. Now, I’d always watched horror movies and lived in a perpetual horror-scape in my imagination, but Silent Hill was the first time I lived one. The bizarre puzzles. The twisted monstrosities. The very real feeling of imminent death. It was perfection. My sister and I sat in the basement and powered through it. Solving the puzzles and talking about the mystery with her is still one of the best times I’ve ever had. I’m trying to wrangle her into playing SH Downpour, but it’s an uphill battle. Don’t worry, it’ll happen.

It didn’t stop there. Zone of the Enders, FF9, Resident Evil… the PS2, the XBox, the Gamecube… Fable, Halo 2, Silent Hill 2, Turok, Fatal Frame, Clocktower, Eternal Darkness… they start to run together. Huge LAN matches of Halo 2, Quake, Counter-strike, Star Craft, Dungeons and Dragons for PC, World of Warcraft, Golden Eye… They all start to run together, whole universes colliding and coalescing, each one building on the other. Micro-managing in Star Craft became micro-ing in DotA, Counter-Strike assisted Resident Evil 4, while Fable hung out with Eternal Darkness.

I like to think that a little bit of the nobility of each character I played rubbed off on me. Master Chief and James Sunderland are still the voices of determination in my head when I’m really feeling down. I owe a lot to gaming. Before we wrap up this half-hearted veil of a theme, there are two more things I’d like to talk about: walk-throughs and the Devil-spawn notion that was controller-input cheat-codes.

I don’t have much to say about walk-throughs except to express my admiration for the people that engineer them. The ASCII art alone is enough to boggle the mind at times. The hours it would have taken to collect and organize that data, often-times for free, is incredible. The gaming community owes a debt to those people, and I’d just like to thank them while I’ve got the chance.

Do you remember the N64 days I was talking about? This is when I was affected by controller-input cheat-code devilry the most. I know everyone knows about the Konami Code, and the controller-input cheat-codes (oh, we’re just going to call them C-IC-C)  of yester-year, but I still think the whole concept was evil. Why? I’ll tell you why, because I spent hours trying to figure them out! I’d get a brand-spankin’-new N64 game home, hastily un-box it, tossing aside its flimsy cardboard carapace, nestle it lovingly into the machine and sit at the title screen for hours inputting random combination of buttons, meticulously writing each one of them down. Then, I’d try the ones I’d input already again on other menu screens. Ah, the madness of youth, nearly a sickness. I think in the whole time I was doing it, I only unlocked one or two codes, but it was enough.

The best way to get someone to repeat an action is to reward them on a random basis, and I’d have to say that C-IC-C definitely counted. The number/letter cheats were almost as bad, but I usually looked those up when I saw there was an input window for them. Then, I knew there weren’t any C-IC-C codes to be found. For some reason, I thought the written codes were too long, so I’d never get them (I know about statistics now, and I can’t help but agree). However, for some flip-diddling honk-nosed idea, I thought I could guess the C-IC-C codes. I guess the accidents of history back me up, but given what I know about stats now, I’m still amazed.

I just want to acknowledge that someone, somewhere, did this long enough to unlock the codes. I know many of them were released, but someone did it at some point. To whoever that brave soul is, I salute you. You fought the good fight.

Thanks for indulging this walk down memory lane. I’ve already got something queued up for next week. Until then, keep gaming!

Final Words: Half-Life.

Some Trite Title

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , , , on July 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I try my very best not to get liquored up and rant about video games on here like a cheap drunk at an arcade. However, as many of my readers may know, that’s not always something that can be realistically avoided.

I’m going to try to keep it short, though, because the little birdy of sobriety tells me that I’m not as prepared to post about this as I think I am. You see, I’m doing a little retro week here at Trivial Punk, which mainly means I’m too busy catching up on the indie titles I’m downloading, so that I can get to my newly fatted Steam library next week, to research proper posts. Some people may see that as a negative thing, but I see it as an opportunity to offer you a glimpse inside my convoluted head. Why you’d want that is beyond me, but I like to think of it the way Field of Dreams did: “If you blog about it, someone’s bound to be interested in it.”

Last time, I posted about the changing, ever-moving tide of video game culture and pop-culture. At least, that was the under-tone of that love-letter to my gaming community. I understand. I recognize that we have lost things through the evolution of our culture. I’m well aware that some of the things that we’ve lost are irreplaceable. I’ve heard the arguments for the expansion of the market and the watering-down of our electronic experiences. I know how much it can hurt to see your favourite systems trashed or your D&D edition fall out of favour. I may have come into the community on the edge of the NES era and embraced the SNES with glee, but I’ve seen many other platforms rise and fall in the mean-time. Hell, I saved up every quarter I had, sold off half my action figures and bought a Sega Genesis just as my rental shops stopped carrying Sega titles.

I still remember that day. The sting of remorse. The feel of utter dread as I glanced through the window and saw only three boxes sitting on the shelf. It was warm and the seat-belt was digging into my shoulder. The scent of warm leather and sweat pervaded the car, and I’ve carried that smell with me to this day. That was the day I learned that this industry changes and nothing we have now will be with us forever. There was something about mortality in there, too, but I was more upset by the games. I rented Golden Axe and that year’s baseball game, the only two titles I could get, and went home. There were tears of shame on my cheeks, but dammit, I played them both.

Because, the industry changes. Gaming changes. iOS games and motion controls get a lot of flack from some gamers and players in the industry, deservedly or not. I don’t mind that; I’ve given them crap myself. After all, humor is all about addressing the kernel of truth inside a bizarre situation. I believe that as long as these devices aren’t performing the way they should or exploiting the potential they have, then we can feel free to criticize them for that. I don’t believe that they should be criticized just because they Are. There are enough things wrong with motion controls as they’re utilized and legitimate problems with iOS platforms/Facebook games  to merit criticism. We don’t need to be making up things to complain about. It’s enough to complain that a shoe came undone; we don’t have to complain that we didn’t find a nickel when we bent down to tie it.

Yet, there are people I know who won’t give them a chance at all. They hold the firm belief that both are dumb and stupid and should be disregarded from the experiences of “real gamers.” If you read my last post, then you’ll know how I feel about that, but I think there’s another problem. I think we’ve forgotten what it means to game. Yes, gaming is an exciting art-form and has plenty of potential, but there are other things that count as games.

Do you remember KerPlunk?  Jenga? Sorry? Monopoly? D&D? Battleship? Lawn Darts? Bowling? Polo? Magic: The Gathering? Skeet Shooting? Poker? Pick-up Stix? Ouija Boards? The Stock Market? Laser Tag? Paint-ball? Cross-words? Sudoku?

They may not be a part of our shared gaming culture, so we might not feel connected to their players, and that’s okay. You don’t have to accept every piece of cardboard and plastic into your experience as a gamer. Still, these are things that are games or have game elements. Each is unique and has its own level of complexity. Gaming isn’t just about a plastic controller, a couch and a console. It’s about playing. Before someone says that it’s not just about “play,” let’s unpack what play is.

Playing is about learning and honing a skill. It’s about thinking or doing. When wolves are young, they play wrestle to learn the combat skills and communication cues necessary to sustain their lives in the wilderness. When children are young, they turn imagination and social roles into games to explore the possibilities of the human experience. When adults are older, they use thought-provoking games to maintain and building mental acuity. Quite simply, play isn’t just about having fun. It can be quite fun, but it can also be intensely practical.

When you crack a game, you’re doing more than just settling into an experience. You are engaging your entire mind and body in a process of play. That’s why well-made boss-monsters are tests of the things you’ve learned. Quite simply, because you are learning. Conversely, that’s why beating bosses that are just normal enemies with more health feels flat and disappointing; you didn’t have an opportunity to apply what you learned in a new, interesting way.

There are other aspects of play, other things we enjoy, but my point is that play is a multi-faceted experience. Games are play. So, games can be about almost anything it means to be human. That’s what bothers me about some iOS detractors. There are a myriad of ways to play, so why should we cut one out just because it doesn’t fit a traditional bill? I enjoy tradition, and its many gleaming edges, but I don’t think it’s inherently good. After all, I think empowered, educated women are the bomb and that’s not very traditional. Well, unless you go far enough back. History is a wending thing.

That’s my point. History is an unpredictable beast. We should be concerned with the details of the changes, not change itself. Games CAN be about anything, but that doesn’t mean they should be. Well-crafted experiences will always trump poorly hashed-out ones. Skinner-box games that exploit our human drives strictly for the sake of play-time and profit will always annoy me, but that doesn’t mean those concepts don’t have a place within larger wholes. It’s a problem of craft, not of platform.

Speaking of platform, I’m going to get off my soapbox for the week and step down to talk about an experience you might have been scratching your head at when I mentioned it: Ouija Boards. To some, they may appear to be devilish sorcery, but they operate on very sound gaming principles. In some ways, Ouija Boards were my first horror games.

First, there’s the prisoner’s dilemma (I’ll let you parse that out of the experience yourself). Whether you believe or not, you can’t really tell the friends you’re playing with. Otherwise, it will ruin the experience. Immersion in the rules of the game is paramount. Secondly, the light touch and responsive controls of the input device (Read: plastic slidy-jigger) makes the game seem to literally come to life. As you ask questions, you’ll begin to feel a light force guiding your hands. That’s the pressure of your own movement and that of your friends. The combined pressure guides the piece of plastic around the board to different answers.

Some of those answers will be known, and so you’ll guide it there yourself, unknowingly. Some will be generated on the fly from the interplay of your brain’s ability to complete words and your own anticipation. Some of it will be the result of one of your number simply guiding the slidy-jigger to responses. It’s a combination of all of those things. Summarily, the answers given will form a personality that you will attribute to a being. Really, it’s the combined will of the group, which is interesting in-and-of itself. Still, a spirit it is not.

You can call it combined delusion, but it’s more like combined commitment to an understanding. You let yourself believe, and you let yourself be frightened. It’s like sitting down to play a survival horror game or a frightening movie, now. If you’re not willing to commit to the experience, then you’ll get nothing out of it. It’s all about creating an atmosphere by exploiting human psychology, half of the game is in the advertising and the questions you ask. It’s role-play. Quite honestly, some next-gen horror experiences could definitely learn from this example.

So, don’t count a game out just because of the platform it’s using. Count a game out because it’s shit. Otherwise, you might miss the newest wave of gaming culture without even knowing it’s happened. Again, no matter what we’re using, we’re still gaming. Take that for whatever it means to you in the context that it’s in.

But, don’t get me started on KerPlunk. That game’s nuts.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on July 17, 2013 by trivialpunk

Dear Reader,

It has been a long, long summer. The scariest part about it is that the majority of the work is still ahead of me, but the majority of the time is behind me. In a month and a half, I’ll be back in university, trying desperately to balance the work on this site with freelancing, studying and writing. It’s going to be ridiculous. Forgive me if I start going insane in the coming year. I assure you that it’s not you, it’s me.

Recently, I started thinking about how I got to where I am today. It has been a winding, convoluted path. It made me think about the past and the experiences that brought me here. I started remembering the worlds I used to imagine, the games I used to play, the things I sat down to learn… everything, really. Every story I didn’t write. Every chance I ended up taking. Mired in this pool of thoughts, soaking in my self, I was brought, inevitably, back to games.

Games have made so much of who I am. Even in the most horrific circumstances or outlandish situations, I’ve carried games with me. I spent years training with a wooden sword and rolling across the grass, because I’d done it as Link. Drunken nights in strange parts of strange cities have been, unwittingly, warmed with the thought that I could Hearthstone home. Now, I know that doesn’t make any sense, but the thought was infectious, especially after the sixth round. Puzzle games have helped me learn to problem solve. Game design has given me hours of rumination material. Games themselves have provided me with whole new ways to think about engaging an audience. To explore humanity. To have fun.

All of these things have suffused the layers of my being, but none more than video game culture. The experiences that we, as a group, share have introduced me to some of my greatest friends. The concept of the hero and the force of determination that I experienced by living through games have given me more than I can properly elucidate. Of course, there are elements to our culture that are less than pleasant: rampant sexism, griefing, toxic on-line behaviour, constant abnegation, intense nihilism… These things aren’t great.

They aren’t the totality of our culture; they are a part of it. There is no medium, no group, who can look upon the entirety of themselves and fully approve. There will always be disagreement among peoples. That problem goes deeper than being a gamer, though. That problem goes down to the core of being human. We will always disagree, and I have learned to accept that. That’s one of the reasons I feel justified in posting my opinions here. Not only do I get to share my ideas, but I occasionally get to share in a critique of them. I get to share in your thoughts.

This is our culture. This is part of what binds us. It’s what makes PAX so great. It’s what makes on-line multi-player so much fun. It’s what allows me to walk into a room full of people I’ve never met in my life, pick up a controller and play with them without fear. I know we’ve got some common ground, and I know I don’t have to hide that part of myself. I don’t hide it anywhere else, but I’ve heard that it’s still an issue for some people. Thankfully, I’ve got a wealth of neuropsych and cultural knowledge to bludgeon someone with if they attack that part of me. It’s not something I fear, even if my lack of caring is foolish at times. That’s fine.

There is a concern. The diversification of games is amazing, and it’s what makes writing about games so much fun right now, but it does mean that we risk leaving behind cultural choke-points. At one time, I could be sure that any console gamer I met had played Sonic or Mario. Most table-toppers I knew played D&D. My PC friends had all run through Star Craft and Half-Life, or engaged in Quake or Counter-Strike LAN marathons.

It’s scary to think that the console wars are wiping out our shared cultural history one generation at a time. Proprietary software and the march of time are leaving behind games that the next generation of gamers will probably never know. We’re looking at a future where that PC gamer has never heard of Myst or played Deus Ex. Casual gamers and Casudevs are breaking into the market and littering it with experiences that I’m totally unfamiliar with. I hadn’t played Angry Birds until this Christmas, seriously.

Yes, we’ve still got moments and games that unite us, like the Mass Effect series. However, occasionally, I’ll enter a room, see a Wii and wonder if I’ve played any of their games. It’s a scary thought, considering how much of my life has been spent with the assurance that I’ve played enough to relate enough. With the constant flood of games on the market, this is only going to continue.

And that’s not a bad thing. As maligned as the Casgams are, they are an essential element of the gaming community. They’re the future hard-cores and the latest adopters. They are, in a phrase, who I used to be when I picked up a controller instead of a D20 or a keyboard. We put a lot of stock in our input devices, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still gaming. I know enough about how the brain works to be thoroughly unimpressed with learning a game-play quirk to criterion. I’m impressed by the dedication and creativity it takes to achieve a mad skill-level, but I respect that person, not the score or the act.

I refuse to grade or quantify the value of my gaming apparatus. I’ll poke fun at consoles and make fun of technology, but that doesn’t diminish my joy at their creation or my wonder at their use. That doesn’t reduce the value of their exploration of humanity. They’re no less joyful. It’s no less human. You’re no less “gamer” for liking it.

With time, I’ve realized that that shared culture I talked about is in more than specific titles. It’s not about a game. It’s not about a type of gaming. It’s about gaming.

Yes, there are valuable experiences in the past, a shared cultural history. We are going to lose much of the information and many of the games of the past, unless someone moves to preserve it. That’s regrettable, and I’m in no place to do anything about it right now. That’s an unfortunate truth.

On the other hand, I don’t think I have to worry about losing that connection to the gaming community. At one time or another, we all threw down the shield of disinterest and decided to enjoy something. Even if it wasn’t with enthusiasm, a small part of us was given to the game and, in return, it became a part of us. That understanding, that potential for enthusiasm, is part of what it can mean to be a gamer. With that alone, we can forge a new shared cultural history with the pieces of the past and the stream of the future. Culture is an on-going process and so are we.

Now, not everyone will agree with me, and that’s fine. Players can and will judge others all they want; I can’t stop that. What I can do is recognize that common ground. No matter what you play or what you use to play it, if you’re a gamer, then we have something in common.

We game.

-Trivial Punk

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.

resident-evil-umbrella-corp-wallpaper-hd-hq-logo-1920x1080

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!!
Image

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…)

Image

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!

Image

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!
Image

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…

Image

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…

Image

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!

Image

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)

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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…

Image

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…

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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!

Image

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.

Image

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!!

Image

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.

Image

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.

6eb528d9c81394a2b431cf552004902e

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.

Image

Mechanical Metaphors and Monopoly

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Today, I want to go back to basics a little bit. This is, most assuredly, not because I spent the last week playing Dark Souls and don’t have a comprehensive opinion yet. No, this resulted from a conversation I had earlier today about Monopoly. Boiling it down, the conversation had two points of interest: Monopoly is a terrible game, and it’s a bleak, some-might-say accurate representation of unmitigated capitalism. I’d like to take some time out of your schedule to examine those two claims.

Image

The first point is a little hard to justify. Clearly, it’s a game that has been around a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, no matter how much we hate sitting down with the family to roll dice for three hours. Then again, that sentence itself kind of deconstructs the whole experience. It is pretty much just a dice-rolling game, with a few exceptions. I’ll get into those in a bit. There’s not much depth, or complexity, to the game, except what you add yourself. There are multiple variants, house-rules, and board games, but the essential experience is the same. With a game this old, and a system this simple, how can Monopoly possibly be relevant in an age of complex table-top gaming and high-res, high-quality video games? It’s because, despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, it can deliver a truly focused experience with a well-developed mechanical metaphor: fuck players, get money.

This plays directly into the second point: the representation of capitalism. On the face of it, capitalism is about acquiring money, re-investing it, and making more of it to re-invest, and crushing anything that gets in your way. Well, that’s a simplified, cynical vision of capitalism. I’m not going to get into the finer points, because this isn’t an economics blog. We’re here to get our game analysis pants on.

All of the various aspects of Monopoly communicate the need for competition. The limited resources ensure that you’ll be struggling over them with the other players. Consuming those limited resources strengthens your opponents, so any loss by you is a gain by them. This is what’s called a zero-sum game. These resources are, of course, properties, but they apply equally well to the currency system, as well. It has been shown that games with the $500 Free Parking rule go much longer. This is because there are more resources available in the overall pool. Running out of resources ends the game. This also adds a running clock to the system and reinforces the value of both currency and property.

So far, so simple, right? This is a deep rabbit hole. Each and every piece fits together to inform the experience. Take Go for instance. Passing it allows you to collect $200 dollars. Its placement on the board is a well-calculated decision. Immediately after you pass Go, there are cheap properties, with low costs and low rent. However, as you loop around the board, the properties get progressively more and more expensive (This adds another layer to the Free Parking space, because it acts as a padding gate for your entrance into the more expensive areas). So, by the end of your trip, you’ve probably spent the money you made by passing Go. In fact, there’s a chance you might be knocked out by the green and blue properties in the end-game before you get a chance to collect it. This is fine for the first few rounds, but it has an interesting effect later in the game. It separates players into a couple different categories, two of which I’ll discuss here: the haves and the have-nots. Simple and elegant naming aside, these two categories reflect two different economic life-styles: living pay-cheque-to-pay-cheque and collecting dividends. For the well-invested, the end of the month, or cycle of the board, is simply a chance to add to their pool of resources for re-investment. For others, the less-than-lucky among us, it represents one of the only sources of income they have. So, it’s a kind of windfall. Of course, that’s just a stalling method, because they’ll eventually be bled dry by the best invested players.

I mentioned luck earlier, and it’s a pretty big part of the game. Rolling high on the dice makes your trip around the board shorter, and increases the number of overall times you’ll get a chance to pass Go. Luck also dictates what properties you land on and when. Probability will ensure that the disparity between different players on the total number of spaces they move each game will be low. However, when and where you land is important. Moving around the board can be seen as moving through time. High rollers will get past more obstacles faster. Metaphorically, this is like getting through a month without incurring any extra expenses. Landing on a property in an early cycle of moving around the board is the best, because you get either a chance to buy it, or don’t have to pay much. However, as time passes, and the players cycle around the board more, there are fewer and fewer available properties. Needing a set of three properties to build houses also ensures that expenses will only mount as time passes. This side-effect of cycling around the board also ensures that the metaphor of dwindling resources, and getting in early, is clearly represented.

This might be a dig at capitalism, as well. When you land on a property, so when you “get in,” is essentially randomised, or, at least, largely luck-based. There’s a money-management component to the early cycles, but it usually amounts to buying every property you land on, and hoping for the best. Again, high-rolling players will get to the better neighbourhoods first, reducing the total number of available high-price properties available to those that come afterwards. On a purely probabilistic level, it’s always better to get there first, and roll higher. Of course, it’s not all about high rolls. Landing on Free parking, the rail roads, and un-rented property takes all kinds of rolls. Equally so, landing on Park Place with four houses can be the result of any roll. Notice, also, that there’s a gap between each two-property set. This ensures that you can always get to the second property from the first with a well-placed set of snake-eyes. Again, good for initial investors, but a capital sink for those that come after.

Image
Jail is an interesting beast, as well. There are many different ways to play Monopoly, but, given the simplicity of the system, there’s a pretty clear end-goal. As a result, those in an unenviable position, pricks, or the very young, may be tempted to play outside the rules (read: cheat). I’m hoping that you can see how this parallels reality pretty well. When you don’t have, then you’ll be tempted to do anything to win or survive in a zero-sum game. That is, if you commit into its all-or-nothing, tooth-and-nail mechanical environment. Expanding further on this, depending on your position, going to jail can be either a good or bad thing. Right now you’re saying, “But Trivia, that doesn’t make sense! Cheating in real life doesn’t land you in jail in the game!” That’s true, assuming you’re using standard rules, but it does highlight the costs and causes of cheating. If you’re doing well, then you’ve got a lot to lose, so you’re not quite as likely to cheat (unless that’s how you got there). Whereas, if you’re not doing well, then you’ve got little reason to stop yourself from taking an extra hundred from the bank when no one’s looking. Similarly, being in jail stops you from moving around the board, but, more importantly, it also prevents you from paying or collecting rent. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

Doubles! Doubles! Doubles!… JAIL! Now that we’ve looked at jail, we can talk about this rule. As we’ve established that quick movement is desirable, and that snake-eyes will generally land you on property of the same set (assuming you’re on the first square), we can see why doubles would be awesome. So, rolling a lot of doubles is desirable. You will either be moving a large number of spaces, or very few. Compared to any random combination of numbers, doubles is generally superior. You’re either moving a large number of spaces (8, 10, or 12), staying in the same general rental neighbourhood (2), or ensuring your escape from a set of well-developed properties that you’ve already landed on, or are close to (4, 6). These results can be replicated by a random, non-paired combination, as well, but doubles are solid rolls. As a result, rolling a lot of them can be akin to doing a little too well in the business world (insider trading, anyone?). That, and it once again shines the spotlight on randomness and its ability to land you in the dog-house.

Speaking of trading, I haven’t yet mentioned how you make most of your sets. If you were lucky enough to land on a set of properties and snap them up (statistically more likely if you got there first), then you don’t have to worry about it. However, if you didn’t, then you’re going to need to trade. This aspect of the game adds a certain level of depth to the proceedings because you’ve got to save all your dickery for after you’ve eliminated your need for your opponents. That’s why most of the time people: save house-purchasing until after all the properties have been bought, and have a trading-phase once the last property has been nicked. So, you either hold onto properties and deprive your opponents of a much-needed resource, or you leverage your opponent’s need into an advantage. this also preserves every property’s value into the end-game. Yes, the rent on Marvin Gardens may be low on its own, but it beats the hell out of landing on Virginia Avenue with a hotel. How you deal with your opponents is up to you at that point, but I should also point out that grinding your opponent into dust puts their properties up for auction, allowing you to snap up that property you need in the wake of their fall (depending on who does the auctioning in your house-rules, you might also have to play two-faced with your opponents all the way through to avoid pissing off the auctioneer). This further cements the feeling and drive to compete and destroy.

At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Well duh! Monopoly is about competition! Thanks for wasting a couple thousand words illuminating that.” You’re welcome, because that thought brings us full-circle. The rules and mechanics of Monopoly all work together to serve the overall metaphor and purpose of the game: driving competition in an environment of luck, initiative, and strange bedfellows. As games become more complex, it’s occasionally difficult to see the forest for the trees. The basic elements of every game come together to create the overall experience. A well-crafted game will communicate its meaning on every level of design. From the different pictures depicting Mr. Moneybags, to the rules and mechanics of the game, and the lay-out of the board, the entire Monopoly experience is shaped around its message. Even children, who barely understand the concepts we’re bandying about and actively deconstructing, grasp, just through play, the strategies and meanings of the game. Nothing will convince you of this more than the blood-thirsty cackles elicited from their sweet, innocent mouths as you land on their well-developed properties and they get to drain you of your last cent.

So, is Monopoly a bad game? Well, it lacks a grand level of strategic depth, but it certainly communicates its point well. So, if I can give SpecOps and Silent Hill 2 a break, despite their mechanical sketchiness, because they’ve got an excellent , unified aesthetic, then I think I can do the same for Monopoly. As a metaphor for capitalism, it’s a bit bleak, but not necessarily untrue. Maybe inaccurate, but those are different things. As for relevant? I think everyone should play it at least once, or twice, even now. As gaming, and the gaming community, moves forward, it’s always worth a little retrospective. There’s a lot to be learned from simplicity, and the mistakes of the past. We’d do well to remember how Monopoly, with a board, some dice, and some cards, managed to create an experience so immersive and comprehensive that, given the chance, you’d buy your Grandma’s property right out from under her without a second thought.