Archive for reviews

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