GameFeelings: RED FACTION: GUERRILLA
The first Red Faction was an FPS in the vein of Half-Life, but with a gameplay twist where players were granted the freedom to use explosives and vehicles in order to burrow through walls and carve their own path through the cavernous first level. I say that because everything after the first level took place in non-destructible metal corridors and consisted of mandatory stealth sections, vehicle segments, lame boss-fights, and collecting a full arsenal of weapons only to have some NPC take them all away from you more than once.
Thankfully, Red Faction: Guerrilla has a much straighter head about its main gimmicks. Instead of terrain, this time the destructive focus is on man-made structures. Instead of corridors, the game offers an open-world sandbox similar to Grand Theft Auto. In theory, this should work, and it largely does. Unlike in the original, the relative freedom from the scripted events and forced forward momentum typical of an average corridor crawler gives the destruction the room it needs to breathe. However, although the sandbox nature of the game alleviates the problems the series has had from the beginning (and continues to have in sequel Red Faction: Armageddon) it doesn’t do much good with it, either.
See this? Now see it again, a million times. Now make that not as bad as it sounds.
The basic structure of Guerrilla is as such: The player is Alec Mason, freedom fighter for the working miners of Mars against the oppressive Earth Defense Force (or EDF). To free Mars from the EDF’s insidious capitalistic grasp, Mason must free each one of its ‘territories’ separately. This involves lowering their control and raising the locals’ morale by blowing up a lot of buildings and completing side-missions. The lower the EDF’s control, the more missions become unlocked. Once all of the missions in a territory are complete, Mason is pushed along to the next one through story contrivances.
If there is one fatal flaw in Guerrilla, it’s that none of these systems feed into a coherent whole in a satisfying way. The player may be told to destroy some EDF barracks or garages, or may decide to do so him or herself. Unfortunately, the result for either will simply be the lowering of a red EDF bar and the raising of a yellow Morale bar. The loss of their barracks has no effect on how the EDF is encountered, and enemy vehicles will spawn in regardless of whether their garages have been sabotaged. Likewise, morale generally exists simply to generate a cash bonus for completing missions, which feeds into a fairly vestigial upgrade system that’s not particularly worth mentioning.
I set the game to Casual, aka EASY. I suggest anyone who plays does the same. Challenge adds nothing to the game besides getting killed by infinitely respawning GeneriGuards.
Without a strong sense of place or purpose to back it up, the sandbox concept only stands to be; nothing more and nothing less. The flat, appropriately boring-looking dirtscape of brown and red serves only as an expanse to pass to get to the next event of consequence. Even I, as a serial side-quest junkie, find myself increasingly lax on completing any but the missions required to progress the plot I don’t actually care for. At some point I stopped becoming Alec Mason: freedom fighter and became Alec Mason: integer fudger, a prospect which does not appeal to me.
What the game does have to offer is a lot of shallow fun tearing through buildings, wisely keeping the player constantly equipped with explosives and ammunition through caches scattered throughout the environment. Unlike most games, which tend to be picky about doling out their best moments, Guerrilla is ready to ratchet it up to 10 and back down again at the player’s whim. The buildings can be a little bit too rough to actually dismantle at times, and the qualifications for what constitutes ‘destroyed’ are a bit fuzzy, but the complete chaos of Guerrilla does create a refreshingly lasting high. My issue is only that these great player-authored moments of fun exist in a vacuum.
Oh yeah, and the cars all suck to drive.
Vaguely Empty Inside!
CASE STUDY: Deus Ex: Human Revolution — What Happens to a Theme Deferred?
There are few games that can claim to be about something. Sure, plenty of them have nebulous themes—usually listed on the ad copy as ‘viscerality’ and ‘grittyness,’ but a unifying concept is incredibly rare. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is perhaps the most obvious exception; its designers at Eidos Montreal chose to use the game as a platform to explore and engage the player with a (largely theoretical) debate on the concept of transhumanism.
I’m going to spoil this game, too! From now on just assume that if I mention a game it will probably be spoiled.
“What does it mean to be human?” “What are the moral limits of technology?” “Does technology that alters the human condition equalize society or separate it further into the haves and have-nots?” These and more are all questions that Deus Ex: Human Revolution seeks specifically to avoid answering. Instead, the game intends to present its player with these questions and then simulate the consequences of the response. It’s an interesting model of exploration, one unique to the medium of games. Ideally, it would work like a system of checks and balances with the co-authorship between the player and the designers keeping each other’s’ biases in check.
If I had played Deus Ex: Human Revolution for only its opening few hours, I would have left convinced that it had been successful. However, I finished it to the end and I must admit that it is not.
I looked in my C:\DeusExHR\IntellectualDiscourse\Screenshots\ folder but all I found was this picture of Adam Jensen watching ladies use the toilet. Sorry!
Throughout the game the player is approached by representatives of each faction in order to provide a very specific delineation on their views, which ultimately shape the biggest choices to make. These include:
- David Sarif— The protagonist’s boss and high-level advocate for transhumanist augmentations. Believes unrestricted technology can improve the human condition and owns a large augmentation corporation that generally fills military contracts.
- William Taggart— Believes that augmentation is morally abhorrent but fall within the individual’s rights to choose. Seeks to have augmentation creation and usage regulated by the federal government.
- Hugh Darrow— Once considered the father of transhumanist augmentations, but has since changed his mind and believes in human purity to a militant extent.
Each party is given their opportunity to state their opinions with the game seemingly going to great lengths to provide a bias-free environment for player choice. In fact, what impressed me so much with those opening hours was how the representatives of each side of the debate (both stately and man-on-the-street) presented not only good arguments for their cause but perfectly bad ones as well. I’d pass by an elderly lady, rolling my eyes at her screeching about transhumanists defiling God’s image only to just as quickly stumble upon a man spouting equally trite and empty dogma about his own personal vision for self-flagellating evolution. Furthermore, navigating the game’s objectives worked as such that a player might find their augmented avatar to be nothing more than an efficient killing machine, or reach a conclusion that careful usage of their augs has made the process of avoiding unnecessary slaying all the more easier.
Personally, I have no vested interest in the philosophy and approach it somewhat ambivalently. I fully support limb replacement for use in aiding the injured or disabled, considering it merely an extension of already existing medical science. The post-human aspects, where individuals can elect to have their perfectly capable limbs torn off and replaced with better, more robotic, and slightly more perfectly capable limbs cause me slight unease—although that could simply be my perceptions of early 21st century normality irrationally coloring my judgment (admittedly, the grosser varieties of spider often cause me a similar degree of unease). The only thing I can say for certain is that I definitely wouldn’t trust such limitless technology in the hands of corporations with no strings attached, so I expected all along through the beginning chapters of Deus Ex: Human Revolution that my Adam Jensen would be the guy who supports William Taggart but tunes out whenever he starts his self-righteous whining.
But after those fantastic initial hours, something terrible happened to Human Revolution—it remembered that it was a Deus Ex game.
By the way, you can shoot things in this game, too.
The original Deus Ex, while unusually socially aware for a first-person shooter, did not have the foresight or desire to treat the issue of transhumanism with any particular care. Its forte was instead in the mashing up of numerous conspiracy theories, its themes belonging to a much broader scale. Its plot leaned heavily on the confirmed existence of outfits such as the Illuminati and the Majestic-12. As its humble-to-a-fault prequel, Human Revolution had no choice but to comply and include the Illuminati in their story arc as well. Additionally, with transhumanism being at the core of Human Revolution’s being, the secret society’s meddling had to be tethered to it somehow.
By the end of the game, the Illuminati has made its presence known by attempting to seize control over the augmented with decoy chips that are designed to fail on command of their invisible hand. Hugh Darrow resists their tyranny by declaring that transhumanism is an evil that must be stuffed back into Pandora’s Box. Hoping to create a very public augmentation-related catastrophe on his remote ocean facility, Darrow uses a computer virus to turn ten thousand or so augmented workers into mindlessly violent zombies.
Wait, zombies? Yeah, zombies.
Past this, the game asks the player to choose his or her preferred ending. This offer is presented fairly inelegantly with an array of buttons sat at the head of the room, each with a different message about the events of the game to send to the world media:·
- Side with David Sarif— Players can choose to be pro-transhumanist by lying to the public and blaming the destruction of the ocean facility on anti-augmentation activists. Thus, Americans will be entirely free to obtain augmentations that have been proven to be weapons of social control by an unjust tyrannical force and which have also been proven to allow their users to be turned into fucking zombies.
- Side with William Taggart— Players can choose to tell the public only half the tale, leaving things wide open for Taggart to get that congressional regulation that both he and I agreed were necessary. Or at least I did agree with him until I realized that in the Deus Ex universe congress is proven to be a false front for the Illuminati, which is also proven to be the lurking enemy of any and all free will.
- Side with Hugh Darrow— Release the whole story, unfiltered, and cause the public to fear technological progress and regress into a new Dark Age. This ONE sounded completely awful to me as until I remembered that the technology they would be shunning was literally turning them into fucking zombies!
- Make Adam Jensen kill himself as well as all of the innocent survivors— Because why not?
In the end, the only ending that made even the slightest bit of logical sense to me was to side with Hugh Darrow. Hugh Darrow, the character I felt was the most foolhardy, dogmatic, paranoid, and unforgivably militant. What happened to those first few hours where my opinions miraculously felt at once both challenged and supported?
They probably got eaten by the fucking zombies.
CASE STUDY: Fallout - A Formless Soup of Co-Authorship
Beyond Good & Evil is a Michel Ancel-directed game that stars a young woman named Jade who has a strong enough sense of justice to infiltrate her fantasy-world’s corrupt government and take photographic evidence of their crimes against all that is good. At least this is what I thought Jade was, up until that time she willingly shot down a civilian vehicle so that it caught ablaze and crashed into the bottomless ocean below, killing all passengers within—presumably. It’s not as though she cared enough to search through the rubble.
SO that bit wasn’t actually written into the game. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. As a player, I had forced Jade to do something so outside of her character that I transformed her from a pretty twenty year old pacifistic freedom fighter into a homicidal maniac and back again in the blink of an eye and all the effort it took was a press of the “Shoot” button. Whatever narrative Ancel was going for, I was pretty sure I had just ruined it. This is when I first started to realize that maybe even the good, interesting, ‘critically acclaimed’ games were… messed up, somehow.
MURDERER! HOW MANY DOMZ HAD TO DIE FOR YOU TO BUY THAT CAMERA?!
Where Ancel went wrong, in my opinion, is that he went to work designing a beautiful game, a fantastic narrative, and a great protagonist, and then ruined it all by handing the controls over to me. The result was predictably disastrous, as though Fred Gipson had allowed me to write a chapter in the middle of Old Yeller where the dog falls into a vat of radioactive waste and develops telepathic powers. I was the co-author of Beyond Good & Evil and I fucking ruined it because on a whim I didn’t feel like playing along for five minutes.
Fallout doesn’t have that problem. Fallout is okay with the protagonist killing innocents because Fallout never said that the protagonist was a nice person to begin with. Fallout’s narrative cannot be ruined because Fallout doesn’t have a narrative to be ruined. Instead, Fallout’s genius is in how it wisely realizes that even the most capable designer must share authorship with the player at some point.
I’m going to spoil everything about this game in a little bit so if you haven’t beaten it go beat it and then come back. I’m also going to spoil Baldur’s Gate 2, but who cares?
Fallout’s “plot” is perfectly simple: The player is sent out into the wasteland to find a new water purification chip for his or her underground community. In the course of finding it, he or she discovers the existence of gigantic humanoid mutants. To defeat the mutants, the player has to blow up the military base where they breed and get rid of their unholy master.
Notice that my recollection of the events in this game is reduced to a list of goals for the player to accomplish. Notice that I don’t describe the game with phrases such as “in the first town the player visits…” Notice that Notice that not once does the completion of a single goal rest on an outside source—notice that the player is the only character who is required for the game and its story to continue.
The water purification chip has a location. It isn’t given to the player after completing three trials, it isn’t only revealed after following a bread crumb trail of clues—it’s a thing that just is somewhere. A knowledgeable player will be able to walk straight to it the instant they begin. An unknowledgeable player may wander around the game’s map until they stumble upon it by pure happenstance. An average player will follow the breadcrumb trail of clues despite it not being mandatory. An unlucky player might find themselves kidnapped and taken away to the military base they aren’t ‘supposed to’ visit until the end of the game… although the knowledgeable and unknowledgeable players may have gotten to there first! Thusly, Fallout isn’t a linear game. It’s not a game with branching paths. It’s not a game with a main quest, because any action taken by the player is the main quest.
In the above graph, I’ve noted the differences between Fallout’s construction and the comparatively ‘narrative-based’ style Bioware used in Baldur’s Gate 2 and has been building off from since. While Baldur’s Gate 2 is concerned with telling a story, which necessitates a degree of linearity, Fallout exists as a formless soup—a model where the player can not only move forward but in all directions. In Fallout the player creates a story on the fly using the innate game mechanics handed to him or her by the designers. The personality of the protagonist is left wholly up to how the player utilizes their avatar to interact with designer-placed elements such as other characters or objects. To summarize, the designers of Fallout claim authorship on the rules and scenario of their game, but allow the player to dictate complete authorship within those boundaries. In this way Fallout’s “formless soup design” (as I’ve obnoxiously decided to name it) acts as a perfect model for interactive storytelling.
This guy can be a friend or an antagonist. The character’s foundation is three-dimensional enough to work well either way.
One would assume that the trade-offs of this style of design would mean a lower caliber of emotional connection that comes with a carefully crafted narrative, but that surprisingly is not the case. Having control of the scenario and setting alone affords the designers just enough control to indirectly reinforce the context to all of the player’s actions. Non-playable characters become deeper as even the least essential of the lot must have a reaction prepared towards being punched, shot at, stolen from, threatened, or… spoken to politely. Perhaps even helped or made friends with!
If I had to point out any flaws with Fallout, they’d be relatively minor when compared with the larger picture. The few mandatory events are unfortunate, but do offer freedom within their restrictions—although choices such as joining up with the baddies in the 11th hour do not lead to a ‘true’ ending. A regrettable time limit on the water chip quest limits the player’s freedom to ignore it. Some avenues of completion on quests are obtuse or non-obvious. My criticisms are generally small-scale things about minor compromises. All in all, Fallout is a game anybody with interest in non-linear interactive story-creating should pay attention to.
I added a links page. It has good blogs and funny video game website stuff on it.
For additional links, please visit http://IGN.com.
GameFeelings: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It feels a bit strange to have to say this and for it not to be simply a given, but I felt that Oblivion was a pile of garbage. In fact, I don’t feel too bad by saying that Oblivion was objectively a pile of garbage. At least when compared to Morrowind, which I love, and Daggerfall, which by now only exists in its own weird little bubble. So much of Oblivion felt like what would happen if someone let a heartless machine design a game. I wasn’t a fan. Fallout 3 was better, but did little to dissuade me from my opinion that Bethesda Game Studios could no longer craft a masterpiece, especially once Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas came along two years later and made Bethesda’s efforts look like a joke.
So I picked up Skyrim with trepidation, only to find that in the end I like it! I like it quite a bit! Not as much as Morrowind or New Vegas, no, and it’s not a perfect beast, but I’m 75 hours in (I just checked) and my experience is overwhelmingly positive.
Please note that I have been playing with a handful of user-made mods that have doubtlessly made a great deal of allowance towards said positivity.
First off, the world is no longer a milquetoast mashing together of fantasy clichés, as was the case with Oblivion. The Norse aesthetic seems to have given Bethesda a much clearer creative direction in all aspects of the game’s being, the extensive amounts of lore is constantly referred to (although I can only parse roughly 2% of it) without it coming off like a series of fan-service moments a la Oblivion, and the underlying ‘B-plot’ conflicts of in-province civil war and inter-province cold war prove interesting and utilized to great extent. Races all have a unique sense of culture and regions of Skyrim are varied, yet consistent within the overall scope and manage to avoid feeling like an amusement park of vaguely related attractions cordoned off from one another, as is a common problem with these types of open worlds.
Things fall apart a bit, as they always tend to do with Bethesda’s games, when one begins exploring the “main quest” (yes, they continue to insist on making the “real” story a wholly linear) and the clichés begin spilling out: dragons, an ancient order of bearded wizards, the player is the chosen one… I haven’t progressed very far in the main quest, mostly because I don’t feel like diving headfirst into what appears to be the least interesting content, but it’s already grating.
Bethesda’s decision to remove player stats and introduce a pure skill/perk system did not strike me as wise when I first heard about it, generally because the developer’s track record with concepts such as “change” has not always been a fruitful one. The result, however, works incredibly well. As far back as Morrowind, and perhaps sooner, the series has had massive problems with leveling: Depending on which classes and skills the player would be forced to make an uninformed choice upon within minutes of starting a new game, leveling would either slow to a crawl and cripple his or her abilities or shoot ahead rapidly and shatter the level scaling in about a dozen tiny pieces. Excising all of that was a sound choice, and the addition of Fallout-style perks makes things surprisingly more robust, with only a few problems.
The biggest problem is that the relationship between the perk system and the level-by-doing character growth system often clashes in terms of their individual goals. Chiefly, a few of the skills are simply useless, or are useless until a certain perk in their tree is unlocked. For example, the Smithing skill is reliant on constant crafting and gathering of resources for growth, meaning that unless one specifically grinds it out, it will remain fairly pointless unless its perk tree is fleshed out. Unfortunately, in pure catch-22 fashion the only worthwhile perks it carries require the skill to be at a high level, or are locked behind a line of perks that are not at all worthwhile but must have valuable Perk Points sunk into them—of which the player gets one per character level. Likewise, some perks appear to have little to do with their parent skill, such as the Extra Pockets perk that increases the character’s carrying capacity by one hundred points but requires extensive investment in the Pickpocket skill. I can see the connection in the names (they both contain the word “pocket” for the uninitiated) but not necessarily in the utility.
Another disappointment is the removal of legacy movement-based skills such as Athletics and Acrobatics. Reflecting a larger problem with the game, a large part of the fun to be had in previous Elder Scrolls titles has been the crazy lack of physical boundaries on one’s character. In Morrowind one could run at the speed of sound, jump over a mountain, walk on water, and fly. Oblivion chipped away at this freedom quite a bit by removing levitation, but Skyrim removes this customization altogether by making running speed, jumping height, and other such physical characteristics entirely standardized. Social interaction has been altered in a similar manner. In previous games, each NPC had a disposition score attached to him or her that signified how much they liked or disliked the player character, and that would affect the value of trade and attempts at persuasion. In Morrowind this score could be interacted with using the die-roll based Speechcraft skill, which wasn’t a perfect system. Oblivion replaced that with an awful mini-game, but retained the ability to influence NPCs on a granular level. Skyrim ditches the whole thing entirely, replacing persuasion with Fallout-style lines of dialogue that hinge on the player’s Speech skill. The result is that NPCs can only be interacted with through dialogue when a designer specifically allows them to be—a system that works for Fallout but lacks the emergence and dynamism one might have come to expect from an Elder Scrolls game.
Combat is more or less unchanged from Oblivion and it still requires the player to modify attacks by holding down a directional key, often creating an awkward ‘dance’ of death as the player hobbles back and forth, forward and back around the enemy. It’s functional but not great. The biggest change to the combat, Bethesda would declare, is the ability to dual wield. I don’t see too big of a difference. Users of two-handed weapons can obviously not participate, use of a shield in the offhand is a feature RPGs have been using since the Stone Age, and mixing magic with a sword feels new until one remembers that it is effectively the same as Oblivion’s magic casting hotkey. The only features that are new includes the ability to dual wield two weapons, which in my limited testing I didn’t find particularly effective and doesn’t even receive its own perk tree, and dual wielding two magical spells. Combining two of the same spell creates a more powerful version, which has its uses but it’s generally preferable to have a sword in hand. Two spells that are not of the same type cannot be combined or even cast simultaneously, making the dual wield only a minor fix towards the larger problem of having to dig through menus to swap out spells.
Speaking of the magic system, it’s probably the best The Elder Scrolls has come up with yet, but it still has its issues. Morrowind tied casting to a die roll, so unskilled mages would often fail to produce a spell—not exactly a preferable system. However, Oblivion made things far worse by removing the die roll but straight-up locking mages out of spells they were not leveled up enough to perform. Skyrim, on the other hand, wisely allows the player to cast any spell but ties the cost of magicka (mana, in Elder Scrolls speak) consumption to perks in the tree of each school of magic. The first perk on any school’s tree reduces the consumption of magicka on novice-level spells; the possible second reduces consumption on apprentice-level spells, and so on. The problem is that this is the only form of growth that the magic system sees. Unlike combat skills, there’s no granularity where a level 45 Destruction spell will be slightly more powerful or consume less magicka than a level 44 Destruction spell. Thanks to the perks system, all magical growth occurs in concentrated 25-level chunks which can be disheartening.
Furthermore, and perhaps the largest issue I’ve had with magic, is that new spells are learned only through the use of consumables called spell tomes. These are very rarely found as loot, and are primarily bought from shops—namely the ones in the College of Winterhold (Skyrim’s replacement for the traditional Mage’s Guild). However, the stock of items held by these vendors scales with the player’s skill level meaning that, for example, an expert-level spell, while it can be cast by anyone, simply cannot be found until that school of magic’s skill level is greater than approximately 75. This has lead me to simply give up on certain schools of magic altogether, since a potentially useful spell such as Invisibility would require me to grind out lower-level Illusion spells such as Calm and Frenzy that I simply have no use for.
Spells in the Destruction school are meant to have different effects. Fire-based magic will lower an enemy’s defenses, electricity will drain magicka, and ice will both slow enemies and drain their stamina. This works well enough, although I find it difficult to balance that with the immunities inherent to separate races. For example, Nords are generally purely fighters and are reliant on stamina to get the fullest out of their attacks, but are also partially immune to ice rendering that tactic pointless. On top of that, it can be difficult to tell certain races apart from one another at just a glance. Early on the game has pretensions towards copying a page from Bioshock’s handbook and having environment-based attacks. “Use lightning on enemies who are standing in water!” it will say. I never noticed a difference aside from a handful of locations with fire-baiting oil drenched across the floor.
Many spells from the older games, such as Open Lock, Water Walking, as well as Skill Draining, Fortification, and Absorption have been excised. The ability for the player to create their own spells has been removed. Likewise, magical crafting such as alchemy and enchantments can only be done at specific crafting tables in specific locations. These changes, again, are mostly concerned with limiting the player’s freedom of movement, mixture of approaches across different skills, and emergence in gameplay in favor of a more standardized, “game-like” system with greater defined rules. It makes for an altogether more coherent and stronger experience, but shamefully robs the player of experimentation and clever rule-bending planning that has long been an Elder Scrolls staple. The whole thing breaks less often, which is commendable, but the possibilities no longer feel endless—they feel like they end exactly where the designers put up the barbed wire.
Quests don’t particularly impress in terms of concept. Most tend to be limited to the player being sent to a dungeon to find Item X or kill Enemy Y. However, the dungeons are more engaging this time around, with more thoughtful placement of elements and nowhere near the level of repetition and recycling found in previous games. Here, each dungeon feels hand-crafted down to the smallest detail even though I doubt that is the case. More incidental locations are rich with interesting histories or in-progress stories than I certainly expected, and rarely do they beat the player over the head. Thankfully, the quest design isn’t quite as reliant on the game-ruining Quest Arrow as Oblivion and Fallout 3 were. While quest givers still refuse to give quasi-detailed directions as was the case in compass-less Morrowind, a handy new feature of the in-game journal is that highlighting a quest and pressing the map key will center the map onto the location of the player’s objective, giving a vague indication of its placement without resorting to pointing a big ugly arrow directly at it. Similarly, a magic spell exists named Clairvoyance which will draw an ethereal line towards the objective at the expense of magicka and limited effective range.
All in all, despite that fact that it appears to hate player autonomy, I enjoy Skyrim. Quite a lot! In an era where game studios are desperate to ignore their own products’ inadequacies, the fact that Bethesda took everything that was clearly broken about Oblivion and changed it at all is gives me a positive feeling inside of my chestholes. The fact that most if not all of those changes were for the benefit of the game instead of efforts to make the game worse is a godsend. Congratulations Bethesda, you have significantly improved.
But Morrowind and New Vegas are still way better.
Dumbed Down: A Modernized and Streamlined Look at Gaming Minimalism
I think one of the most baffling movements in games has been the ubiquitous, unquestioning embrace of minimalism. It seems, oddly enough, that the more complex our gaming machines get the more designers try to resist and pull back towards simplicity. Although the ethic is not unique to the independent scene, many in the “Art Game” crowd have shown great proficiency in utilizing it.
Pictured above: Independent “Art Games” in which the player is tasked to simply wander around.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with minimalism on paper. Games such as Thatgamecompany’s releases (fl0w, Flower, Journey) accomplish their goals and then some. But the needless but uncontested appropriation of minimalism where it does not belong will often run counter to the larger goals of the work and, in a broader sense, hurts the medium by needlessly filing the corners off of it.
It seems to happen again and again with every new instance of an established franchise receiving a new entry, or a reboot, or a retooling: “They’ve dumbed it down!” vested fans shout out to the skies, their rage aimed at the eternally vague ‘they’. “No, we haven’t,” booms back a smug, faceless retort from the heavens “We’ve only gone and streamlined it.”
Streamlining! Now there’s a hell of a thing to do with a game! Imagine a sports car (red, natch!), only with the aerodynamics of a jet airliner, then painted with horizontal stripes! That’s nothing like dumbing down at all! Your worries are certainly unfounded! Of course, anybody who is familiar at all with pattern recognition will be able to tell you that the definitions of both concepts can often end up to be incredibly similar. It seems more and more common, if not expected, for sequels to popular games to ship with less options for player agency than previous incarnations—a situation that seems positively backwards.
This could be, perhaps, blamed on publishers who demand wider and wider audiences as the medium continues to bloat financially, hence the catcalls of having ‘dumbed down’ their work for the lowest common denominator from exasperated hardcore fans. While the reality is that a large amount of current top-market American game developers have migrated to consoles from the PC and that transition brought with it a number of necessary compromises, the hypothesis that these developers continue to make their games ‘dumber’ in order to chase a ‘dumb’ audience is possibly too simple, single-minded, and logically incomplete.
Take, for instance, the case of Deus Ex: Invisible War. Poised as the sequel to one of the most ambitiously and extensively designed games of all time, Invisible War was hobbled not only by bad technology but by needlessly simplified mechanics. The game is widely regarded as atrocious, or at best good enough if one ignores its heritage. Harvey Smith, the lead designer of Invisible War as well as one of the largest contributors to the original Deus Ex, recalled in a post-mortem how he came upon many of his design decisions for the sequel, and why they have proven to be ill-fated:
I think what we did with [Invisible War] was, we listened to our super hardcore friends who told us, “Here’s how I would fix Deus Ex.” I mean, we had some good friends—some good friends who told us that Deus Ex was a giant disaster, and here’s what they would change. I love those guys, and we really felt sensitive about that. We really felt like, “God, we’re not meeting the standards of our very intelligent designer friends. So ashamed! Let’s fix all that in the sequel.” And we weren’t listening to the players of the original game who liked what we had done.
ION Storm’s Deus Ex: Invisible War proved that less is sometimes actually less.
Instead of listening to players, Smith and his team bowed to the pressures of designer dogma. Systems such as point-buy skills and special powers referred to in-game as ‘augmentations’ were found to be mildly redundant and so were compartmentalized into a single system that was overall more ‘streamlined’ but offered loyal fans less choices in a sequel to a game that is renowned for its high levels of choice. Furthermore, as Smith attests, this early watershed moment in ‘dumbing-down’ was not made in an attempt to cater to a ‘dumber’ player, but to cater to highly intelligent and influential design theorists!
It’s to be expected, perhaps, from an industry sewn from the seeds of engineers and programmers that efficiency and a lack of redundancy are considered ideal. However, this line of thinking can be terribly misguided when applied to concepts such as design and craftsmanship. For Deus Ex, the series took eight years to recover with a new game, Human Revolution, in which most of the changes Invisible War made were overhauled to be more like its predecessor. On the other hand, many questionably minimalist concepts continue to thrive and be accepted as mainstream and modern.
It’s when designers choose to remove important facets of their games and then attempt to design around their previous decision that things prove immediately destructive. It’s not uncommon nowadays for developers to brag about their game being ‘HUD-less’ by means of not including an interface. The catalyst for this decision is often the chase of immersion, which is a noble enough goal, but in doing so the designers tend to lose sight of why a HUD, or Heads-Up Display, exists in the first place: to give the player a heads up! While inelegant, a HUD delivers vital information to the player necessary to make informed playing decisions. Placing a number or gauge on the screen to represent health has by and large been replaced with a screen-filling red transparency effect which offers the bare minimum of information to the player (“You Are Being Hurt”) while being equally immersion-breaking. As a result, the player’s experience has become more convoluted and obtuse so that the designer can display the superficial appearance of elegance.
On the left: Doom player has 66 points of health left. On the right: Rage
player has less than 100% but more than 0% health left.
Consolidating design elements is not always a bad thing. There is such thing as feature bloat and more effective, non-overt methods for conveying information to the player do exist. However, it is any good designer’s job to not simply blindly follow current trends and dogma and to question why they are removing and/or replacing proven systems and what benefits and setbacks are achieved by doing so.
Narrative & Games as an Individual Medium
I guess a lot people have been talking about narrative in games lately. Why do that? It’s a terrible thing to do. For one, it implies a sequential series of events that are being recited by an author of sorts. Developers put narratives in their games. They hire professional authors to write them as well. This is how games grow up; how they come to be taken seriously as an art form.
No! No no no no no. No. Games aren’t a sequential series of events. Well, they are nowadays, but they really shouldn’t be. And this isn’t me being a snob, by the way, though thank you for rightly accusing me of having better taste than you. No, I’m not being a snob—I’m arguing on behalf of a medium that is locked in a desperate struggle to be itself. And how can you be mad at me for that!
As interactive entertainment moves further away from being “video-based game software” and closer to an art form composed of themes, subtexts, and vision I feel it might be time to take a step back and try to think about what a game is andwhat value they add to the social domain. If paintings represent a still image, and photographs capture a still image, and film captures a moving image, then where do games stand? Personally, I see them standing in a completely separate paradigm with implications more exciting and boundaries wider than any medium that’s come before… provided, of course, that their power is harnessed towards their strengths and away from their weaknesses.
The main weakness I see over and over again is that games are created in an effort to be more like films.
What needs to be understood is that film didn’t start off as an art form. Instead it was a technological curiosity meant only to fill chunks of free time and vaguely impress the audience with spectacle (sound familiar?) In fact, all early recordings look a lot like this:
Spoiler Alert: Train
If you were paying attention you may have noticed that nothing fucking happened. That’s because that whole clip merely exists to show off a new piece of hardware, and that piece of hardware was created to take motion pictures. With that line of thinking you can see how they ended up with what is essentially a photograph that moves. To watch one of these early movies, one would go up to a peep show machine, drop in a coin, and get their 30 seconds of a neat optical illusion. Like the video game, film started out as a technological novelty. Nobody saw that stupid train pull into a station and saw Citizen Kane coming. However, as the sheer idea of a moving photograph stopped being exciting, the people making them became more ambitious. They wanted to tell stories. Unfortunately they didn’t know how, even though they probably thought they did.
This scene would be a lot more dramatic if I could see it.
This is a screenshot from The Great Train Robbery, a hugely important piece of early film storytelling. Now, take a moment to examine how that shot is set up. Although intended to be a dramatic, tense moment, it is shot awkwardly distant and flatly. And the whole scene looks like that! This is not a stylistic choice—this composition is representative of many, if not most, films from the early 20th century. The reason for this is that they didn’t know you could move the camera around. It may be hard to consider after seeing any number of today’s frenzied cut-every-thirty-seconds styled movies, but editing barely existed at this point, used only to transition between one scene and the next the way a curtain fall would on stage. And setting the camera so far back; and hitting its subjects from a long side-view… it’s almost like being in a stage audience!
Film wasn’t a novelty anymore. They were putting on a show. They were using actors. Back then actors were people who performed on stage, not on a set. And without the frame of reference we have today, what could filmmakers do but ape what they already knew about how performing a story worked? To try to copy a more established, respected craft?
I realize that the concept seems ridiculous now. Almost as ridiculous as having the power of full interactivity and audience participation at your fingertips and yet still continuing to make works that are most favorably described as cinematic.
And this old trope! Imagine if movies nowadays continued to
stop being movies every now and then in order to cram
exposition down your throat! What a krrraazy world that
This is how mediums start out! It’s only natural that the early adopters would be influenced by what had already been established. What needs to happen next is for people to examine what it is, if anything, that makes the new medium worth exploring. How does the audience react to the work? Why do they react the way they do? How can the answers to those questions be harnessed by a visionary to best express an idea rather than something as simple as a narrative? How can one wring the last drop of possibility out of their chosen medium?
By the 1920s, German Expressionists had opened a world of possibilities for how films could look and Montage Theorists in Russia had diatribes written in precise lists about the ways films could act. To put it simply, a film can express everything a novel can without using a single word, and can do what music can do without any sound.
Mise en Scene is an expressionist term that describes using composition and color theory to evoke a certain mood or idea. Montage describes the evocation of mood or metaphor through the content and speed between concurrent images. F-Stops get darker the higher the number goes. There, you just took four years of film school for free.
Unfortunately, games continue to languish in that stunted area before the arrival any real innovation. Moreover, there’s a confused idea that has spread across the landscape that games are in a position that’s either good enough or ideal, which I’m afraid may be standing in the way of progressing past this point. Story is talked about as narrative, a vestigial limb of non-compatible media that slides into its place as just another part in the sum rather than an integral part of a holistic experience. This, if anything, has to change.
Games are an interactive, non-passive medium. The essence of experiencing a game hinges entirely on its ability to be directly engaged with. Just like one listens to music or watches a movie, one interacts with a game. So any idea conveyed through passive means is a failure of a conveyed idea.
I realize how harsh it may sound to call large chunks of million-dollar games failures, and I also realize that I will look like a total hypocrite once my Amy Rose fan game comes out and it has an intro cutscene. But keep in mind that I never claimed to have the answers, only recognition of the problems. I also am not expecting nor demanding that every single game be 100% free of such “failures” in the future. My only goal is that we see these failures for what they are and that game creators take the necessary steps forward into coming up with methods to alleviate them. That’s how you get out of the rut, and that’s how games grow up!
I apologize if this post comes off as a rambling hodge podge of ideas. I’ll hopefully write more in-depth about some of my stupid theories in the future. Right now I just feel like I need to present all of this nonsense upfront.
Screenshots taken from The Great Train Robbery, Last of the Mohicans, and Der Blaue Engel.
If anyone knows how to properly do captions in tumblr please let me know.