Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

Archive for June 2009

Narrative Narcissism: Far Cry 2

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Far cry 2 (2008) hardly had a remarkable story. Having played through the game twice within the last year, even I, the narrative narcissist can barely remember the particulars of that story. The twist is largely forgettable and the plot really devolves into ‘You’re a bad man in Africa, which is full of bad people’. However, I laud this came for some of it’s narrative techniques and going with the theme of this feature, I figure I better analyse three of ’em for y’all.  In the interest of keeping the post under 1000 words however, I shall refrain from mentioning the ability to select your own character and how that changes the narrative, an element which I’ll explore in it’s own post later on.  However, I hope you guys can enjoy some words on some other topics, quite likely related to this Video Game.

As Usual, Spoiler Warning For Far Cry 2 (and maybe Mass Effect)

1.) Divergent Narrative

Fundamentally this is a good idea. Having the player’s choices affect the narrative is one of the big hurdles the games industry faces today, in whether to change the characters within that narrative (ala any game with a binary morality system) or whether to try and change the narrative itself, as Far Cry 2 does.  The former is certainly alot simpler to do, especially badly, as can be seen by the glut of games which feature a morality system lately. The majority of these systems have very little effect outside specific abilities open to only the good or evil side respectively. In Mass Effect, was there any huge change to how people reacted to me when I went evil as opposed to being a paragon? Almost none. Sure, I lost an optional sex scene with one of the women, but another was still open to me. No character ever openly disagreed with my choices and none were proactive in getting their opinions being heard. They all just bottled up their views and emotions inside, which created an experience where ultimately the good/evil juxtaposition is not very much of a juxtaposition at all. Although they did nail the decision making process, which is what Far Cry 2 lead develepor Clint Hocking believes that the medium should focus on HERE.

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Why is Mass Effect so easy to ramble about?

Anyways, back to what Far Cry 2 did (I said I’d keep it under 1000 words ><). It seamlessly varied tha narrative according to player choice. Big Tick.  However the process is flawed in a number of ways, which range from poor design choices, to realistic design choices to poor implementation.

The narrative divergence is a binary one. Now I’m not sure whether it might be unrealistic to expect any more form a game, considering the amount of time these things take to make, however the ‘You now have an option to shoot two guys, choose who lives’ is an extremely obvious mechanic breaking one’s immersion in the world. It can still be well implemented (See GTA4) however in Far Cry 2 it isn’t. Twice I’ve played through this game and I still couldn’t tell the factions apart. AFR and UFLL off the top of My head, yet all I know is that one faction has a red banner and another yellow. The leaders with which you interact were largely faceless, with no interesting personality traits. They were completely interchangeable, even past the point where one betrays you, followed by the other.  The militiamen from both factions were also identical, meaning that when the choice to elevate one faction over another came about, the decision was hard not because I cared about the both or the choice had implications for the narrative or my character but was instead difficult due to my apathy.

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

Far Cry 2 has few SS online, So this is unrelated, atmospheric

This is in contrast to a choice earlier in the game where you must choose to defend either your crazed gunmen friends or the drug dealing, people smuggling church. This is an example of a good narrative divergence, forcing you to choose between two options that mean something to you. Having taken each path once however, I must say that I’m unimpressed with the resolution of these events. While it’s fine for both options to hem in the narrative and basically have the same outcome, it’d be a lot nicer if they were referenced in any way alter on or really made the narrative diverge for any more than 5 minutes.  It’s a nice choice and well done, but comes off arbitrary and gratuitous as it’s not woven into the later narrative. The same goes for the killing of leaders later on, they’re isolated elements with no real effect on the narrative OR gameplay. At least Bioware defiantly have the latter under the belts.

2.) Physicality

One thing Far Cry 2 does exceptionally well is immerse you into it’s world and this is in no small part due to the intense physicality of the game. In Half Life 2  you might feel relief when you run over a medpak and hear the little ‘Doo-Do’ noise, but it in no way compares to the relief you feel once you’ve pulled a bullet out of your body with tweezers, or readjusted your  dislocated arm with a sickening crunch (if only because you don’t have to see it any more). Seeing your characters hands clutching onto the sides of the cars he rides, even physically holding the map, the game’s physicality roots you in the gritty world of Africa and never lets go. It also does wonder towards differentiating (nx^n-1?) Far Cry 2 from the glut of generic shooter characters out there at the moment. No power armour here, and the intense physicality of the game enforces it.

However, the game also puts it’s technique to great use in a few instances for character building. Going by the narrative and dialog,  the Far Cry 2 protagonist is quite characterless, apart from being amoral and a bit obsessed with the Jackal. Apart from this, the characterization is mostly accomplished through the player, how he chooses to complete missions and which choices he makes. However, the first time the protagonist, who is in every other instance synonymous with the player, sticks a machete to someones throat and forces them back is shocking. The mild manner player cannot expect this sudden ferocity on behalf of the protagonist, this crack in the protagonists patience that life in ‘hell on earth’ Africa has caused. There are several instances of subtle choices like this, that greatly improve the players empathy and general care for the protagonist, a tool which should be utilised more often in games where the player and the protagonist are very close. ( I’ll write more about physicality later on, alas I’m already over my word budget with one topic to go.)

c.) Player Choice

Ok this one’s going to be short due to space constraints, (despite being the most interesting). The narrative in Far Cry 2 revolves around the twisted actions of the protagonist and the length’s he’ll go to in order to catch the Jackal, who’s no longer seeming quite so evil by comparison.  This is at the core of everything that happens in the story and is the climax in it’s entirety. What makes it so effective however, is that the player is never forced into any of it. Every mission in the game is optional, and the storyline will only progress when the player makes it do, by choosing to engage in clearly amoral missions (such as blowing up medicine or food). The player essential makes the same decision we blame the protagonist for making; to pursue the Jackal at all costs. The player at any time can decide to stop the chase, deciding that the cost is too great. However, the only way to do this is to turn off the game, so maybe it’s not the most feasible of options. Really, the player is only given the illusion of choice relating to committing the atrocities, however it’s this illusion that makes the player feel so guilty at the stories conclusion, which calls the player out on these choices.

It’s a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, that the PLAYERS fatal flaw of not being able to give up on completing the mission (or the game) ends in his demise.

There’s alot more I’ll write on Far Cry 2 in the future, as it’s an extremely interesting game once you get over the narrative’s face value.  For the moment though, I’ll leave you to contemplate the game’s Physicality, Divergent Narrative and the role of Player Choice when playing the Anti Hero.  Next weeks column will be on Crysis, so stay tuned!

For all its flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

For all it's flaws, still the most interesting game of 2008.

Written by Aonshix

June 25, 2009 at 2:23 pm

This is the worst thing that ever happened (This Week): Prototype

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Ok and Welcome to this, the first installment of yet another recurring feature! In this case we have ‘This is the worst thing that ever happened (This Week)’ (working title :P) my weekly installment (Tuesday I hope, Wednesday when I’m not so lucky) in which I complain and analyse the worst thing I’ve experience in a video game in the past week. Pretty self explanatory. It can be from a single or multiplayer game, as both generally occur due to a fail in design choices.  (Unless of course it’s just some wanker ganking me, in which case I guess the design choice that failed was the human sense of humour :P)

The less generic of the games two box arts. (How do you pluralize that?)

The less generic of the game's two box arts. (How do you pluralize that?)

For the first installment of this feature I’m going to showcase a boss from the power fantasy that is Activision’s Prototype. Just as a note this will contain minor spoilers and also methods to complete the boss, however the first should be of no consequence in Prototype as the story is bollocks and the latter should be of no issue because the strategy for defeating the boss requires no finesse or thinking and rather alot of persistence and patience. So if either of those do offend you and my cynicism hasn’t made you feel inadequate about that worry yet, cease reading now!

proto-init

Ok, from this fuzzy, Youtube ripped image courtesy of upochner123, which shows the boss’s general outline. There’s the top section of the worm, which is the actual boss. Beneath the tumorous top, there are three vertical sections, the outside two being the yellow tentacles and the middle being a weird spine of sort. In the upper right hadn’t corner you can see the main bosses health, and the three mini areas health bars all arranged beneath.  Pretty standard and I have nothing against multi-stage/focus encounters. In fact, I find being able to take down various elements of a boss in a non linear fashion is fantastic, as it forces me to prioritise the importance of the bosses various modules, as well creating boss with multiple stages of strategy to learn.

So let me go over the basic attacks this boss has. If you get close to the boss, the tentacles on either side will attack you. In no particular pattern. The game proffers no indication of whether the tentacle will do a horizontal sweep or a vertical strike, a problem which is indicative of the entire boss. Will it be throwing out a hail of superspeed stones or be pounding you with homing green energy balls of pain? The boss  offers very little signalling, which is a mistake as all of the bosses attacks are pretty much a guaranteed hit upon you if you don’t pre-emptivly dodge. Which you can’t do for a lack of signalling. See where I’m coming from?

Run from the insta nuke of DEATH!

Run from the insta nuke of DEATH!

However, the most heinous lack of signalling with this boss is it’s massive AOE, which has the slight effect of killing you instantly. This attack radiates out from the boss in all directions, making dodging quite difficult. However it is completely unsignalled, which violates one of design’s most basic laws: don’t punish the player for something they weren’t taught. The boss has an excessively large amount of health and respawning defences meaning that the fight can take up to a half hour to take down.  This can lead to an extremely large penalty for being hit by the bosses insta-kill attack, up to 15 minutes worth of gameplay.  This might be acceptable if the attack was well sign posted and introduced to the player before hand in a safer environment, such as cutscene.  However as it is the game makes one of the worst decisions imaginable, to gratuitously punish the player as a learning method.

See those green lights? They're gonna hit you. Get over it.

See those green lights? They're gonna hit you. Get over it.

Furthermore, the boss has pacing problems. If you read any document on flow in any form of design, it will clearly tell you that the pace should be varied as to maintain player interest while preventing them from burning out from constant action. However, this fight just throws that out the window. It never lets up. It’s always high intensity sprinting around the boss, being the only way to avoid the bosses myriad of unpredictable moves.

The pacing problems would take the backseat however, was the boss fight no excruciatingly long.  The game took me 10 hours to get through (doing most of the side missions) and half an hour was spent on this boss, a full 20th of my playtime. For not only, do you see, does the boss have an immense stockpile of health. No, not just that. It has respawning health and defences, which occurs roughly three times through the fight. While boss fights may operate on the rule of threes, it was like a dagger though my heart every time these respawned, adding another few minutes to the encounter every time.  This length, combined with the high pace necessitated by the nature of the bosses attacks creates an incredibly draining fight which made me breathe a sigh of relief that I could save and quit the game after the fight finished, rather than encouraging me to push on with the story.

Nope, this isn't where she dies. Because she doesn't!

Nope, this isn't where she dies. Because she doesn't!

My final complain with this fight is one you’ve probably picked up on by this point: it’s skilless. This fight is a horrible mockery of a boss fight, which should be the final step in player skill consolidation. It forces the player to fight a grueling endurance battle, slowly whittling down the bosses health before healing in total safety repeating ad nauseum. The horrible length and pacing of this fight is only exacerbated by the frustrating lack of player ability to adapt to the fight by outskilling the boss, instead of merely outlasting her.

Cons:

  • Skilless fight
  • Goes for far too long
  • Punishes the player gratuitously
  • Pacing issues

Surprisingly tedious fight in a game which is otherwise to be recommended for it’s simple pleasures.

Prototype, your late to the young girl in latex party. Old Snake got there first :P

Prototype, your late to the young girl in latex party. Old Snake got there first 😛

Written by Aonshix

June 19, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Narrative Narcissism; Half Life

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Below is the first in what will be an ongoing series of posts in which I analyse the storytelling techniques of various games told through the first person. Because I know I could ramble on forever and be extremely verbose about this topic, I’m going to impose a limit of three points per game in order to keep the articles concise and relevant. Also, it will force me to cherry pick my points about each game, as I highlight what it does uniquely from the rest of the industry or how it spins a certain technique. Also, the series is a critique of narrative techniques and not the tales themselves, so I shall show no hesitation in praising Far Cry 2’s narrative techniques (where deserved) above that of say… Bioshock. For the first week I though I’d have a crack at the techniques of Half Life (as a series, as the series has stuck to the same techniques pretty tightly since 1999, although some have become more/less prominent) which is famous for it’s ‘never lose control’ style of storytelling, which I’ll be talking about in a minute, along with a few other points which aren’t quite as in your face, but just as important. So, without further ado, I present you with my 3 bullet points 😛

Free download place, Eh?

HL2 has some psychadelic menus...

A.) Continuous control, or how to let players ruin your lovely story

While never losing control  may seem like a great idea for immersion, it works only in theory. With few exceptions in the series, plot elements consist largely of a few people talking in a room and the reality of gating players into a small arena such as this comes over as more transparent than letterboxing in cut scenes. While players may become annoyed with the overt loss of control in cut scenes, they become infinitely more frustrated when the established rules of the world are compromised by the necessity of gating. All thoughout Half Life 2, as soon as you enter a room which has a plot element in it, expect every door to be locked. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were not for the fact that one of these doors is going to need to open in order to let the player out of the room. So the doors must become inexplicably locked,  while appearing open able in order to maintain the illusions of realism later in the scene. This same problem is displayed in the interactive elements of the scenes which are placed into the narrative either to force the player to pay attention to what’s going on (shouldn’t be necessary) or just as a tip of the hat to the fact we’re playing a video game here. Whatever the reason, many scenes in the Half Life series contain switches, which must be pushed for a rocket to launch or activate a teleport. Something of the like.  These objects are inexplicably inert to player interaction until their moment’s appear in the narrative and they’re suddenly needed. The arbitrary nature of their binary states breaks immersion and frustrates players, and to what end? So that the narrative can be awkwardly held up by all the NPC’s waiting for the player to perform some gratuitous task? This is a systematic problem in the Half Life games, where the protagonists Gordon Freeman never speaks and this the player/Gordon cannot take any initiative in the plot, resulting in a number of situations where arbitrary civilians must explain to the PHD bearing Doctor Freeman that he must press the button. I’m all for player interaction in narrative scenes, however situations where everything has to wait upon player action should be avoided, NPC actions as well as dialog should be prepared as backup to keep the narrative flowing if the player does not progress it,  in order to maintain the illusion of intelligence among the denizens of a virtual world.

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

Both the HEV suit and this energy recharge are examples of gratuitous interactivity, although the latter does serve as a tutorial at least

B.) The Trueman show, Dr. Freeman edition

(props if you get the title ^^)

What Half Life did does very well however, is create continuous narratives. While the ability to pass time appears in the most sophisticated of narratives and should be lauded when accomplished, Half Life revolutionized the first person genre with continuous narrative in 1999 and to this date, nothing has done it better. From the moment Gordon stepped into work in the first chapter of Half Life to the launching of the rocket in Episode Two, there has not been a single piece of plot ellipsis, not a moment Gordon has experienced without the players control.  This technique is incredibly effective in creating player empathy and association with Dr. Freeman, who we might not otherwise associate with, being an emotionless mute (or the player, depending on how you interpret the series) the continuous narrative does wonders in  the genre, where there is no reason that the player should ever be removed from the narrative of the protagonist.  Of course, many stories do not have the benefit of just being able to stick the player in a time capsule for 20 years without shattering the illusion of reality, so they are forced to adopt the old black screen fade out. While this is in itself an awful detriment to immersion it can be done in ways which lessen the problems associated with it, however that’ll be discussed when I showcase a game like COD. For the moment all you need to know is that continuous narrative is the best thing to happen for first person narrative since Duke Nukem, revolutionising a previously level based system.

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

Before Half Life, every FPS ended levels with this sort of screen. Broke immersion in whatever narrative Doom had (it was there, I swear it)

C.) Foreshadowing, I love it

Another element that half life accomplished very well was foreshadowing and attracting player attention, where a game such as Crysis might feels the need to remove the players control in order to foreshadow, Half-Life merely attempts to direct the players eyes to the event they’re supposed to be witnessing adding an almost skill based element to the narrative. In a way it’s like a good theme in a book or play, it can be hinted at and implied but as soon as you say it out aloud, the magic is gone. (An example might be Hedda’s pregnancy in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler). Half life utilises a variety of techniques to accomplish this, from the hallmark ‘flight of crows’ technique to more subtle techniques involving lines and geometry.

The crows fly in such a way as to guide the players eyes to the Hunter, as foreshadowing

Light is another commonly used tool in any game designer’s repertoire, utilising the base human instinct to not only look towards but to head towards sources of light. Although this is used in half life, this technique is better documented in valve’s co-op shooter Left 4 Dead with the headlights at the end of the alley in No Mercy being a memorable example. Attracting the player’s attention with techniques such as these is one of the half life series’s many accomplishments in regards to cinematic narrative, as  it’s common sense that a player who discovers such an plot element himself would associate more with it than could ever be true if he were shown it fulfilling one of the core pillars of interactive narrative, player attachment.

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

Players eyes are drawn towards the end of the alley with the light. A rather over example of this technique

And there we have it! Now the clear omission in this article is the nature of Gordon Freeman as a mute, however I intend to devote an entire article that particular issue, so look forward to that. I’m going to attempt to update the blog 3 or so times a week and maybe launch some new features (when I think of them), so please come back and take a look, if  analysis of video games and verbosity in general takes your fancy at all.

Written by Aonshix

June 14, 2009 at 12:51 pm