Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

Archive for October 2009

Abscence Apology

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Just as a heads up, there’ll probably be no new content over the next three weeks as there has been over the last few as I’m going through my final exams, so I apologise about that.

The content that will follow however, I’m excited about, as usual. (Also as usual, these planned pieces will be replaced with whatever’s shiny at the time, such as the MW2 opening sequence where you play as the antagonist, one of the artistic techniques tha’s available only to games as a medium). I’ve played through Torchlight, which will probably get some posts about the loot model or the usability enhancements in the UI ar possibly a piece of NGJ regarding a hardcore playthrough, following Ben Abraham’s model of diary entries. Also, there’s a series of features I’ve been working on some a month or two now about the ways in which the Japanese games industrty can ‘Westernise’ to appeal to the American hardcore, which was one of the popular discussions at this year’s Tokyo Games Show.

Now, for my final words before I again vanish for a time;

 

Why on earth does God of War have a double jump? Having played through some hours of the second one, I can’t find any reason why the game needs this odd hangover from the 90’s, i merely comes off as exteremely half assed and gratuitous. Don’t be afraid to throw out gaming’s wierd tropes and if you do include them, make them fun, as they were years ago. An awkward double jump is the worst thing ever.

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Written by Aonshix

October 31, 2009 at 9:45 am

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Day/Night, or the underappreciated elements of continuity

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I was listening through the Metal Gear Solid 2 OST the other night and a delightfully generic tune by the title of ‘Twilight Sniping’ came on. The song itself is basically impossible distinguish from the rest of Harry Gregson’s seminal sounds that populate the game, the title itself managed to conjure a vivid memory of the set piece in the game where you have to cover a girl crossing a thin bridge across the water with a sniper rifle against the setting sun. IT occured to me then that as a technique in games, time is underused. And no, I’m not reffering to bullet time but rather the natural passage of time from day to night. As a species,we humans have a sleeping pattern that’s pretty much hard-coded into the way we work. We even need to orchestrate the ludicrously frustrating ‘Daylight Savings’ in order to maintain that all important body clock we have. Each and every time of the day elicits powerful reactions from both body and mind; lethargy, confidence, paranoia, all of which are powerful tools to be utilised by designers. However, too often I see these free passes go underutilised, with games wasting the power of these disparate lighting conditions on cliche`s instead of using them to create unique juxtapositions and memorable scenes.

An otherwise fairly forgettable hands off sections becomes a visual marvel and deeply resonant through use this natural element. It prepares the player for Emma’s imminent demise (being the twilight moments of her life), and at least for me, combined with the lazy music made me feel tired. Obviously this feeling was an intentional part of the previous section’s design, which featured less enemies than usual and a slower movement speed for the player, however I doubt the feeling would have been as prevalent without the strong visual stimulus.   The only shame here is that it’s not integrated into the game play like it could be, as having to manage staring directly into the sun would be a great touch and go along way towards making the game feel that much more realistic and immersive. When it comes to integrating a day/night system into games, there are a few approaches I’ve seen designers take. Firstly there are linear games like Metal Gear which have a single time period for a particular area in the game/narrative, games like Fallout 3 which have dynamic progression of time and games like Crysis which integrate both of these techniques.

Pre-planned systems are definitely the easiest to implement, both from a design and graphics standpoint. The graphics team will know beforehand how the scene will look for every player and what levels of visibility the player will have. These are both solid advantages in the toolkit of a level designer, as dynamic systems can often leave certain elements much harder to find or produce odd visual glitches. Furthermore in games with totally dynamic systems designers lose the ability to manipulate the player’s emotions via the lighting in the scene. This really forces the designers into a tight spot as so much of human emotion is a reaction to lighting conditions around us, sight being our primary sense. In practice, designers simply place emotionally climactic moments inside where lighting can be controlled, something which is especially noticeable in Grand Theft Auto or any of Bethesda’s titles, where buildings lack any sort of windows making them completely enclosed insofar as lighting goes.

Far Cry 2 by and large doesn’t do this, which I’ve always thought was a pretty gutsy move. While certain moments are controlled (such as the point at which you map transition halfway through)by and large the game is content to allow you to play out various plot moments outside, at the mercy of a dynamic time system (and what a system it is, the sunsets in the game are simply breathtaking). In a game which already has alot of variation in the plot between playthroughs, one of my mates and I thought it was pretty cool that he killed a particular doctor at high noon where I crept in under the cover of darkness. Providing both a different experience in terms of game play and narrative consequence, we eventually decided his character had joined the Israeli Paramilitary force after watching spaghetti westerns as a child, while mine a convicted stalker conscripted into the Israeli army. Dynamic day/night cycles can produce pretty amazing moments of emergent game play, which are great when they occur however by the nature of such things, cannot occur for every player. It was an amazing moment when the fireball from the truck I had just blown into the sky cleared to reveal the morning sun’s rise, made all the better for the fact that it was an experience unique to my play through. However, should things like that instead be pre-programmed into the game so that players are guaranteed those sort of moments?

Any ways, back to Day/Night cycles. To an extent, the arguments for an against dynamic ones are just the same as the ones for scripted vs emergent moments in game play. Perhaps games like Crysis do really hit the sweet spot, making the sun always rise as you approach the first village in the game and always be the dead of night as you get ambushed by the knock-off’s in the graveyard, yet dynamically going up and down in such levels as Assault, providing a real sense of scale. One problem with the implementation of the dynamic systems is that they have to move so quickly in order for players to notice that they’re there at all, yet this often leads to weird inconsistencies in the pacing of a game. There’s one level where the sun can quite often fall and rise several times within the one battle, which is totally out of whack with both what characters are doing and the narrative. In this way pre-planned cycles usually feel more realistic, as they’re usually integrated with the narrative from day one.

However, I have grown frustrated recently with the cliches game designers seem to fall into when given the opportunity to plan out how these things will go. Ravenholm, while memorable has always annoyed me with the gift of retrospect. A level in total darkness with zombies and heavy religious overtones? How very original of you Valve. Much better was the scene where you fought your way across the beaches in the dark to reach Nova Prospekt, although a mostly decommissioned prison at night is unfortunately not terribly interesting either. More interesting is Rassvet in Metal Gear Solid 3, which you’re introduced to in the morning, then later have to navigate at night. The changes in a landscape from night to day are frightening and revisiting fairly innocent places after the sun has set can be quite vivid. The more designers can use these sort of simple techniques which play on our fears which carry over from real life the more effective unnatural fears will be. Furthermore, placing situations which we typically associate with one time of day (zombies at night for example) into another adds realism and believability to a game world, lessening the ‘world revolves around the player’ effect.

I hope this all uploads properly, am having to use Scribefire since for some reason I can’t copy and paste into WordPress’s text boxes on my net book. Weird Stuff. On an unrelated note, DS:E ends on a weak note, but not as bad as I was fearing and God Of War 2 which I picked up on the cheap seems to be as frustrating as I imagined. When people talk about the stupid stories in videogames you can’t help but assume that they’re usually just poorly written, unimaginative and drawn out, however from what I can see of the first 40 minutes of GOW2, it is really just that base. The game play is also fairly annoying so far, with the combos I’ve discovered lacking disctinction from my normal abilities and the in game tutorial patronising.  Also, the game player’s a weird double standard with contextual interactivity. In boss fights it will usually dangle some interactive whatnot in front of yo which it’s natural to rush to, but more often than not the 10 minutes you spend trying o figure out how to use said object on the boss, where in the pattern it should be used, is actually wasted time as the solution is to hit the boss until he sits still and the game forces you to use it. Also, just because a boss is huge doesn’t mean it’s ok to have no feedback when the boss is being hit, it’s just mean to players. For the moment it seems that whatever I wanted to say about Beyond Good + Evil is gone, so the next post will probably be, as always, merely whatever playing on my mind at the time. Sorry.

Written by Aonshix

October 12, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Exception being…

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Valve, who’re ironically leading the charge for the abolition of silent protagonists in multiplayer. Team Fortress 2 added pretty much unprecedented characterization to the multiplayer FPS scene, while Left 4 Dead must be one of the only MP FPS’s to string together a coherent narrative, especially once you take the new DLC into account.

With the increasing move to social gaming in the industry, are games like gears of war, built for coop going to become the norm? Will sp become altogether abolished, in the style of l4d? Will coop narrative ever stop feeling shoehorned? All this and more over the next decade.

Written by Aonshix

October 5, 2009 at 7:50 am

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Who Am I? An exploration of silent protagonists in games

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Are you Gordon Freeman? Or do you merely control Gordon Freeman throughout his improbable escapades? Although it of course varies from title to title, the question of identity (and by extension, immersion and narrative) and the degree to which we are the protagonists in First Person game is one of the most hotly debated issues within the industry. At this point in time more developers seem to be moving towards the ‘player as protagonist view’ within the first person space, as can be seen with the increasing number of games adopting the ‘Silent Protagonist’ approach, such as Clint Hocking’s flawed gem, Far Cry 2 or the critically acclaimed Bioshock, while more heavily characterized protagonists seem to have migrated to the third person perspective, especially after Cliff Bleszinski’s magnum opus; Gears of War. Today’s post will be less opinionated than the majority of my content, instead being focused upon exploring the effects of having mute protagonists, in terms of both narrative/characterization and player immersion within a title.

At the center of the issues surrounding the silent protagonist divide is the question of whether the player is the protagonist in the game. Many designers and consequently many titles take the approach that increased player involvement in the game and the game’s narrative will involve the player more and thus can create more moving experiences, whereas other developers believe that having the player carry out the actions of a well defined character can affect them more, both by creating situations where the player’s interests diverge from the protagonist’s and by creating a more complex narrative.

The idea of ‘Player as Protagonist’ was born out of early RPG’s which gave the player the ability to name their characters and then later customize them. The early games had no dialog, so for all intents and purposes the only expression of the character within the world was player defined, what items to wear, which enemies to fight and the character’s name, the only identity the protagonists given. Due to the minimalist settings (jail, dungeon, wilderness all infested with foes) it was often fairly easy for designers to perfectly align the protagonist’s and the player’s interests, in many of these early cases survival was the only option open to either. Although players were in fact more limited in these early games than in many modern titles, the low fidelity settings made it a lot easier for designers to focus the player’s interests on very simple objectives, while in games with higher fidelity the player expects more options within the world, causing the old model of having the player truly in the world to fall apart.

By and large, designers have had to abandon the ‘Player as Protagonist’ in absolute terms, as the fidelity of modern titles has increased at a much greater rate than the level of interactivity has. However, many developers still adhere to many of the principles of the player protagonist and try to craft an experience which is as catered to player immersion as possible, with the mute protagonist being one of the main techniques still employed by designers such as studios such as 2k Boston, Valve, Retro Studios or the Ubisoft Montreal team.

History aside, what does having a mute protagonist actually do for a game? Well, the most obvious effect of having a mute protagonist is that the player will never be yanked out of the (hopefully) immersive setting by a line which the player doesn’t agree with, whether it be because the protagonist says something that the player disagrees with or merely uses language which the player wouldn’t use. Furthermore, one of the logical extensions of this is that player will begin filling in the conversational gaps where it seems logical to them, whether consciously or unconsciously. This dialog that the player creates will (by it’s nature) always remain consistent with the player’s impression of the protagonist, never resulting in a situation where the player feels put off by his protagonist’s reaction. By virtue of the protagonist having no real personality, the player will just imagine the protagonist to be reacting in the way they think most appropriate, which logically is as immersive as a world can be without reacting to what the player is directly thinking. Player will inevitably also project some of themselves onto the protagonist in this scenario, endearing the protagonist to the player and investing the player further within the world.

However, in many cases a silent protagonist is a barrier to immersion. There are quite a few game’s I’ve played which have silent protagonists where the dialog felt awkwardly written, as some poor writer trained in a any other form of narrative had to attempt to learn how to make conversations which only involved one character speaking. There were certainly instances of this in Bioshock, where it seemed entirely to of place for he protagonist to be completely mute considering the events going on around him. Not a single question for Dr. Tenembaum regarding the nature of his mind after the game’s mid-climax. Not a single exclamation of outrage or fear during his tumultuous confrontation with Andrew Ryan? It simply doesn’t ring true to how any person would react given the circumstances and divorces you from the character. While games with less dialog and more action/visual storytelling can often avoid such pitfalls, in more complex, verbose narratives it often becomes very difficult for writers to seamlessly integrate a silent protagonist into the dialog. What works for the minimalistic Far Cry 2 does not work as well in Bioshock. However one has to wonder how a protagonist for Bioshock could even be written and whether an awkward and unbelievable silent protagonist might not merely be the lesser of two evils. Perhaps worse than the moments where your character speaks but doesn’t, are the occasions in these games where character’s monologues to your silent protagonist include reactions to words it’s assumed your character has said. Not only does this detract from immersion since your character has not, in actuality said anything (bringing the oddness of that to the player’s attention), but often the character’s dialog will imply that your character has spoken in a way entirely different from that in the player’s mind, another large blow to player immersion.

Furthermore and possibly a greater handicap, having a silent protagonist forces writers into certain kinds to stories. Silent ‘protagony’ (yet another neologism) prevents writers from being able to create truly involving stories which are focused on interpersonal relationships, for example. Imagine a first person adventure written in the fashion of a Jane Austin novel, which featured a silent protagonist. Unless it was the touching romance of a person afflicted with mutism, the story would be impossibly awkward and very difficult to immerse oneself in. It is pretty much impossible for mute characters to be as complex as characters who have some form of self expression, crafting a narrative which is less interesting. However the video game space has a very long way to go in general towards crafting complex characters, so perhaps this shouldn’t yet be an overriding concern.

Finally silent protagonists prevent writers from creating characters which take the initiative in games. A silent protagonist will always be reactive to something, an order from someone or some event happening. This cramps narratives, making them far more predictable than tales in which the protagonist himself is an unreliable force. It also severely limits the roles in which a player could play in a game, for example, it would be pretty much impossible to tell the story of an lone silent antagonist, such as a rapist or murderer, because if the protagonist was a complete emotional void and didn’t have anyone to order him about there would be no motivation for such acts. Voiced protagonists are the only way to really have a game in which the player is forced to commit acts which they feel uncomfortable with, which is going to be one of the themes over the next decade which I believe will help video games rise into an interesting artistic medium. In games where the protagonist is silent and players have options, they logically cannot act in a way which goes against what they’re comfortable with and I feel that a game where a player was forced into a role they were not comfortable with (like rape, murder or being a member of the Gestapo) would come off as gratuitous and an abuse of linearity on the designer’s behalf. If the player cannot find a legitmate reason to do what they’re doing they won’t which is why situations players would prefer not to be in can only come about as a result of well defined player characters.

But then on the other hand, silent protagonists cannot make one liners, which would be a huge leap forward in the medium’s aspirations to art.

There a number of additional issues surrounding silent protagonists, such as player association with their silent protagonist and how many attributes can be grafted onto a silent protagonist before a disconnect starts to occur with the player, but all of those are firmly within the realm of implementation, not design. The increased difficulty of maintaining player interest in the story is another curious phenomenon that has been noted with a lot of silent protagonist games, particularly the Half Life series and the question of whether so many players would spend their days bunny hopping off Kliener’s head if Gordon interacted with the story somehow is an important one but sadly not one I can rant verbosely on.

This article was inspired by Dead Space: Extraction, where the very strong characterization of almost every character made me wonder about the differences between the well voiced protagonists in Extraction as opposed to the mute protagonist in the original Dead Space. Anyways, that’s my time up. A Beyond Good and Evil post is still on the agenda but has been sidetracked by Okami for the moment, which is my current shine thing. Alongside Dead Space: Extraction, my love for which is now branching off into the irrational. Also, Radiator + Korsokovia are still coming, my interest reignited by this article, particularly for the first chapter of Radiator, which is about relationships with a non silent protagonist, but to be perfectly honest I can’t remember whether he speaks or not, so that part clearly didn’t leave much fo an impression either way. However, that’s more of a mood piece anyways, which silent protagonists are good for.

Don’t worry, it’s over now

Written by Aonshix

October 4, 2009 at 7:22 pm