Because games are about more than headshots

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

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