Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

‘Playing by the Rules’

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Last Monday, a group of Swiss researchers published a report which analysed the adherence of 20 recent first and third person shooters to the International Humanitarian Law (AKA the conventions of war crimes), which has made a fair splash in the gaming press, making it all the way to the BBC.  However, after a quick read through, the study possess a number of key flaws in its finding and methods, as well as evidence that it was lacking in depth. There were some interesting points, however they are bogged down in such a mess of poorly thought out points, that I figured a quick criticism of the report might prove interesting. So without further adieu…

If  someone was to publish a review which criticised films or novels for featuring war crimes occurring, they would be laughed out of the media. Many of our most powerful movies utilise war crimes for some of their most moving scenes and novels have been touching on this touchy subject matter for many years now.  However, this report justifies video games as a subject, by claiming that the interactivity can lead players to accept the action on screen as being permissable without as much critical thinking as people apply to the passive mediums. Although the claim that interactivity reduces critical thinking as compared to film or books is questionable, the core concept that games may be presenting war crimes in a positive light doesn’t seem too far-fetched, considering the general machismo and bloodlust that is celebrated by many titles.

Keeping this in mind, it’s frustrating that so many of the study’s points are based around passive elements in games. For example, the study lists a sequence in 24: The Game where Jack Bauer shoots a captured terrorist in the head after interrogating him, clearly violating the act which prevents the mistreatment of prisoners.  The report lists it as a ‘Strong’ violation, meaning that it has a high chance of influencing the player. However, this particular incident occurs… in a cutscene! The player is completely passive during this sequence, which is functionally identical to the television series of 24.  Including non interactive sequences in study is in my opinion disingenuous, due to the focus of the report really being on the nature of war crimes in interactivity, as the report dismisses the effects of war crimes in a passive medium in its ‘Aims’ section.  A large amount of the report’s complaints center around non interactive sections in these games, which undermines the strength of the report.

Furthermore, the study is curious in the way it chooses to deal with war crimes committed by the opposition in video games.  I personally believe that the presentation of war crimes committed by the enemies in game would cause people to turn away from such actions, as they’re usually not only presented as being evil acts, but the acts are committed by people with whom the player usually cannot sympathise.  Many of the reports findings are however based upon acts that are not committed by the player, again ignoring the interactive nature of games and merely calling out things which are presented to the player.  From the civilians being slaughtered in the opening sequence of Call of Duty 4, to the american prisoner being tortured in the beginning of Call of Duty 5, I would argue that witnessing either of these acts would desensitize players to the acts mentioned. I certainly disagree with the assertion that “it is not reccomendable to include such scenes [as the] killing [of] what are apparently look like civilians in video games, as it sends the wrong message to players”.

However, the report does finally get its act together and talks about games in which the player is allowed and even encouraged to commit war crimes. Possibly the best example was Battlefield: Bad Company in which the game actively encourages the player to blow chunks into peoples homes and provides rewards for players who pillage valuables from civilians, a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law.  The report also was correct in pointing out the number of games which allow the player to kill their opposition in ways which cause ‘superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering’, such as using a flamethrower in World at War. It could be argued (quite validly) that the use of flamethrowers is historically accurate and therefore appropriate, however the report agues that any exposure to such acts is negatively influencing players perceptions of battlefield practices.  Although I personally disagree that allowing players to commit these war crimes will belittle the acts in their minds, however I have no evidence for that. Both of the games attempt to justify the occurence of war crimes, however it is conceivably possible that encouraging the player to commit such acts would desensitize players to the horror of such war crimes.

Another of the study’s repeated tropes is criticising games which allow players to kill enemies who’re wounded or who surrender. Although I can sort of agree that allowing players to shoot surrendering enemies reinforces the writer’s contention, they repeatedly bring up the ability of players in World at War to shoot downed enemies as being a violation of the equivalent IHR of the time, which stated that one shouldn’t ‘to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at his discretion’. However, in Call of Duty games enemies who’re left on the ground will attack the player if they’re left alive, clearly making the targets valid in terms of that clause.

Let's face it, the plot of COD4 is hardly that complex

In fact, a lack of reasearch into the respective titles is one of the report’s greatest flaws. It undermines the credibility of many of the findings, some of which are heavily dependant on the context in which they occur. Probably the most grievous example is in the assertion that in Call of Duty 4, Cpt. Price kills Al-Asad in a certain mission, while simultaneously claiming that Al-Asad is the character the player occupies in the opening sequence. As anyone who’s played through the whole sequence would know, the player dies at the end of the introduction sequence to the game, pretty clearly demonstrating  a lack of understanding about what actually occurs in these titles.

Is Snake a War Criminal? Only you can decide!

This lack of understanding about games further manifested itself in the commentary of Metal Gear Solid 4, where the ability kill civilians ‘without reprimand’ in the second act’s final sequence. However, should a player call a certain character on the Codec following such an act, he will be reprimanded by his CO. Also the report failed to mention the game’s focus on non-lethality (something they praised in a different title) as well as ignoring the games many themes regarding the prevention of war crimes through the ‘Sons of the Patriots’ system.  They also misunderstand the nature of PMC’s in the title, assuming for some reason that the game’s many conflict zones are linked.

This man on the other hand, is underacknowledged as a bastard

An odd point in the report was the section covering Far Cry 2, in which the only reported violation was allowing players to shoot ‘at a church’, an act which goes ‘unpunished’. Although the report acknowledges that ‘it may be assumed that the attacks are not directed at the church’ the report clearly dropped the ball here. The incident mentioned is that the player is saving civilians from a militia and is ambushed inside a church where they may shoot at soldiers with small arms. Players defending themselves from assailants inside a church cannot constitute ‘excessive destruction’ which leads to a ‘violation of the principal of proportionality’. Further frustration in this section arose from the fact that the report did overlook the elements of Far Cry 2 in which the player was forced to carry out war crimes, from the destruction of civilian medicine to pillaging to destruction of culturally significant civilian structures. In a game where the player’s war crimes are one of the central narrative themes, to consider only the church incident is disappointing.

Lastly, I’ll provide you with a few of the reports recommendations to video games in the future, which are, in a word, bollocks.

‘the message of the scenes should never be that everything is allowed, or that it’s up to the player to decide what is right and wrong’, recommends the report in regards to scenes which allow any degree of player choice. The idea that player’s shouldn’t be allowed to decide what it morally allowable in a game is offensive, plain and simple. The core of our medium’s artistic ability casually discarded, not even receiving a whole sentence to itself.

Furthermore, the report also ‘reccomend[s] to game developers to avoid creating scenarios that easily lead to violations of the IHL, such as the so called ticking bomb scenario’. Again, this left me speechless. The report does have some valid points, (such as rewarding the player for looting, as opposed to simply using that as a tool to characterise the ‘Bad Company’) as well as identifying a number of ways to implement penalty systems in games for players who choose not to adhere to IHL (although too often these are simply game over screens), however the good points become lost in a mess of non-interactivity and misunderstandings.

No more 'ticking bomb' scenarios?!

Look out for a post analysing the narratives of Ken Lavine by Saturday, exams are over and the blog is back.

PS: In reading the piece, I stumbled across the fabulous word ‘parashooters’ so perhaps some of the quotes which I found offensive are more the result of non-native english skills as opposed to intent.

Written by Aonshix

November 25, 2009 at 8:12 pm

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.

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

Dead Space Extraction, My Fantasy?

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Sorry about the wait for the Korsokovia +  Radiator post, that’s still in the pipeline. It’s odd that I’ve felt so despondent about writing the piece, seeing as Radiator was my favourite mod of the lot and I feel really fired up about tearing Korsokovia apart, highlighting it’s awful flaws in addition to praising it’s fantastic atmosphere and narrative. However, I’ve  been busy playing through Beyond Good + Evil, which was amazing, especially since I’d blacked myself out to information about the game. Look forward to some detailed thoughts of why it’s so awesome soon. Finally, while I was looking over the search terms via which people find this blog I trawled up some pretty hilarious and unrelated results, so every Friday from here on I’m going to try and publish a post that caters to people who really, found the wrong blog.

Like Prototype, DS:E has some cool alternate box-arts

Like Prototype, DS:E has some cool alternate box-arts

However, today’s content will be a fairly off the cuff and dare I say short post regarding EA’s recently released rail shooter for the Wii, ‘Dead Space: Extraction‘. Now I don’t own myself a Wii, so I’ve been watching a play through of it on youtube as not only am I intrigued by this new rail shooter movement on the Wii, but they’re very overt in terms of game design and I feel irrationally attached to Dead Space’s lackluster story. Finally by the nature of the game, rail shooters are enjoyable to watch.

So I was watching this playthrough of Dead Space: Extraction, and it blew my mind. Since Dead Space was great in terms of it’s core gameplay and audio design, I expected much the same from the Wii spin off.  How wrong I was.

Dead Space: Extraction  has, about half an hour in, the best plot twist in a game I’ve seen since Bioshock. The game has a surprisingly compelling narrative, although apart from the initial twist I haven’t found anything else that’s particularly original. Mainly it’s just a narrative influenced by every horror flick that’s occurred over the last twenty years, but presented in a video game the strong characterisation in Extraction really stands out. Each of the character’s is cliche`d , yet has a hook/strong personality trait that makes them endearing in some way. The story doesn’t have alot of overt humour, but there’s some amusing elements in the overall structure of the plot, where the writers had some fun with traditional structures.  I’ve only watched up until about halfway through chapter 6 so far, so as far as I know the plot could do something crazy or it could wear out it’s welcome and start becoming arbitrary and frustrating (like the original Dead Space’s lackluster narrative did).

Despite so far having less of a narrative role, both of these are far more interesting to than anyone from the original Dead Space, including Isaac

Despite so far having less of a narrative role, both of these are far more interesting to than anyone from the original Dead Space, including Isaac

The main attraction of the original Dead Space was the immersive HUD and the same ethos has gone into designing the spin off, with the perspective so tightly controlled by the developers that you get a real sense of the protagonist. You’re not the protagonist, it’s Caldwell and the writers really use physical elements effectively to enhance the storytelling. It’s everything I was talking about in my Far Cry 2 analysis, although to be fair this sort of thing is not too uncommon within rail shooters but it’s the way I’d like immersion in every game set in the first person going.

You shoot a person with a gun. Rail Shooter/Video game?

You shoot a person with a gun. Rail Shooter/Video game?

Anyways, that’s about all I feel the need to comment on. The gameplay seems pretty standard and as I haven’t actually tried the controls (which seems pretty important for the Wii) I can’t offer an opinion and the visuals and audio elements are all pretty good, especially for the Wii which rarely receives such production values from a third party dev.  My main point is that you should watch the first few chapters of this game which is really stands out in a number of ways, despite being extremely rudimentary in terms of gameplay.

Written by Aonshix

September 29, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Adventures in First Person, Or how I came to Love the Mod

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Inspired by the recent release of ‘thechineseroom‘ ‘s survival horror ‘Korsakovia‘, I decided to do a one day binge of some of the Source engine mod’s I had missed over the last year or two, with an eye to the artistic or innovative. After scouring Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Moddb for an hour or two, I ended up with the following list of (mostly) excellent mods, to which I owe each a few lines of commentary, which you will find below. All of these mods are highly narrative (at least in their own way) so the commentary will contain SPOILERS, so I recommend you download and play through each before reading, links will be scattered throughout the article and bar Korsakovia none are particularly time consuming. The mods which will be discussed today are all independently made with fairly small teams, although thechineseroom mod team (led by Dan Pinchbeck of Portsmouth University) did receive a grant from the UK’s board of interactive entertainment, a grant which was worth approximately $10,000 according to one of the commenters on Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS). The mods all have a tendency towards the artistic, experimenting with immersion and storytelling techniques within the first person and all tell quite different stories from those we’re used to in video games. The mods I will discuss today are as follows;

  1. Dear Esther
  2. Reverie (Chapters 1 +2)
  3. Radiator (Chapter 1, ‘Polaris’ and Chapter 2 ‘Handle with Care’)
  4. And finally Korsakovia, the hot property on everyone’s lips.

As a good rule of thumb, these mods will require Half Life 2: Episode 2 to work but to be perfectly honest, I would be surprised if anyone who had the prevention to read a blog on game design didn’t already own Valve’s latest masterpiece.

Of the mods presented here, Dear Esther is probably the most disconcerting a feature accomplished in no small part due to the randomized order in which the narrative is revealed to the player. As part of the grant that thechineseroom received from the British board of Interactivity all of their mods are in some form an experiment and that of Dear Esther was into randomized storytelling, which while interesting as an experiment is frustrating as a player.  Probably #1 on my list of complaints about the choice is that it makes the already disjointed tale told in Dear Esther even harder to properly discern, as secondary playthroughs will produce a different tale. When in one game the crashed ship would be accompanied by a tale of illness and death on the island the next playthrough may have the ship linked with Paul’s journey to Damascus, stripping the ship of any contextual symbolic value and leaving it totally up to the player to decide what it means, since it has no intrinsic place in the narrative. The order the player is introduced to the narrative also creates large dissonance within the story, for while every playthrough will probably arrive at the conclusion that central character was involved in an accident which killed his wife, a playthrough which has the religious bits all placed at the start leads itself into a reading that the island is a representation of the centeral character’s mind and that the player is a psychologist of sorts, while if the same clips are clumped together at the end of the game it becomes far more logical to read it as the player being the centeral character on his journey to oblivion.

Found underwater in a cave

Found underwater in a cave

A voice at the back of my head asks whether such an experience is less valuable or ‘correct’ because it’s unique and unplanned, whether my desire for a central and definitive narrative is bourne out of my literary education being grounded in traditional and linear mediums.  Is it not a marvel that the one piece of art can manifest itself in so many ways? Is it not merely an extension of any game with multiple narrative paths, such as Mass Effect or Far Cry 2? However (still talking to myself) I then consider that both of the aforementioned titles feature narrative dissonance as a result of player choice, thus making the altered narrative reflective of the player, while in Dear Esther it is an arbitrary change with no bearing to authorial intent from either Pinchbeck or the player. Perhaps illogically this fact that the story reflects neither the person who wrote it or the player in definitive terms detracts from the poignancy of the piece in addition to making any serious discussion of it horrendously confusing.  Although one thing it does do for the player is reinforce the mood of the piece, supporting the themes of madness with a story which can be told to the player in an order totally lacking rhyme or reason. In this regard I regret knowing the purpose of this ‘experiement’ before playing, whereby I might have had a cooler experience if I had been able to attribute the illogical information flow to the broken mind in the story rather than it merely breaking the 4th wall every time I heard something which was totally out of whack.  Still, a great story with incredible atmosphere and hopefully a worthwhile experiment for the guys over in Portsmouth. Highlights for me was the first time I was presented with a 20m drop as my only path forward (I do love this sort of black humour) and dropping into the water with all of the cars, which aside from looking very cool was the first point I was really keyed into my personal reading of the island being a subconscious representation. Also the bit with the crow/gull as you exit the house scared me more than just about anything in Dead Space.

I'd be lying if I said I fully appreciate what the game's talking about when it mentioned electrical diagrams...

Now I think that Reverie has to be next mod on the list, as it shares so much in common with Dear Esther. Both are essentially ‘Ghost Houses’ linear paths which the players walk through in order to have things jump out and scare them, or in the case of Dear Esther, tell them a sad story (When I think about it, this description seems fairly analagous to my experience in the holocaust museum in New York…). Reverie has a little more interactivity in that in order to progress players must sometimes open doors or examine items and even features two fairly interactive puzzles, one in which the player must walk up to keys then use a door and another in which the player must rips boards of wood off a fence.  Regardless, both mods by and large eschew traditional interactivity in games (shooting things, solving gratuitous puzzles) in favour of reducing interactivity to its rawest state: Progression or Non-progression. As with many things, reducing the number of elements within a system sharpens the focus on the elements which have been maintained and both of these games turn progression into a constant battle against oneself as players have to force themselves to progress through these nightmarish and hostile environments. All of the effort that players usually focus into overcoming obstacles is instead channeled into the world, so players become hyper aware and extremely immersed within the game, making these horror titles so acutely more horrific than other mediums can achieve or even dedicated action horror games such as Silent Hill or Dead Space. Also I find it interesting how much scarier games set in the first person are as compared to the third person, which is surprising considering that the horror genre of video games is so deeply ingrained within the third person.

hospital

Reverie is ‘A game design experiment based in Source, Reverie takes a new approach to environmental storytelling. Players take the role of a coma victim who must traverse their own subconscious to uncover their identity, their life, and ultimately, the traumatizing event that caused the coma.’ according to the website, and with just the first two chapters released, I have to take issue with the claim that it’s taking a new approach to environmental storytelling. Symbolism driven narrative in a surreal environment is hardly anything new and the other way the narrative is told is through text, which is also hardly new. I’m also pretty worried about the prospects of ever seeing the entire story, as the website boats a 20 chapter narrative with a 4 month development time per chapter, coming to 80 months or 6 years, an incredible investment of time for an enthusiast product.  In the early chapters the manifest of the story about the ‘coma’ is minimal, so unless the rest of the narrative is explored, I feel that the story is best viewed as surreal horror instead of much else.  The highlight of this mod for me was the scene where you walked down the hall of shattering glass, which was amazingly tense and shocking, easily evoking the memories of that first dog through the window in Biohazard. I’m not sure what it is about shattering glass, but it sure scares the hell out of just about everyone.

glass

Here I’m going to break up this post as it’s approached 1500 words, Korsakovia and Radiator will be discussed in part 2.  Hope you enjoyed it 🙂

Written by Aonshix

September 25, 2009 at 6:05 pm