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Getting It Right

Getting It Right: No One Lives Forever

Nov 27 // Allistair Pinsof
The Operative: No One Lives Forever (PC, Mac)Developer: Monolith ProductionsPublisher: Fox InteractiveReleased: November 9, 2000In a nutshell: No One Lives Forever is a first-person shooter that strongly leans on stealth mechanics. The story centers on Cate Archer, cat burglar turned international spy. Growing tired of her new job, she is anxious to be put on the field for a mission. When things go awry during her first outing, Cate is suddenly thrown into a mess of espionage, conspiracy, and intrigue. A great script“What film are you watching?” my mom asked, during NOLF’s opening cutscene. I never forgot that moment. It was the moment I felt videogames had grown up, alongside me. Returning to NOLF, 12 years later, the graphics are a bit dated but the game’s whip-smart dialog hasn’t aged a bit. The snappy, witty script of NOLF imitates the great thrillers of the ‘60s while poking fun at the psychedelic, feel-good pop culture of the time. Austin Powers may have spurred the project, but NOLF handles the satire with a lighter touch. On the other hand, the laughs aren’t quite as great.NOLF is packed full of dialog in briefings, overheard conversations, and cinematics. Characters and relationships are made immediately familiar through the game’s lively conversations. Take for example, the opening exchange between protagonist Cate Archer and her boss Bruno. Cate’s reluctance and inflammatory wit and Bruno’s protectiveness come through along with details on his and her past. With no time at all, I cared for and felt I knew each each character. The same is true of the rest of the game’s villains and periphery characters.Another great example is the introduction of Agent Goodman at a Hamburg nightclub. Not only does the scene establish Goodman as a lazy, arrogant partner, the dialog also boldy and directly addresses Cate’s female attributes in a way I haven’t seen a game do since. It’s a great scene that I recommend watching on YouTube, if you decide not to play. Feel like a spyBeing a good spy is all about having control over a situation without letting anyone know it. Like James Bond, Cate Archer is frequently tasked with blending in at public spaces, using gadgets to get past security, and keeping a low profile in enemy compounds. NOLF gets all the details right without being afraid to poke fun at genre tropes, such as agency code phrases that take the form of long, nonsensical conversations and gadgets that would fit right into a Roger Moore Bond film. Cate has a robot dog that will distract canines, an explosive makeup kit, a hairpin that doubles as a lock pick, a poisonous bottle of perfume, and many other great toys.Sneaking into an office is something you’ve done in a game before, but NOLF’s smartly designed levels make you feel like you are on a great spy adventure. There are boss fights, outlandish setpieces, and lots of firefights, but it’s the trip to a nightclub and hunting down a fellow agent in Berlin that stick with me. Though its sequel is better in many ways, NOLF 2 didn’t quite embody the essence of being a spy in the same way -- at least it tried, which is more than I can say of any recent Bond game. A confident sense of styleComing out soon after the first Austin Powers, it’s hard not to compare NOLF to it. It’s not a fair comparison since NOLF takes itself a bit more seriously but never too seriously. It’s plot, full of mysteries and twists, borrows a lot from the Roger Moore Bond films, such as Moonraker. While the over the top characters and scenarios broke immersion in those films, they fit perfectly in NOLF. The villains in NOLF are so ridiculous and lovable that it’s hard to put an end to their evil plans. The main villain, Dmitrij Volkov, is a master chess player who grew up in the Gulag, Inge Wagner is a heavyset, terrible opera singer that kills with her strained vocal chords, and Magnus Armstrong is a kilt-wearing Scotsman that puts his personal honor above any orders. Each one deserves their own dedicated game.The humor doesn’t stop at the main cutscenes, though. Each mission is filled with conversations between enemies that you can stop and overhear. The length, writing, and performances of these conversations is pretty stunning for the time. Some conversations give detail on the background of characters, while others are just random, comical tangents. NOLF is filled with so much color, literally and figuratively. It's rare that you find a game with such a unique, fully realized world. Memorable scripted action scenariosSome may say different, but 1998 to 2000 was the most exciting period for games. I attribute this feeling largely to the introduction of advanced scripting and cinematic storytelling introduced by Half-Life and Metal Gear Solid. Suddenly, it felt like videogames were advancing and taking the place of non-interactive entertainment. NOLF was one of the few games to follow suit, offering a lenghty story with setpieces, surprises, and memorable cinematics -- three years before Call of Duty, mind you.The first thing that comes to mind when I think about NOLF is the mission titled ‘Unexpected Turbulence’, in which the player clears out an airplane, dives out of it, and steals an enemy’s parachute before crashing to the ground. In 2000, it was mindblowing. In 2012, it’s still a pretty great scene. Escaping a meteor shower in a space station, sniping as your partner calls out targets in Morocco, and escaping a sinking submarine only to revisit it later in the game all stand out as memorable moments in NOLF. Scripted events are a dime a dozen in games today, but rarely do they contain the flair and imagination that NOLF had before the trend even began. Now, it’s all crashing helicopters and crumbling buildings that take away player input. NOLF not only did scripted scenes a generation early, it did it better. Freedom in approachNOLF is a better version of Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, minus worthwhile multiplayer. I loved Goldeneye but NOLF offers a more sophisticated take on Rare’s objective-based shooter. Most of NOLF’s missions offer freedom in approach. You’ll find multiple paths, alternate ways of completing an objective, and almost always have the ability to blow your cover, if you choose.I enjoy a good stealth game when I’m in the mood. Though dated, NOLF’s core mechanics of hiding in the dark, sneaking silently, and distracting guards with a quarter remains satisfying, all these years later. I occasionally grow tired of these sections, so I’m glad that the game lets me go in guns blazing. Unfortunately, NOLF doesn’t compensate by adding more guards, so this approach makes for an easy, albeit enjoyable FPS. In comparison to its competition, NOLF was a very forward thinking game that knows that sometimes players don’t want to follow the suggested path laid before them.NOLF owes a lot to Austin Powers and James Bond, but its world, characters, and story are all its own. No other FPS at the time had dynamic music, scripted events, controllable vehicles, dialogue options, and lengthy cutscenes. Time had a way of catching up to NOLF, as now these things are all commonplace. What’s not common is the game’s style and confidence. This past generation has been one of space aliens and bombed-out middle eastern villages that all blend together. NOLF is a rare example of inspired, holistic design in a FPS, where all the pieces form to create a greater whole. My mind spins in thinking what a new NOLF could be in 2012, but part of me worries that the spirit, freedom, and personality wouldn’t remain intact, in favor of current trends. Thankfully, the two NOLFs we have hold up just fine.
Getting It Right photo
Live and let die
[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.] Some of th...

Getting It Right: Sanitarium

Oct 30 // Allistair Pinsof
Sanitarium (PC)Developer: DreamForge IntertainmentPublisher: ASC GamesReleased: April 30, 1998 In a nutshell: Sanitarium begins in a mental asylum, yet it’s the most sane place you’ll visit in the game. On a journey to find out who he is and why he is being transported to different dreamworlds, Max takes on different avatars and fulfills various quests. This eccentric, polished adventure game is unlike any other in the genre. From its isometric view to the unsettling character designs, Sanitarium creates a bizarre reality through unconventional means. It’s an oddity, for sure, and one that got it right. [embed]237573:45595[/embed] Mystique By Sanitarium’s end, many questions remain unanswered but most are buried within the environments and dialogue, waiting to be discovered on subsequent playthroughs. The story’s slow build-up and reluctance to give answers creates an unsettling atmosphere that sets the tone for the events to come. A lack of clarity in narrative may sour many games, but it's a big part of what makes Sanitarium so great. If waking up in a mental hospital isn’t disorienting enough, waking up in an abandoned town overrun by disfigured children should do the trick. Each chapter of Sanitarium throws the protagonist in a new environment and often in a new persona. While transitioning from a little girl to a four-armed monster seems completely random at first, the underlying symbolism starts to unspool and make sense of things. The storytelling, environments, voice acting, music, and dialogue build up an incredible atmosphere that is thick enough to cut with a knife. Sanitarium’s eccentricities recall the films of David Lynch, while the relentless horrors of the game’s story bring to mind Silent Hill. One thing these both share is a great sense of mystery that makes you feel uneasy but compels you to explore a dark, twisted world for answers. Disturbing but not scary Sometimes, the horrors that pose no immediate threat are the ones that stay with us the longest. Maybe it’s an issue of over-familiarity but zombies, vampires, and werewolves just don’t provide a good shock anymore. Sanitarium’s disfigured children, lonely freaks, grotesque aliens, and mourning ghosts are far more unnerving to me. Sanitarium never seeks to scare, but its visuals often got under my skin, despite the dated graphics. Deformed humans acting as if there isn't anything wrong with them is unsettling on so many levels. Maggot-like aliens and cyborgs drilling holes into giant human fetuses make for a close second place. Even when the game returns Max to the mental ward, he is surrounded by hostile doctors and insane patients. There is no escape from Sanitarium's bizarre characters and world. While some areas are stranger and lonelier than others, everything in the game has the potential to disturb. It creates a unique, threatening atmosphere that isn't like much else in the medium. Storytelling that works on multiple levels Sanitarium’s story has its faults, particularly in its final chapter. The hellbent antagonist’s motivation and mannerisms are exaggerated and unconvincingly villainous. It’s a bad fit for a game that provides a surprising amount of maturity in its approach. Take, for example, the first large area: A town overgrown with plant life and abandoned by adults after a comet hit. Now, the town is a lonely place where only mutated children reside. Some are more lost and cruel than others but most of them seem pretty content with the state of things. This whole scenario, like all the ones that are to follow, appears completely random at first glance. But then, the environment and characters begin to tell a different story. Every sub-story of Sanitarium takes place in Max’s mind which gives them all a deeper significance. Abandoned children, a history of abuse, a corrupt preacher, an alien force -- all of these things make sense by the end of the game. Even the ideas that aren’t directly addressed can be analyzed and interpreted in different ways. The mulch-faceted storytelling of Sanitarium is a dark and cerebral kind that gives the player tools to answer questions, instead of putting it all on a silver platter. Feeling helpless Making a player feel out of control is a tricky thing to accomplish without eliciting the wrong kind of frustration at a game. When done effectively, however, it leads to some powerful moments. I forgot most of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories but I clearly remember the wheelchair sequence and the impact it had on me. Though the feeling of helplessness that Sanitarium evokes is more mental than physical, it achieves a similar feeling. Being locked away and abused by staff made me very uncomfortable throughout Sanitarium's asylum chapters. Not only will no one help out Max, they constantly lie to him -- some even bully him. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and 12 Monkeys didn't make me think, "Man, mental hospitals are awesome!" but they are nothing compared to the ones Max visits. Large scope For a story that mostly takes place in one man’s mind, Sanitarium manages to take players across a lot of cultures, eras, and places. Name another game that lets you control an Aztec god, little girl, and four-armed alien. You won’t because there isn’t one. Despite being a large, ambitious adventure, Sanitarium feels personal throughout its entirety. Cut scenes consistently link things in the imaginary world with Max’s suppressed memories, making player’s remember that this is Max’s story. Even though you are Max for only a small part of Sanitarium, I never got a sense that he was abandoned as the focus. Exploring Max’s past is always at the forefront of the story, which makes for great narrative motivation. Each of the game’s dreamworld sub-plots are engaging on their own and are made even more engaging by being linked to a larger thread. Parts of the game seem stupidly ambitious -- sometimes to a fault (see: the terrible combat sections) -- but Max’s chapters have a way of grounding the story, making it a personal tale again. If you want to tell a great story, write a book. If you don’t want to write a book, an adventure game may do just fine. Due to the pacing and structure of action in the genre, adventures are most welcoming to deep, innovative storytelling. Players are more willing to take in large amounts of dialogue, developers are more free to explore ideas without violence having to always play a part, and fun puzzles can always tie it all together. Sanitarium is a damn good story. It may end a bit rough and take a while to get going, but I struggle to think of many game narratives of its caliber. It’s funny then to observe that Sanitarium begins with one of gaming’s biggest cliches: an amnesia-inflicted protagonist. Instead of using this as an excuse to have a cast of character ramble off exposition -- I’m looking at you, JRPGs -- Sanitarium creates a riveting narrative web work around the concept. [Image courtesy of cky1988]
A Haunted Adventure photo
A must play for the sane and insane alike
[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.] For a medium ...

Getting It Right: Resident Evil

Sep 24 // Allistair Pinsof
Resident Evil [2002] (GameCube, Wii)Developer: CapcomPublisher: CapcomReleased: April 30, 2002 In a nutshell: In 2002, Capcom did what no developer would dare do in 2012: made a faithful recreation of a six-year-old game with a cult following. This remake added new areas, enemies, endings, and improved controls, but the biggest upgrade was in the visuals, which added the horror back into the game's large, foreboding mansion. Though we still use the label "survival horror," the emphasis has been taken off "survival" since the release of this gem. A large, interconnected world Like any great horror movie, there is an ebb and flow to the horrors of Resident Evil, and it's all dictated by the game's brilliantly crafted setting. Some would love to have a mansion, but the thought of all that empty space and dark corners scares me away from the idea. Resident Evil is a game about this feeling -- the unnerving fear of the unknown and the comfort of familiarity. At the start, the Spencer Mansion is a foreboding place where every door is an invitation to evil and dismemberment. Soon, you start to map out the first floor. Next, you find brief sanctuary in the save rooms. By the time you clear out the halls, the house begins to feel like a home, and your heartbeat relaxes. The game teases you with locked doors -- even worse, mysteriously jammed doors! Unlocking them to discover a shortcut to a previous area is as satisfying as taking down one of the game's bosses. Never knowing what's around the corner As a culture, we live in fear of spoilers. A great surprise is as close to a holy moment as us geeks get, and there will be hell to pay if someone takes that away from us! Lucky for you, Resident Evil is a game full of surprises, though they aren't very nice ones. It never highlights what's around the corner or gives the false security of a checkpoint, so you'll be constantly praying that the next room is a puzzle and not a boss encounter. As you travel further into the game, old areas start revealing hidden items, cleared rooms start offering new enemies, and old bosses rear their head again. You'll be wishing you didn't leave that ammo box on the ground in that one room that you can't remember where the hell it is and OH GOD A GIANT SNAKE FUUUuuu ... It goes without saying that surprise is essential to a good horror game. Just look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories to see how limp a horror game can become when it advertises its next move. Resident Evil asks the player to blindly trust the game; that if the player tries their best, they will survive. But some players will soon realize that their best isn't good enough. Just like in Dark Souls and Spelunky, making it to areas that you know others could never reach makes the journey all the sweeter. Finding comfort in a familiar place Resident Evil is a grueling game that isn’t shy about playing with expectations. Dogs provide literal jump scares, new enemies invade old areas, and there is a price to pay for every zombie you don't fully dispose of. Along with the horror of feeling locked outside areas and trapped within others, there is a simple joy to playing virtual cartographer. For those God of War and Super Metroid players who feel giddy after fully exploring an area, Resident Evil will make them pee their pants -- assuming they don't shit themselves first. Finding solace in the save rooms and main hallway is a unique feeling that I don't get from any other series. By the end of the game, you feel like you know the mansion inside and out, making you feel empowered. Or maybe that's just the grenade launcher with 18 acid rounds talking? Regardless, you feel like you've been on a wild ride as you return to familiar places and reflect on all the horrifying events that have transpired. The game allows you a moment to catch your breath before giving you another reason to let it all out in a scream, again. Alternate paths and strategies Maybe it's the fault of marketing and media exposure, but the branching paths of Heavy Rain and Mass Effect never shocked me in the way those of Resident Evil do. While it's clear that those two games were designed around the branching path concept and wanted to make the element of design clear to the player, Resident Evil is a game about psychological fear and withholding information. There are several times in the game where the player can choose drastically different options, but you'd never think you had an alternate choice unless you read about it in a FAQ. Even when you do read a guide, you'll often find yourself lost. "Wait, where is the automatic shotgun and why am I carrying this broken shotgun?" you’ll ask. Or, "Why did I never have that boss fight at the end?" In addition to these narrative splits, there are some clever alternate approaches one can take in the combat. There is the binary choice between evading and fighting with the common zombie, but things become more interesting with the boss fights that often offer a non-combat approach if you go the extra mile in your puzzle solving. On top of all this, the game has two main characters to play as that offer different dialog, weapons, and changes in the narrative. Unlike Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, by the end, I felt like I played the game the only way it could have been played rather than carving out my own version of it. Instead of wondering if I played the "best version," I was left wondering if there was even another version at all. Death means something As anyone who has played Spelunky can attest, taking away the ability to save can render even an approachable, cute platformer into a game of tense, horrific moments. And as anyone who has played the recent batch of horror games can attest, being given numerous checkpoints takes the fear out of the genre. The greatest fear for a Resident Evil player isn't zombies, but running out of ink ribbons. These ribbons are hidden throughout the game and are the only way to save progress. Since there are only 30 or so throughout the 11-hour game, and since you'll often be lucky to have more than one in your inventory, it's a constant source of tension that makes every unopened door and uncleared hallway into an unbearable threat. There is a compromise the player and developer make with such a restricted save system. Yes, it inconveniences the player, but it also heightens the fear and pleasure of the game. There is no moment more tense than going an hour without saving and being stuck with low health. But, there is no moment more satisfying than finding a save room, right when you thought you'd have to restart the entire game. For the brave and willing, the ink ribbon system will give you some of the most memorable gaming moments ever. Resident Evil was a landmark title in 1996 that ushered in mature console horror gaming. By 2002, its impact had been weakened, but Capcom addressed this with this nearly flawless remake. The lightning, detailed CG backgrounds, and high-polygon models still look fantastic and keep the game from feeling goofy in the way the original PlayStation games are now. For those who think they can handle the challenge and scares of this classic, you'll need to readjust how you approach games. Resident Evil was never the norm. Its pacing and unforgiving design limit its audience, but all of its misperceived flaws are essential to the experience. The controls aren't sluggish but intentionally slow, making intense moments more intense. The ink ribbon system and limited inventory ask players to make constant sacrifices that add weight to their actions. It's clear that Resident Evil is an abnormal, obtuse game, but everything about it adds up to one of the most unique, memorable horror games of all time. Resident Evil (1996) may have spawned the genre, RE2 may have broadened its scope, but this remake is the crown jewel of the genre. [And yes, I love RE4, but it's not survival horror.]
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Something happened between 2002 and 2003. Gamers and critics suddenly stopped praising Resident Evil as one of gaming's best series and started calling it dated, clunky, and boring. Take Resident Evil Code: Veronica. Upon ...


Getting It Right: Klonoa 2

Aug 27 // Allistair Pinsof
Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil (PlayStation 2)Developer: NamcoPublisher: NamcoReleased: March 18, 2003 In a nutshell: Klonoa 2 is the follow-up to the 1997 cult hit that paired a colorful, dreamlike world with fluid platforming and clever puzzles. Klonoa uses his over-sized ring (the Wind Bullet) to grab enemies and toss them. After a portal shoots Klonoa into the world of Lunatea, he joins a priestess in training and her adorable pet as they try to put a stop to a bell that is spawning evil creatures into the world. Makes sense, right? A detailed, unique look Despite playing a ten-year-old game on a standard TV, I am still mesmerized by Klonoa 2’s visuals and often catch myself smiling for no good reason. Perhaps it is for a good reason. That reason being that it’s rare to find such a detailed, imaginative, and colorful setting in games today. Shackled by HD demands and misguided by market research, the time modern developers put into creating a distinct look and world isn’t equal to the time spent tweaking lighting systems and visual filters. Our expectations are so low that just making a game on Unreal Engine 3 not look completely brown and grey is enough to earn praise. The world of Klonoa is one of pure whimsy and delight. It’s a world made of primary colors, fantastical locales, and places we would want to visit even if we weren’t tasked with throwing baddies all day. Amusement parks have detailed roller coasters in the distance and fireworks exploding in the sky, European-esque cities are detailed with train systems and ornamental detail on war-torn homes, and natural environments (woodlands, caverns, cliff sides) are brought to life through intricate backdrops and foregrounds. All of these thoughtfully composed levels are complemented by one of the earliest and best uses of cel shading and some stellar proto-furries character design. Each of the game’s areas are so distinct and detailed that you never know what to expect next, other than more eye-candy. Puzzles make everything better Some say 2D Mario hasn’t changed since Super Mario World, but it has and not for the better. SMW had puzzles to go along with the platforming. Sure, finding every coin and secret is a puzzle in their own way, but SMW was much more direct with its approach to puzzles. This soon fell out of favor, not only in future entries, but in the genre as a whole. The puzzles of Klonoa are what makes the games so unique and well paced. Sometimes, you are surfing down a half-pipe, but other times, you just need to stop and use your brain for a bit. Admittedly, these puzzles won’t stump anyone who got past the first Klonoa but their inclusion is appreciated, nonetheless. Every game could benefit from some puzzles that break up the action from time to time. This is just one of the few things that makes Half-Life so much more enjoyable than Call of Duty and Super Mario World a bit more special than New Super Mario Bros. The feeling of being on an adventure Platformers’ stories are typically only present to provide backstory and bridge the action, but Klonoa’s characters and dialog do a bit more than this. They give the game some heart. Klonoa 2’s dialogue is badly paced and simplistic to a fault, but it helps give a sense of adventure and progress within the world of Lunatea. You won’t even mind (heavily redesigned) recycled levels because it fits within the context of the plot and even makes it exciting to revisit an earlier area to discover how it changed. 16-bit platformers gave us the sense that one day we’d be playing our Saturday morning cartoons instead of watching them -- an idea that Klonoa 2 delivers on, if only for a couple hours. Escaping from a crumbling city, chasing the bad guy across the map, and heading into unknown territory with Klonoa and company is a fun trip. The game hits a sweet spot between giving scenarios more impact through storytelling without drowning the player in Kingdom Hearts-levels of insular nonsense. A one-of-a-kind world The personified hills and fluffy clouds of Mario may be surreal by design, but they have become normalized through familiarity over the years. The rules of the 2D platformer are so simple -- you run and jump with rarely more than two buttons required -- it opens the door to all sorts of possibilities in presentation and world-building that developers never seem to capitalize on. Most are content to follow Nintendo's legacy and play it safe. Klonoa is the exception to the rule. Klonoa goes to some weird places in both its visuals and story, but it grounds them all through its cast’s goals and desires. Yeah, you are fighting in the Kingdom of Joy as you try to put an end to the King of Sorrow, but it kind of just works despite how ridiculous it sounds. Everything in the game’s design builds this strange, magical world that isn’t quite like anything else. I don’t know what the hell is going on with Klonoa’s ears or why the King of Sorrow is such a cry-baby, but it doesn’t really matter. The game never begs that you take its bizarre fiction seriously. It’s all secondary to the action but the surreal story does a great job of providing some awesome visuals, settings, and moments through it. Melancholy music and story Klonoa 2 is sappy -- even more so than the original -- but it’s a good kind of sappy that makes the ending pull on the heartstrings in an unexpected way. The game starts in a strange, sentimental space and plunges deeper down the rabbit hole until its finale when all is revealed and the “Dream Traveler” must face his fate. Along with the imaginative art direction, it’s the music that really pulls me into Klonoa’s melancholic world. The game often reminds me of Chrono Cross at times. Here you are on this grand adventure in a colorful place, but it all feels a bit sad for some reason. Klonoa has no real identity, everything is in disorder, and your adventure is complemented by one of the prettiest, saddest soundtracks to grace a sidescroller since Donkey Kong Country. There is a sweetness and sadness to Klonoa's second outing that makes the game all the more memorable for it. In a medium where anything is possible, most games seem uninspired, gloomy, and self-important. Klonoa 2 stands in strong contrast with its bubblegum world and feel-good atmosphere. It may be a bit too simple and rest heavily on the mechanics established in the first entry, but this sequel is manufactured joy for anyone seeking an off-the-beaten-path platformer with a lot of wit and heart. Even without the HD upgrade (this game is non-emulator friendly), Klonoa 2's world still pops thanks to its incredible art direction. It's a real testament that visuals and audio can immerse the player without resorting to gritty realism or familiar genre tropes. If there is one game begging for a current- (next- ?) gen sequel, it's Klonoa. C'mon, Namco! Stop being jerks! [Image source]
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[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.] Did the 2D pla...

Getting It Right: Rainbow Six 3

Jul 31 // Allistair Pinsof
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield (PC) Developer: Red Storm Entertainment Publisher: Ubisoft Released: March 18, 2003 In a nutshell: Based off the Tom Clancy novel of the same name, the Rainbow Six series follows an elite counter-terrorist squad that keeps people from blowing this world to hell. Story is secondary in Rainbow Six. The focus is on planning out waypoints on a tactical map, choosing your squad and equipment, and going into action via first-person where you can make orders and directly attack enemies. You can jump into any member of any squad at any time. The hero of this game isn't a squad member but the plan they all follow -- the one you made minutes before. Plan out missions with care Rainbow Six has devolved as a series. I won’t tell you that Vegas 1 & 2 are bad games, though. I love them! However, it is sad to see the tactical shooter fade out as a genre due to market demands and publisher concerns. The problem is that people don’t know what they are missing. Maybe you are one of them. The first Rainbow Six was a groundbreaking title in many respects but it was the pre-mission tactical planning that blew critics and FPS fans away in 1998. Every decision made in a mission, except goals, is left up to the player. Instead of an NPC barking orders at you or being forced in one direction, the player dictates every waypoint, action, and even approach: do you go for a stealthy recon run or blitz assault a couple Russian terrorists? That’s a rhetorical question because you’ll end up doing both before you successfully complete a mission. Rainbow Six 3 took great leaps forward in making its planning map more accessible, though it still reeks of 2003-era bad design decisions. One of my favorite features is the ability to observe a test run of your plan. Watching your different teams go their separate ways, wait for their go-codes, and rescue a hostage without losing a member is a unique kind of joy I don’t get out of any other game. It’s rewarding because you’ll spend hours in the planning phase, if you are anything like me. I obsess over making the perfect plan, and then I go on YouTube and am blown away by how much I have yet to learn. There is an educational aspect of R6 that I love. You learn smart tactical planning and get a sense of what military go through every day. You NEED to check your corners, flashbang before entry, and avoid open areas. This isn’t Call of Duty. Plan as much as you care to Though I have fond memories of playing Rainbow Six 1 & 2 in the '90s, I missed out on a major part of the series: planning the mission. Instead of taking the time to understand the planning UI and utilize different strategies, I would jump into the default plans that came with the game. Though I’ve recently found an appreciation for this stage of the game, I think it’s kind of awesome that you don’t have to participate in planning if you don’t want to. The default plans that come with the game are much better than most plans I initially come up with (and sometimes even than those I end up with after various iterations), but they still leave room for improvement. You can either make your own plan, reiterate on the default, use the default, or go in with no plan at all. I did mostly the last two, back in the day, and I still had a great time with R6 because of the incredible tension and languid pace of the games. Even if you don’t plan out each flashbang toss and hostage escort, you can still make snap judgements on the fly. If you go in without a plan, you’ll be well prepared for multiplayer and Terrorist Hunt (a cooperative mode where you take down a set number of randomly spawned enemies). If you go in with a plan, you’ll be able to take part in a unique thrill that no other game series gives to players. R6 is the rare strategy game that is as much of a shooter as you want it to be. The game will let you commit to its complex systems as much as you'd like. If you just want it to be a shooter, it will be just that for you and it will be a pretty good one. A strong attachment to your squad Rainbow Six is one of those rare shooters where the sound of gun fire doesn’t elicit a sense of excitement but pants-crapping fear. A single bullet can kill a squadmate and once they are down, they are down for good. Unlike last month's feature entry, Valkyria Chronicles, there is no way to heal a squadmate or carry them off the field. The most you can hope for is some basic damage, which will cause your squad member to slowly limp for the rest of the mission. Even without having any familiarity with the characters that appear in Tom Clancy’s novels, it was easy for me to become attached to my squad. There’s the blonde Swedish sniper. Oh, that guy? That’s the U.S. recon soldier with the creepy mustache. When your team members die, they become replaced with generic soldiers with bad stats and no name. Players can blaze through the campaign, filling their ranks with these unknown soldiers, but I imagine most players won’t be able to stomach it any better than I could. It’s very easy to become obsessed with the perfect plan in R6. Even when you make a successful plan, there are too many factors to guarantee safety to all squad members. Even when you play to the best of your ability, there will be casualties and each one will take its mental/emotional toll on you. By the end of a mission, I felt like a police captain from a corny action flick. “No! Goddammit! No! Not the goofy looking blonde Swedish sniper! He was too young! I remember when we saved those hostages that one time in Venezuela. This can’t be happening! AGGRGGHHH!” and then I take a swig of whiskey and hurt my back trying to flip my desk. An immersive and realistic setting Before Call of Duty brought G.I. Joe sensibilities to the modern shooter, R6 was your best bet if you wanted to be immersed in a contemporary setting. Oil refineries, nondescript villages, and airplane hangers aren’t exactly vacation destinations but R6 makes them interesting by grounding them in reality. In contrast to modern games that builds realistic-looking locations around impractical, exaggerated architecture, R6’s locations feel completely sensible, even if they are a bit dull at times. All of this works toward the game’s aesthetic and fiction. There isn’t much story to become attached to, but the mission briefings always hook me. I love feeling immersed in this role as leader and commander of the unit. I want to know about my enemy and their mission, so I listen to the different intel sources' speeches. I want to know the vantage points of a location, so I study the map and briefing video. In a lot of games, I just skim over this kind of stuff, but I find it to be very rewarding in the R6 series. In general, I prefer over-the-top, abstract level design (think Doom or Thief), but R6 is one of those rare games where a realistic setting makes sense and the developer really pulled it off with an attention to detail. Though SWAT 3 & 4 and Rogue Spear had more interesting locations and scenarios, I still found a lot to enjoy about Raven Shield’s humdrum levels. Making full use of the mouse and keyboard In the age of console-first games, the all-mighty keyboard and mouse combo rarely gets the love it deserves. Hell, I couldn’t even navigate the menus of Binary Domain on PC without a controller in hand. While an Xbox 360 controller might be overwhelming for those new to games, the input possibilities it offers pale in comparison to PC controls. Yet, games rarely take advantage of all the keys. Rainbow Six 3 isn’t one of them. I won’t lie: This game has a steep learning curve and the controls are partly to blame, but I ended up loving them after a couple missions. A lot of inputs could be refined to radial menus -- you don’t need individual keys for four separate go-codes -- but there are some brilliant design touches that still impress. I’m a big fan of leaning in games. Latching onto cover is cool, but nothing beats nervously peeking around a corner in R6. In a game where death comes quickly, being cautious and slowly approaching is a must. My favorite action is the ability to slowly open and close doors with the mouse wheel. Having the mouse wheel dedicated to such an obscure action seemed crazy to me at first until I started to use it. I found it to be completely brilliant. Not to repeat the above, but I can’t state enough how important it is to be out of the line of fire in this game. You don’t want to run into a room and throw a grenade. As you would in real life, you want to slowly crack open a door and bounce a grenade off a wall. Being able to carefully open a door lets you do this. It also lets you take a couple sneaky potshots at terrorists from a safe spot. A lot of R6’s controls seems insane at first, but they all serve a purpose -- one that couldn’t be achieved with a controller. If you have a hard time wrapping your head around the tactical dynamics in the Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter series, I’m not sure I can recommend the much more complex Raven Shield to you. However, if you have an open mind, a soft spot for tactical shooters, and are okay with a steep learning curve, you may just find a new favorite. For a medium with so many reboots and indie games worshiping classics of the past, I don’t understand why the tactical shooter has completely died out. I can’t think of a another game like Raven Shield that came after it, outside SWAT 4. There have been a couple Kickstarters (Takedown, Ground Branch) that have listed Rainbow Six as an influence, but they don’t mention anything about tactical maps and planning in their pitches. I understand that Ubisoft is going to go where the money is but even a smaller-scale Rainbow Six reboot would be a godsend. Though Raven Shield refined many aspects of the series, there is so much that can be improved through modern design sensibilities and hardware. Can you imagine being able to share your plans with friends online? Being able to play the game co-op without getting rid of the planning stage? Having more freedom to direct squads during a mission? There is so much potential for this series that will sadly never be realized, because people just don’t care about a good tactical shooter anymore. Well, besides me and all the crazy people that still populate the Raven Shield servers online. Why not download the game on Steam and join us? I have a feeling you won't regret it.
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[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.] Enlisting as a s...

Getting It Right: Max Payne

May 10 // Allistair Pinsof
Max PayneDeveloper: Remedy EntertainmentPublisher: Rockstar Games, Gathering (PC)Released: July 23, 2001In a nutshell: With only a PC arcade-style racing game behind them, Death Rally, Remedy spent half a decade developing Max Payne: An ambitious shooter set in NYC that told a contemporary noir story through comic book panels, cutscenes, and action. It stood out in 2001 for its photo-realistic graphics, cinematic presentation, and slow-mo mechanic. Spotlighting the player’s actionsI often find myself slowly panning the camera like a E3 demo guide when I play a Call of Duty game -- going against the game’s player direction in order to give myself a more cinematic experience. But, when I play Max Payne I feel like the ideal performance leads directly to the ideal visual feast. This is a rarity in videogames, but I’m not sure why it should be. Game developers must always perform a balancing act in giving players space to perform while also giving them rewards for their performance. The key to Max Payne’s success is its ability to highlight player action in a flashy way without taking away their influence or ruining the flow of action. Max Payne was revolutionary in combining these two aspects into a seamless experience. Where other games might put you in a fight and then present a cinematic of the events following it, Max Payne’s visual flair in battles came directly from the player’s actions -- letting a well-aimed bullet and bold dodge trigger brief cinematic moments.Metal Gear Solid made me feel like I was watching an awesome action flick, but it wasn’t until I played Max Payne that I felt I was in one. By framing the player’s actions with panning camera angles, dramatic zooms, and mesmerizing slow motion, Max Payne put the spotlight on the player’s actions in a way never attempted before.Developers shouldn’t be inspired by the mechanic of player activated slow-motion. Instead, they should focus on the effect framing a player's actions can have on combat. God of War and Uncharted achieve the same impact by presenting wide cinematic angles during platforming segments. Ninja Gaiden 2 applied this by highlighting deathblows in spectacular fashion, while Deus Ex: Human Revolution added spectacular visual animations to certain abilities when successfully performed. Even Resonance of Fate, a Japanese RPG of all things, managed to make a rote battle into a John Woo fever dream where characters endlessly jumped and fired guns when given the order. In years since Max Payne's debut, God of War, Fallout 3, and other games have done this in their own way to great effect. It’s easy to look at bullet time as a gimmick or a novel feature. In truth, it changes everything: the tone, the pace, and the spectacle of combat. There is nothing else like it. Even though others games replicated this feature, as in the F.E.A.R. series and Stranglehold, it never felt quite as special as it did in Max Payne. Versatile arsenalA good selection of weapons in a game is defined by its strengths as much as it is defined by its shortcomings. On the surface, Max Payne has the most generic set of weapons a videogame could possibly offer. As it should -- after all, the story is based in New York City, circa 2001. While sci-fi and arena shooters may have more imaginative weapons, few games strike the near perfect balance of Max’s arsenal. Due to careful calibration on the developer’s part, each weapon has its ideal time and place. Even during the game’s final hours, I found myself reaching to weapons obtained hours earlier out of strategic necessity. Sure, the Striker may have terrible spread (in the first Max Payne, at least) -- and you can cheat the reload of every weapon by quickly swapping them in-and-out -- but otherwise the entire weapon selection is pretty much flawless. In one instance, you may assume a door in front of you leads to a narrow hallway, so you equip dual Ingram uzis to deal maximum damage in a short amount of time. Turns out it’s a wide open courtyard with enemies above and below. Oops! So you snipe an enemy above, pull out the M4 Carbine on enemies below, and dive into an incoming group of enemies with dual Desert Eagles.As good as the first Max Payne’s weapons were, the sequel perfected it by giving projectiles a dedicated button and rebalancing other weapons (although the grenade launcher and baseball bat were sorely missed). While many games have a loadout similar to Max’s, it’s rare they strike the same balance. The difference it makes is drastic. Instead of leaning toward the vastly superior weapon, Max Payne’s intense combat scenarios and challenging difficulty demand the player to know what’s right for a specific enemy type and setting. Every battle is a victory well earned in Max Payne, even when it leaves poor Max hobbling on one leg toward the next ambush. Emotional complexityWhen David Cage and Jenova Chen speak of “emotional complexity”, I roll my eyes. After all, who is to say a father grieving for his kidnapped son is more emotionally complex than Kratos’ endless rage at the gods? From a distance, every emotion is equal in its potential for impact. It all depends on delivery and the player’s value judgement.However, I don’t entirely dismiss the idea of “emotional complexity.” It’s just that to me it means something much different. It’s not about the value judgement of a specific emotion but the layering of contrasting emotions: The way a Smiths song can sound so dour, while Morrissey’s sardonic lyrics can make me smile. The way George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead can make a zombie a source of fear seconds after being a source of laughter. Max Payne is also full of emotionally complexity. In play, the game can be harrowing depending on player health and ammo. In storytelling, the game can be freighting or laugh-out-loud funny depending on what it’s presenting at the time. In one instance you are in a nightmare having a dead baby shoved into your face, while another stage contains a parody of BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs. Having contrasting emotional elements isn’t a key to success, as Fez and Sword & Sworcery recently proved. Both games have dialog and elements that break the game’s fiction for a cheap, self-knowing laugh. It all comes down to delivery. While Max Payne 2 may take itself a bit more seriously, both games succeed in skillfully telling a story while giving the player enough opportunities to laugh, tense up, and occasionally shit themselves. True emotional complexity -- that is contrasting emotions piling into each other; not sappy music playing over pastoral landscapes -- makes for games with more depth. Whether it’s melancholy music playing over an upbeat adventure or comedic dialog overlapping a harrowing scenario, layered emotional tones can create unique, memorable moments in games. Start with a bangNeither Max Payne has a good story. Sure, they have great atmosphere, personality, and characters, but they hardly make up a tale we haven't heard before. What these games do have, however, is an immediate and clear goal given to the player by a time-tested story method: starting in media res.For you illiterate swine, in media res is a Latin term which means “into the middle of things." It’s when a story begins without introducing the setting, characters, and/or scenario. The audience enters into the story at a mid-point. The result is two-fold: positive and negative. On one hand, it creates an indifference in the viewer by distancing them from the characters’ reality. On the other hand, it creates a goal for the viewer: “I must figure out how things got to this point!”Thankfully, Max Payne is such a great narrator that we feel connected to him despite not understanding his situation. Max’s goal and our goal both intersect and conflict: We want him to get his revenge but we also want to know how he got his revenge. It’s an odd thing.I can’t tell you how many games I’ve played that start me from square one. Whether I’m a soldier in a training course or an orphan boy in a mystical village learning ancient mythology, I’ve been through the ringer so many times in games that I now find starting a new one intimidating due to the inevitably dull opening act. Max Payne’s approach is refreshing. I don’t need to have everything spelled out for me. If a developer feels that they must slowly initiate the player to the game world's history, please have the restraint to hold back until an hour or so into the action. Exposition is a cheap tactic in film, but in games it can be devastating to immersion and flow. Not every game needs to follow suit, but if games considered reining in the exposition early on we could tell familiar stories in new ways. Which is what storytelling should be about! Intelligently varied enemy encountersIndividuality is overrated. Location is everything. Just look around your day job or school. Are the most successful workers/students so stunning or are they just the product of fortunate events that lined before them?Sure, Max Payne may not have the enemy variety of an id Software game, but it makes up for it through economical placement. The game consistently changes things up when it comes to enemy positioning and strategy. Sometimes you’ll open a door and a thug will be standing in front of you with a shotgun pointed toward your face, so you point one right back at him. Another time you may have thugs running away from you for cover -- when do you ever seen that in games? Thugs come in through windows, elevator shafts, and occasionally grapple down from above. You are constantly on your toes. A far cry from Call of Duty, where enemies shuffle out of the same door and line up behind the same wall.It’s hard to give enemy variety to a game grounded in reality. Uncharted and Call of Duty throw heavily shielded enemies for challenge, but they are a nuisance that ruins the flow of combat. Max Payne shows that being creative with simple enemies and increasing their numbers can be much more engaging than one super-powered enemy with a shotgun -- though even Max Payne makes this mistake with a couple lackluster boss encounters. Thankfully these are the exception rather than the rule. I’ll be completely honest: I was worried I would have to force this entry or completely abandon it all together. As much as I loved Max Payne in 2001, I wasn’t sure it would hold up. I was pleasantly surprised than to rediscover how fantastic it is in nearly every aspect. The sequel made some major improvements in combat, but I still prefer the tone and quirks of the first. It’s hard to pick between the two but thankfully no one is forcing us to.I find Rockstar’s changes to the series very disconcerting as a fan, but I’d rather they make it their own than force themselves to fit into the mold Remedy made. The offbeat humor and tongue-in-cheek story of Max Payne definitely isn’t something most developers would attempt, which is a big factor of why it’s still a refreshing play. One thing I trust Rockstar will get right is the series' penchant for turning combat into a spectacle worthy of a Hollywood action film. So many developers today fail to realize that having action surrounding the player isn't the same as them contributing to it. There are only so many times you can watch a scripted sequence of a helicopter crashing and feel impressed. As the middling Modern Warfare 3 proved, having more helicopters falling and more explosions isn't the answer. The answer, upon revisiting Max Payne, is painfully obvious: Let the player tell the story through their actions and make the presentation so smooth that it feels as if the camera, animation, and enemy reactions were choreographed all along.
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[Getting It Right is a monthly series in which I take a look at the elements that make up a classic game. What were the key ingredients that set it apart and make it hold up to this day? Read on to find out.] It’s not e...

Getting It Right: Grim Fandango

Apr 26 // Allistair Pinsof
Grim FandangoDeveloper: LucasArtsPublisher: LucasArtsReleased: October 30, 1998 In a nutshell: Before Tim Schafer departed from LucasArts, he left behind one last classic adventure unlike anything else he's done before or since. Released in 1998, Grim Fandango was one of the first 3D adventure games where you controlled the protagonist through keyboard or gamepad instead of mouse (think Resident Evil). Set in the Land of the Dead, the game tracks one undead travel agent's sprawling journey across an Aztec-inspired afterlife. Owing much to film noir classics like Chinatown and past LucasArts adventures, Grim Fandango was a mix of something old and new -- a singular vision that stands the test of time. Characters wanting to do good I like stories about good people trying to live good lives, but I rarely turn to videogames to find one. By and large, videogame characters are voiceless, often literally, and morally ambiguous. In recent years, it has become a trend for videogames to incorporate morally bankrupt protagonists (Call of Duty series, Kane & Lynch) into their plots, posturing as mature storytelling. It leaves me detached from the story and characters, because I just can't care about an asshole with a gun. Grim Fandango's Manuel "Manny" Calavera is a hero in the truest sense. He's sympathetic, funny, and bold but has a hidden past of wrongdoings that we know as much about at the beginning as we do by the game's end, which is to say very little. It's his character that we get to know throughout this adventure. Like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, we love Manny for his mannerisms and biting quips, forgiving whatever unethical life he left behind before coming to this place. In the Land of the Dead, the good go to the afterlife in four minutes, the bad go in four years, and the terrible have to work a dead-end job in order to pay off their debts so they can join the other two groups in time. Manny belongs to the later. He works as a grim reaper ("travel agent" to clients), tasked with guiding departed souls into the Land of the Dead and giving them their deserved travel plan. Sometimes they get pushed into a coffin with nothing but a congratulatory coffee mug and packing foam, and sometimes they get sent on a bullet train across the afterlife, though Manny doesn't ever get these more fortunate clients. Grim Fandango has two major influences: Aztec culture and film noir. Like all great noir heroes, Manny must make a decision in his journey to save the ones he loves, even though his survival no longer depends on their well being. There comes a pivotal moment when he decides to do good voluntarily. The result is a multifaceted character in an inspiring story about getting your dues in time by being an honorable man, while those paying their way to heaven face their own cruel fate in time. Unique art style influenced by things outside videogames The world of today's videogames seem to have grown up solely on yesterday's videogames. Like many of us who play them, it results in a woefully uncultured, monotonous entity. After all, there is so much in the world of literature and other arts to experience and be inspired by. Yet, our industry is still one filled with retro graphics from indies who refuse to grow up and dark bulky worlds from studios trying to replicate the ominous, masculine worlds they fondly remember from the days of Nintendo and Genesis. When you enter the world of Grim Fandango, you realize what can be done once one walks away from this limited perspective. This lush, varied world merges early 20th century art deco, film noir, and Mexican folk art. It all seamlessly fits together and immerses you in a fantasy that you haven't before seen in games -- or film or books, for that matter. The game constantly surprises you with its art direction, character design, and remarkable architecture. Despite its low polygon models, it holds up very well over a decade later. Since Grim Fandango's inhabitants are modeled after Mexican calaca figures, they are brought to life through simple geometry that doesn't feel dated in the way many other 3D games of the late '90s do. By culling from various influences outside gaming and bringing them together in a playful way, Grim Fandango made a world of its own that lingers in the player's mind long after their journey is complete. Large city hub that you can get lost in It's easy to get lost within the wild plains of Skyrim or Xenoblade, but it's rare that we feel bewildered in a town hub these days. Rubacava, a massive port town within which most of Grim Fandango takes place, is one of gaming's most memorable cities for this reason. While Manny arrives at a diner at the outskirts of the city at the end of the game's first act, we aren't given a fair introduction until the subsequent chapter. The first time I explored Rubacava, I was dumbfounded by its scope. One path leads to an abandoned lighthouse, another to a pier with its own secrets, and another to a massive casino which leads to a whole new level of the city that has its own smaller casino. At the start of the chapter, the city seems endless. By the end, you feel you have outsmarted every alley and shortcut the city has to offer. In an adventure game, it can be very frustrating to have to deal with such a large possibility of space. With so many areas, characters, and items, problem solving can become a difficult task. Yet, it's worth the troubles for the sheer spectacle of Rubacava. What Rubacava and other massive city hubs (Midgar and the Citadel spring to mind) give to the player is a sense of immersion on a grand scale. From the creative architecture to the detailed backgrounds, Rubacava feels alive and bigger than the player. You feel like a small speck in the world that surrounds you -- a feeling I rarely get in games these days, despite how far technology has come. I'd much rather have a world as detailed and believable as this, instead of 5,000 extra virtual acres of trees and more of nothing. Concise dialog and action For a long, long while, I didn't think I enjoyed adventure games. I played them because I liked the story and worlds contained within, but I often felt fatigued by the time I reached their conclusion. Grim Fandango changed that for me. A major factor of this is the dialog -- there isn't a lot of it. Now, I'm not afraid of reading, but I do believe in something best described as "story flow." The goal in storytelling isn't to immerse the player through realistic conversations -- which are long and boring to an outsider, more often than not -- it's to immerse through concise, stylized dialog that sounds good and conveys ideas and emotions succinctly. There is a place for Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers' 15-minute conversations on Voodoo mythology, but I value Grim Fandango's lively and brief conversations much more. Every line is building the plot or leading to a brilliant punchline, if not both. The same is true of the game's puzzles. I recently tried playing Yesterday and was horrified by what I was seeing. Not even five minutes into the game, I had an inventory of nearly 10 items. Even worse, the puzzles required me to combine items without a good sense of understanding. I imagine it was saying, "This is an adventure game. You do this dumb stuff, you know?" Grim Fandango minimized inventory management and world interaction without forgoing interesting and challenging puzzles. On the contrary, I felt closer to the world and my actions because it seemed far more sensible and focused. Modern adventure games rely too heavily on hint systems when they really should be focusing on maintaining the simplicity and logic that Grim Fandango embodied so well. Milestones in adventure We often measure our lives not in the distance traveled but in the faces we see along the way. Grim Fandango understands this and builds a memorable adventure around this observation. There was once a time when "quest" was not a synonym for "task," but few young gamers today would believe such a claim. In Grim Fandango, you are always progressing towards a goal that isn't exclusive to reaching a location, and along the way, you meet new friends and enemies. Okay, so many other games aren't so different in this respect, but Grim Fandango stands out by giving these characters recurring roles in the narrative's four-year journey. I'd hate to spoil the game, so I'll just focus on one example early on in the story. In the game's opening cinematic, Manny sends a poor soul on a four-year journey across the Land of the Dead with only a walking stick. By the end of the first act, as you arrive in Rubacava, you bump into this old client. Now he is a janitor at a small diner near the docks, spending his days cleaning the floor as he waits for his old flame from the "fat days" to pass through town. Grim Fandango is full of moments like this that serve as milestones in Manny's journey. You find old faces in new states, while new problems infest old places. The afterlife is constantly changing, and its inhabitants have their own journeys that operate outside Manny's adventure. It can be incredibly jarring to immersion when you find the same people saying the same thing in the same town throughout an entire game, not to mention 40+ hour RPGs! Grim Fandango shows just how effective and immersive doing the opposite can be. Mysteries unsolved There is a tendency for games to answer so many questions within the narrative that you can often get lost in the answers. I can't tell you the intricacies of the plots of many games, but it's not for a lack of effort. Games often have a defense mechanism to fill their simple plot full of asinine details in a vain attempt at complexity. It not only confuses the player, it also takes away much of the mystery that can help build a game's world. As an ode to film noir, Grim Fandango capitalizes on mystery. We come to know the characters through their actions in the afterlife, but their days spent in the Land of the Living remain unknown. It is left to our imagination to fill in the gaps. Was Manny a terrible person or just a poor guy who found himself on a slippery slope? Like many great films and novels, Grim Fandango gives us just enough info to understand these characters while interpreting the details through our own judgement. I especially love how the game leaves four years of the story untold. The focus of Grim Fandango is Manny's journey to find and save Meche, a client given a rotten deal due to mysterious reasons, so we don't need to know about his year as a janitor in Rubacava or his year aboard the SS Lambada. Yet, our mind can wander and imagine what could have taken place during these enormous gaps in the story. It works so well because we are never told we missed something major. Going from janitor to casino owner in a year is quite a career trajectory, but do we really need to know how that transition happened? Not really. That's what our minds and fan fiction are for. By respecting the player and keeping the integrity of the story, Grim Fandango sustains the aura of mystery and romance that all classic noirs seek to obtain. Like many games of its time, such as Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, Grim Fandango marketed itself as a cinematic experience. Its ads in magazines were long, foldout posters with credits scribed on them, mimicking those that aligned cinemas of the time. However, Tim Schafer and the development team at LucasArts had a strong understanding of the limits and strengths of the medium -- films, novels, and folk art served as the inspiration, not the blueprint for this project. So many games today fail at building or don't even attempt to build a world. After all, it's a time-consuming process that doesn't always translate to sales in the marketplace. But art is hard! Great art shouldn't have obvious precedents; it should come from a place so personal that few can understand the vision until it is fully manifested. The most beneficial inspiration from classics of film and literature has little to do with the world of Grim Fandango, however. It is found in the game's perfect pacing, smart dialog, and brief, self-contained puzzles. Telling an epic in videogames often feels like listening to a drunk at a bar who can no longer hear himself speak, imagining he will hit on genius and closure eventually. By focusing on the human ... err, skeletal ... struggles of Manny and compatriots, Grim Fandango gives both the player and story a constant goal and focus. The end result is one of the most bizarre and captivating noir stories ever told. [Header image by Argial]
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Putting the things you loved when you were younger on a pedestal is as unavoidable a side effect of growing old as nose hair and weak joints. Will I ever taste breakfast cereal sweeter than the 2003 run of Ang Lee's Hulk ma...


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