Video games are extremely dear to me. That's why I write a blog dedicated to them, of course. Like you, I assume, I get frustrated when I read about ignorant naysayers condemning video games as ruining our children and bringing forth Satan or whatever it is they claim. I am currently reading a book about the evolution of the English language, and how conservatives are against the changing meanings of words, and the general progress made towards modernizing the language. I always think to myself how silly that is. Conservatism is nothing but an unnecessary roadblock in front of progress, and I feel the same is happening to video games every single time a lazy parent gets upset that their poor parenting allowed little Timmy to kill small children and the elderly for points. Because it's always about points, as we all know.
I reassure myself that it'll get better, that we'll be better parents. We just have to wait until these people aren't the ones with small children, until the have nothing to complain about anymore. We're informed, having grown up playing these games. We understand them and won't make stupid claims out of ignorance. We realize that maybe GTA4 isn't the best babysitter for our child of 8 years. Why in the world would we complain about something as silly as this?
But another part of me doubts our ability as a species to do that. It's probably just the misanthrope in me. Anyway, surely these current ignorant parents had something they were for that the older populations were against, too. I mean, I'm not pointing out some grand revelation by saying that rock music and movies and Dungeons and Dragons and Pokemon were all the scapegoats of their times. We are all well aware of their struggle to become perfectly acceptable pastimes. So why is it, that we immediately have to jump on the next thing? I like to pretend I know human psychology because I took several courses about it in high school. One of the lessons taught me that if we are aware of something beforehand, we are better equipped to handle it, for example, if I tell you I am about to insult you, you prepare yourself to be offended, and will be less so, than if I had randomly insulted you without warning. Using my delusions of grandeur, I like to say that psychology should be taught to kids as early as possible, and that having it usually be an optional course sometime in the senior year of high school is a horrible, horrible idea. If we knew about how puberty affects our actions as teenagers from a psychological standpoint, maybe we wouldn't be such little shits during that period, you know? Anyway, the point that I'm getting to is that I feel we should be well equipped to realize that blaming everything new to us for our problems is wrong and fucking stupid. But generation after generation we do it anyway. I doubt myself, us, and wonder, are we just going to be like them? Are things actually going to get better? It may not be video games this time, but it'll be something. Will my kids be using whatever new medium altogether, and I will be an ignorant technologically inept parent that has to lay the blame on those creators for not babysitting my children properly, while I inject heroin into my bloodstream or something? I sincerely hope that won't be the case.
This is less a blog post and more a warning for the future. I don't think many people will end up reading this, since I'm not the most popular blogger around here or anything, but maybe someone will. Who knows?
I feel some exposition is in order first. For now, I feel that I am a pretty unique case, as far as video game players go. Due to my dad's job, I have lived over half of my life in the United States. Because of this, most of my video game devices are American. My PS3, for example, is American, and I was infinitely thankful that they did away with region locked games because it might have prevented me from buying one in the first place. I didn't have to worry about being forced to import games in order to play them. Unfortunately, I have to dance around with region specific PSN stores, but it's never too big of a problem. I play my games on my main American account and buy games from the european account, lacking any sort of bank account that could be used with the main. It's kind of a hassle having to change accounts for that, but I have all my saves and trophies already on my American one, so whatever. I can deal with switching once a week for a few minutes to check the store for updates.
Recent changes have made me worry, however. By now, everyone most likely is aware of EA's online pass. New games come with a code to access online portions, or the players of used games can buy a code for 10 dollars. I can understand the frustration some may feel but it never really bothered me, at least in concept. I rarely if ever buy used games and they'd be old PS2 games even if I did, most likely.
And now for the problem: The online passes work through the online stores, meaning they are region specific. My new copy of Dead Space 2 that I bought in Europe came with a code for the European store. Using an American account as my main one, I was unable to ever actually access the online portions of my game, even though I had bought it brand new on day one. I also couldn't just simply buy an American code, probably because the discs have some sort of region code on them. I don't know. Whatever.
Now, the only way to avoid this was to play it on my European account, but that doesn't seem like an adequate solution. I don't think I should be forced to play games on a sub-account because of this. Had there been trophies and such for the online parts, I wouldn't have been able to get them ever.
Trophies, though, are just a silly virtual thing, and that isn't by any means my main reason for complaining. I'm not that partial to my pixely prizes.
No, I write this because the only thing I can see this leading to is a new faux region locking. I know many people import games, and I'm one of them. When Demon's Souls looked like it wouldn't get a European release, many people, like me, again, went out and imported either the American or Japanese version of the game. If this online pass idea had been around back then and expanded upon, all these people would have been locked out of the main appeal of the entire game: the online components.
How could I have ever survived without all those helpful "Watch out!" messages at times like this? I want to clarify that my issue is not with the developers wanting to crack down on used game sales. But I hope they can come up with a less damning solution.
I certainly don't want to get stuck importing every single game out of the States because of this, and I equally don't want importing to become semi-useless for everyone else again.
Iím a huge fan of stories. I read books, I watch movies, I play video games, and I like to dabble in a little fiction writing myself now and then. Iím usually even willing to overlook many many flaws in gameplay if the story is interesting, and usually wonít be very interested in a game if it doesnít have a story, despite how perfect the gameplay might be otherwise.
But this blog isnít about stories. Itís about LA Noire. Story driven game, sure, but thatís not what Iím talking about. AnywayÖ
Iím sure anyone who knows LA Noire by now has seen the trailers depicting the fantastical new facial capture camera torture chamber doohickey. I thought the faces looked great, personally. Some say itís Uncanny Valley to the utmost degree. But again, thatís not exactly what Iím talking about.
More like Prototype Animus, amirite? The point of this new technology is to make the interrogation scenes highly engaging. There are many facial tics that weíre not maybe aware of when we go through emotions, but can subconsciously pick up on. For example, the sign of a true smile is in the eyes instead of the mouth. People are surprisingly good at seeing whether a smile is real or not. The same can apply for lying, which is what the game is going for. Slight fidgeting, a quick look to the side, etc., are all things that the new tech should be able to pick up from the actors portraying the characters. I am supposed to be able to tell that so-and-so is lying by simply watching his movements.
On paper, this sounds like the coolest thing ever. However, at the end of the day, these are still actors. Professional actors, for sure, but regardless. What we are witnessing isnít the face of someone who is lying. We are staring at the computer generated video of what a professional actor looks like when he is told to pretend to be lying. Surely professional actors can feign lying better than just animating from scratch, but many of the things related to emotions are subconscious. There is no way that a person that is told to pretend to lie will look at the same as a person that is lying. They have to exaggerate, if even just a little.
Iím a lazy bum who wants to rant but doesnít know how to end blogs properly.
Because I like to keep current with my topics of discussion, Iím going to be talking about Silent Hill 4 today. Silent Hill 4 is the last title in the Silent Hill franchise to be done by the good folks over at Team Silent and released in 2004 (current in the grand scheme of things, anyway).
Now, I am what I would like to call a Silent hill 4 Apologist. I wouldnít go so far as to say that 4 is my favorite (that spot is reserved for 3), but I will go to my grave claiming that Silent Hill 4 is not as bad as people say and that it is also the scariest, despite having arguably the most bland character design ever. Before you report me to the Silent Hill overlords for not sharing the almost universal belief that Silent Hill 2 is the most immaculate thing ever, let me tell you why youíre wrong.
Seriously though. I coulda come up with more interesting designs For one, the monsters in 4 were actually threatening. Say what you will about the game being more action oriented, it still played like ass, just like all the other proper titles in the franchise. What this meant was that you ended up fighting more monsters while still being limited by your combat ability, or lack thereof. Not only were there more monsters, some of them were also faster, for example the dogs and whatever you want to call that weird ass lionmonkeydoghumanhybrid. Add to that the fact that nothing would die unless you stomped on it afterwards, and youíd be in hell anytime more than two enemies were within 5 feet of each other.
There was also this thing. Also holy fucking shit does no one care that there were invincible ghosts that followed you around where ever you went blaring their white noise boomboxes so goddamn loud that being anywhere in their vicinity made your health slowly decrease? I mean what the hell. One of them looked like Sadako! From The Ring! Have you seen that movie?
Kinda like this. While on the topic of monsters: sound design, specifically for monsters, was also the most disturbing by far. I already mentioned the white noise, which worked much like the radio static, but even worse. You knew exactly what was hunting you down, and you knew you could do nothing about it. Aside from the ghosts, the aforementioned lionmonkeydoghumanhybrid, or el-em-dee-double-H as Iíve come to call it right now, makes the strangest, most unsettling noises ever, from dogs panting to monkey screeching to lions roaring and whatever the hell else it fucking wants apparently. You know what else goes through your ears, straight into your nightmare ridden subconscious? Women crying. Sadako ghost weeps and chokes on her own tears in the most horrifying way ever anywhere ever.
Well... nobody's perfect, okay? The best kind of horror is that which turns something comforting and safe into the source of the fear. Thatís why babies and dolls are always so terrifying; beneath the cute and innocent exterior lies some sort of horrible secret.
Also baby dolls. I mention this because it relates to the best/worst part of what makes Silent Hill 4 so goshdarned terrifying. Your apartment acts as a sort of hub world, in which you can save, fiddle with your inventory, go to the nightmare world, and basically just relax for a bit. That is, until the game turns your apartment into a ghost infested hellhole that you never ever want to return to. There was a point early on, when I gave a sigh of relief whenever I could go back and save, take a breather, if you will. Then one time, I return to my apartment to find ghosts in the closet, banging windows, and dead cats in my fridge, and I swear I didnít do it this time. After that, I no longer had a safe place to return to and I dreaded saving.
Did I mention the Sadako Ghost? Fuck her.
I don't know what exactly I was expecting this time. The hundredth time? I don't even know anymore. All those times running past corridors swinging my sword blur into one unbeatable trudge through hell at some point. Eventually, I find myself standing in front of the boss's room. 70,000 souls are at stake. I could just evacuate and spend them on a level. At 50 grand a pop, levels don't come cheap these days, and losing 70 would be devastating. But, heck! It's my second playthrough, right? Right. I know this boss. I know how to beat him, big as he is. I already have, after all. What's more, I now have experience I didn't have the first time. I've grown more lithe, my equipment is stronger, and I could always just cast poison mist and sit in the corner eating my herbs while his health drains. Walking all the way back to this spot after evacuating would be such a pain too. I believe in myself! I can do this! I walk in.
A giant suit of armor looms over me, his archer friends overlooking the courtyard that is to become our battleground. I pull out my wand and go to cast poison mist. In the process, I get pelted from all sides by arrows. I realize that my plan isn't going to work this way. I have to get rid of the archers first, of course. I know that. What was I thinking? My health already alarmingly low, I sprint for the stairs. In hindsight, putting on heavy armor for a boss that can kill me with one shot regardless was probably a bad idea. I jingle and clunk at a pace far too slow to escape from my own mortality. With one fell swoop, the towering knight's lance knocks me aside, adding one more to his ever increasing kill count.
'That's alright,' I think to myself, as my soul arises at the Nexus. 'All I have to do is get back there and retrieve my souls. Much like the knight's kills, my corridor count increases once again. I feel the impatience bubbling inside me. I sprint past the largely immobile group of nondescript blobs of goo, dodge the murderous dragon's timed fire breath, and lay waste to a bunch of wolves. Staring down the final stretch of dragon guarded bridge, I prepare myself. The dragon flies overhead. Fire engulfs the bridge. I run behind him, an almost ethereal shield of flames guiding me on my way. I easily murder the awaiting archers and meet my final challenge before I can exact revenge on the boss. Two blue-eyed knights block my path. Bah! I've bested many of them before. Right now I just want to get my souls back and get the hell out of here.
It doesn't take much to kill the first one. I move onto the second. I'm itching to get to the boss, to retrieve my souls. My hands are twitchy. In a moment of carelessness, I fail to notice my rapidly decreasing stamina. I try to block his attack. He deflects my shield to the side. I am wide open. He lifts his sword to deliver the final blow. I attempt to roll out of the way, trying over and over again, knowing it won't be of any use; his attack had depleted all of my stamina. His sword comes down and ends my life once more.
I enter the Nexus...
Ffffffffffuck. I take a moment to reflect on what happened. 70,000 souls. Gone forever. You unrelentingly sadistic motherfucker, Demon's Souls. I suppose it is the fault of my own hubris. I took a bite that ended up being too big. Not only that, I failed to realize that at some point Demon's Souls had substituted my cake with a humble pie, and then proceeded to rub my face into it. I felt violated, betrayed, dirty, and many other things. I wanted to take the game out and never touch it again, but deep down I knew I would. And I would love it.
At its best, Demon's Souls is an exercise in humility. Somewhere in the middle, it's a torture device that the middle ages would shy away from. And at its worst, it is a catalyst for going postal.
There are times when I have sudden realizations about the kind of person I am when I witness something. Flavor Flav's bevy of reality TV shows showed me the kinds of people that I hate with every fiber of my being. Watching Atheist Experience on YouTube cemented my stance on religion. Playing Demon's Souls taught me that I am a masochist (though perhaps asking my girlfriend to step on my balls with stilettos should have been an early warning). There is a sick pleasure in seeing all my attempts thwarted. I tell myself sometimes that it is the thrill of improvement. I now know it is nothing but a sexual satisfaction from being dominated. If I can be guaranteed a painful death at the hands of the earliest enemies of the game, despite my perhaps misplaced attempts at survival, I will keep coming back. Keep punishing me, Demon's Souls. Please.
Did anyone's pants get tighter when Dark Souls was announced?
When I first turned on Silent Hill 2, I remember being scared to the extent that I didnít want to play the game alone. As the game finally came to an end, I let out a sigh of relief and congratulated myself on surviving the hellish town. A while later, I notice the game on my shelf and reminisced about the fun times I had with the scariest game I had ever played. I decided I wanted to relive those memories, so once more, I started up the game. I ran down the forest path, aware that nothing would attack me until I got my hands on that trusty plank which was still a long walk off. I listened to the slightly unsettling sounds that emanated from somewhere deep in the forest that no one in their right mind would ever venture into. I ran into an old acquaintance, Angela, and though she didnít remember me, I remembered her very well. I wished I could help her, but knew it was futile. I continued on and as I entered the town I had also visited before, the memories of stumbling around aimlessly in a fog full of monsters came back to me. I ran into a blood stain on the ground and noticed a shadow slowly disappear into the fog, again. The real game was about to start, I knew. I followed the shadow and began to hear my good friend, my trusted friend, my broken radio emitting static. I picked it up and looked at it lovingly, even though in a way we had never met before. The straightjacket in the corner came to life and attacked me, forcing me to fend off and kill the first enemy I had already killed handfuls of on my previous treks through Silent Hill in another time. And thus began my second journey through the possessed town.
As I continued my quest, I had a terrifying realization, more terrifying than anything I had fended off in Silent Hill before: I wasnít scared anymore. Everything I had done in my other life as James was the same. The same straightjacket waited for me to get my plank, the same Pyramid Head was getting it on with that mannequin before walking off to go do whatever it is he does when heís not trailing me, and the same video tape waited for me to discover it and find out exactly what was going on. The combat system that made me feel like the enemy always had an upper hand, as I wasnít a trained fighter, had become just a frustrating and cumbersome game of Ring Around the Rosie. In short, the only time the game was truly frightening was when everything was new and unexpected.
This is something that really hurts replay value of games. Games just arenít exciting to play through more than once if everything is the same every time, and horror games suffer the most. If the entire scare factor of a game disappears when everything is predictable, then the game becomes bland. Jumping up a difficulty level may offer some reprieve, but mostly these only offer harder enemies, not more or at different times.
What horror games, and games in general, need, is randomly generated occurrences.
I played through Resident Evil 5 several times. There was a part where I had just killed the chainsaw wielding man and he fell down differently than what I had become used to. I made note of it subconsciously, but didnít react to it any other way. I turn around and continue what I was doing before he came in. I turned around once more, not 15 seconds later, to find him sitting up. I became confused and thought it was a glitch in the game. Then he stood up and I became frightened. When he started waving his chainsaw around like a madman, I lost it. It was an experience like this that had been missing from Silent Hill 2. Something 'new and unexpected', even though it was my third time playing the game. The whole scene had me so shaken for a minute that I couldn't do anything but sit and stare in awe as my hands shook from the fright I had just received. It was a step in the right direction, but after that, I simply paid attention to how the enemy fell down, and could immediately see if he would be making another visit in a few seconds.
The game that got me thinking about the possibility of random events in games was Dead Space. This is a game I enjoyed very much, as anyone that may have read my other blog post a few days ago may know. The first time I played through the game, I was scared several times. The first time an enemy was seemingly dead on the floor and it jumped up at me, I freaked out. The second time I saw a corpse, I was cautious, but it still caught me off guard, as I wasnít sure if it would happen twice. The same thing happens several times during the course of the game and never preserves the scare the first one had on me. As I played through the game for the third time, I simply approached it while aiming my gun, and immediately blasted it before it jumped up at me. Needless to say, the scares had once more slipped away into predictable set pieces.
Early on in the game, you pick up an audio tape. The man, clearly shaken by the ordeal, explains that the enemies use the vents to get around the ship. On several occasions, enemies do indeed come out from air vents on the ceilings and walls. But with every playthrough, the vents and enemies are always the same. No exceptions. With a possibility of enemies coming out from anywhere at anytime, it seems like such a missed opportunity for there to not be any variation at all.
Letís say, for example, that there are 50 or so possible enemies per level, bringing the total to 600 when all 12 levels are counted. Take half of that, and make those the permanent enemies. So now there are 25 enemies that will always be in the same areas at the same times, while still leaving 25 free. Now letís say that out of the 25 left for each chapter, 1 of them is lying around somewhere, ďseeminglyĒ dead. Then each time a new game is started, the game decides to take a random 6 of these and have them jump, while the other 6 are simply dead. The player could still approach the enemy prepared to shoot, or shoot before even approaching the enemy to find out if itís dead or not. On the harder difficulties, however, when ammo consumption is a serious issue, the player has to decide whether he wants to risk wasting ammo checking the state of a body, or risk losing a significant amount of health from a surprise attack. And now for the last 24 enemies. These can also be more optional and random. Say that there is an empty room with no permanent enemies. In one random case, the player could possibly walk through, perfectly safe from harm and continue. In another, the game could randomly decide to throw an enemy at the player from one of the many vents in the area. These could either be completely random, or dependent on some player action. For example, if the player makes a lot of noise, stomping on boxes, stepping on litter, shooting for no reason, the enemy could Ďhearí the playerís location and seek him out and attempt to kill him. These are clearly all very specific to Dead Space, but it shouldnít be that hard to incorporate some of these solutions to almost anything.
The only game I have ever heard of having an example of this sort of thing happening is Fatal Frame. Not having played the series unfortunately, I can only go by what I have heard, so feel free to correct me. I have heard that if the player simply stands for an extended period of time, doing nothing, the game will send ghosts to kill you, essentially destroying that one moment of peace a player can have to take a breather after an especially frightening set piece.
It is that kind of game design that should be encouraged. The sense of mystery and being unaware of whatís coming is a vital part of horror, but most things lose that feeling when there is no variation between different playthroughs whatsoever. Now if only those guys at Tecmo would stop being such assholesÖ And there's only so many times that Pyramid Head's ridiculously slow movements and easy to dodge attacks will scare me. And that number is 1.