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8:04 AM on 07.09.2013

Struggling to move from one medium to another, TV/Movies to Games

So I haven't really wanted to write all that much of late, maybe it's because summer is pretty much here but my desire to do anything even vaguely game-related is waning somewhat. The other day though I found myself trying to hunt down some video reviews for old games that I was curious about, and feeling a little unsatisfied by what I was hearing decided I'd write some thoughts down about a subject that's been on my mind for awhile.

So yeah, for some reason I suddenly had the desire to look into whether or not there were any decent Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games. I have no real affinity for fan service and I like the games I play to be thought-provoking and challenging in some way so generally I don't like tie-ins from one medium to another because they usually suck. If you've played pretty much anything based off a movie before you'll know what I mean.



Ghost in the Shell and Evangelion are two massive, very popular, franchises though and I thought maybe, just maybe, there might be some gem hidden in amongst all the crap. You know something that might satisfy that good story and themes/challenging gameplay itch. You do get this sometimes with franchises that cross over from another medium into games - most of the really big name titles from the Alien(s) franchise, for example, are pretty mediocre and forgettable, but there's the odd game that really stands out as special.

The examples I found for GIS/Eva though, perhaps not unsurprisingly, ranged from games that seemed to exist just to milk the IP for fan service and play off the current game trends (*cough* anything on the iPhone), to some perhaps average to above-average games released a generation or more ago that mostly just focused on the action from the shows and not much else.

Not really what I had hoped for.



I hadn't really thought about it until after I realised I was really kind of disappointed by what I'd found but for some reason I expected more from the games based off some shows I thought really had some depth to them. It's like if they announced (another) Blade Runner game and it turned out to just be an iPhone game where you touched the screen to make dancing Rutger Hauer heads explode before they one-shot kill you; sure it'd be amusing, perhaps even entertaining to a certain degree, but when you're a fan of something and you really like the themes it tackles and the characters in it, you want the game of it to do more than just give you shallow, very passing, entertainment. You don't want the starter, you want a main course, y'know?

I guess I kind of expected some sort of odd juxtaposition of different gameplay segments all bound together by a plot that made the games make sense. Ghost in the Shell is about this cyberpunk future where a secret paramilitary police unit fights criminals and investigates the political machinations of different factions within Japanese society; whilst Evangelion is pretty much Silent Hill 2 with robots, using the excuse of these extra-terrestrial invaders to explore the psychology of a group of really fucked up kids and the adults who exploit them ...with robots!



They both work as entertainment because they're pretty far out there and imaginative, and like say Blade Runner or Aliens if they're going to be made into a game properly you need to capture some of what made the original property work so well for them to work as games. Though it's obviously not an exhaustive list if they were going to make a good Blade Runner game it'd need to make you do all the things you'd expect a blade runner to do: hunting down leads, visiting locations round the city, claustrophobic shoot-outs with synthetics in alleyways/across rained-on rooftops, that sort of thing; with Aliens you'd need the obvious shoot-out segments, but perhaps also manning the gun turret on the APC as you escape some xenomorphs, crawling through vents, sealing doors with a blowtorch - basically in both cases people want to feel a part of the movie.

Too often making a game of something is simply reduced to: gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, when really what you want to be doing is capturing a sense of the IP with the game – this doesn't necessarily mean no cutscenes but use gameplay to make the player feel a part of the action.



Hostage situations in office buildings have been something of a recurring theme in every iteration of Ghost in the Shell in one form of another, so why not have the player control a sniper's eye view during one, or have the player control the cop who inserts the small robotic eye through the ceiling that spies on the terrorists holding the hostages? What about a Tachikoma or Fuchikoma (both kind of small semi-autonomous walking tanks) motorway chase with some terrorists in cars? Why not have segments of gameplay where you investigate a crime/crimes - knocking on doors, questioning suspects, etc?

Though obviously giant robots figure prominently in it Evangelion is really mostly about this futuristic city that is under repeated siege by towering extra-terrestrial creatures, so why not let the player organise the defence and play the part of whoever's in charge of firing all the defences before they move onto actually piloting the Eva? Or what about a sequence of gameplay where you're inside a character's head trying to sort out their issues?



Why does a game just have to follow the model of gameplay/cutscene/gameplay, why not gameplay type 1/gameplay type 2/short cutscene/gameplay type 1, or any more complicated pattern? I know obviously that this means potentially more work but it seems like, especially with games based off popular franchises, that it gets forgotten why games are so enjoyable and why people are so willing to throw money at a really good game. We want experiences, we want to relax and 'play' as somebody else, whether it be a detective tracking down synthetics, a futuristic lady cyborg investigating her country's internal politics, a hardass marine watching his friends get slaughtered by aliens or any number of other stories.

I don't think it's about copying elements from those movies/TV shows per se but rather emulating the way they can immerse and entertain us and building on it because it's a game and games can do so much more. Games always have to follow models and standards from their genre to a certain extent but then over that needs to fit what makes the game unique – the unique gameplay segments, the level design, the story that wraps around it all.



Along those lines I've always felt as though Hideo Kojima is a good example of a game director/designer/whatever his job title is, who gets why the movies he borrows from are awesome but also knows at the same time that games are a completely new medium with a completely new set of rules to be worked with if you're going to make something really great.

Though some of the later MGS games (especially 4) got bogged down in cutscenes, each new game has added elements that let you play around with the world and feel immersed and interacted with, whilst the game itself continues to tell a really engaging story. Snatcher's another good example of this engagement, there are the usual little sections where the game prods at the Fourth Wall that Kojima does but also more generally the game makes you feel like a junker (detective, for lack of a better term): questioning witnesses, examining evidence, putting mugshots together.



I'd hesitate to call any of Kojima's games a perfect example of what I'm looking for but I think he has his head on the right way when it comes to engaging with the player. Size and Length are good in a game but what matters most is having a fun and engaging experience. Arguably a lot of games do coast on the fact we mostly want something to pass the time (hence games) but the best games I think are always those that try to do more to immerse and engage with the player.

I think the problem for games based off popular franchises is that generally we tend to notice that lack of effort more, especially when they're based off quality source material, which sucks for them. Though it seems to escape a lot of big studios we don't just love things because they include explosions or familiar characters, it's about the stories as well, it's about feeling engaged and immersed.



At the end of the day I'm not all that bothered that there aren't really any good Ghost in the Shell or Evangelion games – it's nice to be able to pick something up and feel it's familiar and know you're going to enjoy it before you've even played it but all the same there are a fuckton of excellent completely original games out there already so it's not like I'm going to run out of good things to play anytime soon. It is sad though that often when it comes to big IPs, to popular franchises, that the passion and creativity that made them so beloved in the first place is so often put aside to create a game so by the numbers it's painful.   read


8:22 AM on 06.26.2013

Get Yo Summer Game On

So Summer is here, at least in the UK, and frankly I have lost all willpower to sit inside ever again until it's cold and dark and generally miserable again (so at least a week from now given how the weather works here!); What follows then is a handy guide for the game-centric among you who cannae resist the call of the wild but would still like to nerd out as you watch your supple pale white flesh swelter, boil, then blister in the burning rays of the mid-afternoon sun...

too graphic?

ANYWAY!

So the obvious outdoor 'summer' game that we all think of first is, of course: Mario

Originally invented in the 19th century in a small country village in England, Mario was the brainchild of a wacky group of young Japanese college students, studying as part of a foreign exchange program, rare because of Japan's isolationist policy at the time but necessary for this piece of backstory to have some sense of logical cohesion.



Bored by all the games they had available to them they decided to invent a new game of their own, one where players could compete with one another, either in singles or pairs in a daring contest of dexterity and speed. Little did they know as they began working on their time-wasting activity the joy that their simple game of plumber-on-plumber ball action would create for so many. It spread like wildfire across the country, then the continent, then the world, and made its inventors rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Well over a century later, its inventors, now withered husks of dessicated flesh, kept alive only by the arcane magics that bound them to the sarcophagi they lay imprisoned within deep beneath Castle Nintendo and the sacrifice of countless virgins, decided that they had to keep with the times, and hey, videogames were a thing. Thus from that humble, world-wide success of a game was born the now-better known series of Mario platforming videogames.

But enough of the contrived backstory, let's get physical!

What do you need?

You'll need at least one other person, or three if you want to play pairs
Some racquets
Some Mario balls
A net
A playing area
And a collection of friends who look like weird dinosaurs and utility repairmen

You'll want to set the net up in the middle of the playing area, and basically what you want to do is hit the Mario balls back and forth to one another, each side has to try and get the balls past the other side because... err, well, cause they win that way.



Mario is the kind of game that's easy to play with young relatives or elderly family members, it's very PC, it's very simple to get a game going. Just remember to keep the energy up, and if you want to come up with some sort of catchphrase you can exclaim in a high-pitched voice when you win then go for it!



I think we've all played Zelda once or twice in the past. Zelda is a singleplayer experience for the pro-active, physically fit gamer type, you're going to need to be dedicated for this one. Now you'll want to be careful playing Zelda, videogames are essentially a non-violent past-time but full-on Zelda can be a deadly participant sport that none will escape from without heavy physical or mental scarring.

What do you need?

A field of tall grass
A cutting implement
A green hat

What you want to do is place your self as close to the edge of the tall grass as possible, then put on your green hat and pick up your cutting implement. Then proceed to swing violently round in a circle in the hopes that the cutting implement shreds the grass. You really want to put a lot of effort into this as well, really swing round. And note: if you're letting small children or the elderly spectate have them stand at least four foot away from you, at least. Because that shit is dangerous.



The winner is whoever kills the least people.

Seriously, you can't replace relatives.



Another classic from those kooky Japanese: Snake is the creation of famed videogame designer Sudoku Toshiba, who one day fresh from his adventures in videogame land decided he needed to show the world exactly what he was made of. Released under the title of 'Trouser Snake' originally in Japan fans worldwide just know it as 'Snake'.

Popularity did wane for a while after there were a few arrests but the game's really coming back lately. Hell, you can switch on the news any day of the week and hear about guys who've been trying to play it.

What you'll need:

So this is a pretty simple game to play, all you need is some random kids off the street (helps if they're dumb and poor) and a loose pair of trousers, perhaps with a hole in the pock...

[Editor's note: OH DEAR GOD, NO MAN. NO!]

....

And hey, if you avoid the police everybody's having fun.




Xbox is by far one of the most enjoyable outdoor videogames you can play, seriously, even Ainsley Harriott swears by it.

What do you need?

Simply visit your local videogame store and purchase an Xbox gaming console, no need for wires, attachments or controllers, just get the box.

Take it into your garden or a nearby grassy playing area, place it down, and then begin shouting 'XBOX ON' at it. Do this for the next 12 hours.

Congratulations, you're playing Xbox!

If the unplugged Xbox at any point red rings then you get 12 points!



...And there we have it, fun for all the family this summer. If you have ideas of your own then feel free to write into me at P.O. Box 171 Dragon Lane, Panza's Pants, UK, and I'll get back to you asap.

Like totally.   read


5:15 AM on 05.19.2013

Retrospective: Resident Evil Remake

If you're a Survival Horror fan, or indeed a gamer in general, the Resident Evil series will no doubt be familiar to you; it started off by defining an entire genre and grew into a franchise. In recent years though, at least to some fans, it could be said to have lost it's sense of direction somewhat. Resident Evil 5 and 6 being a step away from the series' Survival Horror roots and more towards Action Horror.

That all began with Resident Evil 4, which itself was a huge leap away from the series' roots. 4 seemed to come at time when Capcom was struggling with itself (again) over where to take the series as a whole. There was a point though, just a few years before that when it seemed like Capcom might be trying to breath new life into that old formula and keep the series going in a Survival Horror direction, with the release of Resident Evil Remake and Resident Evil Zero. Zero was in some respects a remake of a game that never really existed, or at least never got released, a Resident Evil game for the N64 in the model of Resident Evil 2 and 3. The REmake meanwhile was simply that, a remake of the original Resident Evil. Both are relatively solid examples of what is (at least now) considered an outdated model of game design.



Though I don't think any of this is essential to talking about Resident Evil Remake it does give you an idea of why the remake is the game it is – an odd mix of high-fidelity graphics and old-school mechanics, as Capcom found themselves struggling to decide where they wanted to take the series. And in many respects it's this tension between the old and the new that makes it both such a classic and an ever so slightly flawed game.

If you're familiar with the story of the first Resident Evil then the REmake's shouldn't be any surprise: A group of police officers from a paramilitary law-enforcement unit have gone in search of a group of their compatriots who went missing looking into a mysterious murder case in the nearby wooded mountain area, the group stumble upon the remains of a crashed helicopter, are attacked, and retreat inside a nearby mansion, and the game starts from there. You play one of two characters, Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, and dependent on who you choose and your actions the game can play out slightly differently as you investigate the mansion, looking for your missing teammates and uncovering more clues to the mysteries hidden within, all the while looking for a way to escape.



So what does the game do well?

Though the graphics are a lot better I'd argue the biggest improvement, and indeed it's biggest positive, is the tone the better graphics give the game. It seems maybe an odd thing to point out, given that obviously better graphics means potentially a better sense of immersion in general for a game but it'd be easy to overlook how much the overall tone has shifted between the visual style of the original and the remake. After all, later games like Resident Evil 5 and 6 have much better graphics, but that doesn't necessarily mean the tone of those graphics adds much to the atmosphere the game creates.

I've talked about this before when talking about the differences that colour, light and dark, and the state of rooms can have on the player's experience of a place and the difference between the two games is a perfect example of this. The Remake has an overall much darker tone, it's a dark night, things are very still, very silent, many of the rooms are decrepit - rotting floorboards, covered with dust, cluttered with junk and personal items. None of which is really in the original.



Why does this matter? Horror relies to a large degree on atmosphere, and though it often doesn't get talked about too much, atmosphere is contingent on how we feel about where we are. In some respects it's a measure of how comfortable we are in a space or location, though it's taken to the extreme in horror-related entertainment that sense of 'atmosphere' is something we use in everyday life as well, whenever we step into a room or step outside we're making snap assessments of the place we're in.

Though real-life usually never reaches the same level of discomfort that games and movies intentionally aim for there are obviously plenty of subtle visual clues that we look for anywhere we go to confirm it's safe and feel comfortable there. There's a certain atmosphere we want so we can feel comfortable, and there's things we look for – well-lit areas, sunlight, bright colours and decorations, personal items, people, a sense of occupancy; and then there are the things we don't want to see – the dark, shadows, the night, grey, colourless environments, decay, signs of disease, death, signs of past occupancy with no occupants.



What the REmake does so well, much like a good horror movie would, is to capitalise on this awareness of our surroundings; the original did it to a certain degree – indeed anything intended to scare does, but the REmake takes it to the logical extreme. When you think about it the mansion is this bizarre mix of decay, past occupancy and darkened spaces. The building itself seems very cold, very sterile in places, it also feels sort of old, outdated, as if it's a forgotten relic of another age (and being an antique mansion that would make sense); but then as you explore you repeatedly come across signs of life, little tokens that make it obvious other people were here up until not too long ago and somehow it doesn't quite feel right.

I'll admit I don't think the REmake pushes atmosphere in the same way as say Silent Hill 2 does, or Siren: Blood Curse, it's principally subtler, less intended to outright scare you and more intended to just make you feel uncomfortable but it's there all the same. Whereas for the original the mansion was just a location for events the REmake makes the mansion part of those events, and a big part of telling the story of what happened there – the decay, the discarded personal items, the sense that somebody was here only moments ago, it's all part of that.

It's also worth noting that even today the visuals hold up quite well – though the pre-rendered backdrops are showing their age a little. All things considered though the game is still pretty easy on the eyes.



Speaking more generally about atmosphere I think it's also worth noting how good the sound, or lack of, is at times. Much of the early game is spent wandering round the seemingly empty mansion, in almost complete silence, with only the padded footsteps of your character and environmental sounds for company. At one point you pass a shattered mirror in an upstairs corridor and as you do so glass crunches under foot; in the dining room all is quiet save for the roaring fire in the corner, the ticking grandfather clock and the odd strike of thunder; you'll walk down silent corridors only to hear a low groan and something shamble forward off-screen, anticipating the danger that's ahead of you.

Though music does become more important as the game progresses, given the fixed viewpoint and the added danger that potentially creates for you (i.e. not being able to see wtf is about to attack you), sound is always very important in the game, you listen for the breathing of Hunters, the shrill battle cry as one prepares to charge you or lunge at you, the thudding of it's feet across the carpet as it races towards you.

Like with the visual elements it's obvious a lot of effort has been put into making the sound work, and making the sound contribute to the atmosphere. Though the game is essentially very simple in terms of mechanics – 'solve puzzles, shoot monsters in the face, win' it's arguably the atmosphere and the overall design that makes it work so well.



So what doesn't the game do so well?

Let's start with the obvious one: Tank Controls.

While the REmake and RE:0 and to some extent 3 and Code Veronica all attempted to improve the controls a little there's no getting away from the fact that the early Resident Evil games had terribly awkward controls, you moved like a tank, it was slow, it was cumbersome, and even with the introduction of the quick-turn ability it sort of held the experience back. In some respects it helped keep the pace of the games slow, but it also created an unrealistic sense of control at the same time – since people don't have to turn on the spot in real-life.

The REmake has this same problem, though I'd argue it isn't as apparent as in RE:0 – which actually has a fair few enemies that practically break the control system, it still suffers from it – especially in the later stages of the game with enemies like the Hunters or the Chimera that can get in-between your moves and do a lot of damage. Obviously to a certain extent this is intentional, the danger those two creatures present is in part because of their speed and strength relative to the player – in short they're supposed to be faster than you to pose a proper threat, but even so the control system doesn't really help much. It's one thing to be killed because you were too slow to pull the trigger of your shotgun, it's another when you're killed because it takes you twenty minutes just to turn on the spot to dodge an attack.



Another thing that ties into this sense that the control system is pretty out-dated is the pre-rendered backdrops and fixed viewpoints. Though arguably the pre-rendered backdrops are very pretty, having them means the viewpoint is always fixed in a certain way. Now this isn't necessarily a problem when you're just searching a room (though it can make seeing items more of a hassle) it does become a problem when you're fighting monsters. In what is supposed to be a Survival Horror game. Arguably you'd have to be playing something pretty slow-paced, like a Horror game, in the first place to be ok with tank controls and fixed viewpoints, but it's the fact the game is supposed to be all about survival and marshalling supplies that makes the fixed viewpoints so frustrating. As with the tank controls, it's one thing to die because you're too slow to press a button, it's another to die because you can't see what's attacking you.

It's also worth noting that it craps up the immersion to a certain extent, you're supposed to be one of these characters after all, and surviving as them, and yet you can't do something as simple as looking at what's in front of you. It's counter-intuitive in a lot of respects as well, especially given that the Resident Evil games are in part about action and excitement as well as zombies, monsters and horror in general, and what sort of action hero can't see in front of them?

In a lot of respects this is the REmake's greatest principal flaw: The fact it keeps to such old-fashioned mechanics and elements of game design makes it feel, if not jarring, then at least muddled at times, given the huge leaps towards realism that have been made in every other department when it comes to game design. Being able to see ahead of you is pretty basic, and even though games started off as often based around very arbitrary, very unfair rules we have in general moved towards a certain degree of common sense in game-design, and the REmake stands as an example of a game that in some respects adheres to some of the more unfair aspects of early game design.



Which isn't to say I’m against fixed viewpoints or the benefits of having them plus pre-rendered backdrops (which can sometimes look a lot better than 3D environments), just that I think developers should always be aware of what they're compromising when they choose to use them, and perhaps only use fixed viewpoints for effect at certain points in a game, and always make sure that they never hinder combat or exploration.

In the end I think the REmake is a classic and an all-round very enjoyable game, though one that does shoot itself in the foot a little with certain mechanics and elements of game design. Even as somebody who grew up playing games which used a lot of the same mechanics that the REmake relies on I still find it frustrating at times so I can imagine it's not something modern audiences would find easy to get into. That said, it's an excellent example of how atmosphere and action can go hand-in hand-to make an enjoyable Survival Horror experience, it's also a really good example of a game being remade and completely improved upon in doing so.   read


7:40 AM on 04.26.2013

Scope and Depth in the world of gaming

When it comes to games we're often led to believe that more is always better – making an FPS? Well if you want people to really enjoy it you'd better have five locales to visit instead of four, or thirty levels to play instead of twenty; but is it true that the larger the game's scope the better it is?

Setting aside the question of quality, and imagining for the moment that any games we hypothetically talk about will have a similar level of assured quality to one another, do we think that a game having more locations, more backdrops to fight across, more environments to wander through, necessarily leads to an overall better game?



I hesitate to put a real figure on the average number of locales or sections or chapter areas or regions – or whatever the game wants to call them, since it really does depend a lot on the game and the genre.

If you take side-scrolling 2D shooters like Metal Slug or Contra for example, each new level has it's own richly designed and intricate backdrop (speaking at least of their 16-bit iterations), but we don't tend to think of the individual levels as 'sections', so much as we group all the levels with a similar visual theme together.

Bioshock Infinite on the other hand, has only one location really, (not including the Light House), which is Columbia, but within Columbia we can group sections of gameplay together because of their theme and the story elements. It's like Rapture in that regard, there's really only one locale or 'site of the action', but we can divide levels within that locale into sections.

Then there's big FPS shooters like Modern Warfare 3 or Battlefield 3 which often have very generic individual levels but a certain number of 'locations' you visit, around the world, and the levels can be grouped by these different themed area – Modern Warfare 3 had a bit in Africa, a bit in Eastern Europe, and obviously there was the New York bit, aswell as a few others. I don't know all the locales in Battlefield 3, the singleplayer was so bad I almost poked myself in the eye with a fork - pretty sure it followed a similar model though!



What links them all though, despite the genre differences, is that rooms and locations are often disposable in most games – especially more modern games, we move through them once, do what we have to, then move onto the next, usually with the last area being cut off somehow. The scope of most (at least AAA) games is usually very large, there's usually not much focus on a specific location, just a journey across locations.

But is that necessarily a good thing?

Can we imagine a game that is (subjectively speaking) near perfect with only say three locales to play through?

What about a game with only ten rooms to move around in?

Or one room?

Isn't it possible that AAA games have overlooked the obvious, something that was understood for years and done simply out of necessity and the limitations of the hardware at the time, but seems forgotten now: That it's just as possible to tell a story in a confined location as across a sprawling series of locations.



The thought struck me while playing through the GameCube remake of Resident Evil - the original Resident Evil was heavily limited in scope by both the limitations of the hardware of the day but also the financial and human resource limitations of Capcom as a company at the time – they didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend or the talent to work on a game of immense scale, nor did they have the potential market to recoup those costs if they had spent it.

What resulted from this was a model that would form the foundation of Survival Horror games for at least a decade or so, where a game would have principally one location (a mansion, a colony in a jungle, a secret base, a police station, a small town) and then repeatedly explore sections of that location as the plot develops and the locations change.

But the remake was made without those same technological limitations – limitations that even held back PS2 games in terms of what was possible; as was shown only a few years later with Resident Evil 4 the GameCube could handle a fast-paced action game, yet the Resident Evil remake still kept much of the limited scope that characterised the original Resident Evil's level and gameplay design.

Why?

Well in deciding to remake an older game the developer had bought into a model of game design that had generally been considered outdated (and still is) in AAA games. One that as I've already said favoured a much tighter scope, and largely a single location to explore – the mansion. Yet even though we've generally been led to believe that games must be bigger and better to succeed and qualify as good games the REmake was good despite having largely that one location, and that smaller, more intimate scope.



A game is an experience afterall, and as potentially pretentious as that sounds it's true, and being stuck in one location, having to repeatedly travel back and forth in it, is a very different experience to moving quickly from one type of area to another and never looking back. As indie games have shown in recent years we don't necessarily want a game to be everything at once or to do twelve different things at a time, sometimes we like the focus a game has of only doing one thing.

Though the REmake is quite old now (about eleven years old) it still shows that a game being limited in scope doesn't necessarily make it bad.

Now don't get wrong I'm not arguing that this applies to every game, limited scope makes sense in some genres, in others not so much: In a Survival Horror game, where the emphasis is on frustrating, confusing and challenging the player, having them retread the same area repeatedly can really wind the player up (in a good way) and add to that sense of tension, that sense of 'omg, when can I get out of here?!'; on the other hand with a side-scrolling shooter or even a modern FPS having only one backdrop or level to run around repeatedly would likely kill the game, because the point of the game is fast, non-stop action, and a single backdrop would frustrate the player in a way those types of games aren't supposed to.



It makes sense in some types of games to have potentially limited scope, not so much in others.

And note that I'm not saying that developers should be lazier or try less or be less ambition, but rather that there's obsession with length and width in games, and it sometimes seems like we've forgotten that depth can also be really good in games. Rather than a game having a hundred levels why not have ten, then use the person-hours you would've used to make those 90 other levels to build up the ten you do have – add random elements perhaps, make them feel more detailed, more cluttered.

There was a time when reusing areas and game assets was mandatory for shipping a game within cost and creating a playable experience that lasted long enough, and a lot of games, especially Survival Horror ones, took advantage of this limitation to make a unique sort of experience for the player. We don't really have that problem so much now, budgets have skyrocketed whilst the cost of making games has gone down and it's easier than ever for people to make games – there are free engines and tools coming out of the wazoo that can let you create a game, not a AAA quality one, but a decent-enough one. Yet somehow we've forgotten that a game feeling small doesn't necessarily mean there isn't depth to it, and that a larger scope doesn't necessarily equal a better game, just a different type of experience.



One of the things I've realised as we moved out of the era of which Survival Horror was largely king – arguably the PS2 era, and into one where the archetype of what is a 'game' has shifted more towards multiple locations and moving quickly from one area to the next and never returning, is that that early model of game design offered a completely different kind of experience to what we have now: that limited scope helped create the atmosphere and gameplay style that made those games have such an impact - the cramp corridors, the limited number of on-screen enemies at any one time, the frustrating control mechanics.

It's funny when you think about it really, because in a sense what helped shape those games and make them classics – one of the fundamental elements that ended up guiding their design model, were the limitations of the hardware of the time; the very same thing that no doubt stifled the ambitions of the developers to a great degree.

Speaking more generally that contrast in game models is most evident in the difference between the feel of Survival Horror games and more recent Action Horror games. Survival Horror being the more old school type games – Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, Rule of Rose, Silent Hill 2; Action Horror being mostly games that came after Resident Evil 4 showed horror could be action-packed, games like Resident Evil 5 and 6 and also the Dead Space series being good examples.



Whereas Survival Horror was very much rooted in the limitations of the technology of the day, and therefore typically involved very cramp, repeatedly re-used locations – sometimes pre-rendered backdrops that were very cluttered and had a lot of time spent on them, which aided that sense of frustration at not being able to escape; Action Horror focuses on much larger, more open areas, you're not meant to get frustrated or confused, and the locations, the areas, are meant to be pretty much sped through, most just being slightly dressed up long corridors.

If you've ever stopped at any point in Resident Evil 4 after clearing out all the enemies in an area you'll know what I mean – the locations are literally mostly corridors and spaces with (the videogame equivalent of) painted backdrops to give you the sense you're in a certain kind of location. And this is true of almost every location in RE4, in-part because of the limitations of the hardware but also for cost reasons and there was also no real need to. If you do the same in Resident Evil Remake though you find that though the areas are cramped and the enemies limited in number the backdrops are very detailed, and you have to pass through these areas repeatedly, which gives the game a very different feel.

Now arguably neither of these games is a good example of how scope works in modern games (they're both quite old now) but they serve as good exemplars of how the bare mechanics at the heart of each model work for different aims: In the case of the REmake, we see the limited scope of a PS1 game remade with the technology of a console that could do a lot more than it evidently had to with the game, and the end result is a more detailed, deeper gameplay experience; with Resident Evil 4 what we see is a game trying to do the best it can with the hardware at it's disposal to create a fast-moving action experience, but because of the limitations of the hardware though we see the wizard behind the curtain (so to speak) a lot easier.



Neither is really 'good' or 'bad' in the overall sense, but rather they exemplify different game design models, models that offer completely different gameplay experiences, which is something the mainstream industry hasn't really adapted to properly yet (though arguably it's flourishing in the indie market). Games like Modern Warfare, Resident Evil 4, Gears of War, benefit from that quick move from one area to another model of design, it's work intensive but the end result is an experience a lot of people enjoy.

Survival Horror games on the other hand, I would argue largely benefit from limited scope, it sounds counter-intuitive when you think about it, that any game would benefit from having less, but depth to what you have is the point. Survival Horror is principally about doing a lot of the opposite of what games usually do – making the player feel weak, frustrating them, making them uncomfortable or distressed, and limiting the scope of a game - forcing the player to retread the same areas over and over again can reinforce that sense of alienation that Survival Horror so strives for, if done right.

I do think though that potentially that limited scope approach to a game can have other potential uses outside of just Survival Horror, it's not just about reducing the workload or making games more cheaply but also about giving the player different gameplay experiences – we don't want everything to be saving the world, shit blowing up everywhere experiences. Games aren't one homogeneous block of experience, we like variety, we like difference, and hopefully in time the mainstream industry will come to realise there are lots of different types of gameplay experiences they can give us.



Like with film or books or even theatre we don't want one single scale of story– you can see plays, watch films or read books that are about vast wars that span continents, or ones that focus on the life of a city, or a town, or even just two people. Epic conflicts can be enacted between vast fantasy armies; couples can fall in love; a group of survivors can attempt to survive in an underground bomb shelter after an apocalypse; penguins can talk.

And while I'm not trying to argue any of those types of stories necessarily fit within a game, the potential range of scope as to what videogames can cover is much the same as any other creative medium, from the little – the interpersonal, right upto the big – the galactic wars, the fantasy conflicts, the political intrigue.

Personally for a long time now I've been interested in seeing games play around with limited scope more – sure I'd love to see more games with the old Survival Horror model get made, but I'm also interested in seeing maybe a game where you're stuck in a house and you literally only have ten rooms to move around in, and somehow the developer does enough with only ten rooms (perhaps having them change everytime you visit or every so often) that it keeps the player engaged and entertained; or even a game where it's maybe you and another character stuck in a single room and the developer makes that entertaining.

I doubt either of those last two ideas will come to shake the very foundation of AAA gaming anytime soon – indeed I'd expect if they did get made they'd be done by an indie developer, but the point is they'd be an interesting challenge to the idea that a bigger scope always equals a better game.   read


6:04 AM on 04.19.2013

Story Books and Nightmares in Rule of Rose



When it comes to all the possible ways that people can express themselves creatively, and hope to succeed to a degree to be able to commercially benefit from that creativity, games probably aren't really on the easy side of the spectrum – atleast not unless you've got friends with deep pockets or are willing to keep the project quite small and do all the work yourself. When it comes to mainstream games the creative pool is especially restricted.

Unlike a book say where you may only need one writer, or a film where you may just need a camera and a few actors (which could be expensive, but not as expensive) games often require a lot more people, working a lot more intensely on a project for a prolonged period of time. As such you don't tend to get as many 'artistic' or visionary games – where you mostly just have one person's ideas or very niche themes explored, like you do with film or books.



Somebody could sit here and pen a story about a protagonist whose whole experience in the story world is centred around Nietzschean philosophy or the tenets of some obscure religion and potentially could sell it to all 12 people who'd actually be interested in reading it, and there might even be a market for it as a film, but it's unlikely a game would ever get made about the same sort of thing, principally because of the relative cost and the perceived market. Games with those sorts of unusual themes just don't tend to get made.

That's why Rule of Rose is so fucking weird.

Like, really, really weird.

And not in a sort of LSD (the game, but ok, maybe also the drug) way, but more in the sense that somebody sat down and decided to make a really interesting game involving a lot of uncomfortable themes that don't often get explored in any medium (let alone games). It makes sense as a sort of interesting exploration of those uncomfortable themes (which really, is what horror does best) but as a commercial product I'm surprised anybody in a suit actually sat down and ok'd the game's development.



Typically we expect it more from films or books but here you're actually playing it. In the last few years a number of small indie titles have started to explore all sorts of themes through the medium of games, with varying degrees of success, but it's interesting all the same that a game like Rule of Rose (that was released on the PS2) could get away with trying to do something so unusual.

I'm rambling a bit though, and perhaps getting ahead of myself. I should explain a bit about Rule of Rose.

Rule of Rose is a PS2 Survival Horror game. Principally set in 1930's England and about a teenage girl (she looks to be around 16/17) called Jennifer who ends up at an orphanage and is thrust into this very abusive, tight-knit social circle when she meets the children who call the orphanage home and has to do various tasks to gain their respect.



The 'story' such as it is, is a little vague at times to put it lightly. Though obviously there is a story which eventually pulls all the different events of the game together, the story isn't forced in your face and a lot of what you learn is more inferred than explicitly explained – which when it comes to a lot of the themes that seemed to be explored in the game make it an especially uncomfortable experience at times. For me the real substance of the game is the themes it explores though – typically when it comes to Survival Horror games people most associate the monsters of a game with the game, think of Silent Hill and everybody thinks of Pyramid Head, think of Resident Evil and everybody thinks of zombies, but in reality it's often the themes and issues that a Survival Horror game explores that have the most lasting impact on us.

Though the game centres around an orphanage - i.e. a place full of children that you might expect to be bright and lively, the atmosphere is so unpleasant, the children so unlikeable, and everything about the game so perfectly geared towards creating that oppressive atmosphere, that you can't help but feel a sense of tension building as you play and the story develops. It struck me quite early on that the game made me feel that same sense of oppressive caution that 'Lord of the Flies' has – there's this sense that on the outside the principal cast are adorable young children but underneath that though is something a lot darker and more dangerous, something that only comes out once the adults are out of sight. They almost become feral.



Indeed much of the game is characterised by Jennifer basically being bullied and pushed around by these young girls as they try to force her to do things for them, with little gain for Jennifer. Yet even though the scope of the game is so parochial, and basically centred around the mind of this one girl, it works as Survival Horror predominantly because as you play you get this unsettling, oppressive sense of atmosphere that drives the horror.

It's hard to explain why it works exactly, as obviously described like that it does sound horrible, but there's no glorification of any of it - the bullying is ugly, the children you meet are hideous creatures (though they look like beautiful little children) and even the few adults you meet are unpleasant people. What the game does though is build this up as part of the ugly world Jennifer finds herself in, a world that feels much the same to her as the zombie-infested world of Resident Evil does to Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, oppressive, stifling and potentially very dangerous.

Everything about the game is geared towards giving you this oppressive sense of 'aloneness', that's common in really good Survival Horror games: the sort of chilling violin music, the impish enemies who are never really explained properly – and could possibly be a figment of Jennifer's imagination, the picture book stories that bookend the different segments of the game, and the thoroughly unpleasant and often treacherous way the children treat Jennifer.



Perhaps individually the elements may not amount to much but as a whole the game offers an incredibly interesting experience, atleast storywise. Arguably the game is bogged down by some crappy aspects though.

Pacing being one, it is a pretty slow game. You do actually complete different segments pretty quickly and pretty easily but there's not a whole lot of fanfare between sections so if you're not interested in the story (or even if you're just confused) it can seem a little underwhelming. That said I'd like to think the slow-pace is intentional – as the story and themes the game tries to explore are more akin to an old ghost story than something you might see in an action movie. Hence the slow pace.

Another thing that doesn't help the game very much is the combat.

The combat is very clunky, it's also often very hit and miss aswell – your best bet is to run away from most fights if you can. If you don't then it's more than likely that you will end up throwing the controller at the wall at some point, as you'll often find either enemies seem to be able to reach quite a bit further than it appears they can given their on-screen reach or that even though it looks like you should have hit the enemy your weapon went straight through them with no effect.

From what I can tell it's mostly that you catch them in certain parts of an animation cycle (like if they're getting up or swinging their weapon) and for some reason that stops the hit being recognised; so it's not like it's unpredictable, but all the same it is very annoying and makes the combat feel very loose at times.



Without it sounding too laughable a thing to say about a game though Rule of Rose is arguably not something you play for its solid or enjoyable combat mechanics – indeed like most Survival Horror games, what the game does so well is more the atmosphere, the story, the tension it creates as you play. This is a weird game, a very, very weird game, that explores some really interesting (but unpleasant) issues around the way children are treated, treat each other and how generally shitty and unpleasant people and life can be.

Rule of Rose is one of those games that will appeal to people interested in story, in exploring issues and the darker side of human nature but it won't win any awards for its combat or explosion quota.   read


2:52 AM on 04.10.2013

Boss Battles - When do they ever make sense?

Bosses.

Can't live with 'em, can't have closure with genuinely satisfying gameplay segments without them.

...well, atleast that's what we generally tend to believe.

And who could blame us for thinking it, bosses have been an integral part of gaming for a long time now - but why do bosses exist in the first place? Do we need them?



While I can't sit here and argue about who was the first developer or what was the first game to decide that a boss was a good idea I think speaking more generally they've risen to prominence in games specifically because of what they represent. Much like the 'big bad' character that the protagonist ends up fighting at the end of a movie or book, or like the set piece action sequences you get, bosses in games help to signify the end of a block of story or a section of a game – in much the same way as you might change location between chapters or levels; its a sort of mental marker for our experience. They also offer a more prominent challenge or obstacle for the player, a change of pace – a unique character to fight who isn't 'just another' indistinguishable supernumerary.

Broadly speaking I think this is why bosses have been so integral to games for as long as they have – unlike in movies or books where obviously you don't have hardware limitations as to what action can go on (though you obviously might have financial and logistical limitations in terms of making a movie and Stephenie Meyer's hormonal teenager imagination with a book), games have hardware but also disc space limitations.



Hardware limitations are a big problem even today but were an bigger problem for earlier generations of console. You couldn't put a whole lot on-screen - nor in a whole lot of detail, and you also didn't have a whole lot of storage space for multiple sprites/models/textures.

So rather than doing less and keeping each fight sequence unique games instead opted to use repeated instances of the same enemies (think of games like Streets of Rage where you fight the same gutter thugs over and over again, that sort of thing), and supplement those repetitive fight sequences with (relatively) unique boss fights. It was a compromise based off the limitations they had to work with – hardware but also financial and physical – afterall, unlike with a movie or book if a game's developer does choose to add extra unique content that means more work for somebody. Bosses in that sense played (and still do play) a vital compromise role in a lot of games to keep them feeling memorable but also not unnecessarily limit the game in terms of scope.

However, the thing is that as the definition of a game has expanded in the last few decades, and the sort of things we can expect in terms of experience from a game have diversified, bosses in games have become one of those aspects of games that for some have just been taken for granted as necessary – even when they don't make a whole lot of sense to the game in question.

I mean where do we think it makes sense to have bosses?



Personally, I always think that Survival Horror and Shooters have tended to have bosses that have stuck in my mind as making sense, but does every Survival Horror game need bosses? Does every Shooter?

What about Adventure games? Or Puzzle games? Or Visual Novel games?

Where do bosses make sense and where don't they?

Arguably throughout much of what I write there are trends and recurrent themes, among them the sense that giving the player an experience that fits the point of the game is key to how much of an impact the game has on the individual.



What does this mean? Well, generally what we want from a game is a bit of fantasy but also a bit of vaguely realistic enjoyable entertainment – even when we're playing the most fantastical of games or watching the most fantastical of movies we still look for inconsistencies and things that don't quite work, even though we accept the more ridiculous aspects; I'm sure we all know somebody who watches Star Wars – or any sort of Sci-Fi show or movie and points out the minor inconsistencies yet happily overlooks the fact it's set in space on starships and there are aliens all over the place.

The best films, the best books, the best games, are those that seem to click for us, they may be fantasy, they may be unrealistic in a lot of ways but they're coherent within themselves – even if they don't make sense in the real world, they make sense in a world (their own), a little like dreams really.

Why does any of this matter?

Well, bosses like any other aspect of a game have to fit into the whole, the player has to feel they connect well with the rest of the game. If they don't then the game starts to make no sense and sort of falls apart.



Looking at why Shooters have bosses it's pretty obvious that it's a challenge thing – the point of those types of games is that you're challenged to fight your way through levels to finish them, and the boss is the last speed bump before you move onto the next level. Likewise they make sense in some (not all) Survival Horror games because essentially those games are also about challenge – a different sort of challenge, one based more around the weakness of the character and the need to survive rather than an empowering fantasy like most shooters are, but a challenge all the same. So again, it usually makes sense for them to have bosses.

The boss, again, represents that heightened bump along the difficulty curve as you progress towards your next objective, and serves to remind the player that even if they aren't particularly afraid or challenged by the regular monsters that there are always more dangerous foes about.

Take Resident Evil for example, principally say 2 (though we could easily be talking about any of them), the average zombie/zombie dog/licker, does offer some challenge and is a threat, but they can die. And once eliminated they're no longer a threat, unless more repopulate an area. William Birkin on the other hand represents a recurring threat, sure he's not all that tough compared to some bosses in other Survival Horror titles but in terms of the story he doesn't die, he keeps coming back, and the few fights you do have with him are tense and challenging.



In that sense, having William Birkin (and the other bosses in the game), makes sense to the type of story, the type of game, Resident Evil 2 is. The Resident Evil games are fundamentally about that sort of action-movie experience. They're hero stories, and having those boss moments, and emphasising the difference between those moments and ones with ordinary enemies, helps build that sense of accomplishment in the player when they finally do beat the game.

We probably don't need that in a puzzle game or an adventure game necessarily though – though again it depends on the type of game it is, maybe the point of the game is to encourage a sense of accomplishment through the challenge of overcoming unique enemies.

Probably the worst instance of bosses in a game not really making a whole lot of sense for me was Silent Hill 4. You play a man who one day realises he's trapped in his apartment and is unable to leave, as meanwhile a series of weird events seem to occur around the apartment building he's in – really his only way of monitoring the outside world being to watch out his window or spy through a hole in the wall, that is until a mysterious cavernous tunnel appears in his bathroom and he's able to climb through that hole to explore bizarre worlds to piece together the story of what's going on.



It's a really interesting premise, unfortunately the game is bogged down in rather mediocre gameplay, kind of pointless level design and crappy combat.

Oh, and terrible boss fights.

Admittedly, probably a large part of how terrible the boss fights are is how crappy the combat is, but generally they also don't make a whole lot of sense (like a lot of what makes up the actual gameplay). You end up fighting one of those classic 'hit the special weakpoint till an event happens' type final bosses, having to dodge and attack as the boss slowly alters.

It's boring to say the least.

It also doesn't make a whole lot of sense in the context of the story.

Whereas a game like Resident Evil 2 is about being a sort of action hero, and games like Streets of Rage or say Contra or even Gears of War are also to some extent also about playing the hero, and so it largely makes sense for them to have bosses, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense with Silent Hill 4.



It's been awhile now since I've played it, but principally I remember the game was about the story, a very slow, very old-fashioned story – I mean christ, you were 'stuck' in your apartment for most of the game, it was one of those stories that was by it's nature meant to be slow, if it was going to work properly. It was haunting in a sense, the premise atleast – you were basically exploring this sort of spooky ghost tale, and into that was shoe-horned combat and bosses because (I guess) they assumed it being a Silent Hill game meant it had to have those things, when really it would have made more sense for the game to have almost no combat and just left you to explore spooky, empty corridors.

I mean imagine if somebody took a Gothic Horror story and then inserted dudes with bazookas into it, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense and would probably ruin the point of it being Gothic Horror :/

It wasn't quite as bad as that with Silent Hill 4 but it's that sort of attempt to merge two very opposing types of experience that they tried to do, and it ended up sucking. I daresay a part of why it sucked was how poor the enemy design was in general but having bosses didn't help any.

Which is rather ironic, considering personally I always felt that the bosses in the earlier Silent Hill games had worked really well and made sense overall, but with 4 it just felt nonsensical. And generally speaking this is where I think bosses either work or don't work - if they don't make sense in the context of the game then they may well fail as part of the game, or at the very least leave the player feeling indifferent.



Siren is another example of a game where the bosses feel a little odd, I wouldn't say they outright fail as with Silent Hill 4 - indeed some are very fun, but it never made sense to me that the game is essentially about survival and escape ...right up until the end when your character, despite being pathetically weak, decides to challenge the boss rather than escape (and this is true of the second game aswell actually.)

Again, it's that sense that having the bosses in the game doesn't quite match the intent of the game – the survival and escape aspect. Yet they put it in because they felt that games need bosses if people are going to want to play them. I don't think it helped Siren much that every level ended with the words 'Mission Accomplished' emblazoned across the screen (and not an aircraft carrier in sight) either, but that's another matter.

In the end bosses are like any other aspect of games, they have to feel like they largely fit the context of the game if they're going to work; obviously mechanics is a bit part of that, but if you're making a game that is primarily a slow ponderous puzzle game then a high-action boss fight at the end of the game might not make all that much sense.

Then again, it might just, it always depends on the game.   read


4:28 AM on 04.03.2013

B-Movie Bliss: Extermination

So I picked up a copy of Extermination a week or so ago, and was able to play through the game pretty quickly (in about four or fives hours), and that made me think about and then eventually do a pretty long write-up about Survival Horror essentials, but even though it inspired the piece Extermination only really got mentioned in passing. I liked the game though, so I thought I'd do a short write-up about how the game plays.

Extermination is a PS2 Survival Horror game that follows the story of a squad of marines who are sent to investigate a top-secret Antarctic research base when contact is lost with the facility; unbeknownst to them the scientists at the facility have been working on reviving a prehistoric bacteria frozen in an alien artifact for thousands of years. This bacteria is unleashed on the facility, revealing itself to be a pseudo-intelligent lifeforce capable of infecting and mutating living creatures and turning them into monsters, driven only by the urge to in-turn infect others.



Now, granted even at the time I'm not sure the description sounded particularly ground-breaking, and you can probably already tell where Extermination is taking its cues from in terms of story – The Thing mostly, but nevertheless I found it interesting as it also borrows a lot from the Resident Evil games in terms of the general outline of the plot and the way events progress in the game. You have similar sorts of boss fights, and you spend much of the game doing those same sorts of fetch quests.

Overall the game could pass for being pretty forgettable for some (especially if the dialogue has anything to say about it!), but for a Survival Horror fan, and especially a fan of a lot of the mechanics at work in a Resident Evil game I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the nice little things the game does differently.

The game features a fairly unusual enemy dynamic – whereas most games would have you fighting pretty fearsome or imposing enemies right off the bat, Extermination doesn't. For the first, maybe forty minutes, you don't really meet any of the usual sort of man-sized enemies you might expect.

Much of the first quarter of the game is actually spent avoiding or hunting down these small, leech-like creatures, that slide absently across the scenery and whose only real aggressive action is to spit infectious liquid at you. I'm guessing that probably sounds kind of dumb, and not all that exciting, and individually the creatures really aren't much of a threat – or atleast they don't seem it, but it's more a cumulative thing.



A big part of the game is your having to avoid getting infected, because if you do get infected then you have very little time (or the supplies) to get to somewhere where you can cure yourself. Though individually the 'bugs' (atleast that's what the game calls them, they look more like leeches) don't offer much of a challenge, as a group they can be very dangerous, and they often swarm areas in large numbers – and a fair few of the areas are dark and claustrophobic, just the sort of situation where you might find yourself slipping up.

For the type of game it is, telling the type of story it is, it actually works really well. The game centres around the idea of this infection getting out, yeah? And how do we often think about disease or infection working? Often we imagine a single case of whatever it is infecting somebody, then that spreading to other individuals, before it explodes outward and becomes incredibly dangerous as it spreads to the general populous. The virus in the story works a lot like this, and the way the gameplay and levels – and enemy progression, is designed reflects this really well.

Though the leech-like creatures don't initially pose much danger by themselves, as the game progresses that threat increases as both their number and the other threats in the environment increase. I think it also reflects the nature of the game that the biggest threat those small creatures pose is not one of bodily injury but rather infection – you're more afraid of losing your humanity and becoming a monster than you are of dying in those early stages.



The infection system itself is pretty interesting too, you have two 0/100 meters, one for your health, one for your infection level. Health works as you'd expect, if it falls to 0 you just drop dead. Infection on the other hand doesn't lead to death but rather you enter this sort of limbo state in which you have reduced health, a large prominent patch of mutated flesh appears on your back, and you have limited time to find a recovery station.

Another important mechanic worth mentioning (especially in the context of what I just said) is that you have health supplies but you also have these sort of 'instant recovery pills' that completely recover your health and infection rate, but you can only use them at recovery stations. And once you are infected they're the only cure you have, and though the game does give you a generous amount of these pills there are a finite number of them overall. So you have to be careful.

I do also want to mention in brief the ammo system and how the gun(s) work. Unlike other survival horror games you actually have unlimited ammo in Extermination, but you can only carry so much at a time (determined by how many 'magazines' you have), so when you are low on ammo you have to find a supply room with an ammo dispenser in it. Essentially you have limitless ammo but given how few and far between the supply points are, and how dangerous it often is to get to them, you're forced to be very frugal with your ammo. It struck me as an interesting take on the usual survival horror mechanic of scarce supplies.

The way the weapon system works is also interesting, rather than having multiple weapons you have a single weapon – an assault rifle, but that assault rifle can have a myriad of attachments that offer you different options in combat, including different sights, enemy tracking scopes, an underbarrel shotgun, grenade launcher and even rocket launcher.



Though one or two extra, secondary weapons, might have been nice, I do like the focus on having this one weapon with a single ammo reserve. I found myself worrying a lot more about having enough ammo than I did in other survival horror games, which is funny when you think about it - whereas most survival horror games give you a very finite, definite ammo supply, Extermination gives you unlimited ammo at limited supply points.

Admittedly there are a fair few things I didn't think were so hot about the game, I've mostly focused on the mechanics because they piqued my interest in the game – it messes with the standard survival horror mechanics (well, standard to Resident Evil atleast) to do something interesting, whilst keeping a lot of the plot and narrative elements very standard, which I liked a lot.

On the other hand though those actual plot points are pretty standard B-movie material, you have the heroic lead character, his ill-fated friend(s), the (sort of) love interest, and a general confuddle of events and happenings that don't make a whole lot of logical sense – at one point you discover that a few of the scientists have somehow survived and been leaving notes for one another around the infected base to meet up. How it makes any sense that two civilians could survive that long without having to be huddled in a closet somewhere and not a single soldier from the base manages to survive is beyond me!



I quite like B-movies though so I liked the plot generally, but it is admittedly very dumb at times. I don't think it helps very much how wooden and forced the dialogue sounds. And when I say wooden I do emphatically mean wooden, we're talking 80's anime/D-list movie level performances. For the most part it's ok, but like with a lot of not very well dubbed/translated foreign games I get the sense the original Japanese version probably made more sense and affected the player more (I could be wrong, the plot is still very B-movie, even ignoring the voice acting).

Overall I doubt Extermination is the sort of game that'd impress anybody whose not a fan of the genre but for a Survival Horror fan like myself I was pleasantly surprised by my experience with the game. Kinda glad I got it for next to nothing though!

:D   read


5:53 AM on 03.24.2013

Survival Horror Essentials

So last week I happened to pick up a copy of Extermination, an old PS2 title from the early days of the console, a survival horror game. This year I've been a lot more interested in trying to look into old games from consoles that I never really got a chance to play when they first came out for whatever reason, predominantly horror games.

Having read up a little on the game I was interested to find out that some of the people who worked on it had also worked on Resident Evil, something which some actual playtime with the game confirmed for me. Though it's not Resident Evil, it has a fair few of the tried and tested mechanics of the early games.



That got me thinking again about the mechanics and tropes that help define Survival Horror, I've written about this before but I felt as though it could be interesting to write about again, especially considering how much there is to talk about.

And hey, it's not like I've ever said I wasn't a broken record on the subject, right?

;D

First and foremost I think perception of challenge in survival horror is important; not challenge in the sense that everything in the game must be hard to do necessarily, but rather the game must feel like a struggle of sorts. The player has to feel as though they're fighting an uphill battle as they play, they have to feel that they're going against the odds, and surviving through some combination of luck and skill.



Though we don't often think about it a whole lot most games are centred around the premise that you have power, or that you will have power, incredible power. And because of this they tend to fall into more action movie territory in terms of the kind of engaging experience you have. Survival horror necessarily has to try and oppose that if it's going to have any effect on the player – and note that the game doesn't necessarily have to be literally difficult or set large-scale obstacles in your way, it's more that the player has to feel challenged, they have to feel as though there's no surefire, easy way to solve their problems. Otherwise the game will lose it's sense of tension.

Good examples of this are Forbidden Siren (just Siren in the US) and Resident Evil: Code Veronica.

The Siren games feature purposefully clumsy controls, slow-moving, weak characters, they poorly handle firearms (the few there are) and are mostly useless with hand weapons. As such you as the player are forced to be a lot more careful about how you play, which keeps you on your toes. Your overall goal in Siren is never to 'win' or to succeed in some dramatic fashion, you're not launching a nuke or saving the world, you're just trying to survive, but the player's perception of how difficult that task is, given the gameplay, is in part what makes it scary.



Code Veronica (and infact many of the earlier Resident Evil games) is(/are) a good example of the other way that perception of challenge can work, though the game can be challenging and difficult at times it's largely designed to be a smooth ride (atleast smoother than Siren), and the tasks you have to do to complete the game are relatively simple, but the nature of the way the tasks are presented in the game is such that you as the player are made to feel that you're near enough the last survivor and that each sequence of events, each boss battle, is you surmounting ever larger obstacles, as still even larger obstacles are placed before you.

In both games you have the perception of challenge, but each handles it differently, with Siren the challenge is in the actual gameplay, your goal is relatively simple (to survive) but made difficult by the gameplay. With Code Veronica the challenge is more about how the narrative portrays your tasks and their scale, more than the difficulty of the gameplay.



More generally speaking it should be pretty obvious to say that if the ghosts you're fighting, or the werewolves you have to sneak past to end the level, don't pose any threat, and don't make the player feel afraid, then there's not going to be any sense of tension or danger, and hence no fear.

Realism is kind of a big part of that.

Though we don't tend to think about it a whole lot, a lot of the games we play are very unrealistic, and that's not just a reference to the obvious stuff – like Mario or Sonic, but also more generally to games like Modern Warfare or Uncharted. True those games may have a high level of visual fidelity, but you do play as characters capable of absorbing large amounts of gunfire, who are often capable of feats of inhuman skill, dexterity or strength and seem almost 'unique' in their ability to avoid death.

Not to say this is necessarily a bad thing, just that it's a fact about the games we play. Recharging health, respawning supplies (and enemies), boss battles, high scores, even stuff like cutscenes or how attractive videogame leads are, are some distance away from reality. There's a point to all this though, which is the enjoyability factor. A lot of these concessions to fantasy are made because we want the game to be fun, we want a smooth ride, and we want an experience that feels empowering in some way.



Like in an action film, if the lead character got (realistically) cut down by the first group of thugs he came across it'd be a pretty boring film, and over very quickly. He (or she) has to do inhuman feats because it's the fantasy of it. With games, different sorts of concessions are made to fantasy, with characters being bullet-sponges, capable of using firearms or heavy weapons with little or no training, recharging health, etc. It's also to some degree an acknowledgement of gaming's less technologically sophisticated origins, and also how complicated it would be for games to have 1-for-1 control systems, but that's less important here.

And note: again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the point is that with survival horror that distance between reality and fantasy must be considered carefully. You may want your character to be able to pick up a grenade launcher and take down groups of zombies but would letting them dropkick the zombies across the level be empowering them too much for the type of horror game you want?



It's very much a balancing act between the type of fun you want the player to have, and the type of story you're telling. You obviously don't want the player to be bored, but you also don't want to make them too powerful, in-case it ruins whatever tension and atmosphere you've created elsewhere in the game.

Again, using Forbidden Siren and Code Veronica as examples.

Siren made you weak, made you relatively incapable of using any weapon with any competence, and because of this it's punishingly hard at times but it's fun and very scary. The fact the gap between reality and fantasy in the game is so small makes the horror come alive in a sense.
Whereas in Code Veronica (and indeed all of the Resident Evil games) there's a definite edge of unrealism – Claire's ability to fit an ample supply of herbs, small arms and even a rocket launcher into those tight pants is the stuff of legend.



It's unrealistic but for the type of horror experience the game is trying to create – i.e. a sort of action-movie-esque one, it wouldn't do to have the main character (realistically) having to carry around a huge backpack and wearing body armour. It's also obviously unrealistic that Claire could get bitten or injured as much as she is during a zombie apocalypse and go onto to survive and be healthy, but it's a concession to the type of experience they're going for. Because the game is about fun at the end of the day, and the realism is just there to facilitate that entertainment more than anything.

With survival horror the emphasis on realism is paramount, sure like with an action movie or an action-anything your character may have moments of superhuman ability, but more generally they have to be shown to be fallible, to be just human, if you want the player to be scared.

I think a good example of how to look at how it works from outside of horror is the difference between playing multiplayer in a game like Modern Warfare and a game like Counter-Strike. Sure in Modern Warfare things can get tense but the almost instant respawns, the plentiful ammo and the (relatively) high health mean you don't worry too much about dying.



With Counter-Strike things are a lot different, you can die in just one shot if you're not careful, you often don't have much ammo (unless you've been playing for awhile) and you don't instantly respawn. You have to consider your actions a bit more, and because of that the experience is a lot more tense and can involve a lot more forethought.

A good survival horror game tries to give you that same feeling, it just tries to scare you at the same time.

I think it goes without saying that most people know a big part of survival horror is limited ammo and supplies, and it's a point worth making again. It's not just about limited ammo though but also about ammo and supply placement, and the way the gameplay is set up to encourage scrounging and to make the player feel as though they're lucky to find any supplies.

A good example of this is System Shock 2, where any large supply caches (only relatively speaking, you don't tend to pick up all that much ammo) are hidden away in boxes or at the back of storerooms. The enemies you do fight don't tend to drop much, so in many respects it's better not to fight (given the cost in health and other supplies there is to fight); and you spend much of the game weighing up whether it's worth the fight or whether you should try to sneak or run past an enemy.



I think part of the reason why Resident Evil 4 and onward (5 and 6) don't really work very well as true horror games is partly because of how they monetise combat, they make it profitable to kill enemies, to get more ammo and supplies, rather than encouraging the player to avoid combat so it's less scary. If you have to worry that you might not be able to find anymore supplies if you use them up fighting then you think more about what you're doing, you weigh your choices more.

It's also worth noting that how you fit those pick-ups into the game world has a big effect on the player's perception of the game. For example, if your random Spanish villagers drop submachine gun ammo or grenades (something real Spanish villagers don't do when they die, trust me, I've tested it) it does take away from the sense of realism somewhat. For the most part if you want your survival horror game to feel real then where the player picks up and finds those supplies has to feel real too – that means putting ammunition where one might expect to find ammunition, healing items where you might expect to find healing items, etc.



I've talked about atmosphere a lot before so it probably doesn't need expanding on a whole lot, but needless to say it's important that as you play a game that you feel a certain way: the environments you wander through, the situations you find yourself in, they all have to provide a certain kind of response, and note: this doesn't have to necessarily be about scaring the player shitless, but rather more about unsettling them. It's often better to be very subtle about the way you create atmosphere aswell, dead bodies hanging from walls have their place, but you might want to make the uncomfortability more subconscious – a broken window here, a smeared bloody handprint there, spent shell casings on the floor maybe. The point is to infer a story to everything, and let the player's mind fill in the blanks. Because frankly, their imagination is probably the scariest tool you have.

I have a feeling I've mentioned this before (possibly multiple times) but it's worth mentioning again, because I think it's one of those things that often gets ignored or overlooked in a lot of more modern horror games:

Breaks.

Downtime.

Pauses.

Any really good horror game needs good breaks between the fighting if it's going to have an effect on the player. Like in a good horror movie you need those moments where you don't know where the monster is, where you're sure something's going to pop out but you don't know exactly when. You need a sense of tension, a sense that you've sort of escaped but on some level you know you're not out of the woods yet (obviously, since the game hasn't ended.)



Long walks down quiet corridors, exploring empty rooms or moments where you have to backtrack are often good for this. You don't necessarily need to have something jump out at you, indeed sometimes it's better to just throw a few red-herrings the player's way – have a window randomly break with no consequences when the player's nearby, have a monster growl in the distance, have a door slam shut. Whatever makes sense to the type of story you're telling.

Build-up and tension is a big part of making horror work.

Sort of leading on from that is a sense of forethought to the world you create in the game.

Again, this is one of those things that I think doesn't get talked about too much in games, we tend to focus on the foreground elements a lot, but in horror games it's often the background that's most important to the effect you have on the player.



I think with horror, and particularly survival horror, you need to set the scene, you need to create environments that feel lived in, with characters and enemies that feel like a realised part of that world – this can be anything from having a table cluttered with personal belongings, to having a corridor smeared in the bloody hand prints of recently deceased scientists, to a security guard-turned-monster who still has an identifiable ID tag on the tattered rags clinging to his chest.

Again, it's part of atmosphere, tension and build-up, it's important to establish a sense, even if it's just subconscious for the player, that the things in the game world relate to each other in a real way.

Part of the reason why Resident Evil for the GameCube worked so well was it's attention to detail in the environments and backgrounds, everything felt a part of the story and that helped immerse the player. Siren: Blood Curse is another good example of this – I think the game has 1-for-1 unique zombies, and each environment has obviously seen a lot of attention to detail, with a lot of emphasis put on making them feel like really lived in rooms before the apocalypse. It's not about running through a series of empty, box-shaped rooms but rather realistic-seeming environments. So as the player you get this sense that you really are in this zombie-apocalypse village, trying to escape, and that in turn heightens the fear.



Though I don't have a whole lot that I can say about it, I do think music is also key. Music can play a huge part in the atmosphere a game creates, and as such it should always be an important factor. One of the more interesting ways I've seen (heard) it used was in Silent Hill 2, where in the background you can often hear what sounds like *something* without really knowing what's there. It creates a sense of dread and anticipation for a completely imaginary danger.

That's more direct, because it makes you feel as though there may be enemies about, even when there isn't, but even just background music can have an effect on the mood, if you quicken the pace of the background music while the player walks down a corridor, how will that change their mood? Will it make the game more or less tense for those fleeting moments?

Horror is often as much about confusion as fear - as the two are linked. Silent Hill 2 is a good example of a game knowing that and using its music to that end.



Something else I did want to mention that I think doesn't often get mentioned is the random element, or the unpredictable.

It's not often something that comes up in a lot of games because it's too much effort to implement but part of what makes us so scared is not knowing what's ahead. If we don't know what's ahead we can't be prepared. Hence why a lot of games stop being (as) scary when you replay them.

Once we know where the monsters are coming from we can know how to prepare for them, which makes them less scary.

Though I can't think of a proper example of a survival horror game that randomised enemy locations I think, funnily enough, Resident Evil 3 is the game that really solidified this principle for me.



Though it only does it in a limited way the locations of supplies randomly shifts between playthrough, and though you can know roughly where they'll be you won't know for sure till you check the rooms where the supplies randomly pop up.

Resident Evil 3's a pretty easy game, so apart from making speed-runs slightly more troublesome it's no big deal, but applied more generally random or unpredictable events, supply locations and enemy spawn points could have a big effect on how we play, and increase the sense of tension, as we lose our certainty about where we're safe.



And since Extermination and Resident Evil started this off, how about some runner-ups when it comes to what makes survival horror survival horror, huh?

-An annoying amount of backtracking
-Multi-stage bosses that just won't die
-Escaping on some sort of transport
-Heroes who don't know how to run away
-Tank controls
-Journals written by people who actually write ellipses in their journals
-Dialogue that sounds like it was written by a 10 yr old
-A master of unlocking

...And those are my thoughts! Thank you for entering the world of...

...SURVIVAL HORROR   read


6:30 AM on 03.06.2013

Lazyblog: Box Art

What's the first game you remember playing?

That you remember really vividly?

Do you remember the box art for it?

I played a lot of games as a kid, and I mean A LOT, pretty much all demos really because we didn't have any money. Some stuck with me, some didn't. I have vivid memories of playing (and loving) Midnight Resistance on my cousin's Amiga, the early Sonic games on the Megadrive, Streets of Rage, Sol Feace, Revenge of Shinobi, Virtua Racing 32X. I'm leaving a lot out here obviously.

One of the games I remember most vividly though is Doom.

Doom scared the hell out of me as a kid (I think I was about 6 or 7 when I first played it), I remember booting it up and creeping through corridors, fighting off imps, rushing to grab the chaingun or a rocket launcher the first chance I got, and a cold shiver running down my spine at the oh so familiar cry of a Baron of Hell. I don't think it helped much that I first played it on the Sega 32X (FPS gamepad controls weren't up to much in those days.)

What I remember most about Doom though, and specifically the first Doom, was it's box art.


(check the gallery below for a much larger version of the picture)

As a seven year old confronted with the cover of Doom I was terrified. Though I obviously wasn't the man on the front cover (despite having the best damn six-pack of any child in the neighbourhood!) I could relate to him and feel the horror of his situation to the best of the ability of my child mind. Assailed from every direction by nightmareish creatures, desperately struggling to beat them back as they reach out to snatch him away, it was the stuff of nightmares.

I don't think it helps much that I come from a part of England that is sort of atheist, sort of agnostic, but values the Christian traditions as part of it's middle-class identity, so the idea of demons and angels were familiar to me, and here I was, a little kid, face to face with actual demons ...atleast as actual as a really good painting seems to a kid.

It made an impression on me, to be sure.

I think the one thing I remember most about the picture, and that sort of sealed the deal (so to speak), when it came down to scaring me, was the single demon at the forefront of the box, to the left, closest to you. He's not looking at Doomguy like the others, he's looking straight at you. An almost mischievous smile on his face (on one of the covers his tongue actually comes down over the border on the box, almost as if the box is just a window), and a knowing looking in his eyes. As a kid used to reading and watching pretty passive media, to be able to 'play' a game like Doom and to be looking at this piece of art that almost seemed to break the rules of how pictures worked (in the mind of a child) with a character looking at us, it offered the terrifying prospect that what I was seeing and playing might not just be entertainment but real aswell.

Even now the picture still unsettles me a little.



Why is this important?

I think box art for games is important, not just as decoration for the cover of your game but to draw people in, to excite them. We may not be kids anymore, excited by dumb stories about muscle-bound action heroes and princesses that need rescuing, but that doesn't mean as adults we've lost our imaginations. Why else do we play games? Surely we'd just mess with spreadsheets or wireframe games if all that mattered were the mechanics.

Games are about imagination, action, excitement, exploring fantasies and worlds we never could in real-life, and I think the box art of a game can say a lot about the experience you're in for.

Maybe it's because of the gaming era I grew up in in the 90's but 'box art' for me (and I include board game art, videogame art, book covers and CD sleeves in this) is about conveying a sense of what the thing is about, sure some games work best with non-descript covers but I think there are games that would benefit from a strong piece of art on the cover, and for the most part games seem to have forgotten that they can impress us.



Granted I'm now a jaded old man so maybe my judgement's a little obscured, but I haven't really seen a piece of box art that really blew me away in quite awhile. I should probably admit aswell that I am pretty biased towards the old-school oil paintings that primarily used to end up being used on covers. The Doom cover is a brilliant example, but I remember the cover art for Revenge of Shinobi, Streets of Rage, Dune 2, Golden Axe and X-Com – the cover to X-Com especially I remember giving me similar vibes to Doom, with the alien seemingly lunging out of the cover.

I guess it's a part of the way the medium's changed that the covers have changed so dramatically – the culture around gaming was much more nerdy and closeted in the 90's, and tbh sort of orientated around children and the idea that you had to capture the imagination of the consumer to get them interested in your game, which considering the graphics of the day and the attitude that most people had to games was understandable. The culture hadn't really grown up properly yet, people didn't really know where to look to really find out about games so cover art could be a big factor in whether a game stood out to you and piqued your interest enough to make you buy it.

So the art was a lot more over the top at times, and a lot more focused on emphasising drawing the viewer in (hence using the fourth-wall so much). Now things tend to be a bit more subdued, most people know about a game before they pick it up (atleast there are generally more people 'in the know' than there were back then), so games don't try to wow people so much.



I kinda miss the art though, like I said I think good cover art serves an important purpose with anything we consume, we can't instantly know what a book, or a DVD, or a game, is about, and having that visual element can be important to making a good first impression on the consumer. Arguably the rise of digital has reduced the importance of box art, but aslong as physical retail exists, and indeed aslong as publishers try to foist collector's editions on us, there will always be some importance to good box art.

I think the MGS games were probably the last thing to impress me with their boxart, though that's probably more because I like Yoji Shinkawa's art than because they really captured the atmosphere of the game or made an impression on me.

I was kind of hoping given the topics and themes it seemed to be tackling that Bioshock Infinite would do something interesting for it's box art, but then it just turned out to be a white guy with a gun, and I felt somewhat under-impressed.

I 'd love to see a few games come out though and try to impress you with their box art. I know it'll never matter anywhere near as much as anything else about a game like the graphics, or the gameplay, or the sound - and rightly so, but it'd still be interesting to see how the box art may in the end help shape the impression of the game that the player has.

So what do you think? Is there a piece of box art that you think really stood out to you?

Is box art pointless?   read


6:40 AM on 02.14.2013

Colonial Marines: Well, that kind of sucked...

Kinda a Colonial Marines rant



So... there's this game that released this week, and err... it was kind of sucky...

Like, really sucky.

I am ofcourse speaking of: Panza's Creepy Lovehouse ALIENS: COLONIAL MARINES

As an Aliens fans, and an AvP fan (THE GAMES, THE GAMES DAMN YOU) I have to say I'm really, really disappointed. I was expecting, well yeah, a shooter, but maybe an intelligent one which maybe tried to make some clever points like Aliens whilst also being a lot of fun and a fitting tribute to a franchise of films of which about half I love.

It was not this.

It was so not this.



I don't want this to descend into a diatribe about the faults of the game itself, rather I thought I'd talk a bit about why the premise of the game sucks as far as I'm concerned. So, less 'hey, the motion tracker's useless!' and more 'why is this a dumb shooter?!'

Why is this a dumb shooter?!

I mean I get why it's a shooter – Aliens has always been seen as action-heavy, and I get that Alien(s) is the sort of big-budget IP that a publisher would probably want to see out there as a AAA game, top-shelf material, and at the moment pretty much every best-seller is some sort of action-heavy, run-and-gun macho shooter.

I get that, and from the sounds of things the game has had a LOT of development problems. I just don't get why more generally there seems to be this notion that all you can make from the Alien(s) franchise is a straight shooter.

Don't get me wrong, I love shooters, and I'm not saying it shouldn't have been a shooter, I'm just saying why did it have to be this kind of shooter? Why a linear shooter? Why a game about a male white marine shooting stuff up? Why all the same clichι gung-ho tropes?



I mean I don't want to get pretentious sounding, or holier than thou about it, because at the end of the day Aliens is just a piece of fiction, an IP like any other, and I think a certain amount of twisting or contorting of source material to cross mediums is not necessarily a bad thing – the series has had plenty of spin-off games that have taken liberties with the source material to do what they want, and there's nothing particularly wrong with that. One of my favourite Aliens games is AvP Arcade, a game that borrows from Aliens, borrows from Predator, mixed into together with a typical arcade game storyline and a host of stock game tropes (end of level bosses, heroic action hero characters, etc). It does all this in a very easy-going sort of way, taking a lot of liberties with the license (Dutch from Predator gets a cool cyborg gun arm!), and by doing so removes a lot of what made the movies the kind of movies they were (the atmosphere and realistic themes), and shifts the tone quite a bit.

However, it does this well.

It's fun for what it is. Which is the point.

Another of my favourite game's is Aliens vs Predator 2, released for the PC in 2001, it was an FPS that allowed you to play as all three races – Aliens, Marine, Predator, but interwove a plot between the three campaigns and tried to add something of the cinematic depth of the films to the game, whilst still remaining A GAME. In doing so it added a lot of stuff but also changed things, it cut and merged the two universes until they fit, it took elements from the films and expanded on them – the colony for example in AvP2 is much larger, and more like a mini-city than the frontier-town that the one in Aliens is.



In short it took liberties, but it did it in such a way as to capture the spirit of the films whilst observing the conventions of how a game works. It adapted the source material, but did it in such a way that it still felt like an 'Aliens' thing. It felt like it fit somewhere in the fiction, even if it wouldn't fit in the canon. Much like AvP Arcade.

While obviously the bugs, the poor graphics (at times) and the lacklustre narrative frustrate me a lot, they don't annoy me half as much as the apparent lack of thought and sense of integrity to the IP that's been displayed in Colonial Marines. Maybe integrity's the wrong word, it comes off sounding almost draconian, authoritative, as if there's only one way to make an Aliens game, and that's really not what I'm trying to say.

It's that sense of capturing some of the point behind the original films that matters so much, Alien was a horror movie, slow-paced, tense, agonising to watch; Aliens was a fast-paced scary action film, making a point about war and also the self-defeating aspect of human nature – the corruption, corporate evil, that sort of thing. AvP Arcade was so good in part because it discarded a lot of that – it wouldn't have made sense in an arcade game (though aspects of those points are brought up, just without the atmosphere of the films), it just made it about beating aliens and soldiers up, and cobbled together events that echoed parts of the film. AvP2, meanwhile, because it could make more sense (and make for a more engaging shooter) kept those themes, and explored them, using the starting point of 'well, what if Weyland-Yutani found an Alien planet and decided to put a research facility there, what would happen then?'



It's fun not just because the gameplay and levels are well put together, but also because there's an intelligent hook at work – a story to reel us in. My biggest disappointment with Colonial Marines is that it doesn't have that. It just feels like a dumb shooter, designed to be a dumb shooter, with lots of fan service to an old film. Which is disappointing.

I think I could have atleast enjoyed it as a shooter if there had been sort of intelligent hook, or if the game had done something different compared to other games – say had a black heroine as the lead, or multiple viewpoints to play from.

It's especially frustrating considering how fundamental challenge is to the franchise, Alien in part succeeded because it was challenging the norm in films at the time of the helpless heroine; with the monster as an allegory for the darker side of sexuality, and reversing the male/female dynamic; aswell as the different stages of the xenomorph life cycle having vaguely sexual connotations. Whilst Aliens was a reaction to the hawkish war-hungry attitude, the bravado, corruption and the sometimes self-destructive quality of human nature.

....HEY DEVELOPERS – THOSE ARE REALLY COOL THINGS TO PUT IN A GAME!

ESPECIALLY AN ALIEN(S) GAME!

It's not even like you have to force them down people's throats, just have them going in the background, hinted at in dialogue or whatever. That's how AvP2 did it so well - most of the story you learn from overheard conversations or the occasional notepad.



At the very least they could have made you a female marine, as a nod to Ripley, or shifted up the dynamic in some other way. For example, with multiple marine characters, a story that branches, or perhaps a WY secret campaign, where you have to fight for the opposite side as a corporate merc, that unlocks after you finish as the marine.

Any of those would have been interesting.

It's terribly sad to me that the best thing to come out of Colonial Marines is that I found out that there was a 1984 game that was more imaginative about what to do with an entry in the franchise than Colonial Marines.

In 'Alien' you play as the crew of the Nostromo, and have to try and eradicate a single xenomorph. The interesting part being that it's a 'what if?' scenario, where the facehugger randomly attacks one of the crew members, and how you play, and how the game reacts to how you play, effects the eventual outcome – whether you end up with everybody surviving or nobody.



Sure, it's simple, it's butt ugly, but atleast it's interesting. It's a 29 year-old game, that does something more interesting than a game that's been in development for 6 years and probably had dozens (if not more) of people working on it. That's depressing, SERIOUSLY. What's more, its a good adaptation of the source material, it gets the point of Alien and runs with it to create an interesting game. Why can't they do that with Aliens?

It's sad that we now have the technology, and publishers the resource might, to create really engaging, immersive worlds for games, yet instead of publishers saying 'this is what we want you to do!' or developers pushing for that themselves, seemingly the best thing they think they can make with the license is just a game where you move from room to room, shooting stuff, and waiting for your useless AI partners to open doors for you, because hey, if you could open them yourself then you'd be able to skip the boring combat sequences. Also, that might seem like choice or interacting with the world, and that's scary.

I think what Colonial Marines shows, apart from that buggy games are incredibly annoying, is that like with RE6, not everything can be a current-gen style, straight-shooter. Not every property or idea works that way. And note: I'm not saying that not everything can be a shooter, I'm saying that not everything can do things the way shooters at the moment do them and work – not everything needs refilling health, waves of enemies, quick-time events, unlimited pistol ammo, AI partners, co-op, etc – all that stuff. If something ruins the atmosphere or harms the point you're trying to make with your game it's probably a good idea not to stick it in, and you definitely shouldn't put anything in a game just because other games have it.



It annoys me especially because the fact they made the kind of game they did kind of implies that they thought that that was all they could do with the story and the gameplay, like as if somehow if they'd instead opted for a very claustrophobic, atmospheric experience – with lots of build-up and downtime between fighting the xenomorphs, that somehow that wouldn't have worked. The 2010 AvP was a lot like this aswell, a very dull, middling shooter with really no sense of originality to it, that sort of felt as though it was trying to say 'well, what do you expect? This is all games can do!' Which I don't think is true.

I like the idea of the Spectrum Alien game, even though I think the game's probably long past it's sell-by date in terms of what consumers expect from a user interface and the graphics of a game. Still, it's interesting. I guess in the end what I'm saying is, of all the IPs out there I think Alien(s) is one of the most open to being adapted in all sorts of ways. Perhaps they could make a shooter with a branching story or levels; perhaps procedurally generated gameplay; perhaps a game with multiple characters to play as, each who add something different to the story, and give you a different kind of gameplay. Even if said game ended up being only a few hours long, if you could replay it over and over again in different ways and the plot was interesting, that would be awesome.

It's just generally a shame nobody seems to want to do anything interesting with the IP, so all we get is mediocre shooters.



Addendum:

5 random ideas for Alien(s) themed games that I think would be cool:

Corporate Exec – you play a Weyland-Yutani corporate type (think Burke, you lucky dog you), and you have to move your way up the corporate ladder helping Weyland-Yutani collect xenomorph specimens, harvest eggs, avoid detection by the government, and generally being all sneaky and underhanded in order to exploit the aliens for the good of the company. With your end goal either being xenomorphs taking over the Earth (bad ending) or retiring to a tropical island somewhere (good ending) ...not long before xenomorphs take over the Earth.

Xenoworld – Let's not kid around here: this is just Jurassic Park with aliens. You're the David Attenborough's brother of the Aliens universe and you're desperate to show everybody these super cool aliens you've found! Now try to show all those nice people what they look like without too much chest-bursting, lest the colonial space authorities come down on you!

Alien – Just remake the Spectrum game. That sounds awesome.

Prisoner: Cell Block Xeno – you run a prison, on a lifeless planet somewhere in the depths of space. It's desperately hard work, having to balance incoming funds against expenditures... I so hope a xenomorph doesn't pop up and ruin everything! WOOPS, spoke too soon. Now try running that prison without too many 'unfortunate prisoner accidents'!

Another Glorious Day in the Corps! – This would be a bit more like a standard shooter, a bit like Battlefield 3 or Medal of Honor (the 2010, slightly less shit, one), only better: you play different marines, each having different experiences of some sort of xeno-infestation. Say, a regular marine, a smart-gunner, a co-pilot, the gunner on an APC, that sort of thing. Each sees something different that adds in a different way to the plot, and potentially you could use different characters for different purposes – for instance making the gameplay for one horror-orientated – maybe the co-pilot's involved in a crash and then has to survive with just a pistol, whilst another could be used for the full-on action sequences, say the smart-gunner. Also, the game would include proper female characters, not just ones shoe-horned in after the fact.

Bottom Line:

SOMEBODY GO REMAKE ALIEN OFF THE SPECTRUM FOR ME

;_;   read


5:20 AM on 02.11.2013

Horror Story: Escaping into the Darkness of Hellnight



There's a noise.

A thud.

Somewhere behind me...?

I stop and slowly, anxiously, look behind me.

...Nothing.

Nothing. The darkened passageway is empty. I'm alone. I relax my grip on the controller, letting my finger slide off the shoulder button, my view swinging back forward.

Then a roar erupts ahead of me, as a mishapen, lumbering form charges from the darkness, and I scrabble to turn and run before it can reach me. Hoping that if I can just overrun it then maybe the darkened corridor will hold some respite from my pursuer...



This is Hellnight. This is every playthrough of Hellnight.

Of all the games I had to pick up and play, I chose Hellnight.

A game designed to torment, to dangle the prospect of freedom before me repeatedly, before wrenching it from me at the very last second.

Escape is always only a few steps ahead, a stairway out, an elevator up, but over and over again obstacles are put in your way, and your progress is pushed back, forcing you deeper and deeper underground.

All the while chased by that thing, as you desperately try to figure out why you're involved in all this, and how you can escape.

As games go Hellnight is pretty interesting, and also relatively unique, forcing the player to rely on their wits over brawn (which even when you have it is relatively useless); it's also somewhat unknown outside of survival-horror gaming circles, and should never be confused with the film starring Linda Blair ever, ever.



Released back in 1998/1999 for the Playstation by Atlus, it's a survival-horror, puzzle game where you play the part of an anonymous male lead, who after the subway train he's on is freakishly derailed by some unknown creature, finds his only escape is to head deeper underground with the only other survivor of the crash, into the network of tunnels and passageways that lie hidden beneath modern Toyko, in a desperate attempt to escape their pursuer.

You spend much of that time creeping round corridors, desperate not to run into the creature. Aside from a few niggling problems (hello sloppy translation!) it's probably one of the most unique experiences I've had in a survival horror game; while what exactly it is the game manages to capture so well remains difficult to pin down exactly.

Is it the sound? The visuals? The atmosphere?

Maybe a little of all of the above. It's not a difficult game to explain, just difficult to effectively convey just how terrifying an experience it can be at times.

It's not even like the game is complicated, you don't have to push ten different buttons at once, you don't have to worry about micromanaging ammo or even supplies - there are none! Yet when it works, when you're in the moment, it's possibly one of the scariest games you'll ever play.

It's scary simply because of how helpless and weak you really are in it, one touch is all it takes to kill, and you'll never really know how long you've got between encounters with the creature, you just know you have to push on and hope it doesn't show.

Because you are the prey.

The hunted.

And out there, somewhere, is a creature whose sole intent is to hunt you down and kill you.



If you remember what it was like to be hunted by Nemesis in Resident Evil 3, then you're getting close to how it feels, but not quite. Nemesis had limits to where he could go, and you had guns. Here, the only sanctuary you have is the odd room or branching corridor, out in the open it can get you anywhere. And as the game progresses the threat from the creature increases, as it itself evolves into more and more deadlier forms.

You spend much of the game either exploring, collecting or figuring out the pieces to the puzzles that let you move ahead or running from the creature, slipping into rooms to hide and hoping that when you leave again it'll be gone.

When it came to deciding what I wanted to write about for this blog I had a few thoughts - I've had my fair share of scares with the Fatal Frame series, the Siren games, System Shock 2, REmake, and even Dead Space, but my experiences with Hellnight stood out.

It stood out because in all those other games I was at one point or another in control, I was powerful, even if momentarily, I had the upperhand, but I never do with Hellnight. All you can ever do is slow the creature, never stop it. You will always be running.



One of the most vivid memories I have of playing the game is from about midway through, when you find yourself in a sort of livestock area - a large open space that's been converted to house animals, with a series of small sheds and pens, all orderly arranged along a grid system, but equating to little more than an open maze for me.

I knew it was coming. I hadn't heard it, or seen it, but I knew it was somewhere out there in the darkness; I hadn't seen it for a long time, so I knew I was due a visit. So I was being careful: cautiously moving forward, never moving too quickly, lest I use up the stamina I might need in a tight squeeze. I felt ready, ready enough atleast.

I was wrong.

I had to search the sheds, one by one, explore every inch of the map. I had to escape but I didn't really know what I needed to escape. I'd left the shed behind me, having found nothing - most of them were empty, and I found myself absently turning and walking to the next shed, glancing over my shoulder, expecting it to come from behind me. Only to let go the shoulder button and hear the creature roar ahead of me. I found myself caught between pens as I desperately scrabbled to turn and run, to get out of there. To somehow escape back into the dark unseen.



Hellnight is the sort of game that would never have won awards for best graphics, or most bombastic, energetic, singleplayer experience – even at the time, but it does something with its atmosphere, the sights, sounds, and gameplay, that most games never do. And that's without even getting onto the story, which though obscured by the poor translation hides a number of subtle nods to some classic Sci-Fi movies.

I remember Hellnight most though for those moments: those slow, silent pauses between the monster popping up (and it does literally seem to just 'pop' up); the ones when I'd run and hide, and find a piece of a puzzle; and those other moments when I'd leave a room, confident that I was safe only to find the creature right in front of me.

Because those moments, those are the ones that real horror stories are made of.   read


10:26 AM on 01.31.2013

Retrospective: Aliens Vs Predator 2

It's always been felt that games need a strong sense of identity to sell, especially mainstream ones, modern games tend to create that sense of identity themselves by creating characters and worlds that developers know will capture the interest of consumers. It wasn't always like this though, there have always been mascots and icons in games but there was a time when developers weren't as sure of creating their own sense of identity, or indeed weren't capable of because of the limitations of the hardware at their disposal. Borrowing from movies, or licensing movie rights, then offered a nice middle ground between creative freedom and a proven intellectual property.

In some cases this was more like inspiration or copycatting, Blade Runner partly inspired Syndicate and Snatcher, but also fed into the inspiration for a lot of games in the early nineties that never made it very far. Other games were able to license and officially represent the IP. This happened with various movie franchises, with varying degrees of success, one of the more successful examples being the Aliens Vs Predator series.



As far as I know Aliens Vs Predator started with a comics crossover, but then moved to games in the early nineties on the jaguar with Rebellion's Aliens Vs Predator (forewarning, this is literally the name of almost every AvP game, and it can get a little confusing without platform or year notes nearby). That original Aliens Vs Predator for the Jaguar was a sort of arcadey shooter that had some success; I won't go through every iteration in the franchise, but there was also a pretty decent side-scrolling, fighting game made by capcom for the arcades aswell, between that and the semi-sequel/semi-reboot in 1999.

The next AvP game (atleast as I'm counting them) was Rebellion's 1999 effort, a more modern attempt at an AvP FPS - it was 3D and let you play as all three races, with each having their own separate story. It was a very arcade-ish game in some respects, you didn't really have proper objectives and missions were very short but as the marine atleast it could be scary as hell and very challenging. Not everybody thinks it stood the test of time and truth be told its kind of gameplay has fallen out of favour these days but it still retains some of the fun it had back in the day.

AvP2 was a different sort of beast entirely though. Created by Monolith, who'd only just had a series of successes with games like Blood 2, Shogo and No One Lives Forever, it was a completely different experience compared to Rebellion's effort. It was narrative heavy and pretty scripted but also very cinematic and a lot more engaging compared to its predecessor. In many respects it emulated the experience of the films a lot better.



So what is it the game does so well?

I think probably the biggest thing the game has going for it is the quality of the story, not only is it solid and believable it also makes sense in terms of the context of the movies (atleast the Aliens movies), and in many respects it feels like a cinematic continuation of the story of the Aliens movies, just with predators involved, in a game.

I think it achieves this primarily because so much of the story is borrowed from the movies and then extrapolated on. For example, in the movies Weyland-Yutani pretty much fits the archetype of the evil, faceless corporation, with no concern for human life and whose only desire is to exploit everything and anything they can. As such the xenomorph to Weyland-Yutani is just another resource to be exploited, for whatever technological or biological advantage it may give them over their competition. Perhaps it's because of hubris or ignorance but they don't really see the xenomorphs as the hostile alien killing machines, the biological plague, that they are, because they want to exploit them.



This is probably the key motivating factor behind the events of both Alien and Aliens: Ash betraying the crew and manipulating them to further possible collection of specimens in Alien; and Burke ordering the colonists to investigate the ship in Aliens, leading to the small colony becoming overrun.

This is taken to the next logical step with AvP2. LV-1201, a jungle world, is discovered to be the site of a giant alien hive, home to thousands of drones, alien queens but also an empress, aswell as apparently ancient structures constructed by some unknown race (the predators). A large colony structure is then built, seemingly several times the size of the colony on LV-426 and called the P.O.C. – or Primary Operations Complex, aswell as the Forward Observation Pods that serve as a hub for all research and development that goes on. Whereas the colony in Aliens is more like a frontier town, the colony in AvP2 is like a mini-city, with over a thousand inhabitants (atleast before the aliens woke up anyway).

The principal storyline focuses on an administrator and scientist, Dr Eisenberg, who is obsessed with exploiting the xenomorphs for everything that they're worth. His family influence puts him at the head of the Weyland-Yutani venture on LV-1201, and the large colony and research facility are built to service those corporate interests.



As the Alien you play the part of a rogue drone birthed through an accident that occurs when a shady blackmarket deal goes wrong and a shipping container breaks open allowing you, as a young facehugger, to escape into the colony at large. You then navigate the colony structure to find an unsuspecting host; as a newborn drone you then go on to cut your way through the P.O.C., assisting your fellow trapped xenomorphs as you do so, to get to Eisenberg, who is your final boss.

A big part of the Alien's plot is the story of the scientist, his motivations, but also the open secret of corruption and dirty deals that forms a central part of daily life in both the P.O.C. and the F.O.P..

As the Marine the story is a bit narrower, it focuses on the story of the marine contingent that comes to investigate the distress call of the P.O.C. right after it's fall, and specifically on the part a single soldier, Andrew 'Frosty' Harrison, plays in the events that unfold on LV-1201. It's pretty much your standard FPS campaign (or atleast standard for late 90's PC), though arguably it is done pretty well. Again the proportions are blown up, you see a lot more marines (die) than in the film, and a lot more hardware, so if you're a fan of the survival/military aspect of Aliens you'll enjoy that part of the campaign especially.



The Marine story is a lot more focused on the personal, human, element of what happens and though it does add to the overall story of the events on LV-1201 you don't really have an specific villain to go up against. Indeed the final boss for the campaign is an Alien Empress.

She doesn't really say much.

As the Predator you play a fairly young hunter, and it's implied you're of royal or atleast noble descent, perhaps a prince; LV-1201 forms the basis of the game primarily because it's a breeding ground for xenomorphs, with a vast underground hive buried deep beneath the surface, this in turn attracts predators to hunt there, that in turn (in part) attracted the corporation and people to the planet. Whilst hunting on the planet some of your fellow predators are caught in a trap laid by Weyland-Yutani soldiers, using advanced EMP weaponry.



The central fulcrum of the Predator campaign is a character called General Rykov, the infirm and drug-addicted leader of a PMC, the Iron Bears, who was once a colonial marine and the only survivor of a predator attack on an outpost. Rykov is left crippled when trying to make his escape, but somehow miraculously survives and goes onto walk again - apparently because of blackmarket connections, but is left a husk of a man, obsessed only with hunting down the creature that crippled him, and taking his anger out on any of its kin he should stumble upon.

If you hadn't already guessed it, you're said predator. Or atleast it's heavily implied you are through cutscenes and found documents in-game.

That's probably a little more detail than most would put into explaining the story, but I really think one of the strongest things about the game is just how solid the story is. It takes three completely different gameplay styles and characters and interweaves them all beautifully into a story that hangs together really well – even compared to a lot of modern games it's still a very well-written story.

It's also worth noting that they've done a really good job of merging the two universes and deciding on which elements to pick from the movies to put in, to make it all fit together. There's plenty of nice little nods to not only Alien and Aliens and Predator but also Predator 2 and Alien 3.



It's also worth noting that the game has some interesting imaginative elements aswell, that seem like them taking liberties with the license to be creative – elements of the colony design for example, the badass miltary power-loader you pilot at one point in the Marine campaign, and the combat synthetics. Some of this obviously inspired by the comics.

Regardless though it all contributes to making the game work that little bit better as both a homage to two old franchises and as an original property.

Another large positive worth mentioning is just how well put together most of the game is, you get a really good sense of atmosphere from most of the levels – especially the Marine levels in the dead colony complex, the way that the xenomorph sequences are scripted and the way that the levels themselves are designed works well, and not only can it be quite tense but also genuinely scary, especially since aliens have a habit of coming out of nowhere to claw at you.



To this end aswell there are a lot of very good, large-scale set pieces – at one point as the Predator a dropship swoops down suddenly in front of you before unloading on the landing bay you're stood inside; as the Marine you fight an Alien Empress, and this happens in an underground hive, just moments before you make your escape to the surface followed by swarms of drones; and as the Alien you have several boss fights with predators aswell as a tense hive-running sequence.

So there's a lot going on. At the time all this stuff really blew me away, but even now it's impressive how much effort they put into the game. There's obviously a lot of love in the game.



So what doesn't the game do so well?

I'm reluctant to say it but the graphics do look a little dated, I'm mostly reluctant to say it because I think they still hold up fairly well considering how many years have passed (like 12!). Sure it's obviously no Far Cry 3 or Arkham City, but the game still looks alright and is still pretty atmospheric considering its age, in-game characters look like people not weird block monsters and it's perfectly playable. Just don't get weirded out if you see corpses blink...

As a sort of secondary point, perhaps the biggest downside to the game is the reuse of game assets, and the element of error in some of those assets. (For the time) the game looked stunning, very, very, beautiful, and even now it does look pretty good, but it seems like that came at the cost of how many assets they actually made and the detail work that went into them.



They reused a lot of the NPC assets, especially the marines - there's one character in the game called Duke, who's like the comic foil, or Hudson, of the Marine campaign, always whining and complaining, but they use his character model repeatedly in place of generic marines. At one point you're moving through an underground system of tunnels and pass his corpses multiple times – he even gets pulled into a vent at one point. And a few of the less prominent marines (who seem like they have unique character models) are re-used like this.

This would be ok, if not for the fact it's never really explained who's who, so when you're playing through you can be confused into thinking a character's dead when they're not, I mean after finding generic Duke dead it would be easy to presume the character were dead if it weren't for the fact he shows up later in the game.

It's also sort of compounded by the fact the story, though very well done, can be a little sketchy at times when it comes to details. You're part of a marine contingent, but it's never really explained how many of you there are, how the force is organised, or even what squad you're in. The only clue you have is that some guys have white shoulder pads, some red. In terms of gameplay it doesn't ruin anything but it makes the story a little confusing.



Also, I think there's maybe 7 or 8(?) voice actors in the whole game, and you will notice the same voices coming up playing different characters, that sort of adds to the confusion, though a lot of the voice-work is very well done.

None of this is enough to ruin the game in any way, but it does confuse things a little bit, it's hard to know what's going on sometimes.

Probably the only other major downside, and one coming from somebody primarily a fan of the films, is that the xenomorphs don't really act much like they do in the films. To be fair this was also equally true of AvP1 but it's still a shame. Xenomorphs don't really hide or sneak up on you, they just pop out and rush at you. It's still scary, just don't expect to get pulled up into the ceiling anytime soon.



On top of this, AvP2 swaps AvP1 one's random xenomorph spawning for scripted attacks, obviously first time through you won't know where they'll come from, but on subsequent playthroughs you'll know when to expect attacks. Again, it doesn't ruin the game, and given the age of the game it's forgivable, but eurgh, I'm being pedantic here so it matters.

Though the game arguably shows its age in a lot of respects Aliens Vs Predator 2 still stands up as a really solid, enjoyable experience, and a fitting tribute to both the Aliens and Predator universes.   read





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