I'm celebrity author and renowned street mime Panzadolphin56. This is my blog. I write things here.
...in case the blog bit didn't give that away.
Anyway! To the left you'll find my latest blogs, and beneath this you'll find a fairly comprehensive list of most of what I've written over the years (unfortunately some stuff does eventually get bumped off the list.)
I like to write from a fairly critical standpoint about games, usually analysis or talking about issues that interest me, I also do retrospectives from time to time, talk about games I've been playing, write the funny things that come into my head, and very occasionally do some crappy art.
I am mostly a story person, good mechanics are good mechanics but button pressing never does anything for me. I like Horror, I like Cyberpunk, I like Neo-Noir (especially crossed with Cyberpunk), I like good art and good writing, I like games that cut against the grain or choose to challenge social or industry norms in some way.
I don't have a single favourite game but I am a big fan of the MGS games, Snatcher, the Forbidden Siren series, Silent Hill 2, the old-school Resident Evils, Advance Wars and Power Dolls, among many, many others.
So lately I've been thinking I want to do more casual, regular pieces on some of the games I play, I'm hoping 'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' will scratch that itch as I talk a little about my experiences with some of the indie PC games I come across. Enjoy!
The King of the Wood is a short indie game where you play a character tasked with eliminating a rogue cyborg, in the process of which you explore a small world and learn a little about the simple story you're playing. It's presented in a simple, blocky visual style, and largely based on a synthesis of elements from Deus Ex (the original) and Blade Runner.
What I did in the game:
I awoke/appeared/came into existence inside an office.
There was a gun on the table.
I did the only logical thing: I picked up the gun and attempted to shoot everything in sight, repeatedly.
Apparently that achieves nothing. Then a note pushed under the door informs me I'm after a cyborg, and I'm off. I come to a large house, surrounded by a wall, poke around a little - noting some telephone lines connecting the house to god knows where, before stumbling inside.
What's fun about the game really starts when you reach the house, as to get inside you need a passcode, and for that you need to check this guy's mailbox. Inside is the code, but you have to read a short letter from the guy you're after to get it. A weirdly inviting warning.
Inside the house you pretty much just look for clues as to where to go, you don't really know what you're doing so it's more about exploring than anything, trying to interact with everything you find and reading the books and notes scattered round the rooms. There's no real danger in the game but you can 'die' technically, as there are traps and sentries round the house, but when you do die all that happens is you're warped back to an earlier room, so it's obvious the game is more about the exploration side of things and the clues scattered round the house than anything.
The King of the Wood does that thing that really good horror movies do, where they signpost what's going to happen ahead of time and it's more the tension in getting to there that affects you than the actual end result; and even though you can guess ahead of time how it's going to end it works.
I really like The King of the Wood, I'm not usually super into indie games, I'm no graphics whore but I tend to be drawn to AA or AAA games where things are often more story focused, but The King of the Wood impressed me. It's one of those games that proves the rule that it's sometimes better to do something simple really well rather than try to do lots of different complicated things all at once.
It's no Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Blade Runner, you won't find any stunning cyberpunk vistas here or high-action combat sequences, but there's an elegant charm to it's 15 minutes of playtime and it's definitely enjoyable.
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.
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...
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 Mario balls
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.
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 Im 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.
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.
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.
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.