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8:42 AM on 10.15.2013

Of Inventories and Horror Games

Could you carry this for me?

It's only small, it shouldn't take up much room; wait, have you checked you have the space? Do you need it for something else?



Nowhere does inventory space become more of a worry than in a good Survival Horror game – that little bit of extra room can mean all the difference between clear sailing to the next objective and a risky backtrack to reach somewhere where you can drop off or swap what you're carrying at the moment and the possibility of being attacked on the way.

I want to talk a little about inventory systems today, I say a little because obviously inventory systems are so integral to gaming that you could literally write a book on how all sorts of different games handle them. I'm not going to, that would be time-consuming, and sort of boring to write, and maybe boring to read too, honestly. I do feel as though it's an important topic to tackle when discussing what makes for good horror though, even if it's not as obvious a one as say atmosphere or gameplay mechanics.



It's a topic that's been rolling around in my head for awhile now, and indeed I think I've touched on it when I've written before about the essentials to horror, but mostly in passing; what crystalised its importance for me was getting to play Cry of Fear. As something of a surprise to me, I found myself inextricably drawn to a lot of what defines the game, as in many respects I found what made the early Resident Evils and Silent Hill so enjoyable to me replicated again in Cry of Fear, and part of how it does that is the inventory system.

I haven't quite finished Cry of Fear yet but I've gotten far enough to find myself pretty enamoured by the inventory system in the game. I think the beauty of it is it's actually relatively simple – it's a modified version of the grid inventory system we're used to in RPGs and adventure games for the most part. You have a series of boxes for items, where things you pick up go, key items fit in the same area as supplies and weapons, then to the right of that is some quick select slots.



I'm about half way through the game (I think) but so far there isn't really any body armour, protective clothing, or anything else you can equip on your body; it's all just hand items – mostly weapons but also tools and healing supplies. You do have to juggle items at times, usually having to give up a weapon or leave a key item but there isn't really the same sort of constant backtracking as in the Resident Evil games - there is though a definite sense that you have very little space to spare in your inventory.

One of the most interesting aspects of the inventory system – and indeed the game, is the ability to dual-wield items, using one hand to hold say a weapon – like a knife, or a gun, and the other hand your phone (which acts both as a means of receiving progression-related messages early on in the game and as a directional light source when held.) This comes with it's own downside though – since most items have more than one use when you dual-wield you give up that second use in order to use the two items' primary functions at once. For instance, your phone is a light source, but you can also club things with it, you can't do this when dual-wielding it; your gun... obviously fires bullets that hurt things, with only the gun equipped you can aim down the sights to aim more accurately or club attackers when out of bullets, you can't do either of these things when dual-wielding it.



What I really, really, like about the inventory system, and I think is the beauty of it (atleast so far) is the sense of control you have over everything you pick up. It's obviously not on par with real life in terms of how much you can do with each item but it does attempt to establish a sense that each item has multiple uses, like in real life, and then allows you to pick and choose what you think is most important. Your phone, for example, can be a directional light source when out, but when put away with the light on gives you a small area of effect light source, which is a nice touch. That way, you can choose to put the light away, whilst having a small circle of light around you and being able to fully use the pistol, OR dual-wield and be able to see what you're fighting but lose those useful secondary abilities of the pistol and phone and potentially complicate any sort of fight.

I like it because in some respects it emulates the versatility of how tools and objects work in real life, sure a gun fires bullets but it's also a solid object I can club stuff with, a phone can be a light aswell as a phone. On the other hand, sure my phone can be held out in one hand as a directional light but in real life couldn't I also put it in my top pocket or attach it to myself in some way so I can still use my gun at the same time? Ofcourse.



While Cry of Fear doesn't emulate just how versatile objects are in real life (you're going to use that gun to prop up the chair?!? WHAT?!) because obviously that would make for an incredibly complicated inventory system (hello, Arma!), it does go some way to making the player feel more in control of what they have on them between the quick slots – which allow you to draw items quickly like in real life and the dual-wielding, which lets you do something we all kind of take for granted in real-life but most games overlook – the fact we can actually do more than one thing at once, even if it might mean we don't really do either thing very well.

What it sort of made me realise is how much inventory systems as an aspect of gameplay have been overlooked as a key component of making the player immersed and really in control of their situation, even if weak. For the most part Horror games, and indeed games in general, have been designed around the philosophy of 'pick up, use and move on' - you start off with nothing, then you explore, find one item with a use, then another with a different use, and then there's some story, some more exploring, and the process repeats.



Items and weapons are usually designed to be singular in nature – a gun is a gun, it's not a door prop or a club, it just fires bullets. You use it till you find the next weapon up, which is slightly more shiny, and this cycle continues to the end of the game. A key is just that, a key, you can't use it to hook an out of reach item behind a bookshelf or to scrape away dirt from a grave. In real life you could, however badly, but the idea of tools, weapons and items having more than one practical use has mostly fallen by the wayside in games, exactly because there's an emphasis on keeping the player stimulated and rewarded for their actions, rather than practically challenged within games.

Predominantly why you have different weapons is to give you a greater range of ways to kill things, so you don't have to see the same animations over and over again and because it makes the game more 'fun' to have variety. Then it's for these reasons rather than for any practical reason that you have the range of weapons you do – obviously in real life there are practical reasons why soldiers may have a handgun and a larger rifle weapon of some sort – a handgun is smaller, more compact, takes up less space, is easier to pull out and makes a good backup weapon; rifle weapons are usually more powerful, more accurate, and potentially more stable. Each has a separate use and reason for existing. As far as I know soldiering doesn't involve any one-uping in terms of weaponry – you don't start with a handgun and by the time you're a colonel have worked your way upto a rocket launcher, and a Davy Crockett by general ...as far as I know.



I think this feeds into why inventory systems have become so neglected, or atleast sidelined in games, because it's more important to wow and visually impress the player than necessarily arm them with different tools for different situations. The inventory system is then just a place for things to be dumped and not a space for the player to sort of MacGyver some sort of item combination to solve their current situation.

One of the best examples of this sort of 'dumping space' principle that I can think of (and in a damn fine Survival Horror game I might add) is actually the Silent Hill inventory system. In the Silent Hill games (atleast the early ones) you don't really have a defined space for items, your inventory has no limits. It's just a system by which you can pick and choose from a (seemingly) infinite selection of items you've picked up. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad system for the games – as the Silent Hill games do a lot of other things really well to create atmosphere and part of what defines the Silent Hill games is the pace, the constant momentum of the gameplay, as compared to say Resident Evil, where there's a lot of backtracking, so the infinite inventory/lack of magical item box aspect factors into that.



It is however a bad inventory system in the sense of creating pressure on the player, it doesn't, the inventory system barely factors into moment-to-moment decision making in the game; obviously because Silent Hill is the type of game that doesn't want to do this in the first place it's not such a big deal, but it shows how much in general that sort of 'pick up, use and move on' mentality is integral to some games. Now Silent Hill, like Resident Evil, does allow you to examine and combine some items, so you do have a certain degree of control over your inventory, but again, the inventory system remains largely flat – because for the most part items have only one use, and once that function comes into use they then either disappear from the inventory to later be replaced by something else or just become relegated to the background of the inventory, items to be used over and over again but barely noticed otherwise.

Though it's not infinite I'd say the Siren games have a similar problem with their inventory, though again because of the type of game it doesn't matter so much. Siren works by the player working through various scenarios as various people, never being one person long enough for it to matter what they have in their inventory or worry about whether they're carrying too much. And again the game creates it's horror in other ways, and admittedly I'd say it does a really, really good job of that, but even so I do think that lack of pressure, that lack of added interactivity with the inventory does little to add tension. I'm hesitant to say 'subtracts' but it's definitely not contributing anything.



The elephant in the room throughout all of this discussion is ofcourse the Resident Evil series, speaking mainly of the early numbered iterations (1, 2, 3, and ok, Code Veronica too) I think the series did a really good job of keeping a tension between having to achieve a goal and progress and forcing very real space limitations on the player. You do have to think about what you take with you, you do have to consider the merits of every item. You become a scavenger of sorts and have to carefully consider how much use every item you come across is going to give you.

Admittedly, I'm a little biased, as it was Resident Evil 2 that pretty much introduced me to inventory systems, so that's kind of my base point, but still, I think the Resident Evil games did do a really good job of forcing that pressure of limited space on the player, creating a tension between goal and inventory management, and limiting their power: - Sure, you can carry that grenade launcher and take down that Tyrant! But you don't have enough space for that tiny keycard if you're carrying all those herbs, you think you need, at the same time. That sort of compromise between the big and the essentially trivial is I think essential to good horror – it's like the zombie film equivalent of characters squabbling over something as petty as who gets the last can of beans when outside the whole world is going to shit.



Ofcourse, the system wasn't without it's flaws – why should a herb take up as much space as a handgun? Why are two herbs the same size as a shotgun? That's stupid. The system in the early Resident Evils was good (I like it anyway) but it was too simple. 4 had something a bit better in the attachι case, but really that was kind of stupid too – where exactly did super agent Leon put that bloody thing? Hm?

A much more modern example, though a less directly Horror-driven game and more like Adventure Horror, is the Last of Us. The Last of Us does something between Silent Hill's infinite inventory system and Resident Evil's magical box system, like with Silent Hill the game is based around a pretty much relentless pace - even more so given the design brief of modern AAA games, but it stills confines you in some respects. You have specific weapon and item slots, maximum capacities for each weapon... but you do still carry (in a very unrealistic way) multiple weapons at once – multiple handguns, a rifle, a shotgun, a bow, etc, etc. You just can't access them as easily as the stuff in your direct/immediate inventory because Joel has to root around in his backpack for them. I like the way this constricts the player whilst still giving them plenty of options, it too though stresses the unrealistic side a bit too much for my liking – atleast for Survival Horror to borrow from it in the future.



I think if Survival Horror is going to become a powerhouse of creativity again then it has to step out from the crowd a bit more, even though inventory systems are generally unrealistic go for something a bit more realistic. Either give your character very limited space or give them a (visible) backpack of some sort. A character in loose jeans and a top could probably carry a rifle (with a sling) and a handgun, and ofcourse a few supplies, but much more than that and it starts to become silly.

Personally I'm kind of leaning towards something somewhere between the Resident Evil block inventory and the more RPG-style 'body outline' inventory system – where you have an inventory based off the parts of the body where items of certain sizes could be carried or stored (well, in the clothes, I guess you could stick stuff up your nose or ass, but probably not much.) I'm not keen on overly stringent or stat-led inventories in Survival Horror but I do think there has to be some pressure on the player to manage their inventory, and future Survival Horror games also have to avoid the pitfall of a system like the early Resident Evils' where two herbs can be the same size as a rocket launcher... that's just silly.



What I don't want is full-on, realistic inventory replication, games like Arma do that; it's not a horror game (well... it is a type of horror, just not the intentional kind), but it does try to realistically replicate how much space a person has on them. I think that would be too complicated. Like I say, we want something vaguely realistic, but not so realistic you need a keyboard or a controller with 30 buttons on just to use it properly – it needs to be complicated enough to realistically reflect space but at the same time simple enough that your Survival Horror game doesn't become a pen and paper RPG.

Maybe something more akin to the system in the Last of Us but with a proper inventory screen? You have a slot for a rifle, a hand weapon, and some easy-access supplies and you arrange what you want where yourself, with those slots acting as quick access slots. Then the rest of your supplies go in a limited area in a backpack of some sort (if you have one); maybe the backpack itself could be a bonus find, like the sidepack in Resident Evil 2? I'd definitely like to see more realism like that in Survival Horror games, atleast if one can pull it off, I think as well there has to be a shift in general away from seeing guns as shiny toys in games and more towards tools to handle difficult situations – just like medkits or keys or any sort of item.



While I'm doubtful over the certainty as to which system is really 'perfect', since it does depend a lot on the game, I do think the future of Survival Horror, good Survival Horror, will in part be reliant upon games that consider the inventory system just as important a factor of a game's 'punch' as atmosphere or tension. After all, if a game makes you worry about whether you should lug the shotgun or the rifle around with you, because of how much space they each take up, then it's already a step ahead of the game that just lets you carry both, without worrying about it, in terms of crafting good horror, because it's already making you worry.

And if anything defines really good horror its being able to create tension and anxiety before you've even seen your first monster.   read


11:37 AM on 10.01.2013

Dead Space 3, in a nut shell.

So I finished Dead Space 3 the other day and was going to write a blog detailing why it made me want to claw my eyes out, but I found the subject almost as boring as the game, fortunately (or not) for you I decided instead to make a terrible picture to illustrate my impressions of the game.




Much larger version (but less blurry.)

Well, that's the art world revolutionised for today, g'night everyone!   read


6:38 AM on 09.19.2013

A Magical Dolphin Plays... Sepulchre

'A Magical Dolphin Plays...' is a series of short blogs where I write in-brief about my experiences with some of the lesser known games I've played and hopefully explain a little bit about what goes on in the game and how the game feels overall, before offering my thoughts on whether or not I think the game is worth recommending to others. Hope you enjoy!

**********************



Sepulchre is a short point-and-click indie game in which you play an academic who wakes up on a train not really having a clear idea of what's going on. You explore your immediate environment and a story quickly begins to unfold before you.

Note: I'm going to keep this relatively spoiler free since it's story-heavy but obviously I will be mentioning some of the events that happened...

What I did in the game:

So the game starts.

I'm in a room. I've just finished reading a book.

The game feels sort of weird, sort of eerie and already the name of the game is unsettling me. I look around a little, I try to click on things.

The scenery doesn't really seem to do anything but I find a bag on the floor and some things in there.



I find a man in the corridor, a ticket collector I guess? He's friendly but seems strange, after some discussion I agree to find him some Whisky. The player character refers to him as near his own age but the two look like they have atleast twenty years between them, I am slightly confused :S

I explore the corridor some, all the doors have 1's on them and aside from the middle door (my room) they're all locked.

I move through the corridor to a new corridor.

More rooms.

The door to the restaurant is closed but the last but one isn't.

There's an odd man in there, he doesn't seem to be able to speak but just mutters.

It's all very odd.



Much of the rest of my experience is a constant back and forth between rooms as new clues pop up, I'm enjoying myself but there's an increasing sense of being unsettled by the story that's unfolding before me. The scenery, the backgrounds, even the rooms seem to all be clues as to my unfortunate fate. I found the ending abrupt but satisfying given how the story played out.

I really like Sepulchre, it is relatively short but what you get is a very concise and entertaining narrative-heavy experience. Personally I guessed where things were headed pretty early on but nonetheless I found the way the story was weaved, between the simple series of actions you have to perform to move events forward, quite nice. I don't think length should count against Sepulchre really, because the length is appropriate for the kind of story its telling.



I definitely think the story could have lasted a bit longer, I've read it's about 15 minutes long but it felt more like 30 to me, I didn't really check the clock though. Regardless Sepulchre is a well-made, well-written short but enjoyable piece of free point and click gaming.

Recommended   read


9:14 AM on 09.13.2013

Crafting A Good Game of 'The Thing'

So only a few days ago I happened to stumble across a video of 'The Thing', the game, on YouTube, and it brought back a lot of memories. Released around 2002, prior to getting my hands on it it had been a game I was very excited for – I'm a big fan of the film (the original), so a game about that sounded like a win-win situation, unfortunately despite being an enjoyable enough shooter the game never really hit the same high notes the film does.

I thought I'd talk a little about why I think that is.



So The Thing (1982) is a horror film. It's a film about a small Antarctic research base that is invaded (for lack of a better word) by a creature from outer space. Discovered in the ice by another research team, it comes back to life and begins to absorb every living thing it comes into contact with. Able to mimic the people and animals it absorbs it hides in plain sight till exposed, attempting to spread and absorb everything it can.

The only way to kill it is with fire.

In many respects the film plays out like a game of Werewolf ...but with flamethrowers; you have a small group of people, trapped in a small location together, who know that among them are creatures intent on their destruction, that they have to kill, but without really knowing what's what none of them really wants to risk killing other human beings. So it becomes a guessing game of sorts, a mystery to be unravelled before it's too late for any of them to survive.



I think as well the film is very much about identity and doubt – we know we are who we are but how do we know the same of others? Whether we realise it or not in day to day life we rely on our sense of knowing that the people we see over and over again are familiar to us, and that they don't mean us any harm.

In the film the characters lose that, as they realise that potentially several of those within their group are not who they say they are. It becomes about suspicion, doubt, trust and only really knowing they can rely on themselves; though none of them really know the others are who they say they are they know at the same time they will have to trust one another to a certain degree if they're not going to die... and it becomes about where to place that trust. I think that's the crux of the film, that sense of tension between wanting to survive but not wanting to survive by becoming another sort of monster entirely – i.e. by becoming a murderer, because honestly there were points in the film where they could have easily massacred one another and ended things there and then.



Obviously on top of that you have everything else – the body horror elements, the characters, the setting, the actual story and dialogue, and they all add up to make for a compelling horror film.

Unfortunately the game covers elements of the last paragraph – the body horror, the setting, even mentioning characters, but it doesn't really do any of the other things that made the film work so well. And that for me is why the game fails in the way it does – and it's not a particularly bad game, it's just not a great game nor really a very good The Thing game.

Overall there wasn't really a sense of tension to it, atleast not one that ran throughout the game. For the most part The Thing was just a regular shooter - you'd walk through areas, creatures would spring out, you'd shoot them. Rinse and repeat through multiple levels. You did have to worry about infection if you got too exposed to enemies but for the most part it was easy going. You did also have to worry about teammates turning, and testing them, but in both respects the game never really followed through on the premise – the testing aspect, for example, never really made a lot of sense.



There was no real apparent cause for infection (since most teammates were never out of your sight long enough to be 'absorbed' like people were in the film.) Initially in previews it was explained how you'd need to constantly be testing your teammates to work out whether they were human or not, and to establish trust, and obviously you wouldn't have enough testkits to go around all the time and part of the tension of the game would spring from that. However, that's really not how it worked.

It also seemed like there were specific points in the game where teammates would suddenly turn regardless of whether they were infected or not – test them, they're fine; walk over an invisible line and they turn (usually before a boss). That made no logical sense, and made no sense in terms of how infection was said to work in the game or the film.



The game did have a certain degree of atmosphere, but I feel like the faults in the infection model and the emphasis on constant shoot-outs negated any strong sense of atmosphere developing.

Another thing I think really didn't help any (especially in terms of atmosphere) was the complete lack of character to the lead character. He was really just bland – this sort of emotionless, gruff-sounding white guy with cropped hair. Granted, MacReady isn't likely to win any 'Sassiest Black Lesbian in Film' awards anytime soon but he atleast had some character.

The lead in the game sees a lot more fucked up stuff than MacReady did (and actually ends up murdering a lot of black-ops goons as well) and still remains level and, honestly, indifferent to it all. While I'm not saying every character has to go nuts at the mere sight of blood, if you're crafting good horror you need your character to be affected by fucked up shit else it stops the player from relating to how horrible the situation is.



I do think the story is pretty clichι as well, something about evil government scientists conducting experiments blah blah blah (you can guess the rest), but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing if the story is done well. I won't fault it for that. Just like hammy acting can be good in the right context so can a clichι story.

I also find it hard to fault a game wanting to be a shooter – I don't think there's anything wrong with shooting in games. I like shooters, one of the games that first got me into gaming at a young age, and indeed into horror in particular, was Resident Evil 2, and I always used to love gunning down zombies, looking over each new gun I picked up or hunting for ammo. The shooting doesn't bother me per se, but the fact the game is almost a constant procession of shooting galleries, where you just move from room to room, shoot things, pick up some goodies, maybe get a bit of story (if you're lucky) and then move on to do more of the same, does annoy me.



There has to be a happy medium between constant shooting and games where there is no shooting whatsoever. Sure there are games like Gears of War and Halo, where the constant shooting fits, and I'm definitely not saying a game of The Thing should have no shooting, I don't want Dear Esther Alien Edition, but I think the shooting has to have context, especially within a horror game.

I think in a horror game there has to be a certain degree of realism when it comes to firearms use and if you don't have that it ruins any sense of immersion – if you were trapped in a haunted house or an abandoned amusement park or on a space station would you really expect to find dozens of guns and thousands of rounds of ammo just lying around?

No, me neither.

This is true on an Antarctic research base as well. Why would they have guns and ammo lying around all over the place?

It's also true in a secret underground government research base – sure they'd have guns, they're evil government people, but they wouldn't just leave them lying around.

You also have to think about how having those plentiful supplies of weapons and ammunition just lying around affects the dynamic of the game and removes any sense of desperation or just surviving from the player's mind. If they don't have to worry about supplies then they're not worrying, and that's not good in Survival Horror.



Tied in to all this is the structure of the game – simply put it's a linear progression from point A to point B, a series of rooms with successive waves of changing enemies, that eventually leads to a final boss. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – it's how a lot of games play out, and indeed how a lot of shooters work, essentially because it leads to quite a satisfying gameplay experience: As in books or movies or any medium, we like our story to start with the character building themselves up from nothing, facing ever increasing challenges before they face a 'final boss' of some sort.

The problem is though that it doesn't really fit with The Thing, or atleast what made the film work in the way it did. What made the film work was that sort of claustrophobic, cramped, feel, the fact that you had this small cast of characters stuck in an even smaller space having to face immeasurable odds as they struggled to survive against the onslaught of the creature really defined the film. If the film had kept jumping to new characters and new areas, it really wouldn't have been as scary as it was.



This is true of movies and books as well but one of the things I've started to realise the more I've thought about why the best Survival Horror games work in the way they do, scare us and create tension in the way they do, is how contained they feel, how little space they give their characters to breath.

It's a little like if you're stuck in one room for too long with nothing to do. The tension slowly builds, you become antsy, frustrated; we all feel that need to move on, to go to new places to quell that frustration. Good horror though exploits that internal tension, forcing us to retread those same corridors, visit those same rooms, while constantly upping the danger. You need that frustration, that 'stuck' feeling if any sense of real tension is going to build.



Good Horror is always about perverting what works well in games to a certain degree – A well structured game relies on progression, on constantly moving on to new areas, new challenges, new enemies. It's why big budget games are so expensive now, because creating that continuous stream of non-repetitive elements, of ever-changing rooms and environments is expensive, very expensive. The best horror though is about doing the opposite – it's about frustrating you, letting that frustration and annoyance at seeing the same rooms and locations over and over again build, and then manipulating it for effect to scare you.

Part of why action horror games fail at creating a real sense of atmosphere and tension and end up relying more on jump scares is because as you progress the environments around you change aswell, so there's no real sense of building frustration. I think this is part of why The Thing game doesn't work, especially given the type of film The Thing is; the film is stuck in that same claustrophobic loop, retreading old territory over and over again, whereas the game completely sidesteps that and negates any of the same tension the film sought to build.



As a sort of addendum to all this, but really a more minor overall point: There was no real mystery, no real sense of doubt over identity within the game. Your character was really the only constant and you knew you were human, so apart from dying horrible there was nothing to be afraid of, no need to worry about getting stabbed in the back – unlike in the film.

I think part of what made the eventual exposure of individual creatures in the film so scary was the sense of tension and build up that had taken place prior to their reveal – mere moments ago, and indeed for large chunks of the film before that, that 'Thing' in front of you had seemingly been a normal person, and the gulf between the two states of being is what, in part, made the creatures so scary. Obviously the fact they sprouted tentacles, split in half and then proceeded to eat or absorb people helped with the whole scary thing but the build up was key too.

The game didn't have any of that.

What would have made for a good game of The Thing?

O) I think either a point-and-click/visual novel game or something more akin to Resident Evil Remake or maybe like the Siren games, maybe some sort of slower-paced, very atmospheric 3rd person survival horror game. 




O) Very tight, compact environments – it wouldn't necessarily have to be in the Antarctic but obviously similar enough for the creature to have to stay where it is and the player to feel hemmed in.



O) It would need to have a relatively small cast of characters, and you'd need to see them repeatedly for some reason – with the potential for them to mutate at any time in the story.



O) Something relatively non-linear in nature as well, possibly with multiple end game scenarios – the player has a single goal but multiple ways to achieve that goal. Potentially in some playthroughs you would be able to save everybody if you did the right thing at the right time, in others even you wouldn't survive and the creature would get out.



I don't think it'd be necessarily hard to make a game that made sense in the context of the original film, but finding somebody to make it is a different issue. To a large extent we're still stuck with the same problem in gaming that stopped the The Thing game being better than it was in the first place - the perception that there's really only a few ways to make a game if it's going to succeed - as a first-person shooter, as a third-person shooter, linear with ever changing rooms and enemies, etc, when really that's not true.

Granted we do seemingly live in an era where it seems as if everything has to copy the biggest selling games in some way to succeed but that's not true either. It's true that some genres are very popular but it's also true that good games sell (well, mostly), whether they fit the mould or not.

I think what matters most of all is really whether the gameplay and the story make sense in terms of the premise. The thing about The Thing (heh) is it's very old-school horror, for lack of a better word: it's cheap. It's designed to be a story about as few people using as few props as possible and as such it's centred around the drama that can be created between a small group of people - again, like a game of Werewolf.



In many respects it's a product of its time - a little like Alien and Aliens actually, sure directors had money but never enough (unlike now), so it was mostly about smoke and mirrors, never showing too much, creating atmosphere but also tension through a very minimalist approach to constructing scenes and emphasising characterisation above constant streams of special effects, and the end result is a very scary film because it's so reserved in it's approach to the horror.

The game's problem though is that it throws all that out of the window and instead jumps on the Action Horror train, presenting a constant procession of enemies for you to kill, within constantly changing environments, leading up to some sort of final boss.

What we got was not a bad game as such, but neither was it one that really did the film justice, and that I think is the biggest shame.   read


5:13 AM on 08.02.2013

Alien(s), Creative license and Borrowed Ideas

Maybe it's because Stasis Interrupted's been released and I've been watching a few gameplay videos of it but for some reason lately I've been (again) thinking a lot about Aliens games and where they've gone wrong over the years.

Colonial Marines was obviously terrible, but Aliens Vs Predator (2010) was also pretty mediocre, and though there has been the odd good game (Aliens Infestation being a good example) I feel as though it's one of those franchises that was really good in concept but now has gotten milked to retardation (see: Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Halo, etc, etc) in terms of games, and really just needs to be given a fresh lease of life. We've sort of been stuck in this continual loop of whatever formula's popular atm being taken and applied to Aliens and the end result (usually an FPS) being pretty mediocre. We really just need fresh blood.



Actually, scratch that, I'm not that much of a starry-eyed optimist, I doubt there will ever be big enough of a direction change when it comes to what's expected of an Aliens game by Sega or Fox for them to push for more original games to be made, so unless the AAA market shifts away from FPSs we're pretty much stuck with mediocrity (I mean I hope it's not true but it seems a safe bet atm.)

That said, it doesn't mean we couldn't see some good Aliens-inspired games.

It used to be a big thing back in the late 80's/early 90's to wear your influences on your sleeve (apparently copyright infringement wasn't a thing back then, who knew!) So for example playing through Syndicate (the original) you'll see references to Blade Runner but also nods to Aliens (a few of the character names are in the agent pool and the military APC bears a striking resemblance to the one from Aliens); it's also why Snatcher features a main character who resembles Deckard from Blade Runner and why the eponymous snatchers of the game resemble T-800s from Terminator; why Rebelstar 2's cover features what can only be described as a 'motherfucking xenomorph for christsake!', why Contra (atleast on the cover) features two guys who look a little like Arnie and Stallone (circa Predator and Rambo), and why the covers of Streets of Rage games sometimes feature multiple Jean-Claude Van Dammes...



what in the...?!

The point is early games features a lot, and I mean A LOT, of free and easy creative license - seriously it was like the 60's but instead of having sex everybody was stealing other people's ideas! FREE LOVE MAN!

This is good and bad, on the plus side it came at a time when games literally had no ideas of their own and people were desperate to make something interesting, so they borrowed from great movies (among other reference material), and if you're going to borrow from anything to make your game then I'm relatively comfortable with it being Aliens or Blade Runner, or in fact anything from 80's/early 90's popular culture, because I love that shit. Developers used this source of potentially good ideas and tried to translate them into games, whilst skimming past the whole 'copyright infringement' thing, (though if you're Revenge of Shinobi that didn't quite go so well!) and that's not necessarily a bad thing – it still happens occasionally today, and the end results can sometimes be really awesome – look at Uncharted 2 for example, poor man's Indiana Jones it is not.

The negative side though is pretty clear: if you're borrowing from existing IPs, even if borrowing between mediums, you're still borrowing those ideas and they're not completely fresh. And if the last ten or so years of AAA gaming has shown anything then it's that creative stagnation is not great for an industry, even in small doses, even when like with AAA gaming now it's just the characters and setting that tend to remain the same.



While I'm hesitant about saying more games that borrow from existing sources would be a good thing, I think usually what puts me off that sort of borrowing with games is that what developers borrow is usually more mechanics and archetypes rather than themes.

It's usually stuff like 'gruff, bearded white dude' and 'cover shooting' that get borrowed, when really what needs to be borrowed is the themes, the feel, the atmosphere. The industry already borrows a lot from film as it is, but sometimes it feels as though they borrow the wrong things. It often strikes me watching films that developers/publishers/whoever creates game projects misses a trick sometimes when it comes to what would make money as a game – there's so many great ideas out there floating about and nobody's taking advantage of them.

The thought really struck me watching Minority Report not too long back, I didn't love the movie but I enjoyed it and I thought the concept was interesting so I wondered - why hasn't anybody tried to do this in a game? I mean we've had plenty of detective games before – Snatcher, J.B. Harold Murder Club, Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, Tex Murphy, being just a few examples. The classic detective game genre is pretty well established, mostly in visual novel games, so why not a game where you tackle pre-crime? You'd have this interesting detective game with the added element of forcing the player to tackle the moral quandary of whether arresting somebody before they commit the crime really makes them a criminal.



I've had this thought a few times actually watching films or reading books/short stories – reading through a lot of Philip K. Dick's short stories, a fair number of them could make interesting games, and reading Neuromancer I can see why people were inspired by that. H.P. Lovecraft's works are another good example, though he sometimes crafted creatures of pure terror that can only truly exist as figments of the imagination a fair number of his stories would work really well if they were taken and merged with existing styles of gameplay to create original games. Even if they ended up being terrible it's hardly like we're drowning in horror games set in the late 19th/early 20th century at the moment.

The point being there are more places that games can go, more themes, more issues, more content that can be explored.

It's what's borrowed and not that it's borrowed that I think's the problem a lot of the time with games. This is what I think the shame about pretty much every Alien(s) games is, (and indeed a lot of movie/TV/anything popular tie-ins), it's that instead of trying to emulate or borrow from the creative property the themes, the feel, the dynamic of the original and expand upon that, they just borrow recognisable elements, they borrow the 'skin' of the show, the surface-level detail and plaster that over just some random ill-thought-out game.



I mean look at Colonial Marines, in many respects it's the antithesis of everything Alien(s) represented – the lone heroine defying gender convention to survive and escape impossible odds/that military and scientific might alone can't tame nature; it's just a bunch of dumb dudebros and some token women blowing shit up, being boring and surviving just because they're two-dimensional hero characters but hey, somebody says Weyland-Yutani and Lance Henriksen is in it so it must be a faithful continuation of the franchise!

What I'd really love to see is someone (a developer, big or small) take the barebones of what made Alien or Aliens good and make a game from that.

Alien was a sort of claustrophobic, very tense, very dark and almost suggestive horror story set in a very realistic, hard sci-fi future. It was about a very primal fear of the 'other', and also about sexuality, wrapped up in this story about some space truckers who stumble upon something they really shouldn't of.

Aliens was more about the arrogance that comes with military might and the power of science, and how sometimes the two can fail when confronted with a force of nature that doesn't bow to that power – with obvious Vietnam parallels. Again it was also about this force of nature, this creature, but tackling that same horror from Alien on a macro rather than micro scale – the xenomorphs weren't so much evil antagonists as just wild animals whose perceived territory had been invaded.

Hell, even if it was just a thinly-veiled homage to Alien(s), I'd be cool with that. One of my favourite games is Snatcher, and that's basically a thinly (very thinly) veiled homage to Blade Runner, Terminator and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others), it does it well enough and innovates enough turning that into a game that it works though. This is kind of true of a lot of Hideo Kojima games though, he innovates through heavy pastiche/obvious influence but the things he creates are original enough for it not to matter.



Again while I don't like the idea of encouraging more copying from different creative properties I do want to see that when ideas are borrowed they borrow the right kind – the more abstract qualities, the themes, the feel, etc, rather than the obvious, concrete things – the characters, the props, the logos, etc. Kojima isn't alone in this but I'd say he has the right kind of attitude when it comes to how to make good games (most of the time) and be influenced by outside sources, he borrows the ideas not the skin of a creative property, and one of the reasons why his games are often so popular is because he strikes the same chord the popular media he borrows from does.

An Aliens game doesn't necessarily need marines, nor Weyland-Yutani, nor even combat, what it needs is to be scary, it needs atmosphere, it needs to be about a group of people coming into contact with this oppresive invading entity, this force of nature, that can't simply be controlled by technology or firepower.

That's more Aliens than anything in Colonial Marines was.

One of the ideas that struck me while thinking about how Aliens could work as a game is why haven't we had some sort of visual novel Alien/Aliens game? Something maybe played a little like those detective games I mentioned earlier, with you investigating locations, mostly powerless, as you look for some way to escape and have to keep a good eye on your motion tracker so you know when to hide in a locker, between trips away from your safe haven to look for supplies.



I've mentioned it before but I also felt the Alien game for the Zx Spectrum did a pretty awesome job of mimicking the feel of the film for a game that old, merging a sort of top-down strategic view of the Nostromo deck by deck with a visual window in which the xenomorph could pop-up when nearby (accompanied by the steady thum of your motion tracker), that was good. The game feels tense at times, despite the limited graphics, and the fact it's so raw (you die about as easily as most of the characters in the film do) makes it a very challenging experience.

Or even if it was something less horror-based I'd be cool with that – maybe the corporate flunkey simulator I joked about in the other blog I wrote about Aliens games not long after Colonial Marines befouled my senses. Say a game with a cutesy/Super-Deformed graphical style where you play a corporate flunkey who has to balance researching xenomorph specimens with micromanaging running a colony, and has to avoid too many devastating xenomorph outbreaks to protect their bottom line (oh no, not the atmospheric processor again, those things cost a bundle! *60,000 people already dead*), in a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to Carter Burke's role in the Aliens' story. Even something like that would be more Aliens than Colonial Marines, because atleast it would have some sense of the film in it, some connection to what made the film good.



I can't think of too many films that have had such a fundamental effect on me as Alien and Aliens have (Blade Runner being another actually, and Ghost in the Shell is actually another) and though I think mostly there's enough original ideas for games not to have to borrow I'm so desperate for something that emulates the feel of Alien(s) that I'd settle for a knock-off of either, aslong as it had the atmosphere, the tension, the feel, and the themes of the films (the first two anyway.)

So many games have been influenced by film and other media that we have to recognise there's always going to be an element of borrowed content in games (as there is in any medium), and that's not necessarily a bad thing. From Rambo to Blade Runner, from Jacob's Ladder to Event Horizon, from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones, all have helped inspire great games.

My hope is that the industry tries to remember it's the ideas that matter and not the things when it comes to inspiration and license.

...oh, and that somebody totally makes a cool Alien(s) rip-off soon! WOO!   read


1:09 PM on 07.15.2013

A Magical Dolphin Plays... The King of the Wood

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.

Recommended   read


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





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