I'm an opinionated 19-year-old British gamer and musician and have been most of my life, from the days of Elite (when I was very small (how do I shot laser?)) to the day you read this. Interested in discussing game design, gaming trends, and how the medium can be used to its fullest potential.
For those who are unaware, Arkham Horror is a board game set in H.P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, and has nothing to do with Batman.
Arkham Horror is a co-operative board game, based heavily on the Call Of Cthulhu role playing game. In it, you and up to 7 friends must prevent the destruction of the fictional town of Arkham at the hands (or more likely tentacles) of an Ancient One - a god-like being from this universe or beyond. There are two way to achieve this - by either preventing its awakening or facing it in battle when it finally awakens. In the game you are an investigator traverse the town of Arkham, collecting resources like weapons, tools, clues and spells, fighting the roaming monsters who precede the coming of the Ancient One, and visiting ‘Other Worlds’ - alien landscapes of strangeness and terror, whose gates must be explored and then closed to eventually seal the ancient one away. In the game, you must keep your stamina up, or become injured (possibly receiving a handicap for the rest of the game in one of the expansions). You must also look after your sanity, which is decreased by being exposed to monsters and magic. Sound familiar to computer gamers, yet?
Board games have come a long way in the last 20 years. If you've not discovered modern board games, head to www.boardgamegeek.com
Yes, that is my current dream game. As one who enjoyed Amnesia immensely, I would love to have a similar experience but in a multiplayer co-operative environment. The game would be a replica of neither experience, and instead take some of the exciting elements from each.
Firstly, the premise and location. These would come from Arkham Horror. The game would be set in Arkham and the Other Worlds. At the beginning of the game, the players select (or computer randomly selects) an Ancient One who will be the ‘final boss’ of the game. The board game series has about 25 Ancient Ones, so a game developer would have a lot of options to choose from. Also, each player would choose an investigator. The board game series has around 50, which is probably a little overkill, but I'm sure the developer could pick a nice selection. Each investigator begins with some unique equipment, as per the board game, and potentially has a special skill or power (for instance, the Doctor investigator in the board game has the ability to heal the other players). I imagine the game with 4 players (8 would probably be too many for a computer game).
In the board game Arkham Horror, the story of the investigators is delivered through randomly drawn cards which explain what happens next. For instance, if a player were to visit the Graveyard location, they would draw a card that corresponds to the Graveyard, read the text to find out what happens to them, and perhaps make a decision or roll dice to find out the outcome of that event. I like this element of the game - means you're never quite sure what to expect. Perhaps the computer game would feature many random events too, such as monsters appearing, portals to Other Worlds opening, and also possibly random ‘side quests’, which feature in the board game in the form of Rumor Cards (drawing one of these presents the investigators with a side-quest. Failing it can be disastrous, but there are usually nice rewards).
Many of the items, weapons and supporting characters from the board game could also feature in the computer game.
What would the gameplay itself be like? Well, imagine a multiplayer Amnesia with at least some hope of fighting back. Partly inspired by my friends and I sitting on Mumble and listening to each other gasp and whimper in fear while we played Amnesia, I just thought ‘Well, imagine if we weren't experiencing this on separate games, but really were all exploring somewhere terrifying together’. Therefore it would be a first person action/adventure game, rather than a dice-rolling board game. Think, for a moment, of the possibilities. For starters, puzzle solving in a group could potentially be a lot of fun. Opposing monsters in a group would be a lot of fun. And being scared in a group would be a lot of fun, especially if one introduced Amnesia' sanity effects. Of course, the sanity effects would only effect the player who is going insane, but that's the clever part: the information your computer is giving you about the game world will become less and less accurate the more insane your character becomes. You might, for instance, perceive the other players as being enemies. You might perceive routes that do not exist, or have your view severely disorientated, relying on the other players to guide you through until your sanity recovers. If all players go insane, expect chances of success to be very low!
I would play the hell out of this
Combat and casting would feature, but they would be rather weak. Rather, the players' cunning would be most effective. Perhaps players would have to distract monsters so the other investigators could sneak by to their next destination. Maybe they should work together to trap the monsters. Should the players travel alone as they often do in the board game to cover a wide area? Should they stay as one group, with safety in numbers? Split into pairs? Perhaps the players have very limited inventory space and must decide together which items are most important for their journey. All of these things could be co-ordinated by using built-in VoIP in the game itself.
Other board game elements could be included. The terror track is an abstraction of how terrified the townspeople are by the events around them (as the terror level increases, supporting characters leave the game and shops and venues gradually close). Perhaps this could be reflected in the computer game by having the streets become more an more dark and lonely as the game continues.
The objective of the game would be to close and seal all the dimensional gates open in the town before the Ancient One rises, or battle the Ancient One when he does rise (although investigators will probably lose this battle). The game is over if the Ancient One rises and devours the investigators. There's potential for epic final battles here, and DLC could be similar to the board game expansions, adding more challenges and side-quests and even new secondary locations accessible by train.
This was my little gaming fantasy. I'm sure Arkham Horror fans and Amnesia fans would enjoy this kind of thing. Friendly fire would be ‘on’ permanently, of course, so if you round a corner at the same time as an ally coming the other way, it's your own fault if you crap yourself and discharge your shotgun in their face. The game would be possible to save, though designed for playing in a single sitting. The eventual success of the players would not be assumed. They could all die and lose the game.
This is from a UK film/game rating perspective. Sorry if it's not so culturally relevant in your area.
By rating, I refer to the T, M, Ao, etc. We've all seen them, and probably don't take a single bit of notice of them. In fact, when I become a parent, I won't take a single bit of notice of them. Why not? Because they're a load of BS, that's why.
When a film is given its rating (U, PG, 15, 18 in the UK), the back of the box usually details the reason. And by details, I mean they do genuinely offer some guidance as to why the film is considered inappropriate for certain age groups. One might, for instance, read 'One strong use of language and mild comedy violence.' There you go. You now understand the film's content. Or how about 'Strong adult themes and moderate sex references.' This film clearly isn't appropriate for children.
Why is the rating for games so shallow? It basically has a tickbox system. 'Is blood visible at any point?' 'Is there a gun in the game?' 'Does the game mention anything sexual in the slightest?' One tick in practically any box, and your game is rated T for teen, other boxes it's an instant M rating. Are games really so shallow that we can so easily categorise them?
This leads to same games being rated well beyond the audience they're actually appropriate for. Video games are frequently violent, and violence is often the focus. This is all the more reason for games to be given more detailed ratings because, as things stand, the ratings do not take into account the meaning of the violence. What is the purpose of the violence? Who do the combatants represent?
Case study one:
Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Rated: T for teen
This game is rated T for Teen. Why? Because Link is carrying a sword and fighting monsters. Never mind that the monsters just flash when struck before disappearing in a puff of smoke. Never mind they're the same kind of monsters kids are encouraged to read about in the Hobbit and Harry Potter. Never mind that the game is about a young boy riding through a fantasy realm to rescue a princess from an evil wizard (a common theme in fairytales). Nope, clearly, this game is only suitable for teenagers.
Case study two:
Halo: Combat Evolved
Rated M for mature (apparently ages 17+)
Supposedly only suitable for ages 17 and above, but I'd probably put this as 'Teen' myself. This game is significantly more gory than Zelda, but once again, let's have a look. There is gore, but the majority of it is bright blue alien blood, or some kind of beige puss from the Flood. But the gore isn't the point. Although this is what has earned the game its M for mature rating, I don't think any children would be particularly upset by blue alien blood. But what about the meaning of the violence? The game is about killing fantasy monsters to protect the human race! A 13 year old playing this isn't going to be filled with some kind of terrorist urge! It's about saving the planet. Sure, you could kill off the Marines you're fighting with, but the game will punish you hard for it. Isn't this a good message?
What the target of the violence represents is more important than the presence of the violence itself. Grand Theft Auto is a game where you can kill innocent civilians, and the 'punishment' is the cops chasing after you, which only adds to the thrill. By all means, this game should not be sold to children (not to mention the sex, drug and language use). Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, is rated M because it is extremely gory, but the targets are cartoon maniacs differentiated only by their team colour.
In fact, multiplayer games are something entirely different. When I was younger, my mother was very upset that I was playing True Combat: Elite (a modification of Enemy Territory that was like Counter Strike, but much better (no, really. it puts CS to shame)). She saw me shooting 'terrorists' and their pre-programmed death animation, and saw that there was blood, and commented on how gory and hideous it was. What she didn't seem to understand is that while the figures I was shooting at looked like terrorists, they didn't represent terrorists. Well, they did only in so much as to contextualise what was really occurring within that game: competition. The characters I was shooting at were not characters at all: they were opponents. They were often controlled by my friends who played the game. In my mind, was I killing people for the government to protect the supply crate as a US special forces fighter? No. I was just a player facing off against other players to win the match. Not the war. The match.
tl;dr (or the lazy man's way of beginning a conclusion)
Violence in games should be judged more on its meaning than its presence.
The same thing which has always nagged me about the term 'comic' or American 'comicbook' is starting to get to me with video games. Though to American-English speakers, the word comicbook probably seems a most natural thing to say, as a Brit who has never experienced comicbook culture, the term seems ill-fitting. Comic means funny. A stand-up entertainer is a comic. A humorous accident is 'comical'. The term comicbook is derived from the comic features of newspapers, which used the same panel and printed text format of comicbooks but with the intention of effecting amusement in the reader.
I suppose in the earlier days of comicbooks, the term could still be loosely applied. Not in the sense of being funny, but of being generally lighthearted, fun stories about people in bright costumes fighting the baddies. These days, however, I'm expected to be able to read V for Vendetta and somehow still call it a 'comic'. Nothing about that work is comical. It is a dark story about a politically motivated murderer and terrorist. I feel that a more appropriate, if verbose, name for the medium would be 'illustrated fiction' - it more accurately describes what comicbooks are today.
The Dark Knight Returns to tell another joke.
Now let's look at our medium: video games. I believe the name is ill-fitting for a different reason, however. A much more distressing reason: the name 'video games' is not unrepresentative of what the medium HAS become; rather, the name is unrepresentative of what the medium COULD become. And this is a problem.
The 'video' aspect I'm not too bothered about, though it is a shame that a medium based on interaction in many ways is named solely after the visual element of it (games for the blind? another post for another time). It is the term 'game'.
As a community of passionate gamers who treat games as art (and rightfully so), does it not strike you that limiting interactive media to something as trivial as a 'game' is a real shame? Is it any wonder that games are not considered the equal of film, literature and music in the eyes of the masses. The term, in short, is loaded with connotations.
A 'game' is something you often play by yourself. Do you know what this means people think of games as? A toy - they are essentially regarded as toys for young men and children. I recall a time a non-gamer was in the room while I was playing Metal Gear Solid: she saw the action on the screen and politely laughed in an attempt to show some kind of support. She thought that because I was 'playing a game', that the action was clearly meant to be mindless fun. I shouldn't need to say that Metal Gear Solid, while being enjoyable, deals with many hefty adult themes such as child soldiers, PTSD, gene therapy, nuclear weapons and torture in innovative interactive ways. There is much more to it than simply playing (in the case of MGS4, there's a depressing amount of watching, too).
How many people here have been enjoying a game, had a non-gamer walk in, look at the screen and earnestly ask 'are you winning?'. Obviously, in some games such as fighting games and strategy games, this is an entirely reasonable question. It's a competition where one side wins and the other loses. But what about when people ask if you're winning at exploring the gorgeously barren lands of Morrowind, or hollowing out a cave in Minecraft? What about survival horror games, where you aren't trying to win, but rather simply trying to survive?
'Are you winning?' 'ARGH! What the hell? Don't do that!'
Perhaps developers would be more willing to experiment with wider artistic experiences in games were they not called so. Games are called games and thus marketed and designed as games. They are usually designed with clear win/loss conditions. They usually are designed solely with 'fun' in mind. They often avoid tricky subject matter, or deal with a tricky subject matter in an entirely mindless way (military games, for instance, will never capture even the tiniest part of the terror of war if they set out to turn the whole thing into a 'game').
Maybe a more appropriate term would be interactive fiction. Sadly, this name has already been shrewdly adopted by the community surrounding text-based adventure games. Clearly, they cottoned on faster - fiction implies story, which is more in line with the focus of those kinds of games and has connotations of imagination and escapism without tying a specific emotion to it, and they have removed the very narrow genre description of 'adventure game' altogether. This name also would only include games with a story. Frictional Games studio favour the term 'Interactive Experience', but perhaps that goes too far down the other end, and has connotations of being deep and emotional. It would not include games that are quite definitely 'games' and not something more. Angry Birds, or Super Smash Brothers.
Therefore, I would propose 'interactive work' as a new way to describe games. Interactivity is the most important part of our medium. It's not about the graphics or the 'video' element of it - we already have film and television for that. Nor is it about the winning or losing, or simply a mindless way to pass the time, as implied by 'game' - many games are not about winning or losing at all, and actually are about expressing a meaning or message to the player in an interactive way. At the moment, we're stuck with a term used to describe pac-man and Space Invaders to describe the likes of Ico and BioShock.