You wake up in a tiny, dirty room. Like in many other videogames you've played before, you've been involved in a car accident, and now you don't remember who you are. Unlike any other videogames you've played before, you open the door and find yourself in mental facility located in a a gothic tower, and one of the patients is smashing his bloody head against a wall. An alarm rings intermittently in the distance, and the patients are all out of their cells. The staircase has broken down, and one of the patients is standing at the edge with his pants down. You go talk to him, and he falls down. It's a long fall. There's a huge statue in the middle of the tower, and suddenly it lights up and starts talking to you. Now you're in a small town full of giant plants. There are no adults to be found, and all the kids are mutants. You play Tic Tac Toe with one of the mutant kids. This goes on for the duration of the game.†
Sanitarium is, mechanically speaking, a fairly by-the-books adventure game with a minimalist UI and control scheme. You play only with your mouse, left clicking to observe and manipulate objects, and holding the right mouse button to move around. Clicking on your character will show the items you're carrying, which are never more than four, and clicking again will let you use them on the environment. The UI†consists†of the inventory and a simple conversation system. That's it.††
You walk around, look around, talk to people, find objects and use those objects on other objects. Sometimes they are a bit hard to figure out because of the sheer amount of cool details that are on the levels, other times the top down perspective will trick you and an obvious solution will seem impossible, but those moments are few and far between. The puzzles are mostly relatively straightforward, and complement the story nicely.†There are also one or two action sequences which can prove to be frustrating since the game's controls are clearly not designed with that in mind.†Every now and then though, the camera will change to a fixed first person perspective, and you'll have to solve a "proper" puzzle. Breaking down the pace of the story to turn switches and pull levers for ten minutes can be irritating. These feel out of place, since this game's strength is in it's atmosphere and story.†
After a cutscene showing the accident, you're thrown into a spooky, twisted world. It quickly becomes†apparent†that this is all a product of your imagination, and yet, there seems to be meaning in it. You find yourself in a series of locations, all exceptionally different and familiar at the same time. Nothing is the way it should be, it all feels wrong. There's a certain†uneasiness†that permeates the whole†experience. I wouldn't describe Sanitarium as a horror game, but it is, however, continually unsettling.†
Proudly taking inspiration in Alice in Wonderland, Sanitarium is a game full of apparently random fantasy elements that anyone who doesn't give it his full attention will find merely amusing. That's why the adventure game format fits it so well. As you're constantly looking for clues to solve the mostly trivial puzzles, you focus on the details of these dream-like worlds, and you start drawing lines between them to solve the real puzzle: Who are you? And why are you here, doing these things?.†The answer isn't in ringing the bells of the church so the kid with the deformed face will leave his fishing rod up for grabs, but in the details that shape this place, a place formed in the mind of the protagonist, but also in the mind of the player.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the story is multilayered. On one hand you have a very concrete situation in every dream/world you come across, and problems will come up in that story in the form of puzzles, but on the other hand, all these say something about the broader story, which is the real life of the protagonist. Weirdly enough, my first cblog was about a game idea with a very similar concept. My thought when writing that and when playing this game were very similar; games are a great way of creating metaphors, and it's a shame not many games have exploited that potential.
Sanitarium is wonderfully creepy, it tries some new things, and does some old ones well enough. For some it might be too weird, but for any fan of adventure games, this one's a gem.
P.D: More unsettling screenshots in the image gallery, with a look at the inventory system and the annoying puzzles. Also it's dirt cheap on GOG for the next few hours.
The Cat Lady is a game about a woman, Susan Ashworth, who likes cats. From the moment you see her walking through the cornfield, evening sun shining in her face, you can tell sheís had a tough life. The world has not been kind to her. You start walking. At the end of the cornfield there is a small, wooden house. The door is locked, so you keep going. Youíre suddenly on a tunnel. You pass by a car crash. A bus. An ambulance. Suddenly, the ambulanceís door opens, and a stretcher rolls out of it and onto the road. Thereís a dead body on it. Your body.†
Susanís bright green eyes still shine. Sheís dead though, and thereís a key on her mouth. You take it, and head back to the wooden house, in case itís still there. As you go back through the tunnel, the ceiling collapses behind you. Thereís a huge deer in front of the little wooden house now. When he sees you, he runs away into the woods. The cornfield is nowhere to be seen. You open the door and go into the house. Thereís a noisy machine, and next to it a hole, clumsily covered with two pieces of wood. Blood is shedding from it, and when you get close, you can hear a heart, beating.
The Cat Lady is a horror adventure game developed by Harvester Games and published by Screen 7. Itís in 2D and it is controlled exclusively with the directional buttons. Thereís an inventory system. Thereís a story about death. Also life, but mostly death. Thereís nightmares. Thereís puzzles. Sometimes the nightmares are puzzles. Other times, the puzzles are nightmares. The environments are dirty, dark, and rotten. Thereís a subtle illusion of choice and non-linearity, but itís not explicit enough to make you complain about the fact that it is, in fact, an illusion. The UI is slightly intrusive, the animation is archaic, and the character models are ugly. Itís one of the most beautiful games Iíve ever played. Thereís a few minor, unobtrusive bugs. As the interface and control scheme are pretty limited, the game never letís you panic, it never lets you run away. Itís mostly very dark, but when there is color, it shines. Susan Ashworth feels like a real person. The game is her. Sheís a bit crazy.†We all are. The game is not very challenging, especially for someone whoís played a few adventure games. Itís not a walk in the park -itís definitely not a walk in the park-, but it wonít make you look it up on the internet either. Thereís a conversation system. The characters actually talk like people instead of walking encyclopedias. It merges abstract and explicit elements quite well. Thereís explicit violence, thereís nudity and thereís bad language, but they arenít used to arouse or amuse the player, but the opposite. Itís a game that I enjoyed playing. I think you might enjoy it too.†
If youíve visited any gaming site during the past year and specially during the past week, you might have noticed thereís been quite a heated discussion about women and videogames. How they are portrayed, their place as professionals in the industry and the existence of sexism in videogames and in gaming culture are just some of the topics that have dominated the core of the discussion. Some gamers feel those claims are trying to attack or destroy their beloved hobby, Iíd like to think they are trying to improve it. Either way, it seems it is impossible to have a discussion about this topic without getting into a sea of accusations, generalizations, and half-truths. In this post, Iíll look at five female characters that I think are awesome. My aim here is by no means to dismiss the concerns about sexism in videogames, but to give some contrast and hopefully some perspective to the discussion at hand. Also, expect some minor spoilers. That said, letís get started.
Heavy Rain is usually criticized for depending too much on quick time events, having a weak storyline or lacking meaningful interaction. Personally, I found it quite enjoyable; while the mechanics do feel a bit awkward, I certainly appreciate any game that attempts to innovate in terms of gameplay and/or storytelling. Heavy Rain was a remarkable effort in both of those areas, even if not a necessarily successful one.
Most of the four characters you play are reasonably one-dimensional (JASOON! [...] SHAAWN!) but not her. Madisonís background and story is the less developed of the four, and maybe thatís why I found her so intriguing. Sheís a journalist burdened by nightmares and hallucinations fruit of her insomnia, the cause behind which is potentially the covering of serial killer stories or, as revealed in a behind the scenes video released by Quantic Dream, her past as a reporter in the Iraq conflict. She takes her job extremely seriously, and will do whatever it takes to find out the truth. Alluded to have had a somewhat difficult childhood, Madison is a caring, affectionate character despite her inner troubles. Sheís brave, sheís honest, sheís authentic; sheís memorable.
Chell doesnít talk. You donít see her much either; youíll see merely glimpses of her when playing through the Portal games, and yet, sheís one of the most iconic and well known female characters in gaming. Howís that possible?
Well, essentially, the player is Chell. Thereís no cutscenes where she does something out of your control, what you see is what she sees, what you solve is what she solves and what you experience is what she experiences. From that we know that sheís mentally and physically agile. A great observer, she has a strong will and a rebellious tendency towards authoritative figures. From the little information we can gather about her throughout the two games, sheís the daughter of a former Aperture scientist, but thereís little to no information about her childhood and early life. GLaDOS sarcastic (or not) comments about her being adopted donít help to clear that out. Either way, Chell represents all that is cool about being a videogame heroine/hero.
Although the player doesnít control this character in the game, I think it would be hard to argue against her being the protagonist. For those of you who donít know, Analogue: A hate story puts you in the place of a space traveler from the future who finds an abandoned ship and has to unravel the truth behind itís societyís demise by interacting with the shipís artificial intelligence.
Anyway, I donít want to say too much about the story, as itís the gameís principal strength. *Hyun-ae, the shipís AI, functions perfectly to help the pacing of the narrative. Sheís an AI, so even though sheís been alone for hundreds of years, sheís a fun, quirky character. Sheís always happy to lend a helping hand and also, she likes cosplay. An AI that likes cosplay! How awesome is that? Paradoxically, a robot is one of the few female videogame characters who actually feels like a real person.
Yet another reporter, this one brought up in an island in the outskirts of the biggest city on Hillys, an aquatic, mostly peaceful planet. She lives with her adoptive uncle, Peyíj, and other orphans.
Sheís the oldest of the group, and as a result she has a strong sense of responsibility and morality. She likes meditation and photography. Upon discovering some suspicious business going on with the Alpha Sections, the military force dominating Hillys, she becomes a reporter for the IRIS Network, an underground rebel organization. Like any good reporter, Jade isnít easily fooled, and quickly picks up on any suspicious attitude and doesnít easily trust people. Although visibly devastated by some of the catastrophes that accompany her through her journey, her sense of righteousness and commitment do not decline, and she pushes forward. Sheís light-hearted, passionate, and ultimately honorable.
The Walking Deadís adventure game wouldnít be anything without Clementine. Her relationship with Lee and by extension with the player is by far the strongest Iíve felt and stands as a benchmark of player involvement. Thereís just no way anyone can play through TWD and not care about Clem. Yes, the fact that sheís a cute little girl in the midst of a zombie apocalypse with only the player to protect her, helps. But the narrative doesnít stop there, thatís just the premise. As days go by, the decisions made, the struggle, the sacrifices that any survivor has to go through pile up on all of the groupís backs, but they impact her in a much more meaningful way. Lee -the player- knows his actions will be reflected on those innocent brown eyes, and that takes us out of the shoot all of the things mindset and into seriously questioning the morality of our actions.
As the adventure advances, we see her grow up. From a regular american child in the suburbs to a survivor. As is the destiny of any of any child in the zombie apocalypse, she either grows up prematurely or dies prematurely. But even in the worst of circumstances, even after the most depressing of the situations, she finds strength inside her. She smiles. Her innocence might be gone, but her humanity remains untouched.
Those were some of my favorite female characters. As you can see, Iím not a huge fan of Tomb Raider, although I still have to check out the new game. From what Iíve read, it seems if I do this list a year from now Ellie from The last of us and specially Elisabeth from Bioshock Infinite might earn their place in it. Anyway, what other female characters do you like?
Linearity: Progressing from one stage to another in a single series of steps; sequential.
Non-linearity: not sequential or straightforward.
Gaming is an interactive medium, and as such, one of the key elements a game should transmit to the player is the sense that their input somehow affects what is happening on the screen. From making a line disappear in Tetris to throwing a person flying in the air after punching them with a giant dildo in Saintís Row 3, feeling like you are the direct cause of something that happened ingame is satisfying and is crucial for immersion (thatís a word for another day). This is relatively easy to achieve when a game is purely mechanical, such as sports games, driving games, twin-stick shooters, fighting games... When a game is trying to deliver a narrative, on the other hand, things get complicated.
Narrative usually includes text, either literally or in the shape of dialog or audio logs, and that text is written by writers. That means that the more freedom is given to the player, the more text will have to be written to react to that playerís actions. Realistically, it means that more freedom to the player will result in the NPCís reacting unrealistically to the playerís actions or simply not acknowledging them at all.
But we like stories, no, we love stories. Stories keep us engaged when repeating the same action a million times or the pretty graphics arenít enough. Good stories make us connect with the characters that surround us, they stimulate our imagination and make us emotionally invested. Thatís why they have a place in any form of entertainment, because theyíre a crucial part of our nature. So the ultimate challenge for videogames today is finding the sweet spot between telling a story and making the player feel like their actions have direct gameplay consequences. Hereís when the concept of narrative linearity comes into play (pun intended). Telling a written story directly interferes with player interaction, given itís limited nature. That is unless you make the story itself interactive. Generally speaking there have been three approaches to this problem:
1-Separate gameplay and narrative sections entirely, through the use of cutscenes or text.
2-Deliver narrative through audio logs, environment objects or npc dialog.
3-Make the player active in the narrative delivery via dialog choices.
Most games have a linear narrative, delivering their story through a mix of examples 1 and 2. The problem with it is that it usually interrupts player interaction. But recently a significant number of games have opted for the 3rd choice, to let the player ďchoose their own pathĒ.
Now, videogames are based on an illusion of freedom; you give the player a set of tools, environments and gameplay elements to play with. Player enjoyment is directly related to how solid, consistent and believable those systems are. The bright side about linear narrative is that it provides a sense of cohesion that just canít be achieved through player choice. As weíve already established, giving the player too much freedom only makes his lack of freedom more obvious. Of course every choice the player makes in a non-linear game canít have a truly believable set of consequences, and the number of choices the player has is rather limited, because the game is made by a limited amount of people in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of resources. Even if a game just offers several narrative arcs to arrive at the same conclusion, it is still a non-linear game. Linearity is about the sequentiality of the path, not the conclusion.
I think itís fair to argue that videogames still havenít found their own language when it comes to delivering stories. Weíve become used to watching cutscenes between actual gameplay as a way of mixing things up and making us feel at least a bit emotionally involved, but I think we can all agree that todayís standards for storytelling in videogames are far from ideal. In response to that feeling, the general trend is towards narrative that is somehow affected by the playerís decisions, but some games have decided to avoid traditional narrative altogether.
Okay, weíve already established that linear games are those that make you progress from one stage to another in a single series of steps. Non-linear games, on the other hand, are those that give you several steps to choose from, even if they do all end up in guiding you towards the same stages. The tendency towards including player choice in the narrative has also made an appearance in gameplay mechanics, with games that were traditionally extremely linear giving the player some options in their latest iterations (like CoD: BlOps 2) that even if rather limited, are just a sign of a bigger trend towards palyer freedom, better exeplified by games like Dishonored or Far Cry 3.
This is a fundamental change in the way we understand games; no longer are they toys designed with specific functions in mind, but entire playgrounds with dozens of options that let the players express themselves through the way they decide to play. Minecraft, Day Z, Dwarf Fortress, Proteus... those are games that donít bother with feeding the player a specific narrative, they just give them the tools to create their own experiences. Not only does that mean different experiences for every player, but the stories that flourish from those experiences feel more genuine because the games feel more genuine. The player feels like his actions are the direct and only cause of the events that surround him, and thatís what true freedom is all about: Not only choosing your own path, but building your own path with your bare hands; weíre moving past non-linearity and towards pure freedom.
But where does traditional narrative fit in that picture? Will we have a separation between narrative-driven games and player-driven games? I donít think so. What I see coming is a sandbox of sorts. The creation of those forever-mentioned ďliving, breeding worldsĒ. Worlds where stories happen all the time, and you can choose to have an impact on them, observe them or just ignore them altoghether. Iím not only talking about MMOís, which I think will have an important paper in the future, but also procedurally created sandbox games, with so many options that the player-created stories would be endless, and traditional stories would be just one option from the menu, culminating the ideal of player freedom. While games with high production values would focus on offering a lot of different options, less expensively-produced games would focus on offering worlds that were out of the ordinary.
Okay, maybe thatís a bit crazy. Maybe Iím just exaggerating and itíll all keep going as it is. Iím not saying that is the future Iíd like for videogames, it just seems like the natural progression from the perspective we have today. Damn, Iíve gone on a bit of a tangent here. Oh well, whatever.
Edit: Here are some videos I digged up that I think are relevant to the discussion (I don't necessarily agree with all they say, but they make some good points):
Errant Signal (not actually about linearity but it poses some good questions about the future of videogames)
First of all, I canít say I fully agree with David Cageís views on the industry, although I do think thereís a need for innovation and exploration of new themes, but I think that Cage, like other videogame gurus such as Peter Molyneux, are a bit out of touch with everything that is going on in the industry. That and the fact that both of them speak very eloquently about how games should be and then go on to make games that are acceptable at best, making all their initial claims rather meaningless.
That said, letís get down to the actual response.
I think the main misinterpretation that annoys me about those defending violence in videogames as something that shouldnít change (at least for the moment) is the idea that if big publishers start investing in games where violence doesnít have the main role, somehow violent videogames will cease to exist; there will be no yearly CoDís around and we will all be condemned to pressing W while a bunch of pretentious crap is thrown at our face. Let me quote him here:
ď[...] weíve suffered too many boring, navel-gazing indie games that are based on the theories that Spector and Cage now preach. The idea of a talented designer-following suit with a multimillion dollar project, an edge case should one like it ever exist, is too much to bear.Ē
Well, that was a sudden injection of subjectivity. The number of relatively popular games based on exploration and that have an absence of violence can be counted with the fingers of my hand. How can you possibly imply that there have been too many of them? And in favor of what? Violent videogames? If you look through any game collection from this generation you can hardly see a cover where the protagonist isnít wielding a weapon. Non-violent videogames are the exception, not the rule. How can you be so close minded that you canít even bear the existence of something out of what you consider interesting?
There are books about everything, there are movies about everything, there are songs about everything, yet you defend that games should be exclusively about violence or stuff that can enable violence to exist? How can somebody who claims to love videogames want itís medium to be so centered around a single element? Who would want the medium they love to be so constricted in the limits of itís creative expression? Which brings me to the next big misinterpretation in your article: The idea that artís primary objective is immersion.
But thatís not what art is. Yes, immersion plays a role in any artistic creation, but itís not itís core, itís not itís reason of being. What is in the core of any artistic creation is expression. Creativity, inventiveness, imagination. Itís the exploration of these ideas that engenders art, not the other way around.
ďAction can exist without violence (harm against another thing), but there is no more immersive action than violence. Would Journey have been a more compelling experience if the player wielded a shotgun and gunned down hordes of enemies? Yes, it would have; but it wouldn't have maintained the same tone and sense of space. In other words, it wouldn't have been Journey.Ē
Exactly. The reason Journey is being recognized almost universally as a relevant piece of art is because it manages to express something, and it does so through itís own language. That is transcendence, that is meaningful, that is engaging. Or at least it is for me. Maybe testing the velocity of your eye-hand coordination while watching enemies die is more engaging to you, and I would respect that, I donít mind blowing some heads off once in a while myself, but donít talk as if what you find compelling or immersive is by definition what all gamers should find compelling or immersive. In fact, I think that the reason videogames are looked down upon as an art form is greatly influenced by the abundance of violence as the main theme and interaction. Now, weíve seen the videogame market expand a lot in the last few years; people of all ages have played videogames in one form or another. The level of violence in those games is surprisingly low though. I guess most people donít find violence so engaging after all.
Another misinterpretation is that games need 3d sci-fi like technology in order to convey something other than ďshoot the evil terrorist, heís really badĒ, and that because games are in a screen and are controlled with physical devices, they canít be truly engaging. Well, what about movies then? What about books? How is it possible that an audiovisual interactive medium canít possibly express more while a medium based on putting ink over some paper is the main source of creative expression and information of the history of humankind?
Yes, videogames are necessarily spacial, and like everything else, they need some sort of conflict in order to remain interesting, but that conflict by no means has to have to do with violence. Scoring a goal on a football game, solving a mystery on an adventure game, building a tower in Minecraft, or ascending with an unknown partner towards Journeyís end, can be just as or even more engaging an experience as you seem to think violent videogames are. Also, we have seen how violence creates immersion. It is a one-way street, but non-violent videogames are just starting to explore how to create engaging experiences through mainly non-violent activities, and the possibilities are much less limited, or dare I say it, limitless. Maybe in a future game youíll play a bird that has to migrate, crossing entire continents while resisting the harsh weather and managing the limited resources. Maybe youíll play a paparazzi that has to infiltrate private parties, or a historical figure who decides to do things differently. Maybe you want to be pointing and shooting for the rest of your life. Well, some of us donít.