I'm a video game Quality Assurance Tester by profession and generally critical thinker by inclination. I've tested at Atari, Toys For Bob, Leapfrog, Intific Inc (formerly Total Immersion Software), and Zynga. When playing for fun I lean towards strategy, FPS, and third-person adventure games. 2nd Gen lifelong gamer; my parents took me to my first gaming convention when I was just a month old, and it never really stopped. Saw the Rogue Trader BRB when I was twelve and was instantly jump-started into heavy metal puberty. Result: permanent 40K fanboy.
I was there when this went down. It's all true, except it actually happened in Fall, not Spring.
2011 - Space Marine
2010 - Mass Effect 2
2009 - Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
2008 - Far Cry 2
2007 - Team Fortress 2 (yes, over Portal)
2006 - Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War: Dark Crusade
2005 - Resident Evil 4
2004 - Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
2003 - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
2002 - Meh
2001 - Grand Theft Auto III
I did a game improvement post earlier this month, so rather than do something similar with another game, how about I finish up the post I was writing for last week? Cool? Cool. Not cool? This is Improvement: Every Game Set in New York.
Hey, remember that game where you’re running around in Manhattan and doing all this crazy crap, and you can go to Central Park and the Financial District, and you can see the Statue of Liberty and yellow cabs and stuff?
Yeah, me neither.
True Crime: Streets of New York
Wikipedia lists over 125 games set in New York or an obvious fictional analogue, helpfully noting that this list is actually incomplete. No other city on Earth comes close; the distant runner up is Las Vegas, fully half of whose pitiful 41 games are either casino titles or CSI “games”. Even if we exclude sports titles and other such games that include New York without necessarily featuring it as their main setting, we could say without much exaggeration that “New York” and “city” are synonymous in gaming, much the same way that we say “Xerox” when we mean “photocopy” or “casual” when we mean “shitty”.
It’s easy to see why New York – by which we really mean Manhattan because come the fuck on, who wants to play a game set in Brooklyn or Queens? – is such a tempting setting for games:
1) It’s an island, so the player’s movement is inherently limited by the surrounding geography. No need to make up a reason for the finite world.
2) It has varied terrain. Skyscrapers, parks, ports, bridges, tenements, and a lovely regular grid of city streets. Almost any sort of urban landscape can appear in a New York-style setting without too much suspension of disbelief, so a game set there can have a variety of environments to navigate without feeling contrived.
3) Everyone’s heard of it. New York is littered with landmarks that are recognized worldwide, giving it an easily-induced sense of place. Bonus: reduced concept art budget. Just hand the art department a copy of New York: Portrait of a City and have them get modelling.
4) It’s American as all hell. As arguably the capital of American culture, wealth and industry, New York symbolizes the entire US in a single handy location. If you want your themes and characters to comment on the US, technocratic imperialism, opportunity, cultural dominance, vast class divides, or just to be so redolent of American-ness that you can practically see the stink lines radiating from them, New York brings all of that into your story pre-packaged and ready to go.
5) 9/11 made it vulnerable. For all the bravado that stereotypically characterizes the New York populace, we’ve come to see it as quintessentially exposed in the post 9/11 era. We know that New York really can be damaged and hurt in a visceral experiential way that, say, Hyrule just can’t match. A lot of people adopted New York as a sort of distant second home after the attack, and have a weird sense of ownership now that makes them want to protect it.
The combination of these factors, as well as lots of others I’m likely not thinking of, is practically alchemical. The New York setting is a tightly-wound rubber band ball of conveniences, none of which means as much outside of the whole. And when you throw that ball at the game you're developing, the motherfucker bounces every time.
With all of these reasons to set a game in New York, what list of reasons can I give not to? How about
1) It's been done. Lots.
That's a pretty good list.
I don’t want to diminish the fine technical work that game artists and engineers do in bringing each particular rendition of New York to fruition in their given project; I’ve seen how much sweat goes into the technical end of even the simplest video games, and those efforts deserve any pause to appreciate them that we can afford. I do have a problem with writers, designers, and producers in the concept phase that make the choice to take the easy, unoriginal way out of developing a setting by using Ol’ Reliable New York, and even worse those who don’t think about it and set their game in New York because where else would you put it? Well…
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I can’t suggest a different “perfect video game setting” for developers to switch over to; there may not be one that has all the same good points of New York, although if we spent some time talking about it we might think of other places that had strong combinations of different factors. Even if we did, I’m not suggesting that developers find a new single setting to bleed dry. Rather, I’m saying I wish they’d try harder to develop original settings rather than copying the most popular one-size-fits-all solution. I know I said a few paragraphs up that variety for its own sake is reason enough to mix up the game's setting, but if you’re not convinced by that let me also suggest that working within the constraints of less common and more unfamiliar locations might also help our game developers to stumble upon entirely new themes and senses of place that wouldn’t occur to them in the familiar gray blur of New York.
Prototype was aptly named. It had the bones of a really proper superhero sandbox game, but it was missing the touches that could have fleshed it out into something spectacular. The damned thing just came together a little too rarely, and yet I found myself captivated by it for several weeks, as much by its promise as for what it actually delivered. Now that Radical Entertainment is near to completing Prototype 2, I find myself excited over the game that could evolve from the flawed original if the right things are changed and the right things are kept:
- Develop a proper aiming system. Prototype’s was so finicky that every time the player invoked it the game went into slow-mo to make it possible to coax the reticle over the desired enemy. If that’s not an admission of failure, I don’t know what is. Often as not the little fucker still snapped onto the wrong baddy. I’m not sure how to go about remedying this in a game that’s based around super-fast combat with lots of enemies; maybe remove aiming entirely?
- Write a proper story and main character. Alex Mercer was a dreadful protagonist: a bullheaded asshole who threatened everyone who tried to help him while toggling unpredictably from surly sulk to bloodthirsty berserker with no reasonable trigger. Similarly, Prototype’s story was a sketched-in membrane composed of dialogue that made little sense and action scenes with no motivation, unless the player completed the optional Web of Intrigue collectathon in which case the story became a splattery bucket of conspiracy theory sheepslop. I’d like the new game to have the sense of creeping paranoia that the original aimed for, but with all of the sprawling nonsense tied up a little more cleanly.
- Have enough to do around the city. Arkham City and the recent Assassin’s Creed games have set the bar a lot higher in terms of the quantity and complexity of side missions that I am coming to expect from a free-form game. Prototype 1’s array of timed or scored gameplay challenges just won’t cut the mustard again. I want sub-missions with their own story arcs, I want rewards beyond achievements or yet more millions of EP, and I’d like to have plenty of options do no matter where I am in the town or in the story. And speaking of EP out the ass…
- Fix the leveling system. Prototype’s centered on an unfortunate combination of a) respawning enemies and b) purchasable abilities that could cost upwards of several million points apiece to buy. The result was a game design that encouraged the player to patrol around stomping on the same puny enemies for hours in order to buy the best superpowers rather than just playing the story and side missions. A game that encourages players to play in the most boring way possible is a boring game no matter how fun the “right way” to play is. Given the choice I’d just as soon remove the experience rewards from combat entirely and instead give the player powers based on story progression and maybe some of those awesome side missions we were just discussing. Make the rewards something I earn instead of something I work for.
+ The speed. The best thing about Prototype was running straight up the side of a skyscraper, jumping off the top and then elbow-dropping 80 stories down into a busy intersection with enough force to pulp every pedestrian within a block. More of that, please.
+ Bloody and unique powers. Mercer’s array of tentacles, spikes, blades and crushers were good fun, although few of them were really vital to winning the game. Setting aside the overpowered Whipfist (which ought to be nerfed drastically) I’d like to see most of them return, but balanced to be even more specialized so that I have opportunities to feel like I’m really making the most of all my powers rather than picking the one I like best and sticking with that. I can also see the appeal of having lots of powers that allow equally valid playstyles, but I imagine that takes way more work to implement in a fun way.
+ The evolving environment of New York. The Big Crapple slowly descended from its usual cruddy self to a bloody-skied apocalypse as Prototype’s story progressed. I don’t really know where you go from there, but the progressive change in environments and the corresponding creep of both viral monsters and military defenders across shifting blocks of turf kept city navigation fresh over time and did more to tell the story than most of the cutscenes. Do it again, possibly in reverse, and this time give me a chance to affect it somewhat. In Prototype I could blow up a military base or viral hive to reduce the number of enemies in the area, but they always came back. How about giving the player a bit of agency over the course of the war that's playing out around me?
+ The hilarious stealth system. Not the deepest thing ever, but as a tonic from the breakneck pace of Mercer’s Manhattan rampage, munching through an entire base full of unsuspecting soldiers like so many balaclava-wearing crudités simply can’t be beat. Prototype is a giant power fantasy anyway; feeling smarter than a base full of dudes is just as good as feeling balls-out tougher than a base full of dudes. I don’t think I want them to try and include an entire stealth game folded into a Prototype title, just a little something sneaky every few hours to help moderate the pace.
+ Unadulterated chaos. Prototype's raison d'etre is to allow the player to run around in a horrifying war zone as the biggest, baddest monster on the block, and it felt pretty good when I was doing that. Keep the screaming crowds, overmatched army dudes, and howling zombies, then let me throw a fuel truck and maybe a tank into the middle of all of them and punch someone clear over a building.
If Radical can deliver on the potential of the original Prototype they’ll be handing me the game I play all summer long. You can’t really ask for more.