In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
Way back in the early 00’s, developers became enamoured with the idea of episodic content. It was a dream everybody could believe in. Well, believe in more than, say, the VR storage system in the Michael Douglas/Demi Moore turkey, Disclosure.
Skip forward to the 10’s, and the dream has become something of a struggle. It’s still alive, but entangled in a conundrum. Its realisation is a stylistic approach, at best.
By now, we’re aware that videogames aim for a visual acceptance through the cinematic portrayal of events, but structurally, they share more in common with long form television shows. Alan Wake has become the poster boy of episodic gaming, with its “TV box set” style. Yet, it’s certainly not the first. As we’ll see, it’s just one example in how television has been increasingly influential, even so far as overtaking cinema, in that area of storytelling.
Whilst developers set their sights on the big screen, strong narrative titles do tend to suffer from a “dead air” syndrome. The length of game, and its need to constantly engage, far surpasses the run time of your average cinematic experience. It cuts off when the player has decided to have enough, rather than when an act, or a break, dictates such actions.
Episodic gaming is a strange beast that, once employed correctly, delivers an intensity that wouldn’t normally be there. A perfect example was having to wait mere weeks for the resolution to Alan Wake’s predicament in The Signal.
Telltale Games have done a decent job with its monthly narratives. Sam & Max: Season One is a far cry from The Devil’s Playhouse, where the later disposed of the tenuously connected mini-adventure format, in favour for the ebb and flow dynamics of one larger arc, peppered with cliff-hangers and call-backs.
The reason why The Devil’s Playhouse works so well, in that regard, is because Telltale Games plan entire seasons, in advance. They dedicate themselves to reworking minor issues, rather than total reinvention; all confined by a monthly deadline.
It’s a balance of feedback and self-imposed restriction; a working approach that was mishandled by the original champions of episodic gaming, Valve.
Seeing the Half Life 2: Episode trilogy as a scheduled series, like The Blair Witch Project before it, probably would have made a huge impact on our gaming habits. Instead, it shook faith in what episodic gaming could achieve.
Episodes wasn’t to be because Valve had approached each instalment as separate entities, influenced by their improvements to the Source Engine. They failed to think like real show-runners; people who have entire seasons planned out before production. Valve gave up on the idea, and reminded us that to emulate outside media, you have to treat your own in a similar fashion.
Luckily for Valve, they’re the popular choice; an ideas factory that gets by on constant innovations. The same can’t be said for Ritual Entertainment’s SiN: Episodes, though.
SiN never had the popularity of Half Life, and to buy into a similar episodic fashion was a risky business. It bombed; not enough people were interested in seeing the vision through to the end. Maybe, David Cage realised such risks, after consolidating his episodic vision for Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy into an interactive movie.
It’s hard to test the waters if nobody is willing to take the plunge, but there’s nothing that says developers/publishers can’t treat the selection process like television executives, either. Going back to Telltale’s successes, it was fascinating to see them set up a “pilot season”; the end result being the deliciously surreal Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent.
Obviously, the digital domain is the right way to go, and faith on both sides can get a product a long way.
Sony bungled it with Siren: Blood Curse. It had the suitable narrative, but it was never immensely popular. It didn’t help that Sony released the entire game as a hard copy within months; defeating the entire point, and losing face in the process.
BioWare had hopes for building small bridges between larger titles. Yet, they never ran with it after Mass Effect: Bring Down The Sky. Accessibility was probably the major factor; a sequel had to involve everyone, including those who didn’t buy the DLC.
Money does eventually play a big part in how seasons and episodes are formed. After the initial sales figures, Remedy were reluctant to refer to each Alan Wake game as a “season”, but they’re still more than happy to use the medium for their storytelling gains; as we’ve seen with American Nightmare. As it should be, episodic gaming is not solely about buying instalments, but how we assimilate that structure, be it one game or a series.
Episodic gaming works, and not just for the television tie-ins of 24: The Game, Star Trek: 25th Anniversary/Judgement Rites, The X-Files, and Lost: Via Domus.
Deadly Premonition’s narrative plays heavily on shocking conclusions, recaps and “Previously...” montages. Despite being a bad game, Alone in the Dark 5 circumvented its problems with DVD menus. L.A. Noire’s cop drama was akin to Dragnet, or to some, a mini-movie marathon.
It doesn’t even have to end in specific genres, such as survival horror or adventures.
Resonance of Fate is an underrated tactical JRPG that deserved a little more recognition on release. It shares more in common with Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and Outlaw Star than it ever does with its RPG peers; focusing on characters and relationships in a tightly directed fashion. It shouldn’t work, but it does, railing against the predictable conventions of the epic quest.
There was a time when television played fast and dirty; still does for the majority. Recently, shows become more sophisticated, with an understanding that viewers wanting to invest in more than one-shot tales. It’s now working towards its potential, increasing its advantages over Hollywood.
Video games have taken television’s old mantle. The industry finds itself filling a hole, hungry to prove itself, before it implodes.
Whilst, it’s not a case of following in exact footsteps, or having an all-encompassing outlook for every title (that would be strange), if it strives to understand the beauty of the small screen, and not be strangled by money, then video games might just have a better chance against the critics of narrative, and create better immersions in the process.
And who wouldn’t want to be on the edge of their seat, week in, week out, when that debate gears up?
For all its low budget faults, and lack of ambition, there’s a mesmeric quality to Grasshopper Manufacture’s Michigan: Report From Hell. Your role is strictly supportive, as the only true requirement is to keep filming for a news network’s audience; complete with a simmering subtext concerning the current state of journalism, and the selfishness of our passive nature.
Fascinating as it sounds, Michigan is not the first (the similar, live action, the FEARpreceded it), or even the last, videogame to deal directly with our love of voyeurism. Yet, in an industry that increasingly assimilates the cinematic gaze with an interactive medium, rarely is the act dissected beyond a brief epiphany.
Voyeurism has been, ironically, pushed to the fringes of videogames.
Arguably, the obvious spotlight of voyeurism was at its strongest during the FMV era. Those titles were mostly a technological excuse to put film on to CD, and even though, it was deemed an evolutionary dead end, those years bore some broken delights, e.g. Night Trap, Double Switch, Psychic Detective, The X Files, and Voyeur.
The latter is an intriguing case of turning the passive gaze into an interactive investment, at its purest form. You play a private investigator, hired to dig the dirt on a presidential candidate’s associates, which quickly escalates into a potential Rear Window scenario.
All with the acting finesse of a Shannon Tweed erotic thriller.
The idea was that you watched a movie, with simultaneous scenes, and had to decide which ones were important for the narrative whole. In an effort to engage the player, the metaphorical carrot on a stick was introduced in the form of soft-core nudity and the need to zoom in on documents.
Night Trap wouldn’t have been remembered the way it was without the Scooby Doo events and multiple paths. As a by-product, Night Trap’s campiness did more harm than good to the serious discussion of voyeurism. It had an interesting concept, stalking the villains that, in turn, stalked their victims, but everybody talks about “that shower scene”, instead.
The X Files went further, thus proving that FMV was utilised in the wrong way, by handing full investigative reins over to the player. The first act involved Agent Wilmore staking out a warehouse, and accumulating footage for analysis. He even had to wait for lab results. Yet, for every glacial procedural, there was a tense situation; searching a truck cabin, before the owner came back.
It’s this rare balancing act, of watching in the shadows and taking chances in the open, which interests developers. It’s a formula that works well for players, too.
Tom Clancy titles, like Rainbow Six, always have a mission where one character is sent into a heavily guarded mansion, to place bugs and cameras on key objectives, without being seen. The problem with that is you never really see the fruits of your labour, unless, you’re stacking up outside a door, and marking targets for a tactical breach.
Information gathering doesn’t need to be relegated to intensive combat, though. Personally, a co-operative videogame based on wire-tapping would be an amazing prospect.
You can almost visualise the multiplayer aspect of character classes, working together to set up the perfect sting, gather information, and finally, burst into an explosive situation. A perfect formation of tense and release dynamics waiting to be experimented on.
Forget the idea of searching for the Citizen Kane of videogames, try The Wire, The Anderson Tapes, or The Lives of Others, instead.
The forthcoming Spy Party is a deadly game of Guess Who?, but from an indie developer. The fact it’s not another financially safe retro-platformer suggests people do want to explore the idea of surveillance in unexpected ways.
It’s reminiscent of Gregory Horror Show’s selling point of working out everyone’s routine, by following their daily schedule, preferably without being seen. Throw a spanner in the works with a curious staff member giving away your position, or a disgruntled guest out for your blood, and the whole process of spying becomes an intelligent slow burner; one that was published by Capcom, of all companies.
Certainly, there’s a reluctance to come up with such dedication for minimum gain, and yet, we experience voyeurism in many genres.
In essence, we’ve observed the actions of others, human or AI, and shaped their fates with the press of a button; usually without them ever knowing.
Though, the act is one of patience, it doesn’t mean that the entire lead-up has to be time consuming, too. There just has to be enough enticement in any given situation, one that can be cut up and returned to on a regular basis; as was the case with Silent Hill 4: The Room and Forbidden Siren.
When voyeurism doesn’t work, it’s when the title is ambitious, and the element is diluted in a competition of ideas. As discussed, the times when we become aware of our “stop and stare” instinct, the games are intensive. They’re set in small locations or situations that aren’t always in the distance.
For all the manic release in a bank robbery during The Heist or Kane & Lynch: Fragile Alliance, there's the feeling that a more methodical approach awaits in the shadows.
Then again, maybe because of the fluidity of voyeurism, an act that permeates every videogame, it really is better off outside our mind’s eye, rather become a gimmick in the spotlight. We’ll never know, unless, people are willing to examine it in such naturally sinister detail.
Oh, FYI, if there’s ever a Sneakers multiplayer game, dibs on being Sydney Poitier.
As the spiritual successor to the king of horror, Dean Koontz, complete with his own videogame, I receive many requests from gaming websites, all asking for a piece of that Halloween magic; because they need the page hits. So, when Destructoid’s cheque was the first to clear, I set about writing this little number.
It’s a familiar tale to those who have rented an apartment in the past (not me, I’m loaded), or seen Pacific Heights.
Frank Sunderland caught his breath at the first set of stairs. Even by his own admission, he was too old to be the sole superintendent of South Ashfield Heights.
Under a flickering fluorescent beam, he reached out to the greasy wall for support. He cut a lonely soul on the stairs, all dressed in white with the hair to match. The luminous brilliance from the sickly light gave him a haunting impression.
Not that he was anywhere close to death. The building’s problems kept him ticking, rendering him a shell of a man. After a getting a second wind, he marched onwards. He had a date with a bad situation.
On the third floor, Frank stood in front of Room 302. The hallway was a dirty strip. One of the residents, Eileen Galvin, cleaned the floorboards with an old broom. She was a radiant summer in this autumn passage.
She waved, pleasantly, but inside, she was cursing Frank.
Cleaning the hallway was his job. These days, Frank shirked his menial duties. He had completely checked out, falling back on a proposed retirement excuse. It was an annual statement, and so, understandably, the residents’ sympathises were tapped out. They made complaints, and for that, Frank now stood in this very spot, doing the landlord’s dirty work.
He examined the front door, a portal to another person’s sanctuary. It lead to Henry Townshend’s little patch of privacy.
Frank knocked, and waited for a reply.
Nothing came of it.
He knocked, again. Still, not a sound was heard from beyond the white door.
“Mister Townshend?” Frank asked, loudly. “Henry, are you in there?”
It was deathly quiet. Only the faint brushing of Eileen’s broom echoed down the hallway.
“Henry? It’s Frank. Listen, the landlord told me that your rent is due. He’s asked me to pick it up for him. Also, there have been some complaints,” he paused, but there was nary a response, “Hey, Henry! Are you listening?”
Frank hated having to interact with anybody in the building. He wasn’t the social type, and all they saw was their future reflected back at them, complete with their 401K down the toilet. Nobody respected Frank. They kept their distance.
With that in mind, Frank decided to open the door. Try as he might, though, the master keys did not fit.
After a resigned exhale, Frank shouted, “Henry, I know you’re in there. Take out whatever shit you have in the lock, and open the door.”
He looked down the hallway, and saw Eileen pretending that none of this was happening. While his plain colours camouflaged into his surroundings, he must have looked like an idiot. One more call, and he would call it quits. In his heart, Frank believed he had tried.
As he knocked, for the final time, the door fired off a loud thud.
It was thunderous noise, followed by a rapid fire of smaller aftershocks.
A slightly muffled voice called out. The sharpness in voice was dulled, but intelligible. It was Henry Townshend, alright. Frank leaned in closely.
“Hello?” Henry shouted.
“Hey,” Frank volleyed back, “what’s going on in there?”
“Oh, man,” Henry continued, cutting into his caller’s delivery, “they can’t hear me. I’m like totally trapped in my own apartment. You know, like unbreakable chains on the door, from the inside. I wish someone could hear my pleas for help, and such. I’ve been stuck in here for days! You know, that’s a shame, because I had to pay the rent this week!”
Despite his desperation, Henry was about as convincing as a news reporter feigning empathy on breakfast television.
“Henry, open the door.”
“I thought you couldn’t hear me.”
“I said, ‘they can’t hear me’! By which, I mean, I’m having a one-sided conversation, right now, and it might be sheer coincidence that I’m having a conversation merely by choosing certain, oddly timed, replies,” said Henry, breaking the lie without admitting to it.
Frank rolled his eyes, “Well, anyway, you owe a month’s rent. You need to pay up, and I’m here to collect on the landlord’s behalf.”
There was that silence, again. The mental cogs, on the other side of the door, worked fast.
“Yeah, anyway, these chains are clamped on, rock solid,” Henry shouted out, pretending to tell nobody in particular.
“Listen, Henry,” Frank produced some damning evidence, “I was talking to Richard, yesterday. He said he saw you stealing all the bike locks, and chains, from the lobby. Please don’t tell me you’ve locked yourself in with that stuff.”
By this point, Eileen had brushed a path to her neighbouring room. She had given up on the pretence of being the world’s most inconspicuous housekeeper. Standing next to Frank, she shook her head in disbelief.
“Hey, have you got some beef with Townshend?” Eileen probed.
“Well, did you know that pervert bored a hole through to my bedroom?”
As they stared at each other, stuck in one tenant’s renting quagmire, Henry explained himself, “Guys, hear me out. I have to escape because we’re all targeted for a ritualistic murder spree. Yes, I found a tiny hole that leads into Eileen’s bedroom, but it’s strictly for the theme of voyeurism in this nefarious plot.”
“Oh, of course it is!” Eileen swung with a sledgehammer of sarcasm, “That all makes perfect sense, now.”
Henry continued, “I’m supposed to watch stuff happen, because, conveniently enough, I’m the last guy to die. Anyway, I’ve found another hole, a big hole, in my bathroom. You’re not going to believe this, but it leads to a completely new world. It might be the key to my escape.”
“Yeah, about that,” Frank replied, “Mike, in Room 301, said you smashed a hole through to his front room. He can see right into your bathroom. You know the rules about extensions and renovations. He wants you put your pants on in the mornings, too.”
Awkward silence resumed its service. Burst transmissions of anger and bemusement were the order of the day.
“So, yeah, anyway,” Henry continued, “I went downstairs through this hole, and found out I had to stop this ghost murderer by using his mother’s umbilical cord. I had to open up the Superintendent’s Room to get it. It was in this box, next to the TV.”
Frank had a feeling his room had been broken into the other night. His prized beef jerky had gone missing. It was one of the few remaining pleasures he had left, aside from his Burn Notice Season 1-4 DVD collection.
“Did you steal my jerky?”
“Yeah, I’ve got to stop that kid with the umbilical cord, or something. Honestly, I don’t think the writers ever thought out that plot point. That’s the thing about boss battles; they don’t really make much sense in context of previous events and motivations. You know, like, Resident Evil 5.”
Frank had heard enough. He was tired of being played like a chump.
“Fine, I tried, Henry. I really tried, you win, whatever. Keep the jerky.”
Eileen, all flustered, grabbed his arm, “Wait a second, you’re letting this go on?”
“Yeah, I’m done,” He replied. She wasn’t entirely sure if he meant with Henry or with life. Without a word, he walked away, heavy footsteps kicking up the odd fleck of dust.
Back in his room, Frank sat deep down in his comfy chair. In the cramped surroundings, all he could hear was his breathing. The phone didn’t ring anymore. His son, James, had run off with some floozy during some midlife crisis. Despite his son’s protests that his wife was dead, Frank had bumped into her, alive and angry, quite recently.
Another youngster, his own flesh and blood, had taken him for a ride. It was the story of his life.
Late at night, a deadbeat superintendent sat in a dim apartment block, at the centre of a colourless town. He watched a recent episode of Burn Notice; an episode where Michael Weston had to defuse a hostage situation with standard office supplies. It was not entirely like that one episode in Season 2. No, it really wasn’t.
Frank drifted off to sleep, away from the horror above him. On the third floor, in Room 302, there was a monster, alright. Around these parts, just like in your hometown, the locals called it, “The Tenant”.
All sleek green curves and embossed lettering set against a deadly background. In the simplest of terms, it looked stunning. The blurb running down the back got down to business, an accompaniment to the serious face on the other side.
It remained silent as I put the disc inside the desperate tray. I was clouded and mesmerised by the artwork of my desires, ready to play the cunning fox, complete with light dalliances of my fingers over the controller. Only it was really I who was being played.
After all, it’s always the quiet ones that have the most problems...
While Red Dead Redemption was an amazing Western videogame, narrative-wise, it paled in comparison to its cinematic influences. The main offender being too many sub-genres in one tale, enough to lose focus of the subject matter halfway in.
In essence, there was the creation of something new and yet it was self-analysed before the credits rolled.
L.A. Noire is a similar title that suffers from a schizophrenic approach to incorporating a cinematic style into videogames. Throughout the narrative, you’re treated with the pulp fiction of post-war cinema and contemporary post-modernism drama. It’s a juxtaposition that constantly struggles to meet the demands of either noir representation. It’s certainly successful with the former, but with the constant interuption of a deconstructive approach to the original material, fans of both ends of the spectrum should ask themselves:
Should L.A. Noire be regarded as a decent replication of B-movie novella adaptations or a failure of emulating complex contemporary works?
Even so, should the awkward assimilation of styles be a major concern, when it’s videogame above all else?
L.A. Noire is reminiscent of the 90’s anthology seriesFallen Angels; a show featuring famous actors in short noir adaptations. More importantly, they were told from an evocative perspective of what noir signified at that time. We had post-modern use of period music, direction and lighting, all in the name of indulgent emulation.
Really, it’s up to the viewer to really decide if it was shallow or if it successfully captured a style that had no influences beyond its early expressionist roots.
L.A. Noire plays out “The Big Gumbo” of evocation in a similar fashion.
Pull away the curtain and it’s a modern conspiracy thriller doused in post-Chandler, pulp novella aesthetics. Throughout, the narrative juggles two different period perspectives, origins and evolvement, pushing a post-modern ideal onto another form that hadn’t developed self-awareness yet.
In layman’s terms, it’s as if L.A. Confidential’s Detective Ed Exley was placed squarely in Humphrey Bogart’s final movie, The Harder They Fall; which is exactly what happens in a Vice Case called The Set Up.
L.A. Noire actually feels like the spanning era development of noir, albeit played out of order, but still moving from influential police procedural The Tattooed Stranger right through to the corruption of L.A. Confidential. Along the way, there’s a heady mix of name-checking, not least from the “Now Playing” signs of local cinemas and dialogue debunking dime store “Johnny Gossamer” antics.
While L.A. Noire achieves pulp recreation with it’s episodic Dragnet approach, when it attempts the complex personality issues found in James Ellroy’s novels, it fails to compete with its cinematic peers, through rushed storylines and underdeveloped strands, e.g. Phelps’ home life and subsequent affair.
Of course, L.A. Noire is a videogame, not a movie. You can’t expect a videogame to put the cart before the horse right out of the gate. It’s a title at odds with its material; where the dangerous situations are heightened because of that need to constantly engage.
An interactive schizophrenia develops in scenes where Phelps has to shoot fleeing suspects without condemnation, drive endlessly into oncoming traffic or fire at red barrels to clear an escape route, before arriving at a “realistic” crime scene investigation.
Sadly, that improvised, tectonic world becomes detrimental within the interrogations.
Here, we have the complexity of the human face to decipher, but to do so, we’re given simplified choices, told to pick evidence that tenuously relates to the “Lie”, which also in theory is sufficient enough for selecting “Doubt”.
Yet, there is no place for your own plausible connections in the world of L.A. Noire. It’s somewhat an insult of intelligence which negates the point of examining quirks and listening to strained answers, when in actual fact, it boils down to staying restrictive for the intentionally circumstantial script.
If you have the complexity of facial animation, then surely, there should be an allowance for the complexity of the human mind.
As a post-modern noir study of one man’s misunderstanding of duty and responsibility, L.A. Noire could have been something special. As it stands, it never manages to reach the intimacy of Hotel Dusk and Last Window; both narrative driven adventures that have an uniqueEastern perspective on 1970’s “end of a classical era” thrillers like Klute, The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. As such, the narrowed focus works better than L.A. Noire’s melting pot direction.
Though, this shouldn’t be read as, “L.A. Noire is a terrible videogame”.
It’s actually a decent imitation of a bygone age, using taboo breakers sensibly in situations that were restricted by the Hays Code before (as with The Big Sleep), while also being an enthralling pleasure when several great actors dupe you during their interrogations. It’s also quite remarkable to see Rockstar Games successfully sell an updated point and click adventure, reminiscent of Police Quest and Black Dahlia, to a mainstream audience...
You see, after all is said and done, we all have our problems.
Nobody would ever be deemed perfect.
It didn’t matter, though. It was those idiosyncrasies that kept us dancing in close proximity to an improvised beat. After I put the disc back in the case, I sat there for a long while contemplating my swirling thoughts, with the imperfect love silently by my side.
Too many tastes get lost in The Big Gumbo, but if you concentrate enough, you can pick out the flavours you love and cherish them forever. Well, at least, until the next love of your life came along. Fashion dictates that they’ll lack the image of perfection too.
What you or I want is always going to be an unobtainable illusion, but in front of the cathode rays, at the dead of night, we still dare to have hopes.
“Acting” in any given videogame is a horrible experience.
Everybody knows their lines, found their marks and expect you to do the same. Only you didn’t bother showing up for the rehearsals and while you’ll probably suffer from perfect verbal diarrhoea, the scenes are a total mystery. You’re the one screwing up the immersion, not them, improvising like an epileptic having panic attack.
We’ve all ignored the dread at some point; by climbing up file cabinets, throwing stationary, jumping on the spot and standing in the way of someone, forcing them to moonwalk you out of the way, as they obliviously deliver a serious life or death speech, al a Half Life 2.
You don’t see that kind of nonsense in movies or television.
“You’ve heard the worst, gentlemen. The Harvester Forces are abou---SGT. BRICK LAMBSHANK! What the hell are you doing?!”
In videogames, you’re an important protagonist, with the world revolving around your actions. Though, what if you’re given a character that doesn’t necessarily have an important role to play and allowed to act “uncharacteristically” because a previous cutscene has given you the green light?
The Rookie from Ghostbusters: The Video Game is a brilliant example of being the supporting character and one that allows the player access in an established world. One where there focus and pressure of “acting” has been shifted to everyone else involved.
Licensed videogames tend to put you in the shoes of your favourite movie/TV characters, but ultimately, they’re videogame protagonists second. By playing the role of the voyeur, one that gets to takes part in any given situation, you don’t have to break immersion, unless it’s on purpose.
Ghostbusters is easily the best use of a movie license since Blade Runner and both share similar traits in their enjoyment. Essentially, they’re successful by creating a new malleable character and neatly placing them within a cinematic emulation.
Whereas, Blade Runner’s Ray McCoy is a fully formed character with his own narrative in tandem with the movie, The Rookie is a bare bones protagonist that gives the player enough freedom to inject their own play style, while having enough personality to exist alongside his cinematic peers.
This is where Ghostbusters really shines beyond its mere fan service roots. Throughout the narrative, there is a marriage of cutscenes and real time events. In the FMV, The Rookie is portrayed as the silent clown; one we can relate to because, bless him, it’s his first day.
Just like The Futureheads once sang about, they’re full of awkward agreements and silences, as you gauge staff members’ awful backfiring attempts at integrating you into the workplace without fuss. In Ghostbusters, it’s exactly the same scenario.
Albeit, involving ghost fishermen, hobo spirits, golems and a giant marshmallow man.
It feeds off your attempts to learn the ropes and the hero worship of characters like Dr. Peter Venkman, a man who treats you like crap at every occasion. As a fan, you look up to these people and love them for their flaws, yet, acting as them wouldn’t do the characters justice. Essentially, they would be avatars that quip without consent, which is exactly what happens in the multiplayer campaign.
As a fan, you’re not meant to be the focus, just the supporting actor.
In the cutscenes, The Rookie ambles around in the background, bemused and being treated like a dogsbody. So, when the time comes to interacting with clients at the Sedgewick Hotel, you’re allowed to wander around, while the others talk business.
It’s subtle in the way it conveys the direction within the opening minutes, before handing over control. To their overlooked credit, Terminal Reality takes that step even further. In a scripted set-piece, where the characters stand around, they always leave a mark for you, be it a gap in the line-up or a team huddle. The developers are giving you the choice to partake in the immersion or bumble around without breaking it.
The Rookie is not the first protagonist in a supporting role, but he’s definitely one of the more successful because of Terminal Reality’s understanding of what it is to “act” in a videogame.
Surely, is it not better to play as a supporting character than one of the main cast?
Ghostbusters proved that can be case. Even the terrible Lost: Via Domus managed to keep some semblance of interest by letting you play a Machiavellian photojournalist on the fringes of each TV season. It was certainly less stressful than performing perfectly as Captain Kirk in Star Trek: 25th Anniversary.
Of course, most licensed videogames do let you play with new inserted characters, but rarely do they give you some kind of subtle motivation, as with the use of direction for The Rookie. For that, we should be thankful that some developers understand their audiences when picking up licenses.
You can cry bias, and yes, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is definitely a personal favourite. It’s licensed videogame made with great care; especially, when it comes to the FX, the visuals, the expansion of ideas, the set-pieces and most important of all, the one-liners. It wasn’t original, but it was a spot-on recreation for people obsessed with the franchise since childhood (ahem); one you could successfully inhabit, with such ease, in the role of The Rookie.
In the excellent Canadian horror movie Pontypool, three radio station workers are besieged by an mostly unseen infected horde. Simply put, it’s a zombie film sans the zombies and seen from the viewpoint of arbitrary characters. Though, the real genius lies in the film’s tagline, “Shut Up or Die”, which won’t be explained for the sake of a great twist.
Low budget filmmaking is not always the greatest, but by being on a shoestring, restrictions create intuitive thinking. Pontypool succeeds through its emphasis on audio and character interactions to build tension, shifting focus away from the obvious and offering inspired subtext in its place.
So, how is it that we don’t see besiegement, as with Pontypool, playing a prominent role videogames?
Imagine a videogame scenario where you’re having an ordinary day at work at a similar radio station. You’re taking in messages, reporting the news in your own way, antagonising your indifferent staff, but then the newswire breaks some story about something odd downtown. As the situation becomes less about your job and more about survival, you’re required to hold the fort and keep listeners informed.
At least until rescue arrives.
Half Life’s opening minutes start in similar fashion with the mundane, yet opens up on a large scale when the aliens appear. Most of the time, Gordon Freeman is breaking in to places and being used by other scientists to complete their objectives.
What’s wonderful about Pontypool is that the main character, shock-jock Grant Mazzy, is morally ambiguous when it comes to decision making. He’s an intelligent, cynical, burnout that cares for the lives of his staff, Sydney and Laurel-Ann. However, when it comes to the dirty work, he’s reluctant to get involved, unless it’s personally beneficial.
He’s the perfect cinematic counterpart of today’s generation of player protagonists.
Essentially, videogame morals are inconsequential forced situations where your decisions boil down to you, as a player and not a character, reaching your real objective – the ending cutscene.
Fallout: New Vegas prides itself on the Machiavellian nature of participants. It has morality tales, but the consequences are justified and lack hypocrisy, even though the end results are predetermined by design.
With a confined space and a Machiavellian participant, the main crux of a besiegement would come from your interactions with fellow survivors. Given the freedom of your tiny world, you have to rely on these people; crassly using their skills to their irritation or helping out for everyone’s benefit. Let’s say you needed windows boarded, an area of reconnaissance and a generator refuelled; you wouldn’t need to do all those things yourself. In a nutshell, it’s improvised micro-management.
Cinema has had its fair share of besiegement, with famous iterations like Assault on Precinct 13, Rio Bravo and Night of the Living Dead; all relying on a tense/release dynamic in their pacing. Let’s not forget real life situations like The Alamo or Pavlov’s House at the Battle of Stalingrad.
As military shooters like Operation Flashpoint supposedly aim for increased realism, it’s interesting to find that, because of a reliance on constant player stimulation and strategic objectives, the scenarios are large scale and always “On Mission”. Very rarely do we see something like the documentaryRestrepo, though with good reason.
When videogames have these lock down moments, they’re primarily about the instant gratification, as we’ve seen with any number of survival horrors and Left 4 Dead finales. Admittedly, Dead Rising wouldn’t be half as engaging if it lacked reasons to explore and it shares the same reasons why the claustrophobic cabin in Evil Dead: Hail to the King featured so briefly.
So, the technical problem of creating such a videogame might be entirely down to scripting and engagement. Eventually, you’re juggling one factor with the other, since there are all kinds of implications with timelines and multiple consequences. Thus, there’s an inclination to heavily script one factor to allow the freedom of another.
Problems aside, you might be wondering why a videogame like this doesn’t exist. Yet, in a way, it did.
Sentient was a real-time, dialogue heavy, sci-fi adventure set on a doomed space station. Personally, it wasn’t an enjoyable title; with the distinct memory of an Official Playstation Magazine reviewer comparing it to a chess board, where all the pieces moved independently. Sentient exemplified what happens when too many ideas in confined spaces are given free reign. It had potential, but whether it was down technology restrictions or cumbersome design choices, it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.
Even the most simplest of ideas can become complicated under development time and costs; each exploration opening up endless new avenues. Still, that doesn’t mean you should curtail everything involved or create a mod campaign with an SDK. The tools and inspirations are out there.
Videogames easily identifies itself with blockbuster cinema, from budget to spectacle, so you wonder why most developers negate independent ideas. Grasshopper Manufacture experimented with low budget voyeuristic horror in Michigan, borrowing elements from The Blair Witch Project in the process. Of course, it’s still emulation without subtext on a smaller scale, but they decided to assimilate intuitive filmmaking into their own left-field idea.
Tower Defence videogames are addictive, but they lack emotional substance and engagement beyond stats and upgrades. If you’ve ever playedThe Last Stand 2, you’re already aware of it adding micro-management to the original’s premise. As of now, despite many moments of being holed up in terrible situations, in war, horror or sci-fi, we’ve yet to see the potential of true survival instinct.