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For the last couple of weeks I’ve been on something of a game-binge, aware that my first term at university starts in a couple of weeks and there won’t be room for my computer when the five to six hour drive (ugh) to Brighton comes around. The next time I’ll really be able to play anything is December. For a week or so, maybe. Then, back to game-drought. Hmph.
My main obsession has been the latest Stalker game, Call of Pripyat. It’s something special.
I’ve only really explored the starting area Zatun, but I’m impressed with how GSC have refined the geography of the Zone. It really feels like a coherent and plausible location, while I thought the first game was a bit of a hodge-podge. It’s no longer a bunch of points on a map (Fallout 3 also suffered from this), but a real, living world that makes sense with the few extra rules the developers have allowed themselves. The anomalies, especially, have really come into their own. In the book the series is based on, Roadside Picnic, the Zone is a rundown town with a bit of wasteland that the anomalies, weird areas where the laws of physics were twisted unimaginably, inhabited and conformed to. The first game largely followed this model, but in Call of Pripyat we really get to see these bizarre fields have an effect on the landscape.
Above you can see the Boiler, where the ground bulges and cracks because of the steam erupting endlessly from some point underground. At the Claw, gravitational anomalies have torn at the earth, lifting and contorting the mud into the air before fading slightly, leaving a barely supported but still plausible dirt structure.
My favourite is probably the Scar, which you can see below:
It’s a 100-metre long gash in the ground that cuts North-to-South across a small valley, cutting very deeply into the rock at one side and just the slightest graze at the other. I like it (and the Boiler, for similar reasons) because it feels very much like it could be a natural phenomenon. It’s only the wrecked roads on the southern end that show it to be something other than an ancient geological occurrence, and only the slight shimmer above the Scar belies its exotic origins. To me, it feels like an authentic effect of the weird forces that litter the zone; believably natural, rather than something obviously conjured up by designers. It follows some form of rule-set, even if it isn’t the one we’re used to. And it reinforces the fiction, as a glimpse at the unimaginable stress the land was placed under in the immediate aftermath of the second Chernobyl disaster, and a look at what anomalies could really do, before they became little patches of wobbly air that sometimes take a quarter off your health bar.
There are a lot of column inches given over to architecture in games (check out this Stalker-themed article from BLDGBLOG for a great example) but I don’t think enough thought is given to game landscapes, especially “natural” ones. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of games with landscapes worth writing about?
Around once every six months, I am confronted with: “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda? Paid for by the army, it’s true.” To which I reply, teeth clenched: “No, Dad. That’s only sort of true.” Not the best retort.
Government propaganda certainly exists in video games. The American military does use videogames as recruiting tools, and this week the Russian government announced tax cuts and grants for developers of “Patriotic games”, focusing on the second world war. It would be nice to see more games focusing on Russia’s role in the war, but if it’s coming from the masterminds that brought us Action Putin, I really doubt we’re going to get anything especially thoughtful from this programme. In any case, they haven’t made anything yet, so we must return to our friends at the US army.
The two most prominent US videogame recruitment vehicles are America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004). Full Spectrum Warrior is billed as an actual training tool, a claim that seems specious. Unfortunately I haven’t played FSW – it refuses to run on my computer – but I trust Consolevania when they call it ridiculously easy and say:
In this game, all you have to do is play the training mission, and then you’re a fully trained US soldier. If this game is to be believed then the US army only have one tactic.
Quite similar, then, to propaganda of yore showing military life as nice, clean, fun. The game is easy and, look, realistic! The aim seems to be to tone down the sense of danger as a part of war; the US is benign and unstoppable, its foes weak. This echoes the wider media narrative in the early years of the War on Terror. All in all, quite simplistic.
America’s Army seems more honest. Death comes thick and fast, and the game places a lot of focus on teamwork in order to win. It’s focus is less on the enemy as incapable – it’s a multiplayer game, the enemy wins around half of the time – and more on the modern soldier as aspirational figure. It falls down on realism, which is to be expected. It is a propaganda piece, designed to appeal to game-loving teens, and actual military sims are not known for being fun so much as extremely stressful. America’s Army plays not dissimilarly to CounterStrike.
Of course, most first person shooters are not US military-funded propaganda; so why do they appear as such to the outsider? In 1999, with the release of Medal of Honor, games depicting the American role in World War 2 became dominant, a trend that with the notable exceptions of the Halo and Half-Life series – and little else – continued up to the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. This newer style of shooter, with more cinematic set-pieces and some lip-service to realism, swiftly joined Mario and Tomb Raider in the image of videogames as seen from outside the hardcore clique.
The main influence of WW2 shooters is, almost without exception, the opening of 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Detailing the D-Day invasion, the opening 27 minutes of the film are horrifically grim, gruesome, and relentlessly exhilarating. In videogames, the tendency is to accentuate these two latter qualities, while quietly ignoring the first. After all, where is the fun in depressing the player? Where is the business sense in creating a game which nobody wants to play? The focus becomes on the thrill of action, guns shift from tools to objects of fetishism and victims are reduced to parodic automatons, indistinguishable and unimportant. The Omaha beach scene, repackaged for sale in an industry that requires fun above all else, is whitewashed.
There are also practical considerations, of course. Rendering a game on a consumer PC requires a downscaling of detail and scale. The experience cannot be so tightly crafted – and constant danger of death becomes frustrating – in a game setting, so Tom Hank’s very lucky Captain Miller becomes a superman, shrugging off bullets with no ill effect. It isn’t realistically possible to live up to even a film version of D-Day, let alone the real thing. However, neither is much of an effort made, and this sanitisation cannot fail to be compared to the efforts of government propaganda, even when it comes about for entirely different reasons.
Entirely different? By 2007, games had simulated World War 2 for longer than the duration of the actual war, and the genre was tired. Enter Call of Duty 4, and the ascent of the, modern-combat themed pseudo-sim in the eyes of the public. Saving Private Ryan‘s time was all but done, and the CoD4 developer Infinity Ward needed a new film from which to take most of its inspiration. This film was Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 2001.
Depicting the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, Black Hawk Down is a tour de force of stylish violence, with a focus on military manoeuvres and little concern for the human impact of war. In other words, perfect material for the cinematic shooter, heavy on what is easy to simulate and light on what is not. It is also ludicrously biased, wasting no time giving any context for the confliction, instead showing the Somali as stereotypical savages, lashing out irrationally at the utterly benign Americans. The film’s borderline racism is only underlined as, after showing heroic deaths of US soldiers, we are presented with the message: “1000 Somalis died and 19 Americans lost their lives in the conflict”. These 1000 people – a conservative estimate of Somali deaths – are treated as nothing but cannon fodder. No justice is really done to the Americans, either. Instead of real characters, we are presented with Stoic Soldier, Nervous Soldier, Goofy Soldier… It is depressing in almost every way. It’s also hard not to see the film, praised by prominent American neoconservatives, as having a strong political purpose and a stark message. From this 2002 article by Ann Talbot:
The few seconds of film CNN screened showing the mutilated body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets shocked the US public, who could not understand why these young Americans had been sent to Mogadishu…So powerful was this image, however, which was of a very different kind to the slick Hollywood depiction of death and injury shown by Scott, that it made the use of ground troops on this scale politically impossible for almost a decade…
The filmmakers, the right wing politicians and the US military who backed it hope that for those who see Black Hawk Down the sanitised, choreographed violence of Scott’s film will become the image of the October 1993 incident they remember.
Both Call of Duty 4 and its sequel Modern Warfare 2 stick closely to the Black Hawk Down playbook: no real characterisation and a slick, stylised approach to violence. There are some attempts to show the horror of war in all three (the two boy soldiers in BHD, the nuke and No Russian in the Modern Warfare games), but in all three cases America’s only crime is to underestimate the savagery of its enemy. All three give a peculiarly one-sided view of the morality of war.
The Modern Warfare games are guiltier even than Black Hawk Down in playing down the unpleasantry of combat. They are clean – gore is kept to a minimum – and put even less effort into its Taliban-lite and cliche Russians than Scott put into his sock-puppet Somalis. Even in Modern Warfare 2‘s most contentious (and out of place) scene, No Russian (in which Russian Ultranationalists gun down civilians in an airport), the horror is played down. The victims are reduced to little more than screaming parodies of people, there are no children or old people. The player is not a heartless mercenary but a CIA agent, a patriot protecting the world from more terrible attacks. Even in the slaughter of innocents, the player has the moral high ground. Modern Warfare 2 pulls its punches. Is all this propaganda, for political gain? Perhaps not. Here is post-hype’s Chris Breault, on his experience as a writer on The Punisher videogame adaptation:
“I was told to rewrite the lines where anyone expressed a strong desire not to die. It was “sadistic” to kill people who directly asked you not to kill them. This sort of sadism is exactly the stuff that gets us a red flag from the ESRB…”
In an industry in which humanisation of enemies is prohibited, because it might cause your audience to think about their actions and be unsettled, is it any wonder that so many modern videogames resemble a conservative wet dream?
I have a new response to my father’s question, “You know all these videogames you play are American propaganda?” Well, they’re not. They just look like they are.
Not a great improvement, I’m afraid.
Hi. Got a little bit sidetracked, back now, how are you how are you, nice to see you again. Oh, that view counter looks pretty much how it did back in September, so no harm done?
Right, that’s that sorted, so now to business. Haven’t played much, haven’t made much, so didn’t see any point in posting for all those months.
Oh, actually. Made one thing, for a new game called Akmerika (We wanted a stupid name, I think I delivered. Apologies if it means something somewhere). It’s music, and talking (mostly talking) recorded while we began to make the game, which involves rotating bouncing rabbits and lasers. Here it is. Sorry about the levels, I realise it’s a bit quiet. But it’s ambient, innit?
So yeah, Akmerika. Look out for it, I’m sure it won’t at all get lost in a sea of studying and apathy, no sir.
I realise I’m a bit late to the party with this one, but I just finished Braid. The game came to PC in April, and I didn’t play it for a couple of reasons. Mostly because Jonathan Blow has always struck me as being a little self-important, and given to writing awful poetry. So, I wasn’t really interested, despite the colossal amount of praise Braid had received.
This was probably a bit silly. The other reason, of course, was lack of money, for which I feel I can be forgiven. Anyway, it recently appeared in a Steam sale, so I bought it, and finished it in an evening.
Even without playing it, I knew Braid was an incredibly important videogame. It introduced a lot of Xbox players (not exactly famed for their sophistication) to the validity of independant games, games as art, and in many cases the importance of 2d games. That’s quite an achievement. So I knew Braid was important, but I didn’t realise how good it was.
It’s good! There are, as I see it, two competing schools of thought when it comes to this kind of puzzle game. On one hand there’s things like that other great game from 2008, World of Goo, in which you figure out the general solution extremely quickly, but things act unpredictably, so you have to correct as you go. On the other hand, there are games that run like clockwork. Braid runs like clockwork, and is incredibly frustrating for it. Almost every five minutes I would come across a puzzle that I was sure was impossible. You have to solve every puzzle to beat the game, so it would turn into an excercise of throwing myself against the rocks over and over until I stopped for a moment and thought, and I saw the solution, and for that moment I was the cleverest person in the world. So Braid is frustrating, but gratifying. So gratifying.
The game is beautiful as well, of course, and has an amazing soundtrack. It’s something that reaffirms my belief (just like World of Goo, actually) that mainstream videogames abandoned 2D games far too quickly, and that perhaps 2D games are just a little bit too obsessed with 8-bit graphics and sound. A little more variation, please.
And the story! Oh, the story! I didn’t like the story. Does this make me a bad person? I should say, I didn’t dislike it for its pretensions. I see absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to art. My problem was that I didn’t think it was very good, not that it was rising above its station, or something. A central theme is the idea of “learning from one’s mistakes without having to live with them”. This isn’t deep, and what little prose there is in the game is just badly written, in my opinion. I have no problem with the rest of the storytelling. Gameplay and story are melded beautifully. The problem is, the story is something I might have written three or four years ago, and I should point out that I am a 6th form student. It’s immature, and uninsightful, and boring. It’s like a Coldplay song.
So Braid isn’t quite fine art, but it’s an amazing puzzle game. That’s fine too.
You can find Braid for PC on Steam, Greenhouse, and Impulse, and the Xbox version on the Xbox 360 shop thing. If you disagree with any parts of the mostly non-italicised bit at the top, that’s cool, it’s entirely subjective, are you stupid.
I guested on the HNTDAAB podcast (I like to pronounce it “Huntdaarb”), which can be found here. I talk over everyone, we discuss E3, a lot of games with “2” at the end, and Fallout 3 anecdotes are told.
I managed to get through the whole thing without a toilet break.
On a side note, I’m pretty sure I don’t actually sound like that.
We decided to do a Podcast! and in an effort to stand out from the writhing crowd, we decided to talk about Video Games. Who the hell talks about those, huh?
We both hate our voices terribly, and we mumble, a LOT. So hopefully next time (next time!?) we will enunciate more.
Anyway, you can download it from the internet archive, who nicely provide free hosting for all us crazy people making rubbish stuff (also good stuff).
I should preface this by saying that these posts on game design are really just my thoughts on the matter. Colour Game is the first game I’ve worked on, so I don’t pretend to be any great authority on the matter. They do, however, help me sort my ideas properly, and hopefully gives whoever is interested a sort of insight as to how I think.
Anyways, to the matter at hand. The Infinite Loop should be a concept familiar to anyone who has played a Japanese RPG before. Generally, before starting a grand heroic quest, the player is presented with a conversation that goes something like this:
Do you want to go on a grand heroic quest? YES / NO
Do you want to go on a grand heroic quest? YES/NO
Do you want to go on a grand heroic quest? YES/NO
Good! Let’s go!
This is pretty much infuriating, and to me, a little baffling. Your game is extremely linear. Generally, as a player, I’m okay with this, seeing as I bought your game in the first place. The on-rails nature of the grand heroic quest is something I’m willing to ignore. So, it’s probably not a good idea that you remind me of the limitations of your world, with a conversation that can only go one way.
On the other hand, if you’re intending to instil a definite feeling of lack of choice, an infinite speech loop with only one way to exit is pretty much the best way I can think of to do this, if only because of the familiarity to the player it has. For example, in the JRPG Mother 3, you play for a brief period as a monkey, captured by one of the main antagonists and wearing a shock-collar. Your job is to dance for the residents of the village, in order to trick them into thinking your master is an okay sort of guy. Mr Baddy (I do not recall his name) points in a direction, you press the appropriate direction on the d-pad, do the dance, trick the villagers. However, the game does such a good job of explaining just how much of a baddy Evilhead is that generally the player will not feel like following his orders. No, instead it is pretty much guaranteed that the player will try something subversive, like pressing a different direction. Baddy presses a button, you get shocked, points again. Sound familiar? Right. For the story to progress, monkey needs to give in, do the right dance, and he needs to feel pretty sore about that. So, a loop is perfect. It’s a great way of forcing direct authorial control when it is needed, without resorting to a cutscene.
I was going to say here that Colour Game won’t be featuring any such loops, well done or otherwise, but I realise now that isn’t true. It revolves around one, as do all linear games. There is only one way to exit a level within the bounds of the game, which is to win. You can also quit out of course, but that doesn’t progress or regress the game, so can ultimately be discounted. So, it’s pretty much the same deal as before:
Hi there! Go to that exit looking door to progress!
No, I’ll think I’ll just mess about with colours. Okay, I’m bored now! I’d like another neat-o puzzle.
Hi there! Go to that exit looking door to progress!
Oh, okay then!
I’d like to think players of *my* game are happier than when they play others. But you get the idea, it’s pretty much the same thing. I don’t think it’s too big of a problem, though. As I said before, linearity isn’t evil. I just feel you need a little subtelty. It’s a little obvious, but if you don’t want the player to feel constrained by the limitations set, don’t go around yelling at the top of your voice how constrained they are. That, or make a big deal about how constrained you are, and tie it into the story. That, of course, was Bioshock’s big trick. But, the bizarre situation of authorial semi-control that videogames put us into is full of metaphorical potential.
The excellent Mother 3 english fan translation can be found here. Also! Please, tell me what you think of these pieces! Too pretentious? Not pretentious enough?
I had an interesting conversation (which you can read here) with Michael Charge of hntdaab.co.uk over IM, in which we discussed his upcoming XNA game, and I said “yeah” a lot. It’s a multiplayer game of tig, set in a primary school, so I look forward to that. One of things we talked about was his idea of allowing the players to scrawl on the screen while a game loads. This doesn’t really have much purpose, it’s just a quick diversion. This, I think, is also a really clever piece of game design. Games are about interaction, so any period in which you are forced to sit and wait without being able to anything is pretty much inherently boring to the player. That probably isn’t what you as a game designer is going for, so allow the player to do something while they wait. Drawing with friends is fun, not for very long, but long enough to load a level.
Now, colour-game is an extremely lightweight 2D game, so hopefully we can get away without having loadtimes at all. But I feel “useless” interaction has a place in actual play as well. If your super serious game with rigid goals and mechanics can also function as a mildly diverting toy, well, you’ve effectively doubled the scope of it, and probably made it much more engaging with a very minimal time investment. If you play the little demo of colour-game’s main mechanics we posted (Please do! Please!), I feel pretty confident in saying it’s got a certain charm. It’s fun. Not very, but enjoyable and interesting for a couple of minutes at least. It’s satisfying, just to affect the world around you and see how the rules change. This surprised me, but looking back it really shouldn’t have.
A game I feel does this much better than ours is Tag: The Power Of Paint, the IGF 2009 winning student project out of DigiPen. The basic premise is that the three colours in the world, Red, Green and Blue, affect the player in different ways. Red makes you run fast, Green makes you jump, and you stick to Blue, allowing you to run up walls and the like. These colours appear in the greyscale world occasionally, but for the most part you lay them down with your paintgun. The useful purpose of this mechanic is to get you to the end door, but it also enables you to do silly things like this:
Which is really half the fun. It would have been easy for the developers to streamline this right out of the game, because it doesn’t aid you in the basic “get to the end” aim. And it would have been a poorer game for it. I think that’s important to note.
EDIT: You can get Tag here.