Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sailing the Aesthetic Seas


I have played The Secret of Monkey Island up to the middle point since its recent release on digital services, and have been enjoying it about as much as expected. As a newcomer to the series, I was not only interested in the puzzles and humor, but also in the quirks of design and writing that would probably never find their way in today's commercial productions (but that the re-issue tactfully doesn't attempt to resolve). And as I suppose was the case for many other gamers, I have also treated myself to the delightful first episode of Tales of Monkey Island, whose synchronized release was a move of genius on the part of Telltale and Lucasarts. This particular game contained hints of decidedly modern design sensibilities, but also played without a doubt to some old-school conventions that I felt worked to its advantage. Curiously enough, these two gaming experiences did not inspire thoughts on the evolution of graphic adventure games proper, but more specifically on their use of sound and visuals. Let me elaborate some more.

One of the biggest selling points for The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition, of course, was its complete aesthetic make-over ; one that would propose a fresh look for the classic game, but retain its special brand of quirky charm. I don't know how it is for returning players (especially those who experienced the game with a functional brain back in 1990), but I find the greatest pleasure in systematically comparing the screens and trying to understand the stakes of the adaptation. What I didn't expect, however, was how clearly I would come to gravitate towards the old packaging, occasionally resorting to the new one for sensory enjoyment but not so much for gameplay purposes. I think there are several reasons for this, but suffice to say for now that I think the original version of Lucasarts' game was perfectly fine as it was, and that it may have actually lost some essential bits in the translation.

Tales of Monkey Island, for its part, confidently casts the graphic adventure series in the intimidating world of modern 3-D, just as Telltale previously did with its delightful Sam & Max episodes. But as great as this bound seems (computer graphics having come a long way since 2000's polygonal Escape from Monkey Island), what is especially pleasing about this rebirth is how understated it really comes off as: clean, unadorned textures, sparse environments and simple special effects constitute a visual design of minimal clutter and maximal efficiency. While budget concerns and limited technology were no doubt a factor in this output, there is a restrained mastery at work in the details and general tone ; an expertise that also transfers to the sound design, and more specifically to the voice work. In this regard, one need look (or hear) no further than the amusing prologue to witness the nuance and liveliness in Dominic Armato's performance of Guybrush Threepwood, accompanied by formidably expressive character animations. Some facial mannerisms may be overused, and Flotsam Island's denizens may look a little too alike, but there is a definite current of cohesion emanating from the game's overall presentation.


How ironic is it, then, to realize that this first episode of the series (subtitled Launch of the Screaming Narwhal) possibly didn't even need polygonal graphics and sophisticated sounds to function on the most basic level. Its camera angles are preset and passive, while its puzzles do not require advanced tridimensional navigation ; its few audio-based trials, apart maybe from a clever treasure hunt, could have been reduced to a few select cues, while its dialogue could have been just as easily read as text. It may be a slippery slope to step on, and this theory might shatter under the slightest bit of scrutiny, but let's throw this out anyway: in purely mechanical terms, I have no reason to believe that this modern-day Monkey Island wouldn't have sustained to be made using the founding SCUMM engine. Heck, it could probably function as a text adventure game and still retain much of its comic and ludic qualities. But that would turn it into a pretty different game now, wouldn't it...

The fact of the matter is this: all manners of graphic adventure games, from the early Sierra classics (also re-issued lately), to the 3-D iterations like Grim Fandango or Syberia, to the more recent gems authored in the Adventure Game Studio engine, rely on the same basic principles of cinematic language. Panning of the camera (be it horizontal scrolling or actual rotation of the virtual viewpoint), cuts from one space to another, shot-countershot exchanges for dialogues, high- and low-angle shots, scaling of depth ; all these figures have been employed to varying degrees of prominence over the history of adventure games, and mostly for the same purposes. On the one hand, in the same way that cinema and other representational mediums, the best uses of these features have enabled developers to yield images of evocative form, lifelike portrayals, and other manners of optic stimulation. Moreso than film, however, the basic requirement of the picture in adventure games is to efficiently transmit useful information to the "viewer" ; a role that the film image clearly shares, but not to the point of interrupting the story's progression in the case of fallacy. Both of these functions depend mostly on the inventive and capable use of computer graphics software, regardless of which techno-asset is presently deemed to be "state of the art".

Production values, then, mainly serve the purpose of crafting a compelling aesthetic experience for the user, which is probably not as negligible a component as I make it sound. While it will occur that a game's engine influence the core design of its puzzles, the usual goal will be to add style and form to what initially amounts to a cold mechanical construction. The only condition to this creative effort is that the art do not get in the way of the gameplay's unfolding ; in this regard, one need only look to the hugely-buzzed Time Gentlemen, Please! for an excellent example of a project's flow and tone being unobstructed and even complimented by "limited" resources and abilities (to say the least). As for any works of art, graphic adventure games demand to be judged on their own terms rather than according to the standards of the present day, which is exactly why the original Secret of Monkey Island can still be considered a great success of visual implementation: reduced to the top half of the screen, the playfield allows for denser images and less chances of missing information, while the bottom portion, unquestionably showing its age today, still proves to facilitate interaction with immediate feedback and effortless browsing. From this simple but solid foundation, it's really all about peppering the game world with fanciful touches that make it come alive, or signify, or otherwise amuse and dazzle.


Which brings me to the very serious problems I have with the Secret's 2009 make-over. On the surface, certainly, this reinvention would seem to have it all: its painterly vistas are lush and sprawling, while its atmospheric soundscapes inject the various maritime locales with a much greater sense of place than before. On a larger scale, it can also be credited for greater aesthetic consistency than its early-90's counterpart, which fell flat in its few attempts to depict some of its cartoonish characters as realistic figures. Try to play the game in this mode for more than five minutes, however, and you may begin to feel that something is off: names of pointed objects and possible interactions are displayed in small, pale lettering in the bottom corners of the screen, replacing the clear purple-on-black of yore ; verb command and inventory boxes are displayed one at a time, using separate keyboard buttons, which not only shatters the former iteration's mouse-only integrity, but turns object manipulation into an absolute pain. Interface issues aside, technical requirements may prevent some computers to run the game at a proper pace without sacrificing precious resolution, and make the overall manipulation overly clunky and laborious. The thing here is not so much that the "special edition" of Monkey Island features a "bad" interface ; it is simply that the contrast emphasizes the former's relative strengths.

Even the voicing of the Secret's original script, which I will not get too much into at this point, is up for debate: since Gilbert, Schafer and Grossman's uncredited lines and gags were specifically written to be read, many of them (especially those involving grunting and random onomatopeia) simply don't convert very well to sound, while the cast's readings (including Armato's), without the support of elaborate animations, most often come off stilted and laboured, as if restricted by the imperative of faithfulness. This is not a matter of being an "old school", "lo-fi" evangelist ; it is simply recognizing that the "modernizing" of certain aspects of a game can often grow superfluous, especially if it comes to the point of affecting playability, which is often the case here. While Lucasarts' talented groups of artists may have devised a pleasing cutout style reminiscent of René Laloux's films or Monty Python's animated segments, they have reduced the functionality of what was already a spectacular display of pixel drawing compensating for the deficiencies of its day, as well as the imaginative power the original required to fill its blank spots. And while their restraint was undeniably wise, it hasn't translated into the same pitch-perfect beauty as Telltale's effort: a more ambitious work, also flawed in its execution, but at least strong enough to function on its own terms. As it stands, The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition contains an interesting case of internal dichotomy that is worthy of any gamer's attention, but I would be surprised if its attractive new coat of paint sufficed to turn new, rabid audiences on to the franchise's history for more than a brief stint.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Quick Note about Aquaria

It had been around ten hours that I had spent in the beautiful world of Aquaria, and I felt that my interest was dwindling a bit. Not that I thought the game was bad in any way ; it still looked and sounded like a triumph of art direction, and it still handled like a charm. But I felt that its basic concepts were starting to wear thin, and that the essential flow of the action was becoming routine. It didn't help that I had engaged in paths that I was perhaps not expected to explore at this point (although I certainly appreciated being able to), and it probably made my progression more cumbersome than it should have. But most of all, it started to get very lonely...

Fortunately, these assumptions were momentarily dispelled when I discovered a certain region in the upper parts that presented me with three surprises. The first was the surface of the water, which did not only make for a welcome change of scenery but felt absolutely great to experiment with and also had a certain narrative weight. The second was a large vertical chasm filled with "bubbles" of sorts that had me flying around gleefully for an inordinate amount of time, even though I was never able to reach the secret item conveniently placed just a little too high. And last but not least was a being named Li, of which I will say no more apart from the fact that its partly-interactive, partly-cinematic introduction was handled absolutely brilliantly and significantly reduced the "loneliness" factor without being too intrusive either. All these elements spoke of co-creator Alec Holowka's oft-professed will to craft game experiences of certain emotional depth, while still exulting the kind of simple joy that all games inspired by Zelda or Mega Man aim to evoke.

I have spent some more time with Aquaria since then, going back to explore untouched areas (and one truly feels like it could stretch forever...), but I have now hit a wall and am at a loss about how to progress further. I don't mind this, because it has happened before and I always ended up finding the elegant solutions that the designers came up with. But most of all, whereas before I was questioning my willingness to continue, the hope that there might be other small epiphanies just around the corner, added to the knowledge that my heroine is not so alone after all, makes me feel better and more confident in the authors' proposition. Although I could do without much of the click-heavy action and the occasionally extreme level of difficulty, I now have more reason than ever to heartily recommend this gorgeous and sprawling game to anyone with a taste for adventure.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Scum, Digitized

It had been a couple of years since I had seen Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, and even though I never doubted its greatness for a moment, I still wondered if revisiting it now would result in the same level of delight it had back in the early days of my film geekdom. Fortunately for every party concerned, those fears were quickly dismissed as I watched it earlier this week ; Scorsese's fifth feature, based on Paul Schrader's screenplay, remains an unquestionable lesson of cinematic storytelling, and a timeless exploration of contemporary dread in North America. Constructed from a gathering of acute details, Taxi Driver builds tension from subtle observations and associations, as well as from its main character's peculiar point of view on the action. In the most admirable way possible, it constitutes a thoroughly directed, finely authored experience ; in short, the complete opposite of what most forward-thinking video game designers have been attempting to conceive in recent years.

It might seem strange or uncalled for to bring up video games while discussing Taxi Driver, but let's not forget that as late as 2005, a game adaptation of the film was still being filed as "in the works". And even without taking the poor standard of video games inspired by cult films in consideration, suffice to say that the PS2 actioner that never was didn't look very promising: a third-person shooter in the mold of Max Payne, it was set to relate Travis Bickle's nightly ventures through the "scum" nests of New York City ; the nightclubs and other venues he never visited in 1976, of course. Players would have certainly taken control of Bickle's mighty yellow cab, generating the urban havoc that never took place in Scorsese's film, and provoking the authorities that the character had only gone so far as taunting strangely in his first appearance. Without much surprise nor fanfare, the game was ultimately cancelled, but it doesn't seem too far-fetched to envision a game that would have perversely tainted every distinctive quality of its source material, and made for just another poor display of electronic gaming's profound potential.

But let's project for a moment that such a disaster would have not happened. Let's imagine that a video game inspired by Taxi Driver would have transcended the portion of the plot regarding Travis Bickle going nuts, and explored the themes that Schrader and Scorsese's opus was really concerned about: urban alienation, repressed war traumas, underworld economy, and so on. How would such a game have succeeded in conveying those ideas without leaning too heavily on cinematic devices? How would have this affected the delivery of the original story, had it still been present? More to the point, how would've one programmed a feeling of estrangement, and allowed a user to explore such a state of mind? It is fair to assume the difficulty of those fundamental questions is probably what keeps most software developers from tipping their toe in such troubled waters, but they are worth asking nonetheless.

In his 2002 anthology The Medium of the Video Game, Mark J.P. Wolf summarizes the basic conditions of electronic storytelling: "Interactivity [...] does not have to work against narrative or even linearity ; it simply requires that multiple lines of narrative be present, or the potential for a variety of narrative possibilities." What strikes me about this phrasing is how fair it remains to the most established traditions of game design ; nowhere does Wolf suggest that failure by death consists of an invalid course, nor does he propose the concept of branching plots as the ideal solution. The notion of the mere presence of "narrative possibilities" is rather left to interpretation, and may be stretched as much as one likes. What this implies, in turn, is that the way in which a designer chooses to exploit this singular aspect of interactivity becomes very telling of the nature and extent of his or her creative vision ; feeling confined within a straightforward progress template, a development team may introduce varying degrees of reward and punishment, encourage the player to craft his own solutions, or reinforce certain elements of permanence. "Lines of narrative" can take any form, but the thing to remember is that their use consists of one of games' primary tools of expression.

Over the course of Taxi Driver, main character Travis Bickle engages in several narrative paths, reacts and takes decisions accordingly, generating a plausible chain of events. The things he witnesses and the outcomes he faces add up over time and shape his perception of the world ; being dumped by Betsy, a woman he approached with confidence but courted with the wrong moves, deepens his depression, while allowing young prostitute Iris to be dragged from his cab and back on the streets clearly has an impact on the way he will address her "rescue" later on. Without a doubt, Vietnam veteran Bickle has a mind and a will of his own, and it is the pleasure of film-watching to witness character psyches evolving independently of our own. But even so, it is not unreasonable to imagine the story taking completely different turns: browsing through the corner store at night, erratic Travis could have failed to gather his guts and to shoot the robber, thus maintaining his abilities untested ; reacting more aggressively to a violent customer's plan of murdering his wife could have led to interesting (and potentially dangerous) developments, and even to a new storyline. Properly set up to support them, a computer program could prove a fascinating way of exploring such narrative permutations. Permutations, however, that threaten the fundamental order of an authored narrative, thus prompting the question: "How to preserve internal consistency while granting the player some leeway?".

I lean once more on Mark J.P. Wolf to back up my thoughts: "Rather than creating an inherent message or metaphor within a single storyline or multiple lines lived by different characters, the author can imbed a worldview into the structure of the game itself, which is then 'lived out' by the player-character." Again, Wolf avoids denigrating the industry mainstays, denoting that a simple "kill or be killed" mentality already amounts to a thought-provoking standpoint. Several games, such as the Fable franchise or the much-debated Infamous, have also started to ingrain "good" and "evil" variables into the core of their structure, which may or may not indicate a more pronounced sense of right and wrong on the part of the developers. Things can go crazy from there, however: imagine a game presenting two choices of equal malevolence, but differing psychological impact on the protagonist ; a game about accepting that feeling bitter is part of life (oh wait, that's already been done). The key factor here is that of believability, of staying true to a character's outlook, as well as committing to surrounding the chosen actions with options of equal likelihood. But all of this doesn't resolve the previously-raised problem of consistency, which greatly exceeds the sole confines of the main protagonist.

Traditionally, the design method to implement consequences to one's actions has been to affect the avatar's material goods and physical attributes, but let's think of less tangible ways to achieve this. Imagine, for instance, this scenario: picking up random fares of differing personalities, Travis Bickle's level of immediate aggression could fluctuate according to their behaviour ; walking the streets later that night, the current disposition of the character could determine his range of possible reactions (repressed or otherwise) to the surrounding phenomena, such as the brawls and disputes he witnesses. Over the broader course of the game, those reactions, largely determined by elements of procedural selection, would influence a larger morale scale shaping the overall direction of the storyline, such as the way he ends up dealing with the female characters previously mentioned (characters the narrative may not even lead him to meet). Obviously, the stories generated by exploring this large network of possibilities would end up deviating very much from the template imagined by Paul Schrader (inspired by such tales of obsession as those of the great westerns The Searchers or The Wild Bunch) ; however, what it could retain, if done right, is the overarching and perhaps even more interesting subject of Taxi Driver, meaning the fauna of seedy New York City, its corrupting character, the fear and loneliness of its populace.

There is no doubt that elaborating a game of such volatility would involve uncommon feats of programming, as well as major skills in keeping mental track of an evolving database. One could even imagine the product consisting solely of text, or largely simplified graphic displays ; after all, one of the most phenomenally complex games ever created, Dwarf Fortress, has built a following out of simple text characters and loads of imagination power. There is an argument to be made, however, for the immediacy of elaborate graphics and the things only they can express ; the sad, pitiful sight of two elder men grappling on a street corner could hardly be put into words with the same impact, as is the strange beauty of a fire hydrant's burst arching over a city street at night. If only less resources were spent on scripted cinematics and fancy weapon physics, and more on looping, expressive animations and evocative atmospheric features, surely such an effort could see the light of day. One could even preserve the memorable, unsettling style of Robert De Niro's voice-over, coloring the sights with his unique sort of awareness, and even maintain the darkness of the film's final showdown by wielding fatality into the gameplay (for more on this, check out Nick Fortugno's brilliant analysis of the "futile" mechanics in Shadow of the Colossus). There is a balance to be struck, and it may not be so far off the corner.

In his defense of film adaptations of literary works, the great critic André Bazin once wrote that "in the same way that a child's education is done through imitation of the surrounding adults, the evolution of the cinema has been inflected by the example of recognized arts". In a similar spirit, my purpose here was not to encourage anyone to reclaim the reins of video game conversion of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, but to give a second look at one of American cinema's great achievements, and to see which facets of the work could apply to the design of narrative systems in the age of electronic domination. By all means, I believe that development studios should capitalize on original creative property, and elaborate fictions that are uniquely suited to the medium's forces. But what I have discovered is that the tale of Travis Bickle is but one of many stories ; one of terrifying power and self-contained meaning, but still one of a million awaiting to be "lived out" in the same environment, with the same determining conditions, open to a plethora of outcomes. To prepare the ground for digital yarns with a life of their own: that is the future of storytelling, and one that cinema can never hope to achieve without denying its own strengths as a narrative art form.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bully like a Rockstar

I have attempted something interesting over the last few weeks: I procured myself copies of Bully and Grand Theft Auto III, and started playing them in parallel, hoping to glean some useful insights from the comparison. As expected, the contrast proved revelatory, and I would like to share my thoughts with you.

After several years away, it felt great to be back in GTA III's Liberty City. Despite the aging technology, Rockstar North's level of ambition regarding scale and verisimilitude is still very apparent, as is the definite sense of style and atmosphere not least communicated through the radio stations. Unglamorous and gray as it is, the lower opening section of the game somehow remains a joy to explore, and the extreme refinement of the vehicle physics is an immediate factor of immersion. It was pretty obvious to me that I wasn't going back to this game for its characters (although I was curious about how it handled story), but I was pleased to see that the level of polish that Rockstar's cinematics have become famous for was already burgeoning, and unveiling the "colorful" cast was a motivation for quickening progress. And so, with the easy money pouring in, the jobs breezy, diverse and all over the map, I could say I was promptly hooked. My first sessions with the game consisted of playing two to three hours on end with a big grin on my face.

Playing Bully, however, was a different story. It's not that I found the game dull or uninvolving, but I simply didn't feel the need to play it for long stretches like I did with its older cousin. And it's not either that I felt the game wasn't deserving of my interest, but rather that there was an internal factor at play that managed to put some order into GTA's intrinsic anarchy, and effectively divided game time into more meaningful chunks ; that factor being the passing of the school days. As simple as it is, this important element had the psychological effect of restraining my game behaviour and giving me a sense of purpose. And as paradoxical as it may seem, I actually liked this very much, feeling that I was getting similar amounts of gaming satisfaction in shorter periods, as well as being immersed in the discrete time-flow of the game. Add to this the interesting characters and well-directed cutscenes, great controls and engrossing atmosphere, and you had a recipe for a good time. But still, an element of playfulness and abandon was missing from what remained a pretty straightforward experience, and breaking the rules just wasn't doing the trick.

A few days with both games passed, and GTA III casually started to make me fail missions on repetition, linger for too long in the same areas and shout things that my mother wouldn't have liked to hear. It started to rub me the wrong way, often imposing completely unfair success criteria and narrow margins of error, at the same time that the narrative was growing into a clutter of trivial non-sense. Although the driving itself never got old, I began looking for the fun I remembered not only from this game, but also from subsequent titles in the series. "Why the heck is this game punishing me so hard for my mistakes?", I found myself asking as I was submitting to its mind-melting cycle of try-fail-repeat-fail-repeat-fail-SUCCEED. "How did the developers fail to see that something was wrong here?", was another of my frequent thoughts. And perhaps most confusing of all... "why am I still playing?".

This last question is especially tough, because it calls attention to the mysterious psychology of gaming and its infinite variables, the case of GTA being further complicated by its clash of wildly successful game systems and other, infuriating aspects. Thus the debate turns to how much crap a player is willing to endure, as long as he or she gets what satisfies him or her in the end. And although the subsequent entries in the series would expand the possibilities considerably, the fact remains that the gameplay offered by GTA III stands surprisingly limited, at least by today's standards ; to be blunt, you better learn to love driving at high speed, getting lost in twisty passages and looking for hidden items, or else you risk not finding much to your liking in there (especially not the shooting action). The greater potential of this basic formula is not helped either by the game's constraining mission structure: when meeting up with an employer, you deliberately choose to surrender your essential freedom as a player and to embark on a set challenge, if only to have some concrete goal to pursue. It is only fair, then, that the game fulfills its part of the contract by playing straight, which it often does not. It doesn't help, finally, that the narrative develops in unsatisfactory fashion, leaving story threads unresolved and switching allegiances in seemingly random manner, offering no significant way to spend the considerable money rewards and no solid human bonding over the span of the storyline. With all of this in mind, it bears mentioning that a study of this game's overlying and sometimes paradoxical anarchy from an economic angle would probably prove to be very interesting (heads-up are welcome).

Arriving several years after Grand Theft Auto III and even after the excellent San Andreas, Rockstar Vancouver's Bully resolves several of its landmark predecessor's conflicts in appealing ways. Starting with a somewhat compact play area, it ultimately opens up a world smaller than that of the GTA titles, albeit in more numerous stages (and thus in more directed fashion). This smaller scale allows the territory to be denser and more detailed, as well as to pack more personality ; a "personality bonus" that transfers to the characters, which are limited in number, recurrent and easily recognizable, giving the impression that the main character is part of a consistent social environment (which cannot be said of GTA). On another topic, developments to the RenderWare engine and overall technology have allowed the developers to allow for a far greater number of in-game activities. The team doesn't stop, however, at randomly mixing lawn-mowing with flirting and bike racing ; the distinct interactions are embedded into the overall game structure, some of them even facilitated by participating in the various classes (simultaneously giving relevance to the school setting). And finally, what I find most fascinating about this game is how the randomly-spawned non-player characters will tend to engage in certain social behaviours (fights, mostly) absolutely on their own, with no intervention on the player's part. If I had to name one aspect of the game that best illustrates all of these strands, it would be how it handles virtual photography, but I may leave that for another post...

There are, however, a handful of shortcomings that keep Bully from realizing its full potential as an interactive experience, the main one being its firmly-rooted amorality. Because even despite its nuances and improvements on the GTA formula, the game's core structure and objectives remain the same as that of Rockstar's bigger property. The main character still bows and accepts tasks from every denizen, each one allegedly bringing the hero closer to realizing his dream of social domination and independence. Some smaller "errands", in this regard, are especially disturbing: to deliver flowers right after shoving a couple of students in garbage cans is unsettling on a surface level, but the similar cash rewards and absence of consequences good or bad frees the avatar (and thus the player) of any moral sense. The activation of the story nodes also asks of the player to accept that certain narrative developments have occurred when he was not looking, which is odd because the way the game is presented leads the player to assume that he is controlling Jimmy in real-time, all the time. What all of this ultimately adds up to, in a frankly disappointing way, is that it prevents the user to play "in character", as well as to choose how he wishes that character to be. Now about ten hours in, I have tried to make Jimmy into a fairly nice boy, but the game authors seemingly have another way of seeing things, and I am not sure I like where the story is going (although L.B. Jeffries, taking from his personal life experience, makes a strong case for this idea of an imposed role in his excellent essay from the Well Played 1.0 anthology).

In a future post, I might dare the unspeakable and propose ways in which I think that a game like Bully could become a much more compelling "interactive computer program", would the developers approach it with the right mindset. It is also in full conscience that I recognize the growth of the open-world formula since the days of Grand Theft Auto III, which still remains a towering achievement of video game design. Exploring these games now, I am simply let down by how they ultimately seem to punish further and deeper investment on the player's part, rather than emotionally reward it as they rightfully should. Sure the game worlds are humongous, and navigating them is exhilarating ; but at the end of the day, these universes free of moral imperatives come off as little more than stages for enacting power fantasies, and the digital people filling them do not resonate as anything other than hollow satirical shells of human archetypes. I wish for more and I am sure I am not alone, and what these games do is tease the masses with tantalizing bits while failing to deliver on their promises. The least we can do, at least for now, is dream of a more complete package.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Shooting for the Starbreeze

I know I have never been to the fortress of Butcher Bay, but I feel like I know this fictional place from the inside out. I have never been arrested for felony, let alone convicted for manslaughter, and yet I feel like I had a glimpse of how that feels, and how people with such a history could behave and relate to each other. I have never even gotten into a fistfight, but after playing the first Chronicles of Riddick game, something tells me that it must be kind of exhilarating, in a vicious and painful way.

In a somewhat more peculiar manner (at least for a resident of the eastern part of North America), I have not yet been to New York City. Countless movies have shown it to me, many of them tried to impart how it feels to actually live there, and a few interactive programs have let me wander in various fantasy interpretations of it. But now I know that one of the first things I will have to check out when I eventually get there is... the subway network. And it has better be as amazing to hang out in as it is in The Darkness, or else I just might stick to video games for the rest of my life.

This last statement may seem a little childish and over-the-top, but the fact that a video game environment succeeded in creating expectations regarding its real-world counterpart appears to me as a testament to the power of simulation. Point being, the two aforementioned action games from Starbreeze Studios managed to transport me in imaginary settings more convincingly than pretty much any other game I can think of, and attained a degree of internal reality that I felt rendered the "gamey" acts taking place in them transparent and believable. Even though my status as an industry outsider prevents me from understanding them in practical terms, I shall try to praise their merits a little better. Surely there must be more to it than good level design... right?

Much has been written about Escape from Butcher Bay (not least because of its re-issue with follow-up Assault on Dark Athena, which is the version I have played), but I have yet to stumble upon an article dedicated to the exceptional sophistication of its first-person perspective (any heads-up would be appreciated). I lack the technical expertise to describe it in finer detail, but basic photographic knowledge allows me to appreciate that the virtual lens through which Riddick's point of view is shown is considerably wider than that of most first-person shooters. This accentuates the sense of depth in the picture and tends to distort the edges, compensating for an overload of optic information ; features that are intensified when crouching, which makes sneaking around a thrilling endeavor on a purely visual level. Subtle adjustments of the character's head upon stopping, visible limbs, motion blur, pronouced shadows of a remarkably animated character model ; such traits are all absent from many high-profile titles (Bioshock, for instance), and speak of the developer's willingness to immerse the player in the game world via striking physicality.

But how does this translate to The Darkness, which does not recount the exploits of an over-perceptive galactic predator engaged in evasion, but of an ordinary New York hitman facing unfortunate circumstances? To be sure, the "Creeping Dark" ability justifies the sort of trickery one could expect from the camera department behind Chronicles of Riddick, and the shadows, blur and limbs carry over from this title, but for the most part The Darkness employs a more classical first-person camera than its stealthier cousin. And this is where the many uses of light and color come into play, instilling the games with distinctive qualities. It is very telling that both games open with the selection of a basic contrast profile ; Starbreeze want every player to appreciate the nuances of their lighting efforts to the best of their capacity. While initially jarring, the saturated bloom effects of Riddick serve dual purposes, injecting the world with an atmosphere of suffocation and clearly associating brightness with danger ; replete with breakable light sources that also fill an important role in the gameplay, the playfield of The Darkness remains ever-visible through a stunning "contour" effect that covers the objects with a current of shifting light, underlining the supernatural force of the game's namesake. While they don't exactly contribute to the specifics of the game world proper, these atmospheric features contribute in making the games constantly stimulating to navigate, with various levels of light singling out various levels of interest, and so and so forth.

To illustrate my appreciation of its environmental design better than anything could, let me describe an episode I had very early on in The Darkness: inspecting the halls of Canal Street Station after a pretty agitated first segment, I came across a television set, sitting slightly crooked in an tramp's cart. It was broadcasting a report concerning events of the story, and I stopped to look. When the news segment was over, the program switched to a heavy metal music video. Curious, I flipped the channels... and discovered that Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm was showing. I was floored, and watched the movie for a good ten minutes, even though I had never seen it ; that Starbreeze's art directors (or whatever department thought of this) actually went so far as to include a compressed version of an American cinema classic (as well as other entertaining broadcasts) to flesh out the universe of their video game and give it style and character appeared, to me, as a remarkable display of dedication to the audience's enjoyment. In Riddick, that level of craft is apparent through the rugged textures of the walls, the obsessive detail of the machinery, the crazy architectural figures of the prison infrastructures, all combining into an incredible sense of place. In both games, further exploration of the levels is specifically rewarded with glimpses at the process behind the design and art direction ; The Darkness even has phone numbers hidden on the numerous posters covering its walls, which led me to scan its locations even more intensively. All of this seems intended to properly engulf the player in the universe of the fiction, should he simply be willing to.

But at the end of the day, the kind of immersion I am speaking of perhaps couldn't even be viable if the stories taking place in these worlds didn't warrant a certain degree of interest in the first place. To be fair, both games' plots don't exactly rise above the fare of standard pulp fiction, but it is the details and quality of the execution that renders them so effective and quickly engaging. Certainly the voice acting in them stands clear above par (at least as far as video games go), and the character models and animations are convincing without trying too hard. But there is more to it than that: the character networks in Starbreeze's efforts actually seem to fit in their surroundings, which I believe is not as easy to achieve as it seems. From the very early sections of these games (the first conversations with the inmates of Butcher Bay, the amazing tunnel sequence of The Darkness...), you get a sense that these digital people inhabit a world with rules and logic, an overarching order that is not immediately spelled out, but reveals itself over time. In narrative terms, both games lead the player to progress towards areas or characters that he has not yet seen, but that numerous comments from the supporting cast have helped shape an imaginary picture of. As such, the handling of the population becomes as crucial to the story's delivery as the level design: the "scum" of Butcher Bay, its various factions honoring different codes, know the workings of the prison and how to get things done, but have simply not gathered the will to try ; the mafiosi of The Darkness, on their end, have even more of a reason for wanting Jackie to succeed in his revenge, while the ordinary New Yorkers lurking about the stations add flavor and life to a mundane background (imagine Fulton Street without the break-dancers). And don't get me started on the few but memorable friendly denizens of the "Otherworld"...

So there you have it: my admiration-laden ode to Starbreeze's digital creations. I imagine that similar words could be applied to many other games of recent years, but these two strike me as full realizations of what unified and integrated art direction can yield. It is probably worth mentioning that I have somehow managed to spill 1500 words on two first-person shooters... without even mentioning the word "shooting". Something that I take as proof of how far a developer can take its products by polishing their delivery and making their worlds have a life of their own. The only thing we can wish for now is that comparable skills and technical assets be applied to ever more compelling narratives, or at least that they continue making tired subject matter seem fresh and relevant again. After all, if a video game can make a fellow care about Vin Diesel as much as I did, who knows what's next?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fabling Around

The darker part of me wants to dislike Fable very much. Having invested about five hours in it, I have now witnessed for myself the fundamental shallowness of its social component, its strange brew of cliché (posing as "tradition") and irony, its underwhelming quest delivery, and so on. This relatively brief playtime was all I needed to sympathize with the arguments of the connoisseurs taxing the game of pompousness and self-indulgence, and I have yet to establish an especially deep bond with my avatar and the game world he is supposed to influence every step of the way. And yet, I feel tempted to brush-off these issues... at least for now.

I believe it had been a couple of years since I even approached an RPG, and for some reason I felt that Fable would be the perfect game to reintroduce me to this genre, should I ever feel the urge to. Luckily, it didn't take very long for the game to convince me that it was a most appropriate choice: while slightly off-putting at first, the game's sense of humor quickly sparked happy memories of Black & White, a game that I failed to grasp on a mechanical level but still enjoyed for its aesthetic qualities ; the interface and map layout felt inviting, and the rather drawn-out training segment somehow struck me as nonchalant and easy-going rather than straightforward and boring (although that may have been the result of a night without sleep). Even though I wasn't terribly impressed by its "back to basics" approach to storytelling, I believe that the casual manner in which the game introduces novel concepts into a familiar template compensates for this in a refreshing way. I even suspect, somewhat hazardously, that someone could come to this as his or her first experience of electronic role-playing and easily integrate its twists and quirks as though they were second nature, lacking the knowledge to weigh them against a long history of cultural productions. In short, even though it takes many hints from past successes, the lush-looking, smooth-handling Fable plays very much like its own beast ; even its title sounds like the origin of something.

For some reason I probably couldn't fully understand, my player character ended up with black hair and strange scars lining his face, looking somewhat bent on the evil side. I didn't mind this ; the game may not allow full control over the hero's basic appearance, but I accepted this as part of a playset that seemed partly randomized, and partly generated according to my first actions as a player. Besides, I didn't have a clear idea of the direction I wanted this character to go, intending instead to play along with what the game gave me. And play along I certainly did, which has led to a very pleasing experience so far.

In a nutshell, as I suppose is the case with many of the game's fans, what has me enjoying Fable considerably at this point is the room it allows for toying around with its various, essentially meaningless elements, and the quirky sense of life it imbues them with. Although it never exactly coheres into something that seems fully-formed and consistent, and the air of complacency surrounding the game would prevent anyone from taking it very seriously, the designers have still managed to instill their fantasy universe with a certain vision of the world we live in. Whichever way you choose to look at it, a hero character emitting a noisy fart in the middle of a town square (and a crowd reacting accordingly) says much more about life in society than any number of looping dialogues with perfect strangers ever could. It may not be especially gracious or relevant, but it has the merit to feel true to a certain internal logic, which consists of pitting broad gestures against broad archetypes, and watching the results. Fable, as far as I can tell, appears chock-full of little details that are fun to experiment with, and often have an impact on the growth of the player character, albeit in easily-reversible, ultimately futile ways. They might, of course, get old very quickly, but that moment has yet to come as far as I am concerned.

I have quickly mentioned the disappointing questing, and this is something I hope will get better in my upcoming hours with the game. Although the adventuring itself has a good flow and feel to it, with fun weapons and level designs that encourage forward movement (to a debilitating degree, some would probably say), picking up quests from the same centralized pool and teleporting all around Albion has made my journey seem weirdly schematic, and failed to capture my imagination very much. Apart from the specifics of the levelling system, which is pretty engaging, I have been much more interested in "toying around", as I have said, messing with the unsuspecting population's perception of my character while still trying to figure out some consistent principles to apply in this fantasy world. I am certain that this will only carry my interest with the game so far, but the will to discover more lands and more people, and perhaps more opportunities for happy experiments, shall keep me going at least for a while. And besides, I am told that the game is not very long, so the worst that can happen is that it loses momentum without overstaying its welcome.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Dead Surprising

I was absolutely entitled to not expect very much, let alone a revelation, out of Dead Rising. Capcom's marketing executives tricked everyone into apprehending a mindless bloodbath of a game, designed specifically for sweeping away the troubles of a tough day ; Microsoft's engineers may have been glad to finally have a strong showpiece for the processing power of their still-novel console, but that alone couldn't guarantee a game that would transcend the arcade-action mold. The reviewers of the time insisted that I understood how insanely fun it was to hack through hordes of undead with any object in sight, and although they bothered to point out the major flaws as well as the more peculiar touches of the gameplay, they failed to convince me that the game had something really special going for it. And lastly, while some may have been enticed by the prospect of taking part in a scenario inspired (if not downright stolen) from Dawn of the Dead, to me this felt more like pandering to a cult audience than actually renewing the spirit of a rich film. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized the degree to which Dead Rising seemed to care about... people.

To be fair, it didn't take me very long to figure that I was embarking into something unique. Actually, a strange feeling struck me from the very opening of the game, and even further upon playing it a second time. Surveying the Willamette "riot" from the vantage point of a helicopter, through the lens of a photo camera, it occurred to me that the very first interactive segment of Dead Rising was not exactly about shocking the player with revolting scenes, but about allowing him a patient first glance at a phenomenon he or she would soon confront head-on: unsettling but not insistently so, kind of silly but still slightly human. A few minutes later, a short sequence in the Entrance Plaza evokes a feeling of reality through the body language of a few survivors trying to keep their grips on sanity. More than mere eye-candy, this attention to detail is in fact the perfect set-up for the brief and stirring outcome of the scene: straining to cross the hall back to safety upon intrusion of the zombies, the player witnesses, powerless, the slaughtering of these same survivors all around, announced in red, imposing lettering ("BRIAN REYNOLDS IS DEAD"). These small humanizing touches were the first to cue my change of attitude towards Dead Rising.

But how can a game sustain such an apparent interest for the human fragility of its characters? Sure, Dead Rising tells a pre-written story of collective survival, and a rather involving one at that, through a set of cutscenes of a remarkably humble and tonally unified quality (although still a little clumsy). But even if well-crafted cinematic storytelling is always appreciated, how can a game communicate meaning relevant to its subject through specific means of an algorithmic nature? Well, as it turns out, Dead Rising is amazing for the number of ways in which it manages to play with the concept of vulnerability, which add up into an astonishing experience of "survival horror". Together, the limited inventory space, the treacherous save system, the varying density of the zombie population, and (most importantly) the breakability of the improvised weapons, all combine to transform what could have a been a mindless killing spree into a tense and rather thoughtful exercise in resource management, risk calculation, and constant near-death experience. One could feel absolutely confident for an instant and completely helpless the next, all according to the specifics of his or her performance. This constant shifting of the player's comfort with the environment is a crucial component of the Dead Rising experience.

It goes further, however. As I mentioned earlier, Dead Rising relates a chronicle of collective survival, but what is so great about it is that it extends beyond the small group driving the plot forward to include wholly ordinary people pinned down by disaster, desperate for someone to apply a little common sense and get them through to someplace safe. The player is completely free to engage in escorting the numerous survivors scattered across the mall at different times of the three-day period, but the designers had the good idea of giving actual incentive to pursue these optional goals (through upgrades to the hero's abilities). But while obtaining such upgrades and killing time were the initial motivations I personally had for seeking out the poor civilians in need, it eventually became clear that this aspect of the game was much more interesting than it had any right to be, not least because of its sense of character: these are authentically distressed individuals, oftentimes holding on to a dear one, or lamenting a loss, or simply painfully alone. Carefully written dialogue snippets establish their pleas very effectively, and set up their distinct behaviour patterns.

Needless to say, this leads to many interesting scenarios, as well as some heart-wrenching decisions. In short, the extreme unbalance produced by combining survivors of differing mobility and aggression levels tends to vary the rescue dynamics considerably: the single presence of a crippled or drunken character can severely hold back an otherwise competent group, while the apparent compulsion of others for getting into fights with the undead may lead to undesirable situations. But while it would be fair to fault the game for such irregularities, I actually came to embrace the unpredictable nature of the numerous escorts I undertook: the basic premise of Dead Rising appears specifically designed for chaos, and should prevent the very idea of an execution going according to plan. I suggested earlier that the core gameplay promoted vulnerability and sudden shifts in player comfort, and this is never more true than when escorting three or more survivors ; conversely, this makes the breaks for healing, saving or catching a breath seem much more deserved, and the decisions to abandon certain characters much more impactful, when it becomes clear that their presence is now hurting the group. Add this to the fact that it is practically impossible, at least on a standard play-through, to even attempt every escort, and you've got yourself a game experience uncommonly centered on conjuring feelings of inadequacy and failure.

Of course, no one thinks of drama and interesting game design when a computer-controlled, friendly character gets stuck into a doorway or piece of furniture. No one likes it when the hand-holding mechanic breaks up, or when the patrolling psychopaths haunting the central area ressuscitate without notice. But to a certain extent, Dead Rising is all about accepting and working around the flaws of the programming, and discovering the awkward beauty of its emergent outcomes. I remember a breathless run through the Entrance Plaza, reuniting two desperate women, getting a crabby fellow to part from his beloved antique shop, and beating the crap out of a trio of snipers pinning down a clueless shopper. I remember working my way for at least an hour with a group on the verge of death, and gradually understanding that I would never make it... not by going that way, in the least. I remember an epic rush through the park with six healthy young people, and getting them all through ; I equally remember attempting the same with a drunk, a limping girl and a granny, and failing in laughable fashion. Each of these scenarios played out in alternately frustrating and delightful manners, fleshed out with small details in character design that few development teams would have even bothered with. Each of these somehow felt real, mostly fair and deserved, and made me care deeply about the people involved.

I could go on and on about the sense of a community amidst chaos that Dead Rising manages to convey against all odds ; about the exquisite freedom of the player to set his own challenges, especially in the "final", solitary stages of the main game ; about the intense pleasure I experienced with the game's "overtime" phase, and the colossal sense of achievement upon completion. I could also yammer on about the game's shortcomings and oddities: the miserable design of its boss fights, small issues in maneuverability (aiming, mostly), an interesting but ultimately disposable photography pastime, some needlessly sexualized or stereotyped character models... But that would detract from the thing I take away the most from my experience with the game, which is the strength of its emergent drama and its sensible treatment of the human experience. With each passing scenario, as preposterous as they increasingly became, Dead Rising managed to make me feel good about helping people out of a stupendous mess, and treating them as proper human beings to the best of my capacity. It elicited plentiful sentiments of aggression, as promised by every material surrounding the game, but those destructive thoughts were evened out by a corresponding amount of true desperation, and ended up feeling as enthralling as the real thing would probably be. As flawed as it is, Dead Rising struck me as an amazing achievement, and a serious model for future games involving hands-on management of procedural mayhem. Until I play Left 4 Dead, I guess...

Thursday, July 2, 2009


As I suppose is the case with many twenty-somethings without much responsibility in their lives, I sometimes feel like wandering aimlessly, waiting for life to surprise me. However, living in a pretty ordinary part of Montreal (which is still livelier than its suburbs), I often have to go some distance to reach any place of interest. Wherever this leads me, there are many things that I would like to try, but that civil code or personal safety concerns discourage me to. And no matter what happens, I always end back in the same place I came from. Needless to say, sometimes I just feel like living somewhere else, according to other rules ; to live another life. Which, of course, video games allow me to do, in a limited but enthralling way. But what useful purpose could that possibly serve?

I had been questioning this for some time when something strange happened over the course of my recent sessions with a friend's Xbox 360: trying out several games for which my expectations weren't very high, I noticed that many of them somehow managed to get under my skin and engage me in rich and inspiring ways. This had been preceded by a solid year of relentlessly scanning "smart" gaming blogs and indulging in the fascinating creations of the independent community. Considering what was behind and what was still to come, I figured: "Hey, wouldn't it be time to share a bit of the fun?". And to divert a little from my main outlet, French-language film site Panorama.

My aim with this first attempt at blogging is not to provide formal reviews, but subjective accounts of my experiences with games, exploring their effects, psychology, and hopefully their broader meaning. As I grow more and more comfortable with my abilities at discussing film, and as I seem to follow rather easily the evolution of this particular field, I find it incredibly stimulating that the state of video game discussion appears so alive and uncertain, in search of a proper direction. For better or worse, video games engage the mind in very conflicting and personal ways, and I feel that they are reaching a crucial stage of their growth as an art form. They have been around for quite some time, after all...

Given the time, attention and money investments that they require on the part of the player, are video games really the medium of the bored and privileged? Are they meant to provide safe and easily cathartic evasions from uneventful lives? I honestly cannot say for sure. What I do believe is that games (or whatever you want to call them) have the means to help us understand each other and the world that we live in. By expanding and restricting various aspects of individual freedom, they can allow for meaningful introspection in fascinating ways. Such game experiences have been present all along, but now is the moment that they seem to be coming into the light, and it is in our best interest to discuss them, make them known, and try to understand what they are trying to communicate. By joining my voice to the chorus, I hope to serve this noble purpose.