Friday, September 25, 2009

Out of your Mind

When it first occurred to me that I should write a little piece on Out of this World, my thoughts turned to pulverizing it, ripping it to shreds ; anything to get some revenge for the feelings of unabashed anger it was awaking at the time. The experience I was getting out of it was that of being utterly condescended to, and the only reason I had to keep playing was out of personal curiosity and respect for the artform. And yet, when I finally arrived at the end... the only thing I could think about was playing it again. And again the next day. And again some other time. It felt as if the game had put me under some kind of sick spell, and indeed it had conditioned me into learning its punishing patterns by heart. Naturally, I began to see it in a slightly different light, and gave it some more thought.

The core property that emerges from my experience of Out of this World is difficulty, but not difficulty of any old kind. This is not a game that tests one's ability to calmly reason through abstract situations, nor one that throws relentless reflex challenges and asks the player to adapt. It is a little bit of both, and a lot of something else: the unpredictable barriers it places in the player's path are always of a solid, physical nature, but are presented in such a way that barely offers any chance to react properly. Rarely have I seen a game allowing so little room for error on the part of the player, nor have I stumbled upon so precious feedback on the current state of my progress. To put it bluntly, getting through Out of this World by oneself requires a level of unmatched skill, patience and discipline ; one that I clearly wasn't able to muster.

But let me put this differently, in the form of a question: at what point does this brand of "discipline" cease to be a virtue, and becomes a simple act of foolish submission? It bears asking, because Out of this World contains an awful lot of instances which are way too demanding to plow through, even when the procedure is perfectly clear. Conversely, it also forces the player to endlessly repeat long stretches of empty gameplay, neverminding that the closing portion of each is the one most likely to end in a fatal misstep. Separating his rare checkpoints by increasingly complex chains of events, designer Éric Chahi has clearly wanted failure and frustration to be part of his game's experience, and his attention to scenes resulting only in death is further proof of this. But in this wild pursuit, has he overestimated the stubbornness of his potential audience? Did people even care about this in 1991?

Difficulty and tedium in games has been the subject of many discussions of late, not the least being Lewis Pulsipher's recent overview of the question on Gamasutra (some very interesting comments there, too). While the commonly-referred solutions proposed by Prince of Persia and New Super Mario Bros. have sparked some justified controversy, other appealing alternatives have been noticed in the smaller-scale indie space: Nifflas' games wisely spread save spots every few screens, allowing the player to concentrate on navigating one step at a time ; similarly, Terry Cavanagh's amazing Don't Look Back evens out its hardcore difficulty by making every screen a checkpoint with self-contained challenges. In most commercial PC games, this "problem" has been mostly resolved by the omnipresence of quick saves, allowing to refine and correct one's performance at will. But still, despite these tweaks and concessions, developers insist on making their games somewhat challenging. Surely there must be a good reason for this...

Following my time with Out of this World, and curious to further experience an era when challenge was a gameplay factor of utmost importance, I dove into some classic NES titles that I had never played before. Mega Man, Contra, Ninja Gaiden... ; all of these yielded great fun, and provided an eloquent snapshot of then-state-of-the-art game design. But what I discovered is that, while clearly presenting high levels of difficulty, these platformers still mostly unfolded in fair and consistent patterns, according to their respective rules. Throughout these series and other, equally regarded titles (Blaster Master, Bionic Commando...), this consciousness of the player's progression and learning process is ultimately the argument that justifies what some would claim to be a hostile and restrictive approach to game design. Unlike the arbitrary manner in which Out of this World spreads itself out, it is expected that the player might be skilled enough to bend the mechanics to his will upon first encounter of an obstacle, and that practice will only result in a better, cleaner, brisker performance. What these games lack, however, is the sheer abandon of Chahi's play with space and mechanics, which boldly screams confidence.

Indeed, there is just about nothing that resembles a near-perfect playthrough of Out of this World. While practically impossible to pull off, to do so is to witness a feat of interactive storytelling that few games would equal until the original Half-Life. It is the flexibility of Chahi's environmental designs and core interactions that, invariably, dazzles ; the basic blaster is made to serve a surprising number of purposes, while the few variations in the means of navigating, such as the brief "duct-rolling" segment, all turn out clever and memorable. On occasion, the obscurity of certain solutions even works to his advantage, such as having to dive back in the depths of a cave to section a power wire, which makes the game world fold back on itself and appear even more thought-out. But as I said earlier, the threat of death never ceases to hang over the protagonist, and often remains much too hard to avoid even after several runs. Thus, the experience of replaying Out of this World becomes curiously paradoxical: failing to replicate the confusion and despair of the initial exposure, it is replaced by a mastery that never feels quite complete, but allows the game, ever precariously, to expose its narrative drive and grace more transparently. Whether this response was anticipated by the author remains a mystery, but it certainly is this intriguing sensation that kept me going back to it.

And so I must wrap up this personal account of Out of this World, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating pieces of software I ever toyed with, and one that changed the way I look at other games, for better and for worse. While I was firmly intent on claiming its design to be one of the most appalling ever conceived in the beginning, people more knowledgeable than me have previously made a case for it as "the best video game of all time" in fairly convincing manner. Chris Lepine, in a now somewhat-famous essay, has thoughtfully praised the spirit of independence at play in the game, which does ooze freedom and creativity. By its very design and delivery techniques, Out of this World is a work that feels daring, focused, personal, even urgent. That those qualities manage to pierce through such a daunting and ruthless exterior is almost a miracle in itself, and one that is sure to have people talking for years to come.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Intimate Moments

I've been going a little nuts over Tomb Raider in the last couple of months ; first in the company of the excellent Anniversary, followed by that of Legend, which proved to be a worthy companion piece (even though it came out before). It might seem strange to bring up these two games now, let alone to play those rather than 2008 update Underworld, but what I take away from them is that they represent a fascinating dichotomy in terms of tone and aspirations. At the same time, the traits they share remain very indicative of a certain approach to 3-D game design, and I will try to dig into those.

My sudden enthusiasm for these titles came as something of a surprise, as my only prior experience with the franchise, about ten years ago, had been that of hopelessly failing to perform anything right in Tomb Raider 2. A quick spin of the Anniversary demo, however, was enough to dispel any suspicion I may have had concerning the present state of the series: without a doubt, I was willing to dive into a full package loaded with adventuring as fluid and good-looking as this. Of course it played almost exactly like the recent Prince of Persia efforts, and I reckoned that this revamped model was not representative of the previous entries' failings. But even so, there was something downright inviting about the way the game played and presented itself, and it probably didn't have much to do with the attractive character on display. At least I hope so...

In a twisted fit of counter-logic, let's start by describing the look and feel of Legend, which was clearly intended as a franchise reboot. This is pretty much blared right from the outset, with a lively FMV intro and a brief athletic prologue announcing that this is Tomb Raider "as-you've-never-seen-it-before" ; a game taking place in a variety of colorful locales, boasting moves you could have only ever dreamed of, peopled with supporting characters you couldn't care less about. By all means, this is an action-movie of a game ; not the first of its kind, yet certainly not the least, and one that may allow newcomers to familiarize themselves very quickly with the driving concepts of 3-D platforming and environmental puzzles. In terms of distilling an atmosphere of excitement and hooking the player instantly, Legend is an absolute success, maintains a good pace for most of its modest running time... and also, with its well-worn genre tropes and overall tone, manages to feel completely impersonal.

Juxtapose this with the opening of Anniversary, which can only be described as austere in comparison: Lara, sitting alone in a hotel lobby, is seen reading a book, then offered a contract, which leads to her claiming that she "only plays for sport". In a few minutes, she is established as calm, somewhat caring (for her foreign guide), crafty (in finding alternate routes), and only after that as an action heroine able to take down a pack of wolves. Remarkably, these subdued preliminaries act as the perfect set-up for the majority of the game, which features no chit-chat with stock partners, few "action button" sequences, and only a handful of human adversaries. In short, this is not a game about a physically-privileged female "doing stuff", but about such a woman engaged in... tomb raiding. A fantasy rendition of tomb raiding, certainly, but still exploration first and foremost. As such, the focus of the game is not placed on keeping things moving, but on the design of the tombs themselves ; creations which incidentally include "St. Francis Folly", one of the most amazing levels I have ever played.

Having gone out of my way to play it three times now, I can safely stand up for the belief that, save for a routine opening involving standard pillar action, "St. Francis Folly" incarnates everything there is to like about Tomb Raider. There is quite simply no way to describe (and certainly no way to reproduce) the experience of facing the dizzying vertical core of this level for the first time, and to start puzzling the way to circumvent its endless supply of obstacles. There is, however, an important point to be made about how its design requires the player to summon every navigational skill imaginable. Observation, memorization, association ; those all come subtly into play here (and are facilitated by the game's clear identification of the various structural elements). Successful feats of path-finding are also rewarded, in a way, by accessing separate rooms containing their own discrete systems, which are also a joy to piece together (at least for the most part). While other levels, such as "Midas' Palace" or "Obelisk of Khamoon", propose similar ways to structure the progression, none of them quite approach the scale and complexity of this one, which feels autonomous and full.

Still other levels, like "Temple of Khamoon" or "The Lost Valley", unfold in a completely different manner, guiding the player through a series of carefully-crafted challenges, sometimes looping back to a previous location that was altered somehow ; closer to an obstacle course than to a puzzle box, we could say. This approach, while very commendable when executed well, has a way of soliciting attention in much smaller bursts, and its prevalence in Legend is the basis of a distinct kind of immersion. What I believe, in short, is that this approach sets up a loosening of the level of investment not only in any given scenario, but in the series of exercises as a whole. In the case of Legend, this effect is reinforced by the constant stream of information, color and variety that is thrown at the player ; quite simply, inserting motorcycle rides to spice things up every so often, as brisk and fun as they are, doesn't make for a very focused adventure. And so, almost subconsciously, this game is likely to spark a much less involved engagement on the part of the player, and an overall experience that doesn't feel nearly as rewarding.

In a recent column for Resolution Magazine, Fraser McMillan has written about "isolation" as one of the recurring themes in the freeware platformers of late, as well as one of the key emotions that their authors are able to convey through mechanics and aesthetics. In Fraser's words, "these indie projects are able to do so because they’re unrestrained by profiteering marketers and, to revert to appropriate modern vernacular, the general bullshit the mainstream industry’s creatives have to put up with". But while I mostly sympathize with his views on the restraining factor of business, I don't see why, at least in principle, a fully-financed studio with proper 3-D tools couldn't achieve the sort of intimacy with oneself described by McMillan. Tomb Raider: Anniversary, while still including much of the "bullshit" ascribed above, perhaps provides a glimpse of how this can be achieved: through its core design and aesthetic choices, be it the overt fragility of the heroine, the sudden appearances of the animal foes, or simply the way that light pierces through the cracks in beautiful particle showers, Crystal Dynamics have crafted an atmosphere of disarming loneliness. Unlike most of Legend and many other contemporaries, much of Anniversary does not feel immediately empowering, but rather unfolds patiently, often frustratingly, matching the player's focus every step of the way, until one crucial advance is made, and what remains is the satisfaction of a job well done. As such, while I would not exactly place it alongside Lunnye Devitsy as far as "isolation" goes, there is little doubt in my mind that this particular game contains some of the most well-considered and -- dare I say it? -- artful design a major development studio could hope to conceive.

"All those satellites and computers just to perfect the science of talking to oneself", utters Lara during one of the rare moments of Legend in which she is deprived of communication with the outside world ; an oddly perceptive line in a game that otherwise doesn't bother too much with insight, and one that creates an interesting moment of suspense. In fact, you could argue that this earlier game succeeds much better as a narrative experiment than its quieter successor (I was especially impressed by a certain "flashback" portion fairly early on), even if the actual development of the fiction turns out to be just as run-of-the-mill and anger-fueled as any action story of its type. Anniversary, on the other hand, manages to instill the character of Lara Croft with some genuine feelings of guilt and concern through its smattering of hammy cutscenes, and offers just about as much narrative as you should expect from a game about a curvy woman skipping around piles of rock (sculpted or not). But is it possible to do better? Is there a middle ground to strike between pompous verbosity, insistent banter and muted restraint? Is it even requisite to fill any game's crannies with bits of fiction, as gripping as they might be? Those are questions I shall not tackle now, but suffice to say that those elements of presentation, coupled with the layouts of the levels, can play a large part in establishing widely differing tones and levels of engagement, even when the underlying mechanics are basically the very same.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Knytt Picking

I have noticed some kind of trend emerging from my recent playings. Over the last few weeks, I have been working my way through The Lost Vikings, strangely obsessing over Out of this World (on which I will have more to say), dabbling with Blackthorne and Flashback, and juggling with Tomb Raider on the 3-D side of things ; all games that would arguably fit in the "required readings" of any aspiring level designer. Now, I have never seriously considered this profession for myself, and it might be too late to even start thinking about it. But seeing as prolonged exposure to a certain activity is almost guaranteed to spark a more pointed interest in the workings of said practice, I just might be having what we commonly call a "phase". I also felt that this sudden fascination with video game architecture had to be vented, and what better solution could there have been than to learn the ropes of a basic creation tool?

And so, a couple of days ago, I have created my first level using Knytt Stories' built-in editor. It is small, easy (I made it with my mother in mind), and I am fairly proud of it. "Hoo, wow, big man you are now", I hear you think. Well... maybe not, but it was nice to stretch some ideas that had been brewing for a while. Sketching a bare-bones skeleton before decorating more extensively, I had a great time measuring the jumps, thinking the atmosphere over, and especially constructing the level as a series of "gates" that would hopefully open in flowing, intuitive manner. The best part of the process, however, was to see other people of differing abilities try out the level, mostly progressing as intended, sometimes inspiring me to tweak a few tiles or shuffle a power-up. In the end, I got a basic idea of the elementary steps involved in game development, and I definitely intend to flesh out this little level.

But enough about me. Immediately after completing a satisfying build of my own, I started going through Auntie Pixelante's list of selected levels for Knytt Stories, which she designates as "recommended reading". I like the connotation implied by this title, because it stresses the fact that 2-D platforming truly is an artistic language of its own, albeit one that somewhat requires feats of dexterity, navigation and visual association for the communication to take place. If anything, the selected levels emphasize this idea of a common language: varied in pace, tone and difficulty, they all employ the resources offered by the editor in ways that feel distinctive, yet still of a piece with their fellow user creations. "A Walk at Night", for example, distills a clear and strong aesthetic arc over no more than a few dozens of easy panels, while the designer of "Flipping Out" thought it would be good to reinforce his vertigo-inducing core mechanic with a little extra challenge. Both evoke different types of engagement and levels of frustration while still sharing the same unmistakable basis, and I believe that is a testament to the creative flexibility of the Knytt Stories engine.

The irony of my relationship with this game is that I never even bothered to finish the included tales of Nifflas' own. Being such an admirer of the first Knytt, I always took it for granted that this follow-up couldn't have much more to offer, and that Stories' addition of power-ups was somewhat superfluous ; a treason of sorts towards the original's stripped-down perfection. I now realize that these collectibles allow for a more pronounced sense of progression, and that the game's subtle upgrades to the visual engine are for the better, but mostly I come to appreciate Knytt Stories as an exquisite foundation for greater things. What Nicklas Nygren has crafted is no more and no less than a toolset for beautiful things to emerge, with a certain air of lightness engraved in the physics themselves. Level crafting, then, becomes a way of confronting a user's vision with the inescapable core dynamic intended by the author of the software, and thus a collaboration towards a goal as yet unstated. I might come around to clearing "A Strange Dream" and "The Machine" someday, as they do seem to exemplify what makes Knytt Stories such a great achievement. For now, though, I come away from my brief tinkering with a better understanding of level design's main concern: to exert spatial variations on a preset tempo.