Friday, 17 June 2011

Red Dead Redemption's Endgame - Narrative and Design

Okay, okay, a year ought to be enough to string out that joke.

Though that said, some of you may prefer to skip this particular post, as it is entirely concerned with the endgame sequence of the generally marvellous Red Dead Redemption, and story spoilers are a natural part of that.

For the most part, Redemption is an excellent piece of videogame fiction. Practically everything a player can do within the game's expansive sandbox world - hunt animals, capture or kill outlaws, tame wild horses, chat with bartenders and so on - complements and builds on the atmosphere the central plot is trying to deliver. This, in stark contrast to the schizophrenia of its predecessor-of-sorts Grand Theft Auto IV, the grim earnestness of whose storytelling quite often struggled to stay afloat surrounded by the series' core design ideal of dicking around. The game isn't without its flaws - a poorly-delivered tutorial here, a redundant fast-travel mechanic there - but, this not being a review, these are not my current concern. Instead, I want to discuss a particular isolated decision of design and storytelling, which I feel makes for an interesting case-study.

Towards the end of the game, protagonist John Marston has killed off his entire former gang, been reunited with his kidnapped family, and sets about starting a new and honest life as a cattle rancher. Inevitably, the federal agents who had previously forced him to revisit his old outlaw days betray their word and bring the wrath of the US Army down on the Marston estate. After a short battle, John sends his wife and son packing and finds himself holed up in his barn. In a textbook display of Cutscene Incompetence Syndrome (a mercifully far less frequent occurrence in the game than it might have been), he chooses to ignore the cover his position affords him, and instead throws wide the barn doors and steps out into the open to face the numerous remaining soldiers alone.

I shouldn't have to tell you that John doesn't survive this encounter. The narrative very much calls for it, and that I don't object to. Potential gameplay consequences are dealt with cleverly as well, with an endless epilogue starring John's son, Jack, a few years later allowing players to tie up loose ends without damaging (on the contrary, actively aiding) the story. The Cutscene Incompetence, too, I can live with - indeed, perhaps an advantage of directed cinematic sequences over Half-Life's passively interactive approach to delivering narrative material is that the player-character disconnect they produce allows writers a little more freedom without compromising a player's suspension of disbelief.

But the game chooses to return control to the player's hands for this last stand, and the way in which this is delivered constitutes a huge design error. The player will, by this point, have spent a considerable amount of time as John, building up a formidable arsenal of weapons and abilities in the process, most of which are awarded during story missions and are therefore unavoidable. Even with all of this equipment - including petrol bombs, shotguns, automatic pistols and large capacity rifles - stashed on John's person, the game roots him to the spot, forces the player to draw a rather pathetic 6-shot revolver to face down the twenty riflemen lined up in front of him, prevents the player from accessing the weapons menu, and automatically initiates an artificially shortened version of Redemption's target-painting take on bullet-time. The game, with no overt in-universe justification, restricts the player's options.

It changes the rules.

In doing this, Rockstar San Diego must have hoped to better integrate the traditionally rather disparate twin disciplines of narrative and gameplay (something they do rather well elsewhere in the game, as the few examples I have cited previously demonstrate), keeping the player firmly immersed in John's shoes in his final moments for that personal touch. But by breaking several basic game rules - rules that a player would have been exposed to consistently for as many as twenty hours before this event - it actually serves to do the opposite. We catch a glimpse behind the curtain, at the play-pieces being surreptitiously but cackhandedly rearranged, and so, instead of John being cheated by his fate, the player has been cheated by the game.

What's particularly frustrating about this is that it doesn't take much creative effort at all to think of several ways by which the player could have been forced into a conventionally, legitimately unwinnable situation: encircle John with enemies; insert a scripted sniper shot; cripple his arms and/or legs in the prior cutscene. And so on.

Design defines the rules by which a player understands a world. Changing those rules part way through for the sake of your narrative is an ultimately fruitless exercise. No matter how better served your story may be by doing so, the player will not believe it.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How did one game become a classic?

Activision poses us this question in their cringeworthy announcement trailer for GoldenEye 007 on Wii.

Since you asked, there's rather a lot of reasons that a game could become regarded as a classic. In GoldenEye's case: a robust control interface solution which proved that the FPS genre was viable on console platforms; the innovative approach to singleplayer difficulty levels based around increasing the number and complexity of mission objectives; the 4-player multiplayer mode being completely unprecedented for a shooter on console; the skill with which encounters were crafted across extremely open-ended level designs; and many more reasons, I'm sure, largely owing to the talent of the developers at Rare. I don't think the magical powers of the title and film license are generally considered to be high in that list.

It's like history is repeating itself, not necessarily in the way they intend.

That's two short posts of pure jaded cynicism in a row, so next time I'll make sure to talk about design or something.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Gaming News of the Century

VG247 are reporting (through a GameTrailers video) that - brace yourselves - an unnamed game developer is going to announce a game.

Who would have thought!?

In other news, a car is going to drive somewhere tomorrow, and someone is going to put on their shoes at some point.

I had decided not to bother with calling out rubbish journalism myself anymore since I discovered the wonderful Game Journalists Are Incompetent Fuckwits, but this is a special occasion.

This is so completely stupid and pointless I'm actually kind of impressed.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Halo 3: Retcon and The Fallacy of the Tabula Rasa

Determined as I am not to begin another post with the phrase, "having recently completed X", I shall just say this:

Halo 3: ODST.

I thoroughly enjoyed this relatively overlooked entry into the Halo canon. It's interesting to play with the expansive and imaginative Halo 3 sandbox via player abilities more in line with Combat Evolved - namely, health packs, no Equipment and no dual-weilding. It might not have such a satisfyingly epic scale as did Halo 3, and it might absurdly imply that the events of Halo 2 were spread over more than a month, but Bungie know how to make Halo games, and ODST demonstrates their unparalleled command of meticulous weapon balance, expressive but readable AI and freeform level design - all interconnected toyboxes, revelling in chaos and experimentation - as well as any other.

But there is one thing I took from the experience in particular that I don't think Bungie intended.

In ODST, players assume the role of the Rookie, a nameless, faceless, voiceless new recruit to a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (they fall to earth from low orbit in little shock-absorbing drop-pod things). He's the classic videogame blank slate - less character even than the Master Chief, the Rookie is Gordon Freeman in a helmet. The rest of the squad - mostly played by the cast of Firefly for the sake of their natural chemistry (and probably nerd-cred) - are clearly defined characters, with names, faces and voices.

While dropping to Earth in the middle of a Halo 2 cutscene, all the troopers are separated and the Rookie is knocked out. When he comes to several hours later, the hub world - sadly not quite as interesting a departure from tradition as it sounds, though it does have a lot of character - opens up and the player is tasked with following waypoints to track down evidence of their missing squadmates. Finding something triggers a flashback in which the player takes control of one of the other troopers. So what we end up with is a juxtaposition of the Half-Life tabula rasa approach to first person characterisation versus, well, the precise opposite - with player characters regularly spouting dialogue, and even fighting alongside former and future player characters.

What is interesting about this, is that I feel far more agency in the flashbacks than I do as the Rookie.

I think the reason is this: when a player buys a game, she is already as willing as she will ever be to buy into the narrative and immerse herself in the characters and world. Agency is the default state; something that can be lost, not something that must be earned. The Half-Life approach doesn't (necessarily) damage agency, but it is a total myth that it does anything to aid it.

For example, let us look at a well-known game which did not deliver especially well on agency: Shenmue. Shenmue presents itself as a sort of life-sim; organising your own days as you see fit, taking the story at your own pace, and full of nonessential pursuits to occupy the time. The problems arise with Ryo; the protagonist, and a bit of an idiot. One especially memorable sequence - part of the central plot thread - has love interest Nozomi confessing her feelings for him one night in a playground, and telling him that she may be moving to Canada in the near future. Ryo rather flippantly says, "Oh", then leaves. Later that evening I decided to rectify this ridiculously unfeeling behaviour of Ryo's by calling Nozomi on the phone in Ryo's house. Here is a transcription of the resulting conversation as I remember it:

Nozomi: "Hello?"
Ryo: "Hello Nozomi."
Nozomi: "Oh Ryo, have you thought any more about what I said before?"
Ryo: "No."
Nozomi: "Oh... okay..."
Ryo: "Bye."

Up until this point I had completely bought into Ryo's parental vengeance motivations and his tremendous naivete, but here something cracked, then shattered. In the first cutscene Ryo's flippant behaviour was at odds with how I would have wanted him to act, then in the subsequent phone call - which I had made with the specific intention of damage-control - he acted even worse. When your character makes an independent decision, as Ryo's response in the cutscene, agency can take a hit. When your character does the precise opposite of what you intend, agency is lost.

Ryo was no longer me; he was a dick.

Now turn back to ODST where, like most singleplayer videogames, the plot drives the characters rather than the other way around - things happen to them, and players have no choice but to react to these events in a certain way. The player characters in flashbacks, just like the Rookie, never make decisions at odds with player motivations, so there is nothing to prevent you from buying into your character - whoever he may be - at any given time; and you do so.

When any of the talking characters have conversations about the events unfolding around them, there's no feeling that they are doing something independently, or against your own will. Quite the opposite in fact; when player characters make quips as a direct result of player actions and decisions - vehicle stunts, weapon selections, enemy kills, etc. - it serves to draw you, immerse you, further into the fiction.

By contrast, the Rookie never commented on my skills and kills, never talked about his situation. All he did to express anything more than sheer indifference towards anything I was doing was to grunt when injured (though better at least than Gordon Freeman who actually requires his clothes to say "ouch" for him). Even worse, when the Rookie is asked direct questions by other characters towards the end of the game he still remains silent, and this feels jarringly inconsistent. Annoying even. I expect him to be just as talkative and likable as the other people that had variously been "me" when placed in that same situation, and he disappoints. Lampshading his completely vacant characterisation with the tedious game dialogue cliche, "You don't talk much, do you?" and its awkward variations does not help matters at all.

I'm not saying that the Half-Life series would be better if Gordon Freeman spoke - on the contrary I think his sheer ambiguity aids the story Valve are telling, with Freeman himself being one of the most enduringly interesting mysteries therein. Nor am I saying that Bioshock could be improved with sarcastic quips and James Bond one-liners - in fact I'd argue that the whole point of Bioshock and its final twist is to satirise everything I am describing here. What I'm saying is that the tabula rasa is not a brilliant videogame storytelling device - at best it does nothing to promote immersion or agency, and at worst it can damage it when it becomes conspicuous that your character is inexplicably boring, as it does in ODST.

It's just an excuse not to write properly.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Zero: Observations

Having recently completed Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen for Wii, or more accurately the unofficial English translation patch entitled Fatal Frame 4: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, I figure this would be a logical time to detail my thoughts on the game.

The latest in Tecmo's excellent Zero horror series, also known as Fatal Frame in America and Project Zero in Europe (the latter being the result of PAL edition publisher Wanadoo mistaking the development team's name for the title, and the former being cheesy enough that they felt compelled to replace it in the first place), it is sadly the first to remain a (REGION LOCKED) Japanese-only release. Much like its predecessors, Zero 4 combines linear Adventure/Survival Horror exploration with RPG stat upgrading and an ingenius first-person photography combat system. The most obvious distinction between this and previous games is the presence of Co-director and Co-writer Suda Goichi (a.k.a. Suda51, who has long held the prestigious position of my hero) and other Grasshopper Manufacture staffers in the team.

Chief among the mechanical changes is the new and interesting twist to exploration. In the original trilogy critical items would be represented as glowing blue blobs that appear when certain conditions were met (Zero's equivalent to the classic Resident Evil glint) while health and ammunition resources would be hidden with no visual clue among examinable bits and pieces in the environment such as drawers, suits of armor, etc.; the idea being to reward players for exploring thoroughly, though in practise leading to the pragmatic (and so not especially atmospheric) technique of wallsurfing and mashing. Zero 4's solution is extremely elegant. The game has dispensed with the fixed-camera view, instead opting for an over-the-shoulder Resident Evil 4 camera system where the character's torchbeam is pointed at the centre of the screen, and view is controlled by tilting - not pointing - the wiimote for pitch or pivoting with the thumbstick (pivoting the view can also be achieved without turning your character by tilting the wiimote while stationary if desired - I dunno, maybe you want to see the character model from the front or something). When standing in the vacinity of items, a blue filament appears on the HUD that glows brighter when facing the correct direction, and should the torchbeam pass over any interactable item in the area it will appear as the old glowing blue ball for you to pick up. The system requires enough precision that waving around wildly for a few seconds when entering a new room will not be tremendously effective, but little enough that locating well-hidden items is not frustrating. Once an item has been located, you must examine it, the process of which is itself a new feature: while health and ammo is granted instantly, files, key items and upgrade resources (more on them later) are examined by slowly reaching out for them by holding A (where releasing A will retract the character's arm). Rather predictably every so often a ghostly hand will emerge to grab you as you reach out, requiring you to shake it off - literally, since this is the Wii, but at least the traditional wiimote waggling represents an action which is similarly wild and aimless - and preventing you from collecting the item (of course this only happens with the nonessential upgrade items - never with files or keys). My initial reaction to this system was rather cynical - I couldn't see any pragmatic value to retracting my hand as the ghostly grabbing hands cannot be dodged in this way, so it just seemed like an unnecessary time-padding barrier to progress - but when the concluding ghost battle of the second chapter was triggered by similarly reaching out to touch the shoulder of a character I had been searching for, I understood its worth. In Zero games, all the major story events - and crucially the most threatening ghost battles - are triggered by the player picking up an item, be it a file, an abstract key or a literal key. The combination of the knowledge that a critical item could spell serious danger to you and the uncertainty over whether the item is critical at all grants the reaching-out sequence a great deal of tension, and the opportunity to retract your hand becomes a means of changing your mind - perhaps this item looks to be in too important a location and you want to be more prepared for what it might throw at you. It's a beautiful new way of abstracting the question "Are you sure? Yes/No" which gamers naturally associate with extremely significant decisions. While I must say it's a shame to lose the gorgeous standard of  fixed-camera cinematography from the old games, it's definitely worth it.

Playing on uncertainty in a similar manner to the above, nonaggressive ghosts are not distinguished from their aggressive counterparts when they appear. In the originals, filament colour would determine whether an apparition was a threat - blue for safe, red for danger - but here the blue filament is already in use for locating items. Instead, all ghosts are indicated with the red filament. Some ghosts are deliberately intended to function as a false alarm by appearing in threatening positions, while some lull you into a false sense of security by doing the opposite before beginning their attack routines.

Another new feature is the shop available at save points. Points earned from combat and nonaggressive ghost photographs can be spent on healing items and film (that is, ammunition). Points are plentiful enough that cautious players could easily reguarly arm themselves to the teeth and equip more healing items than there are ghosts to harm them, but endgame ratings are awarded based heavily on the amount of points that remain on completion. It makes a lot of sense to do it this way - presumably the players who actually care where they fall on the D/C/B/A/S scale will be the same players who want the game to offer some degree of challenge, so everybody wins. While it doesn't make much sense from a narrative perspective to have old stone lanterns function as herbal medicine vending machines, it provides a nice means of ensuring players are equipped in a way that makes them comfortable to play on and prevents sticking points from emerging.

While levelling up your camera's capabilities used to be done with that score currency, now it costs two other resources - blue and red crystals - found as reach-outable items in the environment. Blue crystals upgrade your camera itself, while red ones upgrade the special ability lenses (which are, incidentally, also found in the same way). There isn't much to say about this beyond the fact it works.

Camera combat remains largely unchanged from previous games, aside from the extremely forgiving lock-on function, presumably there to prevent the wiimote tilting pitch control's inherent instability from interfering too much, though it still can be problematic when locked ghosts vanish and the view suddenly snaps back to full player control. The camera users can also dodge ghost grapple attacks (once a certain item has been found) by waggling at the right moment, which is rather reminiscent of Resident Evil 3's evade system. Much faster paced than the second game's extremely slow building combat tension but nowhere near as bastard hard as the first game, the third game's combat makes for a fair comparison. New to the combat aspect is character Choushiro's "Spirit Stone Flashlight" - a device which seems utterly absurd until you remember that it's not really any sillier than the series' trademark magical excorcismal camera - which doesn't allow fatal frames or shutter chances (for those unfamiliar, these are brief moments during enemy attack routines at which they can be hit for extra damage). The flashlight deals damage determined by how long the fire button is held down, drawing from a limited power resource which must be recharged every so often by switching back to third person for a while. Choushiro can't lock on, and has by far the most group fights, turning his game into one of gradually backing away while dealing as much damage as possible, and interrupting incoming attacks with stronger shots. It certainly keeps things interesting, as even when fighting the same ghosts - with the same AI no less - Choushiro's system offers a completely different experience.

The story has all the basics of a classic Zero plot - someone goes to an old haunted place in Japan in search of someone else who went missing there, and finds the aftermath of an ancient Shinto ritual gone wrong, relating in some way to a gate to hell - but plays with the formula in inventive and satisfying ways which I shall try not to spoil too much. Rather than seeking a lost loved one as were Miku, Mio and Rei, the protagonists of Zero 4 are searching for their lost memories relating to a mysterious kidnapping ten years prior, that occurred during an old festival popular among tourists on an obscure Japanese island. The setting - an abandoned psychiatric hospital specialising in treating a local illness known (in the translation) as "Luna Sedata Syndrome" - combines the classic Zero traditional wood, paper and stone Japanese architecture with early-mid 20th Century modernity, granting it a creepily familiar quality reminiscent of Silent Hill.

If I was to criticise anything (aside from the occasionally problematic wiimote pitch controls in combat and ghost hunting), it would be the anticlimactic nature of many of the boss fights, notably the final one. I would approach significant fights expecting them to be a serious challenge, and would appropriately equip powerful film I had saved in the same manner as one would a Resident Evil grenade launcher. But nearly every time this occurred, including the final battle, I completely crushed my opponent in two or three easy shots. Where bosses are large group fights they provide the necessary challenge (if not perhaps too much challenge), but solo opponents rarely take any time let alone draining the resources you have collected and retained for them.

I'm currently replaying on Hard mode to see if it provides the kind of game I was expecting. So far the primary differences appear to be the frequency with with grabbing hands interrupt your item examinations, the damage that enemies deal and take, and the cost of items in the shop. The HP changes might have granted significant fights appropriate longevity if not for the fact that I am equipped with almost fully upgraded cameras and a huge stockpile of film and health supplements from my previous playthrough - Hard mode is only available as a New Game Plus.

But all together an excellent entry into the series. I still call the extraordinary second game Crimson Butterfly my favourite, but Zero 4 takes a more than respectable second place, and with the region-lock bypassing English patch now available, comes as a highly recommended import.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Stephen Totilo Doesn't Understand Words - Episode #8,649,365,871

Short filler post!

You may have heard the unfortunate news that some Ryu Ga Gotoku 3 content is to be dropped for the forthcoming Yakuza 3.

Here's Kotaku's Stephen Totilo on the subject.

And here's a recap of the pertinent details:
"Regarding Yakuza 3, we had a tight schedule to abide by for localizing and releasing Yakuza 3 in the west. Due to the limited time we were given we had to leave certain bits of the game out..." - SEGA

"Yakuza 3 was released a year ago in Japan this week, which makes Sega's comments about time pressures confusing." - Stephen Totilo

Totilo appears to believe, then, that localisation consists of taking a disc image and sending it through Google Translate.

How do Kotaku writers manage to dress themselves every morning?

As for the story itself, as someone who was rather fond of the previous two games I find it a real shame, but there remains the possibility (however unlikely) that some or all of the missing content could be translated and included as DLC should the game sell well. Or that its sequel could be afforded a localisation budget sufficient for the whole game. So buy it you goddamn philistines.

On an unrelated note, I recently felt compelled to start another, more frivolous blog. Have a gander. Or don't, it's up to you really.

Coming up next time: a review-ish thing of Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

2009: The Year in Review(s)

New hiatus record! I doubt I'll beat that one, but you never know.

So then, twenty-oh-nine. What a year.

Since my posts last year generally strayed away from the review format that dominated 2007-8's output, I'll make that up here by briefly discussing a few of the games that have particularly excited me over the last twelve months.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4

Some of you may remember me describing Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 as the finest RPG I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

This is no longer true.

Instead, that honour goes to its extraordinary successor, unsurprisingly entitled Persona 4. Major changes from P3's formula are few, and are vastly outnumbered by refinements. Most obviously, the player now has the option of direct control over all partymembers in battles, not just the protagonist. Difficulty is ramped up appropriately to account for this greater degree of tactical control, though with this in mind one wonders why the P3 AI options are not only still present, but enabled by default whenever a new character joins your party. This - a reduandant optional feature hungover from the previous game - is as close to a criticism as I can muster. I similarly struggled to criticise P3 of course, but next to its sequel the flaws seem so obvious: the new game's characters are far and away more interesting than Yukari, Junpei and co.; all partymembers now have their own 'Social Link' sidequests and offer special abilities as an incentive to getting to know them; the music manages to be - despite the lack of slightly absurd Japanese rapper Lotus Juice - even more catchy and enjoyable; the English voice cast is a massive improvement; the story is engaging, and doesn't sink into wangsty melodrama (P3 played the tragic parental death card far too often); the randomly generated dungeons are much more varied; and the setting, a small rural town as opposed to a major coastal city, has far more character.

I look forward to the inevitable Persona 5 making me view this game as tired and dated. But until then, Persona 4 is the finest RPG I have ever had the pleasure of playing.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

An exercise in how to do a license justice. With no cinematic blockbuster or new TV series to tie-in with and promote, Rocksteady were able to make a Batman game that stands on its own two feet. Or hangs upside-down from them at least.

Based on the tried and tested Metroid formula of exploration unearthing tools and those tools facilitating further exploration, and borrowing Beyond Good & Evil and Metroid Prime's scanning for secrets, Arkham Asylum primarily alternates between stealth and melee combat.

Stealth is mostly very simple (enemies aren't very good at spotting huge men in bat costumes dangling from gargoyles - considering the license you'd think they'd have received special training) and only occurs in controlled environments, but offers an extremely wide range of techniques to play with. Fun comes not from overcoming the challenge itself, but instead from finding imaginative and unusual ways of doing so.

Melee combat is an elegant system, focused entirely on the art of selecting the right kind of moves - strike, dodge, throw, counter, block, stun - to maintain an unbroken combo. The greater your combo the more experience awarded, which can be spent on nonessential things like health upgrades or new special moves made available after a threshold combo number is reached.

The essential tools are, generally, grappling hooks. There's the basic hookshot, the long range hookshot, the zip-line launcher, the claw for yanking things, and the stronger triple claw for yanking things. There's also explosive gel, which you squirt on things and then blow up. Pretty straightforward. They all have their uses in stealth, combat and exploration, as they should.

As for criticisms, the script (performed by the excellent cast of the acclaimed 90s cartoon) is a little... gamey at times, bosses (few and far between though they are) are often frustrating and repetitive, and the Killer Croc sequence - built up as a huge dramatic climax for almost the entire game - is incredibly boring. But all in all, a great Metroidvania with masses of Batman fanservice, and fun and inventive mechanics. Highly recommended.

1 vs. 100

And now, our live host.

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

... ...

Thanks host.

Seriously, he either doesn't exist in this second series or he doesn't know what button he's supposed to press on the desk and has spent the last two months talking to absolutely no one.

A live multiple-choice trivia quiz show available to Xbox Live Gold members, 1 vs. 100 is far more entertaining than it might seem to the uninitiated in the hardcore gaming community. The main show, on Tuesday and Friday evenings between 7:30 and 9:30, offers actual prizes in the shape of a selected Live Arcade title (different every week) and Microsoft Points (which I prefer to contract to "Microints") to the players selected for the 'Mob' of 100 and the 'One' contenstant - randomly drawn from the best players from previous rounds.

A rather hollow experience when played solo, but the point is that it's great fun with friends to compete against. I am currently one series up and tied for the current season title with Mr Tony.

There we go. A top three for the year, again in no particular order, and again not in any way implying that nothing else of worth came out last year. Don't you ever say I'm not treating you right.