Skyrimland! – Open worlds vs theme parks

800px-SR-map-SkyrimIt was this article on Kotaku’s Talk Amongst Yourselves that finally forced my hand. Forced it to pull at the imaginary hem of Emperor Skyrim’s new clothes.

Now, I like Skyrim an awful lot, but not because of its open-worldy-ness. I like the dialogue (mostly) and the art design. And jumping backwards up mountains.

But Skyrim’s world is not a chaotic, living open world, like Fallout: New Vegas. And Skyrim is not a rich, epic fantasy novel, like Baldur’s Gate II. It is a nice game with shouting and dragons. Mountains, named NPCs and an all-male voice choir do not make a game an open-world epic.

That said, this post isn’t about how epic Skyrim is. It’s about how open-world Skyrim isn’t. The thesis is as follows; some games offer an emergent, personalised “open world”, and some games are theme parks, populated with discrete, anonymous, ride-like experiences. (Disclaimer – This post was also partly inspired by a recent Idle Thumbs comparing Disneyland to a video game.)

Fallout: New Vegas is an open world. A wide open, dusty sandbox. It is open, in that you can wander from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else. And it is a world, full of stuff, and the unexplained residue of past events, and things that happen regardless of your input. As a player, you frequently happen upon the dying embers of a something; a gunfight between Legion and NRC goons. Or a robot fighting a Deathclaw. There are scripted events, but you are constantly faced with evidence that the world of New Vegas exists irrespective of your actions. It doesn’t care whether you are there or not. And that is liberating.

The scripted events and plots mingle with the emergent experiences to create what feels like a unique life experience. Exploring the open world of New Vegas, and weaving this narrative, feels authentic in a way that “exploring” the theme park of Skyrim rarely does. In New Vegas, you can play an active part in events, or observe, or start something. And while you are doing these things, you are aware that there are other events that you didn’t watch, or take part in, over there, because you were over here.

In Skyrim, everything feels like it is for you. Yes, it is wonderfully, majestically, open. But it isn’t a world, in the sense that it feels like it exists as a separate, uncaring entity, populated by entities going about their business. The world feels like a theme park. A big playground of experiences designed for you, the visitor, and untouched. Yes, there are random events, and unexpected outcomes, which in many ways resemble those of New Vegas. But there are random encounters in a theme park. The world of Skyrim not only cares that you are there, it needs you to be there. Everything of significance, from conversations to dungeons, waits for the player’s, the Dragonborn’s, interaction.

Furthermore, your whole Skyrim experience, from beginning to end, feels like it has already been written. Which of course it has.

Obviously games are designed to be interacted with by the player. My point is that New Vegas does a better job of obfuscating this than Skyrim. And I don’t understand why more reviews and retrospectives of the latter don’t address this.

A Skyrim apologist might be tempted to pass this determinist feeling off as intentional, the experience should feel a touch preordained, the coming of the Dragonborn is written in the stars. But that’s lazy. The topic of open world (or sandbox) vs theme park MMOs has been discussed at length. The grinding, bite-size nature of MMOs makes theme park design an obvious choice, but for single-player experiences continuity, character, plot, etc are all more expected, and more noticed when they are absent.

P.S. For a thrilling analysis of open world game design, check this Gamastura article out.


Splinter Cell: Why is Conviction on the Blacklist?

Splinter Cell ConvictionIf it were up to some stealth purists, all stealth games would be hi-res expansions for the original Thief. The situational awareness afforded by a 3rd person camera is a cop out, Snake’s regenerating health is a betrayal, Agent 47’s ‘instinct mode’ a travesty and Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell: Conviction? Splinter Cell Conviction? Don’t get me started on Splinter Cell: Conviction they’d say.

I played through Splinter Cell: Blacklist recently, liked it a fair bit but it got me thinking about its angsty, divisive predecessor. Me? I like Conviction. The 2010 sequel stripped back the famously pernickety series’ sneaking mechanics and turned it into something faster, leaner and more in tune with what modern players expected from a game with a man holding a gun and scowling on the cover. Turns out they do not expect the scowling man to do the splits to avoid a terrorist – they expect him to mash someone’s head in a sink or use the gun or whatever.

Like all Splinter Cell games (and most stealth games), it continues to live in the shadow of 2005’s Chaos Theory but what Conviction lacked in slow burning tension; it made up for in crisp, streamlined mechanics and men that said “Fisher” every 3-4 seconds. (Please take this opportunity to remind yourself why Kirk Hamilton is the best.)

Conviction took a look at the Splinter Cell formula after Double Agent and  decided that things needed mixing up on both a gameplay and story fronts. For a start, the game attempts a more ‘personal’ story. It’s still a video game story – a bad one – but at least one that dispenses with a lot of the usual Clancyverse trappings. Shades of bureaucratic grey, a fetish for jargon, acronyms and a whole lot of inter-agency squabbling are all out. Instead Fisher takes a leaf from Jack Bauer’s book and ‘goes rogue’; his daughter is dead, his muzzle is off and he has swapped the butt-hugging rubber suit for something altogether more combat pants. 

The scowling revenger man angle seeps in to the game mechanics in a few pretty interesting ways. Freed from the confines of a ‘Shadowy Government Agency’, veins coursing with righteous dead-daughter-agony, Fisher has no need for any of that non-lethal pussy footing. He will straight up murderate anyone who so much as looks at him sideways – enter ‘Mark and Execute’ a mechanic that I like so much it makes me want to both mark and execute people despite my longstanding preference for being The Long, Dark Shadow of Nap-Time.

Even more interesting though, is the light/dark hiding mechanic which strips away the literal shades of grey from previous game’s on screen light meter and replaces it with a simple, binary ‘hidden/not hidden‘ system. When you’re hidden, the environment is drained of colour leaving enemies standing out like sore, punchable thumbs – conversely when you’re out of the shadows you feel uncomfortably exposed. For the new angry angry Fisher, things are literally Black and White.

The cover system snaps with a similar binary precision and paired with Mark and Execute, turns Splinter Cell in to a game about timing rather than merely waiting. This all gives Conviction a rhythm that’s unlike any other game. Think of ‘beats’ in the same way you would a film – units of ‘action’, decisions, discoveries that flow at a sustained pace; dash between cover, takedown, mark and execute. Fisher’s need to take down targets by hand to set up the mark and execute move means you’re constantly pushing, bullying through levels, wary of being spotted from a distance. By forcing the player to keep chaining together kills in the Mark and Execute feedback loop, Conviction ensures the next ‘beat’ is never far away.

Gone too is the rhythm-killing trial and error nature of previous titles – when things go wrong and Fisher gets spotted, it’s almost as much fun as when he’s being sneaky. (Even more fitting is to think of actual music, but that’s been done far more eloquently that I could manage.)

Elsewhere gadgets are scaled back, objectives are literally plastered on walls and the player is stripped of any gameplay verbs that aren’t ‘kill’ giving Conviction a relentless, driving sense of pace that stealth games rarely experiment with. Is it revolutionary to put such a focus on killing in a video game? Good Lord, no. But it is curious to watch a video game series plunge so wholeheartedly into its very own version of the Dalton era.

So while you or I might prefer Chaos Theory’s freedom and emphasis on choice; it’s branching pathways, bevvy of gadgets and clusterfuck of options for opening doors at different speeds – you have to admire the thematic consistency in Conviction. And I haven’t even mentioned co-op.

5 Amazing Ideas the MGS Series Completely Discarded

Overstuffed’ is a word that often gets tossed around in discussions of the Metal Gear Solid series. The downside of the overstuffing is that the games are usually overstuffed with interminable codec calls, non-interactive cut scenes and superfluous details but on the upside, each MGS game is bursting at the seams with the kind of ideas that most designers would build an entire series around.

Kojima and his team tend to jam every idea they have into whatever game they’re working on even when there’s not really space for it. Ever notice how you can affect enemies emotions with sounds and gadgets in MGS4? No? Probably because there was so much other stuff going on at the same time that it got completely lost in the mix.

So this is a tour of the MGS ideas graveyard – where great gameplay mechanics and Easter eggs go to die. These are the 5 most amazing gameplay ideas that MGS just let go of completely.

Pay no attention to the floating eye patch and body harness…

OctoCamo (MGS4)

After MGS3’s clunky menu-heavy foray into camouflage, Kojima used the near future setting of MGS4 (the then-futuristic 2014) to streamline the system resulting in one of the coolest inventions of the Metal Gear series. Instead of scrolling through lists of camo patters a la MGS3, the player was able to press against any surface and mimic the colour and texture of whatever they touched (like an octopus).  Now everywhere was a potential hiding place and MGS finally had a stealth mechanic to rival Splinter Cell‘s wonderfully crisp light/dark stealth system. The feeling of watching a guard walk past a barely visible bump against a wall remains unmatched by any amount of shadow lurking. There was also the irresistible urge to press Snake against every surface in the world just to see what it looked like and the ability to ‘save’ camo patterns turned OctoCamo hunting into the kind of goofy metagame that feels right at home in a Metal Gear title. But with the subsequent games heading deeper into the Cold War, the high-tech OctoCamo suit is yet to make a reappearance.

Congratulations MGO, you did one thing right…

SOP (Metal Gear Online)

Seeing through walls has been a crutch for the stealth game for years now; Splinter Cell: Conviction, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored all feature the mechanic in some form or other, affording the player precious info on guard positions and thereby reducing the likelihood of the old ‘stumble blindly into the eye-line of gun-toting thug’ moments that made up 95% of stealth experiences before 2008. It works because it removes a lot of the trial and error and patrol memorisation that puts so many people off the sneakier pleasures in gaming. It also feels like cheating. Why can Sam Fisher see through walls? I know why, but why? The fuck awful multiplayer component of MGS4 – Metal Gear Online – offered a brilliant fictional justification for what’s now become a stealth mainstay; team members were linked together through nanomachines in their blood and ‘synching’ at the start of the match allowed them to see each other as glowing blue/red silhouettes. Now, where it gets interesting is that if a player managed to ‘capture’ a member of the other team, they could ‘hack’ their nanomachines and reveal the locations of every player ‘synched’ to the captured player. It was only momentary but it gave the hacker an invaluable head start on their opponents. Most of all though, it felt earned. And while ‘seeing through walls’ looks to be back in MGSV, it seems more like the tagging system found in Far Cry 3/Splinter Cell Conviction than the one from MGO.

A guard’s radio can be shot out in advance too

Radio Man (MGS2)

MGS2 is so full of brilliant stealth game mechanics that it’s all the more upsetting when it crawls all the way up its own ass towards the end of the game. Up until Raiden fights the Harrier Jet, the game is a nail-biting masterclass in stealth gaming that forces the player to pay close attention to their surroundings and enemy behaviour to survive. A great example is the ‘Radio Man’ guards who frequently call in to HQ to report on their current status. Like, really frequently; sometimes as often as every 30 seconds. Take the radio man out and you’ll hear a message from HQ: “Why are you late with your status report?” followed by an order for the backup team to go check out the area. The backup team aren’t following any patrol patterns so their behaviour is a most unwanted unknown quantity in the player’s tightly controlled environment; they can wake up sleeping guards, find dead bodies and call in heavily armed assault troops if they spot the player. With that in mind, it’s often best to leave the Radio man wandering around an area making his regular reports to HQ meaning that no area is ever ‘safe’. When Raiden is searching an area for hidden explosives (another great discarded idea) having to leave one guard patrolling makes for a stomach-knottingly tense experience. Compare that to most modern stealth games, where the player subdues every enemy in sight before looting the room/achieving their goal and you can’t help wish that the ‘Radio Man’ would come back.

Oooh, hope you guys like poison…

Supply Stashes (MGS3)

There are more ingenious gameplay touches in one MGS3 boss fight than there are in most games. MGS3 almost suffers from a gaming version of Three Stooges Syndrome with ideas tripping over each other to make it on to the screen. One such mind-blowing idea was that of  food and ammo stashes that the player could rig with TNT and destroy. Why would you want to destroy the food and ammo stashes? The same reason you would in real life. To get the upper hand. In MGS3, the enemies are subject to the same basic human needs as the player which means if they get hungry, they need to eat. Much like the player – if enemies don’t eat, their physical condition deteriorates; their hands begin to shake so they can’t aim as well, they can’t see as far and they’re physically weaker so they do less damage with melee attacks. They’re more easily distracted too, sometimes stopping to search for food or even eating food that someone may have left lying around. And maybe that someone let the food go off before they left it lying around so that whoever eats it is too busy throwing up to notice someone sneaking through the grass near by. Destroy the ammo supplies too and you’ll see shaky looking soldiers empty a clip at Snake before running out of bullets and having to resort to a side arm or even a knife. Here’s hoping MGSV brings back this particular dirty trick.

I remember the first time a doctor prescribed me ‘Surfing Guitar’

Call off the Search (MGS3)

One more stroke of genius from the peerless Snake Eater featured a series mainstay; the radio/codec. What had, up to this point, been a means to contact support teams and get tips, suddenly turned into a fully fledged gadget in MGS3; stations healed the player, called in air strikes and even opened certain doors when called. Players were encouraged to interrogate guards for radio frequencies which meant getting close to enemies rather than picking them off from across the map in one of the series’ many brilliantly balanced risk/reward scenarios. The most cunning use for the radio however, was to call off ‘alerts’ and cautions; Snake would call HQ, impersonate a guard and give the all clear. It gave the player a chance to be Han Solo on the intercom in the Death Star (except y’know… it worked.)

It’s not just those 5, there are countless other nuggets of genius tucked away in the MGS games that might never see the light of day again – things like The Mk II (MGS4), Bomb Disposal (MGS2), Mystery Missions (MGS Integral), Enemy Emotions (MGS4), Heat/Cold Effects on items (MGS1), GPS Scanning for Soldiers (Portable Ops) and the Retinal Scan door in MGS2 to name just a few.

So if you’re making a stealth game, you could do worse than steal a few of Kojima’s cast offs.

Some Feelings on Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock InfiniteBioshock Infinite tells the story of a man, memorably dubbed Gunther Gunface by @SkinnyPaulo on twitter. He inherits the Bioshock protagonist crown from Digby Drillfist who in turn picked it up when it fell off the swollen head of Frank Wrench. All of this means Gunther Gunface is a man with a dark, dark past and a left hand that shoots crows/fire/lightning when the occasion calls for it. He also eats everything he sees on the floor and has a knack for getting rich from the inside of bins (there’s food there too.)

I’m yet to reach the end of Gunther’s journey. Everyone else has – long ago – because it came out months back and they don’t mind dropping £40+ on the recommendation of exclusive reviews. Good for them.

“We Both Know What You Are, Gunther Gunface!”

How do you solve a problem like Videogame Protagonitus? The tragic curse of only being able to interact with an environment by shooting, punching and zapping ‘in’ it? I’ll tell you how – you use this handy monologue…

How many people have you killed to get here, John Killerman? Did you enjoy it? Admit it John Killerman, you’re a killer, man! You enjoy all the killing! Everything you touch turns to killed!  You did everything I told you to because you just wanted an excuse to kill a man… don’t you get it? Killerman: Kill a Man!?! You were the villain all along!”

I was 12 when Metal Gear Solid came out so it was pretty cool when people kept saying that to me. Also, the very nature of a game like MGS (and its sequels) means that there’s a constant tension/release/guilt/panic kind of vibe going on when you do Kill A Man. This should have been the last time anyone was allowed to deconstruct the Player/John Killerman dichotomy out loud. And yet. And yet. etc.

“Lay Down Your Arms, Gunther – You’re Safe Here”

Remember that bit in X-Men 2  when the policeman shouts “Put Down Those Knives” to Wolverine and he goes “I Can’t“? Awesome! What I would have done for some of that in Bioshock Infinite, a game where once Gunther gets hold of his gun – he does not want to put it away. Nor is there the option for the player to put it away as there is in the latter day Falls Out, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and countless other games.

What this means is that Gunther walks through non-hostile areas, eating cotton candy, watching puppet shows and making an actual fucking fortune in bin coins, all with a fully-loaded steam-punk rocket launcher pointing everywhere he looks. (He is, at this point, the most wanted man in cloud city too) Is this a comment on the FPS character’s one dimensional relationship to the world? I do not think it is that. If it turns out to be later on I’ll eat my words whilst holding a gun pointing at my words.

The aforementioned Deus Ex allows you a wonderful opportunity to role-play by putting your gun away in non-hostile areas or around civilians. Whether or not anyone notices is kind of missing the point, these little opportunities to inhabit a character can make a huge difference to a game. They’re the reason you blow the ‘smoke’ from the end of a toy gun as a kid – it’s a nice bit of make-believe that no one ever quite grows out of. I hated Heavy Rain, but I wish more designers would incorporate some of those little non-essential twiddles into games that aren’t quite so in love with their own pseudo intellectuality. Which brings me to…

Pseudo Intellectualism

Ken Levine and his team are infinitely (hehe) smarter and way more better book learned than me. But being a smart person is no guarantee against making something profoundly stupid. In fact, the attempts to force some history  learnin’ down these COD kid’s throats just makes Irrational seem patronizing and worse still, makes all their own dumb stuff look even dumber.

Is the best way for someone to learn about the Boxer Rebellion to have a shootout in it? Is the best way to combat racism to have a shootout in it? Is the best way to satirize having shootouts to have more shootouts? Infinite want to have cake, eat cake, make people feel bad about the cake and come back for more DLC in which the C stands for Cake and the cake stands for gun play. Or an intellectual debate about race… Or religion… I mean, I’ve not finished it yet so bear with me.

Goodby Hacking, Scavenging, Balance… Hello Elizabeth

I’m not even going to get into Elizabeth as a character, there’s probably no shortage of blogs on her constant damselling or her relationship with her stoic, lantern-jawed protector. Instead, I’m going to go ahead and blame her for taking away all of my favourite bits of videogames. Hacking, lockpicking, safe cracking… the much maligned ‘minigame’. I know why this has happened, sure – people have been griping about minigames ‘taking you out of the action’ since there’ve been minigames. Doesn’t make it any easier to swallow when I come to a locked door and rather than use my ingenuity to hunt for a combination, or a key… or use my finely honed bobby pin skills to pick the lock, our old friend the ‘Use Key’ appears and Elizabeth scurries over and unlocks it for me.

I would honestly rather she did the shooting and I was the one who hacked. Imagine that!? Imagine if the only thing you could do in an action game was hack!?! Is there a game like that? Can I play it?

Instead, I get to have all the ‘fun’ – the swarm of bullets whittling away a re-chargeable shield while Elizabeth helpfully throws me healthpacks and salts and ammo that – in an earlier ‘Shock – I would have found in a bin (along with considerably less money) and would have had to choke back sweet tears of gratitude at the bounty contained within. I sense there’s a vicious cycle at play in which the combat was so open and hectic that they had to make Elizabeth more helpful, but Elizabeth was so helpful that they had to make the combat more open and hectic.

(Oooh, if you haven’t read Radiator Yang’s Post on Bioshock Infinite and the ‘Use’ Key then click ‘use’ on that link there. No not ‘E’…)

Did you Get My Audiolog?

Is this not the biggest crutch in storytelling since, I don’t know… the flashback? The overlong opening scroll? The title card? I’ve whinged about it before – but I find the thought of an Early 20th Century Racist/Sub-Aquatic Objectivist lounge singer/security guard/mother/father/tinker/tailor/candlestick maker recording their every thought into some kookily anachronistic listening device to be more jarring than a cut scene. When were they going to listen back to that? Who did they expect to listen back to that? Did they know Gunther Gunface was coming? If that’s the twist and they all knew he was coming and the characters of Bioshock Infinite basically turned their own lives into a Bioshock just to prove how much he enjoys all the killing then woah.

As I said, I’m not finished yet. And I’ve not talked about all the stuff I genuinely love (first 20 mins… some other things) but I’ll come back to it.

I Came, I ‘Blinked’, I Missed It: Dishonored’s Dissatisfying Sneaking etc

20121129-210338.jpg Dishonored lovers, PC gamers and fans of ‘immersive sims’ like Thief and Deus Ex (no, not the last two) have an iron clad put-down to any Dis-sentors; “You are playing Dishonored wrong”. More specifically, you are playing Dishonored wrong because you lack the emergent sim-literacy needed to fully appreciate it; you, having been raised by the narrow corridors, the ‘Follow’ icons and the unambiguous “Blow This Up” mission objectives of your annual Calls to Duty. You, console gamer.

You have gorged on linear games, following superfluous mini maps, glowing mission icons, snap targeting and dispatching foes with one hit melee kills. You have grown soft and fat and are unlikely to appreciate the sprawling multifaceted ‘possibility spaces’ of Dunwall. Only a true gamer could enjoy Dishonored.

At least, that’s the impression I got from the opening of this Rock Paper Shotgun piece. And don’t get me wrong, I am somewhat ‘hip’ to what RPS has to say on the matter of Dishonored’s ‘There if you look for it’ length/value ratio. But the idea that someone fresh from a square eyed, thumb punishing Halo 4 binge is going to mistake Dishonored for their next balls-to-the-wall AAA action epic is a little elitist and a lot misguided. More importantly, it’s hard to see what’s so mind bogglingly deep about Dishonored that your average console gamer couldn’t get it.

All the same, on finishing Dishonored, I have to admit I felt like I’d missed something that other players seemed to have “got”. I felt the same way I felt after playing Hitman 2 back in the early 00s, wondering why each mission descended into a bloody, unsatisfying trudge through an environment not made for bloody, unsatisfying (or satisfying) trudges. Except, I’d made sure to play Dishonored like I have played all such games since I caught the sneaky bastard bug; sneakily.

Somehow the experience was similarly unsatisfying. I peeked round corners, blinked between streetlights and exposed vents (so many exposed vents, thank god for the Half Life 2 guy’s art direction eh?) took side missions, read letters, listened to audiologs and sought out alternate methods for disposing targets.

And it kind of sucked.

Sucked’s maybe a bit strong, but it left me severely underwhelmed. Maybe it was because I’d seen Viktor Antonov’s “Put Blue Metal In It” art style put to more eerie use in Half Life 2? Maybe I’m sick of stumbling across ‘tragic’ scenes of environmental storytelling where a couple has, like, died in each others arms because of plague or something sad? Maybe I’m done with this increasingly ridiculous obsession game designers have with audiologs (the old “I have taken to recording my every thought on this anachronistic steam powered gramophone” trick) as if that’s better than cutscenes because you can walk away from audiologs when you get bored.

The fiction just doesn’t grab me, the more pleased the writers seem with their ‘Whalepunk’ universe, the less appealing I find it. The entire world feels unfinished, like there’s another draft of the story somewhere in which the Whale-Oil/Rat Plague/Talking Heart/Outsider/Olden-times-London-with-American-Accents stuff might come together in a more satisfying way. At the moment it seems like a number of ‘cool’ ideas thrown together with a thin “Your Princess is in another Brothel” type plot that doesn’t do the best job of wrapping itself up.

The mission objectives too (outside of “Kill This Guy!”) seem like placeholders. On capturing Sokolov, I was given the choice to torture him or try to persuade him to join the Loyalists – he mumbles something like “Maybe a thing would persuade me wink wink” [citation needed] and then an objective is added: “Get Sokolov a Bribe”. Where could this hilariously vague objective possibly lead our hero? Walk outside to Piero. He tells you Sokolov likes rum. Piero has rum, would you like to buy rum? Buy rum. Return to Sokolov. Give him rum. He is your friend now. But should you trust him? (Yes.)

It was at this point I started contacting anyone I knew with the slightest interest in games to bitch about Dishonored in long-winded text messages.

In another mission – one praised for its openness by critics – Corvo visits “The Golden Cat” to assassinate the Pendleton Brothers. As with most of the game’s objectives, there’s a welcome non-lethal option that involves doing a side mission for a crime lord named Slackjaw who asks the player to torture an art dealer for his safe combination (Dishonored seems to like torture). On recovering the safe combination, I trotted back to Slackjaw, eager to find out what clever non-stabby scheme I was to become a part of, only to find out that I didn’t need to do anything. Slackjaw was going to shave their heads, cut out their tongues and put them in their own mines. “You want me to-?” No thanks buddy, but here have a bone charm and head back to the Hound Pits for some lacklustre environmental storytelling and overheard conversations. Gee whiz, thanks Dishonored.

“Dumbed Down!” was the cry when Deus Ex Human Revolution stripped back some of the original title’s complicated skill trees and systems, but Dishonored’s Runes & Bonecharm system of character progression has had a pretty easy ride from critics so far, featuring 10 powers and abilities (5 active, 5 passive) with 2 levels of upgrade each. (And is it just me, or are ‘Blink’ and ‘Stop Time’ basically the same thing? At least to the guard watching they are. Should that bother me? It feels like one is an evolution of the other anyway.) I ended the game with 14 unspent runes because I simply didn’t want to spend them on swarms of rats or blood lusts or deadly gusts of wind because they didn’t suit my play style. In Eric Swain’s recent critique of the game on Gamasutra, he notes that the game seems to be missing some of the tools that you’d expect in a stealth game, but I’d add that it offers a buttload of tools that are useless to the stealth player as well.

None of which would be a problem if the game didn’t seem to want you to be the silent wind of ‘sleepy times’. The world reacts impressively to your actions, with guard patrols, rat infestations and hoards of ‘Weepers’ all affected by your actions in previous levels – but things are objectively “better” for you as a player and for the inhabitants of the city, if you keep your blade clean. Sneakier Corvos might feel like maybe they’d have had more fun if they’d just gone around cutting people up.

Mass Effect 3 – Better than Choice


Another victory against the Reapers… of being a single guy in space.

Warning: Spoilers, etc.

Much has been made over the years of Bioware’s talent for weaving meaningful relationships into their games; not only relationships in the romantic sense, but a broader sense of the connection between the protagonist and his/femhis friends and foes.

Before Bioware was Bioware, the main plotlines of their games depended on the discovery (or rediscovery) of the relationships between the leads. The Baldur’s Gate series is, at its heart, a family feud; Planescape’s Nameless One progesses by teasing out the strands of his past relationships.

But these are all very protagonist-centric, aren’t they? The player sits at the heart of the web, the fulcrum on which the plots and subplots hinge. They make choices. Set events in motion.

Is Mass Effect 3 different?

As with many of Bioware’s progeny, the romances of Mass Effect are well-told, and in most cases, believable. The brothers-in-arms banter and badassery likewise have that nourishing sense of hyperreal movie-truth that draws the player in. But is any of this really difficult to achieve, when a developer pays any attention whatsoever to story and character development?

In my view, no. Mass Effect is hardly the first series to attempt such lofty goals as ‘lines a real person might say’ or ‘characters with more than a one-word backstory’.

Where Mass Effect 3 is able to take plot/characterisation/world-building to the next level, however, lies in how the content of the save file is leveraged; the player’s decisions in ME1, ME2 and those daft iOS fripperies.

Note that I’m not suggesting there’s anything clever about measuring so many plot and character-related variables. That is interesting, and forethoughtful, but not revolutionary in of itself. It’s just a tool to tell a better story.

This is particularly evident when you wake from your fractal fever-dream and recall that choice isn’t the point of choice. Choices tailor the plot to better match your preferences, and hence your ideal plot. Assuming you don’t obsessively replay every conversation in search of some illusionary optimal path, you will experience one full ‘story’ per Shepard, seeing the branches, but not where they lead.

But for all that, isn’t ME3 still Shepard’s story, told from Shepard’s viewpoint?

I thought so, until ME3 revealed threads only peripherally tied to those of my Shepard’s web.

Yes, Conrad Verner’s progression is bound to Shepard’s choices in ME1, but his fate in ME3 is determined by an entirely different plot thread; in my Shepard’s universe, Jenna and Conrad wander off into the sunset to make hero-worshipping moon babies. What is potent about this resolution is the degree to which Shepard has become merely a spectator by this point.

Conrad is a bit-part in Shepard: The Musical, but at that moment, I felt that my Shepard was also just a supporting character in Conrad: A play in three acts. Conrad’s life (or death) unfolds not in the explosive, check-out-this-cool-guy-doing-cool-things manner that many of the true supporting characters’ plot lines do, such as Grunt or Jack. He’s just a guy, livin’ his space life.

Does this lack of control herald a backward step, away from choice and toward a more auteur-like experience? No. This is a significant evolutionary leap, one beyond even the popular ‘unintended consequences’ shtick oft employed in choice-centric games (of which gamers live in increasing and justified fear). This isn’t a bait-and-switch choice design to frustrate/shock/show off the designers’ ingenuity. This also does not represent any species of emergent gameplay, such as dangling unconscious bodies off roofs in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and growling “Swear to me” – it’s not gameplay, for one.

In my view, this represents an approach to conversation trees, save files, choices etc, that is not driven by the need to tailor the plot to a schizophrenic player, nor deliver a platter of infinite delicacies to a choice-fetishist. Mass Effect 3 employs these tools to grow something like mimesis*.

It’s a subtle shift; from a plot which develops based on your decisions, to a world which develops, seemingly, with your decisions, among a context of those made by many other NPCs. Shepard is one actor, one protagonist, among many.

This philosophy lies at the heart of ME3. Those seeking to emulate Bioware would do well to focus not on how this has been accomplished technically, but why. Watching Conrad sidle off with Jenna was satisfying not because Shepard’s choices caused it to happen directly, but because his choices wove some of the context in which the event took place.

*For clarity, pedants, I use the term loosely, after Auerbach.

‘The Fading Of His Abilities’: Max Payne 3 and Gaming’s Old, Fat Men

Max Payne 3 Videogame Article on Ageing in Games

When Edge Magazine asked Gabe Newell what scares modern gamers, his response was typically brilliant; “The death of their children. The fading of their own abilities.” Shudder… He was discussing the Half Life series but his comment has relevance that extends beyond the crowbar swinging world of Gordon and the G-Man. It’s a quote that sticks in the mind, especially with regards to the current generation of games in particular that have featured a few appearances from characters of ‘advanced age’.

Solid Snake reappeared as ‘Old Snake’ in MGS4, Kane and Lynch sported beer guts and bald patches, Sam Fisher continues to slip on the incongruous glowing green goggles despite the fact that his mission handlers have been making ‘you’re old!’ jokes for over 10 years. But there’s one old donkey of a videogame character who’s recent appearance has made a fascinating feature of his age and fading abilities; the now paunchy, sagging, bald headed figure of Max Payne in Max Payne 3.

In MGS4, Snake had occasional coughing fits, had to watch his stamina and couldn’t stay out in the sun too long (no seriously), but he could still roll around, use CQC and take on all manner of sexy, animal women in robot suits. Sam Fisher seems to earn a new set of tricks on every birthday – leaping from balconies and pulling off head shots without looking in ‘Conviction‘. But while Max Payne is still laying waste to all manner of gun toting mobsters despite protestations that he’s not very good at his job, he’s not doing it as gracefully as he used to.

Where once he dove head first into a room in a hail of bullets, leaping backwards down staircases, pirouetting mid-air, nailing 4 Italian-American stereotypes with pinpoint headshots from his Desert Eagle, all before hitting the floor – now he flumps through the air like a meat blimp, maybe taking out one guy before he lands, uncomfortably with a weary  “Whooof!”, winded on the ground. Times like this, it’s often a better tactic to stay down and keep firing at anyone left standing until there’s a window for Max to heave himself to his feet. When he pulls off his first dive he groans (and I’m paraphrasing) that he’s either got to ‘take a hit’ or ‘take a fall’. ‘A Fall’… the kind your grandparents have when it’s icy out.

These days, Max doesn’t run so much as schlump from room to room. There’s a ‘run‘ button, which should really be rechristened a ‘try to run‘ button as it causes Max to adopt the body language of a man who remembers how to run, has himself ran in the past but is damned if he can muster one of those ‘runs’ right at this present moment. Max’s lumbering gait is a joy to behold; his heft shifting awkwardly, armfuls of half empty weapons that seem to weigh him down and impede his lolloping jog. That is, a joy to behold until ‘shit gets real‘ and Max seems utterly unable to get out of the way of a swinging door never mind a swarm of angry bullets… then it gets tense. Gamers are used to seeing a ‘grenade indicator’ and taking a few steps to one side to avoid it, Max doesn’t ever seem quite able to escape a grenade’s blast radius. Not without a dramatic well timed dive.

Max Payne’s animations and controls were always a little stiff, but at the same time his actual movements were fluid (if that makes any sense). He skipped as he ran, the tails of his Matrix-esque leather jacket fluttering out behind him (it was 2001) and he controlled like a fidgety hovercraft with feet, able to strafe and backpedal firing 360 degrees around himself. In Max Payne 3 Max’s movements are (as I’ve possibly rammed home by now) a little restricted by comparison – shuffling awkwardly sideways and aiming with a realistic range of upper body motion. He almost stumbles if he’s forced to shoot whilst backing up. He clatters into nearby office furniture and pesky door frames if he doesn’t look before leaping. Despite the ‘bullet time’ and magic painkillers, there’s something thrillingly real about the physicality of this new, girthy Max.

All of this makes for a fascinating sequel; the memory of the first two titles rubbing up awkwardly against the reality of the third instalment. Max’s diminished abilities mean he spends less time soaring through the air and more time doing what we’ve all been doing in our shooters since Gears of War – hunkering down behind waist-high walls and taking pot shots at guys who are doing pretty much the same. It’s like Max has wandered into a modern shooter after nearly a decade away, only to discover that his old tricks don’t seem to work like they used to; he’s older, fatter, slower and everyone else has moved on. Often we’re told we’re playing an ageing bad ass, but outside of a few grumbles about back ache and loud music, it doesn’t impact the way we play. Max Payne 3 makes its protagonist a crumbling statue of an action hero,  barely scraping through one last hot, uncomfortable nightmare of a mission.  It’s not ‘Passage‘ we’re dealing with here, but it’s a noticeable departure from the ass kicking silver foxes we’ve grown used to. And what better way to bring back an ageing gaming icon?

Into Each Life ‘Heavy Rain’ Must Fall

Disclaimer: I wrote this a while ago and didn’t post it, then I saw Beyond: Two Souls and felt my usual mix of feelings on seeing a Quantic Dream Game – curiosity and intense irritation. So I stuck a paragraph on the end of it that makes reference to it. The timing felt right.  

Thank You for Supporting Interactive Drama” said Heavy Rain, smugly, after I fumbled through its intentionally dull opening, getting wedged between bookshelves, failing to drink from cartons and raising serious questions as to whether Ethan Mars shouldn’t be living in some sort of sheltered accommodation. I’m not supporting Interactive Drama you fucks, I’m openly laughing at it. That is, when I’m not grinding my teeth at the navigational controls, scratching my head at the conclusion of scenes and occasionally, very occasionally being caught off guard by a moment that couldn’t have come in any other game.

I know it’s been said before, but as a species, didn’t we figure out the whole moving a character through a 3D space thing in the mid 90s? I’m pretty sure the solution didn’t involve ‘driving’ Mario with R2 and using the left stick to turn his head where you want him to go but don’t hold it too long or he keeps turning sometimes but only sometimes unless you’re at a point in the room where he can’t turn or the camera switches mid movement because that either cancels what you did last or carries on doing whatever it was you were doing  and USE THE STICKS! USE THE FUCKING STICKS! THE STICKS! THE STICKS! 

This is coming from a guy who didn’t just put up with, but stood up for the top down MGS camera. A guy who would argue that the tank controls in Resident Evil are integral to the feel of the game. But here’s the thing with the old RE’s and MGS’s; THEY USED THE STICKS! THEY USED THE FUCKING STICKS!

I’ve been doing this dance with David Cage since before the game came out; he did the rounds before the release of Heavy Rain, talking to the British broadsheets and telling them exactly what they wanted to hear about games. In his Guardian interview, he  came off as the one (smug) despairing intellectual in an industry of meat headed gun crazy knuckle-draggers who’d be able to make a new art form if they only grew up a bit – Hey Guys! he said I’m like you, I’m on your side! If only the rest of these idiots liked movies like Seven and Saw as much as I do, then we’d have a medium we could discuss on Newsnight. I don’t even think this is a game, games are for kids yeah? I’m more interested in adult things like when a woman comes out of a shower in her underwear and is attacked by fucking mercenaries but it’s all a dream. Or when a guy has to crawl through broken glass for some reason. You know, real things. 

But in just the same way that I’m occasionally flawed by Heavy Rain‘s moments of undoubted genius (the infamous ‘finger scene‘, for one), Cage himself will say something that makes a lot of sense – in one particular interview (now hidden behind the odious Times paywall) Cage said something to the effect of If you design a control scheme for a fighting game all you’ll be able to do in it is fight. Which makes a lot of senseWhen you put it like that, Dave (Can I call you that? Dave?) the quicktime-event-heavy, gesture-based control scheme almost makes sense. A game that lets me do everything from investigating a crime scene to changing a baby sounds pretty amazing.

Sadly, in practice, it’s not. No one put it better than Michael Abbott when he says “Heavy Rain mistakes button prompts for player agency” in his spot on criticism of the game. Rather than creating a fighting system that only lets me fight, Quantic Dream have created a ‘fiddling system’ that only lets me fiddle. I can walk around a room and pick things up and fiddle with certain things in the room (depending on which order I fiddle with them in, sometimes I can’t fiddle with one thing till I’ve fiddled with something else, other times fiddling with one object precludes further fiddling with another.) I can stand up, sit down, sloooooooowly, or as fast as I want (but not too fast or I fail at sitting down.) Now sometimes, I can do fighting. And awesome car chases. Wicked! Rad! But my interaction in these scenes is mechanically the same as opening a fridge and consequently it feels like I’m still just fiddling.

And aren’t fighting and awesome car chases something we’ve been doing since the dawn of button presses? What’s different about these car chases? Are they more emotional because two hours ago I was brushing this guy’s teeth? There’s certainly less of them than in GTAIV and I appreciate the fact that by the end of he game I haven’t racked up a genocidal kill count. But for someone who strives to get away from what games traditionally do – Cage and his team spend an awful lot of time doing exactly those things only without anywhere near the level of player expression offered by the very games he sneers at.

I’d love to play something without gunfights, car chases, punch ups and endless killing. But from the looks of Quantic Dream’s upcoming ‘Beyond: Two Souls‘, David Cage and his gang aren’t going to be the guys to provide that (we’re also apparently still ‘driving’ with R2 but now steering with the SIXAXIS… great). Cage and Quantic Dream are still as susceptible to sci-fi, horror and pulp storytelling as the rest of the industry, only Cage seeks to remove to player one step away from the immediacy offered by analogue stick shooter controls with a series of inscrutable button presses and stick wiggles. It’s as if, to Cage, the controls are the problem rather than the content – which is an interesting thought. Are we desensitised to violence because shooting is nothing more than a system? Perhaps, but if we are to abandon the Halo/COD model of 3D console controls can we at least USE THE FUCKING STICKS TO WALK?

“I Can’t See Why You’d Want To Live Here” – Bioshock 2 and Sequels

The announcement of a follow-up to 2007’s ‘Underwater-Objectivist-Dystopia-Shooter’ Bioshock was met with an uncharactaristically luke-warm welcome for a medium that usually thrives on sequels. After all, sequels give creators opportunities beyond ‘expanding the universe’ – improving graphics, iterating on mechanics and generally pushing things forward within the framework set out by the original game. Ask a gamer for their favourite games of all time, you’ll get a series of numbers and subtitles; 2,3,4… Chaos Theory, Snake Eater, Blood Money… Do the same with a movie goer, on the other hand and you’re unlikely to get a similar answer even though sequels form the backbone of most studio’s release schedules.

2K Marin’s Bioshock 2 got the kind of reception you might expect if someone announced a sequel to Blade Runner (oh, wait…) Bioshock, you see, had already told us everything we needed to know about the underwater city of Rapture. Any attempt to return would not only be a disappointment, but would cheapen the original’s legacy and make even the memory of that first trip in a bathysphere a little less special. Toss in an ill conceived multiplayer mode and you’ve basically announced that the upcoming Blade Runner sequel stars Shia LaBouf as Rick Deckard, will be directed by Michael Bay and was written by George Lucas with Will.I.Am providing the soundtrack. (And if the Black Eyed Peas haven’t already used some of Vangelis’ soundtrack to create a shrill, obnoxious and repetitive song about ‘partying like a replicant’ then I hope they all die before they get a chance).

Except the guys that made Bioshock 2 are talented… like, crazy talented. Jordan Thomas showed brass balls by stepping into Ken Levine‘s considerable shoes for the sequel that nobody wanted – he regularly comes across as a smart, candid and all round interesting guy in interviews. I was an avid reader of level designer (and lead designer on the ‘Minerva’s Den’ expansion) Steve Gaynor’s blog Fullbright and I eagerly await Fullbright Company’s upcoming game Gone Home which features the efforts of many former Bioshock 2 staff. And the whole team does an amazing job with Bioshock 2. It’s a brilliant game. But it’s one that’s let down by, of all things – the setting of Rapture.

It doesn’t make sense you see, Rapture. It didn’t make sense in Bioshock The First and it makes less sense now. The first had the luxury of being a place that we, as gamers had never imagined playing a shooter in. And yes, it was an allegory, it’s not meant to be taken literally – the ubiquitous audiologs, invincible little girls,  fist full of bees… etc etc etc. It was a game about Objectivism for sure, but it was also a game about videogames. It wasn’t the dreaded Citizen Kane of Gaming, but rather a sort of videogame Watchmena deconstruction of how games work and how they’ve taught us to consume them.

Without the luxury of metacommentary Bioshock 2‘s fiction crumbles under further scrutiny on this repeat visit. There’s a point early in the game where the player takes a tour through a Rapture/Andrew Ryan propaganda theme park. It’s a wonderful level, as brilliantly designed as the rest of the game and filled with delightful blackly comic touches – right down to a trophy for knocking the head of an anamatronic Andrew Ryan with a golf club. (A strong contender for Gaming’s Greatest In-Joke?) But its here that the fiction of Rapture starts to creak. There’s a host of juddery dioramas (dioramai?) that depict a self-mythologising Ryan as he decides to build Rapture under water, waking in the middle of the night on a boat and crying something to the effect of “Here please“, then we see a team of diving suit-clad engineers laying the foundations for rapture. Ryan echoes JFK’s Rice Moon speech – he chose to build Rapture under the sea, not because it was easy, but because there were magic slugs down there.  We see slums, we see railways, we see factories, we’re taken behind the scenes to see the inner workings of the carnival ride of the first game. But in trying to explain Rapture, it seems less plausible.

Then there’s audiologs, I think even Ken Levine admitted that audiologs were becoming a bit of a crutch after the release of the original Bioshock, by the time the sequel rolled around it had become hilarious to think of people constantly leaving voice memos ‘to themselves’ – usually after particularly harrowing experience. “Dear Diary, I injected myself with slug juice and now my tits have fallen off – the code to my safe is 1066, Andrew Ryan is a bad bad man. I am scared.” Going further into the symbiotic relationship betwixt Big Daddy and Little Sister also churns up mixed results, as does the explanation of ‘plasmids’ for workers in Rapture… for like, welding and shit.

But by far the hardest part to swallow is the notion that, once again, the player has arrived in Rapture to find a war going on for who ‘rules’ the city. It’s like finding two well dressed, charismatic academics fighting over a cake full of broken glass and smallpox. It seems not a year goes by without some ostensibly ‘normal’ person (ie – not insane and deformed)  making a concerted effort to become King or Queen of a city full of insane and deformed spider-people who shoot fire from their hands and weep uncontrollably. (But then again, why do people run for mayor of *Insert City*? SATIRE) What happens when Sofia Lamb manages to [SPOILERS] turn her daughter into a giant brain in a jar? (?) Will everyone just go back to how things were before? Or will they carry on scavenging and splicing and attacking Big Daddies? (Which I can’t figure out whether Lamb is for or against?)

All this being said, I love Bioshock 2. I love it for reasons I’ll explain in another post. And those reasons kind of melt away the quibbles I have with audiologs and giant brains in jars and the voice acting and the fact that Sinclair hides in a train for the whole game except for the bit where he comes out as another Big Daddy who fights you whilst saying “I can’t help myself!”.

Maybe it’s a step forward when gamers don’t want sequels to beloved titles? Maybe it shows that these things aren’t products to be improved upon endlessly – Portal 2 received a similar reception (before coming out and being totally awesome). But it’s got to be a good thing when a game means more to fans than a series of mechanics to be iterated upon year after year.

MGS Peace Walker, Facebook Games and ‘The War Economy’

In the run up to the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Hideo Kojima promised many things; shifting battlefields, NPCs with emotions, the ability to play the entire game in first person – anyone who followed the game’s development, gobbling up every morsel of info on the ‘Final Entry in the Metal Gear Solid Saga’ (cough)  will have gotten a serious case of “the Molineuxs” when they got their paws on the finished article. I sure did. I even came up with the phrase “A Serious Case of The Molineuxs” to describe how I felt.

I’m not here to rag on MGS4 but one particular unfulfilled promise must have bugged Kojima enough to make him explore it further, and on the PSP of all places. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker delves deep into one of MGS4’s more intriguing unfinished thoughts – the war economy. In doing so Peace Walker adds further depth to Big Boss and the hitherto slightly ridiculous concept of ‘Outer Heaven’ – the MGS series’ Valhalla-ish mercenary state that so many of the series villains seem to want to create or destroy or fund or something.

MGS4 depicts a world in which Private Military Companies (or PMCs) keep the world in a state of constant conflict buoyed by the War Economy…  and Liquid was there… and he still has Ocelot’s arm, no wait it’s the other way round. Anyway, in gameplay terms this War Economy translates into Snake picking up weapons from fallen enemies, selling them and buying various items from a weapons dealer named Drebin. The prices apparently fluctuate slightly, depending on how heated battle is in a particular area (there’s also a sale on Sundays) but it’s not enough to really impact on gameplay. The trouble is, it’s pretty easy to pick up weapons, buy ammo and unlock ID tagged guns (did I mention guns are all ID tagged now?)  and even when you do, there’s not much need to use any weapons other than the tranq gun and the multi purpose assault rifle that Snake gets as a freebie early on. Outside of the tortuous, muddled main story, The War Economy has little impact on anything in MGS4, it’s not until Peace Walker that Kojima and his team fully explore the idea in a satisfying way.

And boy do they. Pinching liberally from sources as diverse as Monster Hunter, Pokemon and Facebook games, Peace Walker creates an almost Farmville-esque Feedback Loop that describes the war economy better than 2 hours of Cutscenes ever could. And fittingly, it does so in a game that tells the story of Big Boss creating the mercenary business/state that may or may not be ‘a bit evil‘. Every character he meets is recruited (with the best intentions) into his rag-tag army without much care for their wellbeing. (Interesting contrast; Solid Snake spends most of MGS1 and 2 telling people they shouldn’t be fighting… Big Boss doesn’t feel quite the same way)

The way Peace Walker creates this loop is deserving of a Flow Chart far more resplendent that I could ever muster with MS Paint. All the games modes and side quests and RTS-lite minigames feed back into each other in the most engrossing, but never confusing way. By the time the story has wrapped up (no less than twice) some strange compulsion keeps the player replaying missions, sending squads out on ‘Outer-Ops’, upgrading weapons and using salvaged machine parts to make thier own ‘Metal Gear ZEKE’. It’s the same compulsion that keeps people clicking on cows, checking on crops and clogging up people’s social media feeds with updates about ‘Mob Strength’.

But where Facebook games use this sort of feedback-loop compulsion for nefarious purposes (microtransactions, advertising and the aforementioned updates/requests) Peace Walker weaves this cycle into the fiction of the game and in doing so, casts the rest of the series into a different light. It’s something that could only be accomplished on a portable system, where the ability to send out a few squads on a morning commute made the PSP my travelling companion for the first time since I bought it.  By the end of Peace Walker, Big Boss has resigned himself to a life of constant war, a swirling vortex of conflict that drags in everyone that comes near – be that 12-year old Boys, Bird Watching pants-less French Chicks or the player, firing up their handheld to scan Wifi access points for new recruits (and if you’re me – ruining a holiday by playing every spare minute of every day).

And they say Kojima can only tell stories in Cut-Scenes.