tirsdag den 29. juni 2010

The Obsolete Cowboy

Can a computer game make you feel sad?

I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption for some time now – it’s easily my favorite game of the year so far. Now, yesterday I came to a very strange point in the game. After I had been busy taming wild horses, skinning animals and fighting in the Mexican revolution, I arrived to Blackwater. Just after I arrived to the city, an odd and lengthy scene started. In this non-skipable scene I was transported to my next mission in an automobile. And strangely enough, I felt sad. Why?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – one of John Fords finest westerns – takes place in much the same time as Red Dead Redemption. Here two men of the era are portrayed – Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart), Lawyer and future Senator of the state, and Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), cowboy and gunman. Stoddard is a hero of the modern USA, while Doniphon is the iconic hero of the old west. Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the bad guy of the movie, also represents the old west. He challenges Stoddard to a duel – to everybody’s big surprise, Stoddard wins the duel. Stoddard becomes a legend as the man who shot Liberty Valance. Many years later, though, Stoddard reveals that it was actually Tom Doniphon who shot Liberty Valance – of course … Stoddard wouldn’t have stood a chance against the professional killer.

Stoddard may not have shot Liberty Valance, but he did kill him. Just as it was his fault that Doniphon died a penniless and forgotten man. Modern USA killed off the old west.

So, what does this have to do with Red Dead Redemption? When I rode as a passenger in the car I felt the same kind of sadness I felt when seeing Stoddard and his wife gathering around Tom Doniphon’s cheap makeshift coffin. The feeling of loss was the same. I was put in the role as James Marston - I had all the skills of a cowboy of the old west. Blackwater represents the new era, the coming of the 20th century. When I entered Black Waters I had the profound feeling of suddenly being obsolete – a thing of the past. I had become Tom Doniphon.

Earlier I explored how you could make your players feel for your characters – how it’s easier for the player to feel for the side characters than for the main character. This is also true in Red Dead Redemption; I don’t feel anything for Marston, because I am Marston. I feel obligated to some of the side characters, but nothing more than that. I do however feel as part of the Wild West and I when the West changes before my eyes, I feel this.

I can’t recall having seen this before, and as I see it, this is a major leap in interactive storytelling. Letting the player assume a role isn’t new of course. But giving the player a role to play and then make this role obsolete - that’s new.

mandag den 19. april 2010

Leave it to the Langoliers

It’s no secret that I am a fan of Bioshock. In my opinion the start alone rates among the greatest moments of any computer game. The game is a journey through Rapture - an Ayn Rand inspired Utopia-gone-bad. Everything seems to have stopped New Years Eve 1959 and as you travel though the game, the true nature of Rapture unfolds.

Ok, so the boss fight near the end sucked, but Bioshock really was a unique experience.

Sadly, this isn’t the case with the sequel.

Bioshock 2 is set 8 years after the first one and you play a Big Daddy, a giant in an old-fashioned diving suit. Once again you must travel through Rapture, this time searching for Eleanor Lamb, your Little Sister.

The unbreakable bond between the vampire-like Little Sister and the Big Daddy in the first game was really sweet and really creepy at the same time. I can’t help but feel that it is a misunderstanding that you, in the sequel, are playing a Big Daddy – that you are helping the Little Sisters perform their nasty “duties”. And how come that you have to choose to “Rescue” or “Harvest” the Little Sisters, like in the first game? Surely, if you were a Big Daddy, wouldn’t you ALWAYS rescue the Little Sisters?

The story isn’t as fetching as the one in the first one and standout moments are almost non-existing.

But all in all, there’s nothing vitally wrong with Bioshock 2. The only thing is: it’s a completely unnecessary game. I had a distinct feeling of déjà-vu, when I played it. It felt like being in “the past”, the way it’s described in the The Langoliers.

In Stephen King’s 1990 novella The Langoliers, the passengers of an airplane pass through a time rift and end up in the past. It looks just the same as the present, but everything tastes stale and there is no smell. This is because it’s dead space, everything has been used – and soon the Langoliers comes, the strange and scary creatures that are the garbage removers of time. They eat the used up past to make room for the present.

Bioshock 2 feels vacant, smell-less and tasteless. It feels like the pretty leftovers of greatness, stuff that should have been devoured by the Langoliers long ago.

You can’t really blame the development team – what on Earth were they to do? Bioshock closed around it-self – when the game was over, so was the story. There was no reason ever to return to Rapture. It was inevitable that the sequel would be a bland experience.

I recognize that when building something like Rapture, you would like to be able to reuse it. The lesson learned is that if you want to reuse a game universe, then don’t close it up.

Keep your game universe open, or let the Langoliers take it.

onsdag den 14. april 2010

Bioshock 2 update

Just to let you know that I didn't forget my promise.

A week ago I finally received my copy of Bioshock 2 - the first copy "disappeared" in the hands of the Danish postal service (enough said). It arrived literary the day after my PS3 broke down.

Yesterday I finally got my PS3 back from the garage (by the way, it seems that a lot of the older, non-slim PS3's breaks down after 28 months ... so now you know).

I've started playing Bioshock 2 and I will write about it real soon.

mandag den 12. april 2010

Entertainment versus Enlightenment

Games has become an established entertainment form, and people with pipes and beards are already asking “But is it art?”.

A more interesting question would be: "What should games do?" Should they entertain or should they enlighten?

In his keynote from GDC this year, Sid Meier talks about the suspension of disbelief. His view is that that the game designer should do everything possible to keep the player in the suspension of disbelief. If the user gets annoyed about something, the suspension of disbelief is – well, suspended. He gives an example: during play testing of the latest Civilization, players didn’t understand that a unit that had a 4 to 1 edge against an enemy unit would sometimes lose a battle … and some times twice in a row. The player would feel that the game was cheating - whenever this happened, the player was yanked out of the suspension of disbelief. The game designer, Meier says, should never allow this to happen. To some, this “bending over backwards” to please the player sometimes borders the ridiculous, but it all boils down to one thing: remembering who the customer is – and keeping him happy.

In movies, there have always been two schools.

One school believes that the finest task of the movie is the suspension of disbelief – a movie should keep its viewer in a fictional bubble throughout the whole movie. This is called Continuity. The audience is the king and the keyword is Entertainment. This is the way of the classic Spielberg/ Cameron Hollywood movie.

The other school believes that breaking the fictional bubble is exactly what movies should be all about. In 1817 The Russian writer Shklovsky coined the term Ostranenie, which translates into something like “defamiliarization”. The idea is to remove something quite ordinary and put it in a new context so the audience would see it in a new way. Bertholt Brecht actively sought to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief. In movies directors like Jean Luc Goddard and Lars von Trier do this all the time. The audience is a mere pupil and Enlightenment is a keyword.

So: Continuity versus Ostranenie; Entertainment versus Enlightenment.

Sid Meier, of course, subscribes to the classic Hollywood way of thinking. Most big games - games like Call of Duty, Halo and Uncharted do everything they can to keep the player in his fiction bubble. They put the player in the shoes of someone cool and keep them there until the game is over.

But Ostranenie is very much a part of other blockbuster games:

Portal constantly lies to the player and as the player moves on in the game, the sets of the game starts to fall apart – it is obvious that the player is playing a game. Assassins Creed 2 constantly reminds the player that he is playing a game and even talks to directly to the player – the game’s main character (which the player has unto this point “been”) protests, but the “game” dismisses him – he is just a vessel for the player. And with the famous “Would you kindly?”, Bioshock shows the player that he really has no free choice – he must do as the game designer rules. I’ll bet that Sid Meier absolutely HATES this.

And I’ll bet that these two schools will fight it out, just as the film schools still are fighting about the “right” way to make films. The Ostranenie-guys will probably use words like “shallow” and “unnecessary” about the games produced by the Continuity-guys. On the other hand the games that the Ostranenie-guys produce will be called “arty-farty” and “player hostile” by the Continuity-guys.

We, the gamers can sit back and enjoy. Because, as the two schools fight it out, the “game-language” or the “game designer’s toolbox” will get more and more complex.

No matter if the games are supposed to be enlightening or entertaining, we will get better and better games.

tirsdag den 30. marts 2010

Go episodic! (Part 1)

Traditionally the Computer Game has had the production form of the motion picture. This is fine if you have 20 million dollars to spend. If you don’t, then you should consider doing what TV-studios have been doing for at least 50 years – you should go episodic. But you have to do it right.

The Episodic Game was the new black in 2006. Tell Tale Games re-launched Sam & Max in an episodic form. Valve continued Half Life 2 as episodes and SiN, an old first person shooter, was reborn as SiN Episodes. But come 2007, and no one talked about episodic games anymore. SiN, episode 2 was never released, and we are still waiting for Half Life 2, episode 3. American McGee tried the format with American McGee’s Grimm, but failed miserably. Tell Tale Games have expanded their range of episodic games, but they among the very few companies to do this.

The reason why Tell Tale Games succeeds in this while the others fail is very simple: they have adopted the production form of a TV-series. And they understand one single thing: just as a TV-series is NOT a movie cut into small pieces, an episodic game is NOT a traditional game cut into small pieces.

The production form of a movie and a TV-series is very different. The obvious difference is that a movie runs around 110 minutes, while a single season of a TV-series (like Lost) runs around 16 hours. A movie easily costs around 20 million $, while an episode of Lost costs around 2 million $. A typical hour-episode lasts app. 40 minutes. In other words: a movie costs around 200000 $ per minute, while a high profile TV-series costs around 40000 $ per minute.

It costs a lot of money to start a TV-series. The pilot of Lost cost 10 million $ (the one of most expensive pilots ever) – about half the budget of a standard movie. If the networks don’t pick up the show, then the money is wasted; if they do up, however, the “machine” has been built and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to use.

While you essentially chuck everything when you've finished making a movie, the whole idea of a TV-series is that you can reuse the cast and the locations – in the long run this makes the production a lot cheaper. Once you have built a set, it becomes very cheap to use it again. Think of a sitcom like Friends: most episodes have a cast list of less than 10 – the 6 main characters and a couple of guest stars. The number of locations is limited to 4 or 5 – the two apartments, the café and 1 or 2 extra locations. Lost has more locations and more characters in each episode – but just as in Friends there are very few new locations and characters.

I think that a lot of this translates easily into computer games. But you have to respect the format– episodic games are NOT full games cut into small pieces.

I think that Half Life 2, episode 1, 2 and (hopefully) 3 is a full game cut into three pieces.

Some are already doing it right. The Phoenix Wright (Capcom) games are actually prime examples of the episodic game. Each game consists of a number of standalone chapters and each chapter has few locations and few characters. Blue Toad Mystery Files (Relentless Software) is an episodic game in 6 episodes, which can be downloaded from the PlayStation Network – the whole game takes place in 1 village and the characters are reused from episode to episode. And then there’s Tell Tale Games, which have released several different IP’s as episodes.

I’ll be returning to the dos and don’ts of episodic game in the future – I will be trying to set up some ground rules for the format.

tirsdag den 16. marts 2010

The multi-protagonist game

An overweight asthmatic private investigator, an FBI agent with a drug addiction, an introvert divorced architect and an insomniac photo journalist. Realistic characters in computer games? What will be next?!

From the very start of Heavy Rain (from Quantic Dreams) it is clear that this is a different kind of beast. You play Ethan Mars (the architect) and you simply wander around in your house, helping your wife preparing for a party, playing with your kids. Then a tragic accident happens and the story jumps 2 years forward. You now live in a rundown apartment with your son - the beautiful wife and house is gone. And then all of a sudden you’re Madison Paige (the photo journalist) being chased by hooded men with knives. And the next scene you’re Scott Shelby (the asthmatic PI), trying to interview the mother of a murdered child.

Last week I talked about the difficulty of feeling deeper emotions for the character you are controlling. In Heavy Rain you constantly shift main characters and quite often you interact with a character that you’ve just controlled. In one scene you control Ethan getting hurt doing something insanely dangerous and in the very next scene you control Madison tending the wounds on Ethan – wounds that he got when you controlled him. This is very, very clever. As I also said last week, it’s much easier to empathize with the side characters – so what Heavy Rain does is effectively making the main characters side character when it fits.

Heavy Rain is a multi-protagonist video-game. Each character in the game has their own goal and their goal becomes your goal when your controlling them.

Heavy Rain also lets you experience what the character you control feels. If your character is stressed, it becomes more difficult to control it. Your character will only run, when THEY feel there’s a reason for it. If you don’t react quickly enough, your character will autonomously make the easy choice … when you control Norman Jayden, the FBI agent, for instance, he will take drugs if you don’t actively stop him. And when you’re playing dreams or memories (which happen quite often) it seems as real as the rest of the game; because … you’re experiencing what the character you control feels.

You can influence your character, but that’s it; you don’t own them. This is emphasized by the fact that you don’t really know anything of your characters – despite that you’re controlling them, they are keeping secrets from you.

The multi protagonist game isn’t new – Infinity Ward, for instance, has done it with great success in the Call of Duty games. But the way it is done in Heavy Rain is really breath taking. Writer/director David Cage knows exactly what he is doing. While the story barely hits the standard of a straight-to-video rip-off of S7even, the way the character interaction works is going to set new standards.

The way Heavy Rain deals with characters should enter any game designer’s toolbox and as such the game, if anything is fair, will take its place in the video games’ history. It’s a landmark game.

I know that Quantic Dreams tried some of the same things in Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, as it was called in some parts of the World) – I think it seems like a rough sketch compared to Heavy Rain.

Oh, and David Cage calls Heavy Rain an interactive drama. Spare me, David – Heavy Rain is a video game … and a damn fine one at that.

mandag den 8. marts 2010

Love your side characters

It’s very hard to make a player feel something deeply for the main character in a computer game. The reason for this is that the main character is our anchor in the game universe. Does that mean that we can’t invoke deeper feelings in a computer game?

Of course not – we just need to create great side characters.

When we play Uncharted, we become Nathan Drake. He is our alter ego in the game – but we don’t inherit his feelings. In the cut scenes he is Nathan Drake, fortune hunter who, whether he admits it or not, is in love with Elena Fisher. When he is in the game universe, he becomes the skin we wear. Any motives or feelings Nathan might have inside the game’s universe feels like postulates, because we become Nathan.

So, we don’t really feel for our main characters because we’re controlling them. But we can feel for our side characters – especially if something we do has a consequence for them.

In the end of the old text adventure Planetfall , the quirky droid Floyd, who is our companion throughout the game, sacrifices his life to retrieve vital information. While he is dying the player character sings “The Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner”. This is a genuinely sad scene, because Floyd dies as a consequence of something we’ve done.

The seminal horror game Silent Hill 2, has a scene in which the player character and his love interest Maria run as fast as they can down a corridor, trying to escape “Pyramid Head”, a horrific monster. We steer the main character and we barely escape into an elevator; but Maria doesn’t make it. She is caught and killed by Pyramid Head – again this is a consequence of something we’ve done.

It’s much the same thing when Alex is abducted in the beginning of Half Life 2, Episode 2 – it feels like it’s our fault, because we didn't take care of her. The reason it works is that we like Alex - and Floyd and Maria. And the reason we like them is that they are very well conceived.

While it’s difficult to have the player get emotionally involved with the main character of a game, it’s certainly possible to feel something for the side characters of a game. And the odd thing is that when these side character’s that we can emotionally connect with display affection for our character, it’s really us that they display affection for. When they blame the main character for something, it’s us that they blame.

So: if you want to invoke feelings in your computer game take a long look at your side characters. Do you like them? If you don't, then your players probably won't either. And if they don't, they won't invest themselves emotionally in your game.