Free will in games, Cockslap City!

May 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Games of old were simple folk. You’d start at point A and be set an objective for the game, be it to eliminate all enemies, win races, collect stars whatever then eventually after many hours of toil you’d end up at point B with (if you were lucky) a few lines of congratulatory text and the ability to do it all over again. That basic formula worked well for many years until this fella called Will Wright in 1989 and released a game called “Simcity.” In it, you were an aspiring major who was tasked with zoning land, collecting taxes and arranging mass transit systems with the eventual aim of building one big fuck-off city. Unlike other games it did not have a definite goal or end; you could carry on playing for as long as you liked, and you could achieve your aims however you wanted and it turns out this formula was quite popular, spawning an entire series as well as establishing the whole “sandbox” genre, which has stood firm to this day.

With increasing technical power as well as bigger budgets and larger studios the idea of doing things your own way has flourished over the years. The most recent example of this was in GTA4 where at (admittedly infrequent) stages in the story you could choose whether someone lived or died by your hand. In Metal Gear Solid 3 you were given a wealth of options to defeat The End, an aged sniper who would challenge you to a massive battle across three whole game areas. You could experiment with different ways of defeating him, you could sneak up behind him, using a perfect combination of camouflage and cover before shooting him in the head and trailing him to his next location. You could play him at his own game, hunt silently around the map before sniping him at the right moment, or you could simply avoid the battle entirely, killing him after he appears in the distance of an early cutscene. Such choices not only add an immense amount of replayability to the game, but also allow the player to play to their own strengths, ensuring that the game remains challenging without being difficult…if that makes any sense at all.

Giving the option to players cannot be said to always be a good thing. Take Grand Theft Auto 4 as an example. Soon after it’s release protest groups were up in arms about the players ability to drunk drive. Apparently giving the player the freedom to drink drive would encourage it in real life, despite the game giving obvious handicaps to you if you did decide to take the unethical route. Drink driving in GTA4 is no mean feat, your vision is impaired by a screen that constantly waves from side to side, your driving manoeuvres are greatly exaggerated, causing you to spin out of control with every turn you (attempt to) take. Add to that the fact that if a cop sees you driving whilst intoxicated then they’ll take you down to the station to sober up. It seems to me with all these measures that Rockstar’s made a pretty good case for just catching a cab home. This brings up an interesting question, does it make a game more amoral if the creator simply chooses to give the player the option of behaving badly?

It’s been three paragraphs, and yet I haven’t gotten to the focus of this post. Free will in games is a difficult thing to pull off because it becomes very difficult for gamers to establish what they can and cannot achieve because in order for them to be able to do it, the developer has had to have to foresight to include the ability to do it in the game. A prime example of this is GTA4 when you’re given the option of letting some enemies live. These occasions stick out from the rest of the game hugely because when they occur seems completely random, and often it doesn’t make any sense when they do. If you’re going to hunt down a gang, why would you kill every single member but then let the leader go free? Games will always have the boundaries that have been set by the developer.

It is a tricky business giving the player free will in games. On the one hand it leads to an overall more engaging experience, where you feel like you’re actually having an impact on the story rather than just watching it go by, but at the same time the boundaries of your influence soon become clear immediately you see the underside when the developer turns to you and says “Hey, what should happen now?” Closing statement: Cockslap City? Bit harsh perhaps?

Bow down to an awesome game idea!!….please?

May 27, 2008 § 3 Comments

It is something of a known fact that every gamer has had at least one or two game ideas during their gaming lifetime. Be it a simple idea to improve on an existing game or more in depth plan to invent an entirely new genre, every gamer has had a moment during a lengthy session one evening when they’ve said to themselves, “You know what. I could do this better.” I’ve generally taken the latter approach whenever I’ve thought of a neat idea, the effort usually culminating with several scattered sheets of paper, a lengthy back story but not a whole lot else.

It should come as no surprise to most of you that I’m using this preface of “Every gamer has ideas” to lure you into reading mine. I must confess this idea is not entirely my own, rather it came from reading an article on cracked.com about annoying clichés in video games. At one point the author (“blogger!” some of you may scream. Well no, it’s author actually. Fuck you) in passing suggests an entirely new gameplay concept. You’re stuck on an island, and have to be rescued. This got me thinking of how this game, if made, could be totally awesome.

Let me first set some basic rules for this game. First off, the only HUD that will ever exist is perhaps something similar to Mass Effect’s dialogue trees, and this will only exist when the user needs to communicate with someone (or something…woooo). This means no aiming reticules (no sure if that’s the correct word to use. Please correct me Internet gods!), no health bar and maybe just a smidgen of colour on the screen to show when you can interact with something. This, coupled with a complete absence of cutscenes will hopefully ensure that the player and protagonist’s experience remains exactly the same such as Valve have achieved with Half Life.

When you’re first shipwrecked on the island, there is much to learn in a very small amount of time. In order to survive you’ll need food, drinking water and shelter, as well as some kind of fire. Shelter is perhaps the most interesting of these. You need to explore the island, trying to find sheets of palm leaves suitable for creating cover as well as tree trunks to keep them upright. You may choose to stay close to your wreckage, cutting down trees elsewhere to use in your creation, or you could venture further afield, and try and find a cave, or perhaps a cluster of trees that could provide you with an easier source of shelter. During your first night on the island you may see the (frankly amazing to be honest) physics that come into play. Rain will seep down through the gaps in a flimsy roof, and wind will blow through cracks in the wall, reducing the amount of time you can sleep, and thus reducing your effective play time the next day.

Soon you’ll want to eat something. At this point no fuck-off big sign saying “EAT FOOD NOW” will pop up on screen. No, soon your character won’t be able to run as fast, he may clutch at his stomach or you’ll hear audible rumbles from the depths of his digestive system. Perhaps one easy source of food is the ocean, teeming with life that once tapped will provide years of nourishment. You could simply try and swim out to see, using your bare hands to catch a meal, but it might be wise to first fashion some kind of primitive weapon, cutting down a branch from a tree for example, before cutting the end to form a sharp point. Then when you wade out into the shallows you might be able to spear some fish, but of course, there’s no HUD so aiming might be difficult, just as it would be in real life. Over time, your aim will improve, allowing you to catch more fish and even have surplus supplies, which you then have the option of storing for later.

At some points in the game you may find other humans, alive and well on the island. At this point it is entirely up to you how you react, and their reaction isn’t scripted at all. They may be an indigenous tribe, who have lived on the island for generations and are very apprehensive of you. Perhaps you could take some food to them to show that you mean no harm. In return they may let you sleep in their much better built shelters or use their tools. You might also find those like yourself, who have been shipwrecked on the island and need assistance to survive. It may be possible to convince them to come and share your shelter, and in return collect food for you, or explore the island and report back their findings.

Companions you garner in the game will not come easily. It may be the case that at some points they will be put in danger and you will have to save them. If you don’t save them, the game won’t end, but you’ll have one less set of hands in your fight for survival. You may choose to form an intimate relationship with someone else, dealing with the issue of sex in games in a mature and evolved manor (something which many are now calling out for). I’ve focused on a player who decided to treat friends well, whereas another may seek to kill them, out of paranoia or a desire to have their belongings all for themselves. Such actions could lead to you forming a divide between communities, or having to fight your enemies hand to hand to prove your worth. The implications involved are far more in depth than most games today, where killing someone will nine times out of ten, benefit the player.

And what of the purpose of the game? Well not unlike The Sims, or to a lesser extent Garry’s Mod, the goal is almost entirely set by you. Getting off the island may be a primary concern for some, and so they may concentrate their efforts on keeping a big fire going to signal to any ships that pass by or building a raft out of tree trunks and vines. Other players may choose to build a thriving village. Over time you may add many other survivors to your community, each with their own tasks, until you have a self contained village, complete with livestock that would eliminate the need to go hunting for food on a regular basis. Another method of running your own village may be to take over another’s, and somehow coax the inhabitants of the tribe to let you rule them.

I’ve been sitting here thinking about this idea for perhaps only half an hour and already there’s the basis for what could potentially be quite an amazing experience. Such a thing could easily be seen as art by even the most skeptical critic, whilst also introducing consequence to gamers who’ve been living without them for so long. There are so many aspects which I haven’t even touched on, like multiplayer where other shipwrecked people could be players online, or procreation with other people, but the point is that this game is something unlike any other, and as such could provide a limitless opportunity for gamers and developers everywhere. I do prey that someone steals this idea, so that twenty years from now I won’t still be shooting aliens in the face from a first person perspective or jumping across platforms for…oh I dunno…stars?

Games as Art – As seen by Trolleydude

May 26, 2008 § 5 Comments

Before you read this article any further, download this small game, and play it at least twice. There’s no install and it’s only 2 megs. Don’t read on to see what I’m playing at, just do it.

I’m serious. There’s no point even reading this bit until you know what I’m talking about.

Okay, until this morning, I was extremely skeptical about the entire “games are art” argument. I reasoned that real art can’t come from the same medium that brought us both Gears of War and Euphoria Physics. It’s tempting to assume, while you’re using a chainsaw to mutilate your fellow gamers, that there’s nothing more to it than gore and camera-splat effects. I hope that Execution changed your mind about that.

Execution was created by a single person, working with a free utility. Independent developers like this don’t have access to the incredible technologies afforded to game companies today. As I touched upon in my World in Conflict rant-review-thing, this can be a great incentive to innovate. With only their imagination to set them apart, indie developers need to come up with new advances in gameplay, rather than mechanics. Take, for example, Cortex Command. Now, as anyone who knows me will testify, I think Cortex Command is awesome. I’m not going to go into detail here, as I’m saving that for when I can do it justice. My point is, the creator of CC had next to no access to new technology when he started, so he had to invent a new way of playing games. He implemented, into a 2d shooter, gameplay that hasn’t been seen since Lemmings. Pixel physics allows the player to deform the terrain in real-time, and adjust strategies to go with it. I know what you’re thinking, it’s been done. Red-Faction style. But this isn’t a simple “Ok shoot at the wall for an hour and encounter nothing but brown rock” idea. Burrowing towards your opponent’s custom-made bunker while angry robots scurry down the shaft you’ve constructed to tear you apart is a delightful and refreshing experience.

All this is a frustratingly roundabout way of saying that Execution has brought forward a new and surprising concept. No doubt the savvier of you have attempted to redownload the game to reverse your mistake, and found out, to your consternation (and hopefully your anxiety), that this time, death is the end. The brilliance of this game is that it toys with human psychology, by upsetting your core understanding of how games work. It provides you with a single piece of general advice, and leaves you to your own devices. The problem, which you immediately notice, if not consciously, is that you have, for the first time in a game, been given a real choice. The choice being; do you do immediately what comes naturally, or do you stop and think? Now there’s a word that hasn’t appeared in.. how long since Deus Ex? ..eight years.

I apologise if the last (and following) paragraph was a bit.. gay .. for you, but this game gives me a big ol’ game-design stiffy. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, you can either kill the man, resulting in a you-lose screen, or – get this – press Escape to get a you-win screen. Of course, most people will kill the man simply because they haven’t been presented with an alternative. In real life, your commanding officer wouldn’t say, “okay, you can kill him or click the tumbleweed to spare him”. You have to find your own way, and, by forcing us to find our own way, Execution scares us. This is because in all other games which offer an illusion of choice (Mass Effect, GTA IV, Bioshock), we are told what we can do, so we are still safe, secure in the corridors set by the designers; which dictate how games are played, and which practically forced you to fire, just because you hadn’t been coddled and pushed towards a certain action.

Before I get up to go lift weights and work the woman out of my system, I just want to say that this game is art. It has a message, it forces us to think, it’s truly innovative (nintendo take note) and it wasn’t created by EA. Which is the most important of all.

Playstation Home and why it COULD be awesome

May 25, 2008 § 3 Comments

I’ll admit at this point that I’m a bit of a PS3 fanboy. Sure, I’ll admit that I value games on all systems and I’ll make it seem as though I don’t really mind when games lose Playstation exclusivity, but at the end of the day, when Devil May Cry 4 was announced as being multi-platform I was out there on the message boards swearing blind that Microsoft had “stolen” an epic Capcom franchise from us.

It therefore brings a tear to my eye whenever I actually try and do anything on the Playstation Network. Why? Because whilst it may be very functional in terms of “add your friends to a list and see what they’re playing,” when you come to actually trying to sit down and play with a friend the bottom falls out and suddenly it dawns on you that maybe those Xbox guys really did have the right idea after all. Before I get tied to the helm of the Cutty Sark by my Playstation brethren I should probably provide an example though non?

Literally everyone and their grandma’s been raving on about the GTA4 online component, and yet playing with strangers (mostly on the PSN without headsets) just doesn’t feel right in terms of the core fun-factor in GTA. Very quickly I was shepherded into playing some online with a dear friend, at which point it dawned on me that hey, this thing is pretty damn awesome. My beef however, lies with the inability of the PS3 to allow you to contact friends in-game. I’m not talking about once you’re in the same online game, but simply when you’re setting things up and inevitably one of you can’t connect, or needs to leave the console briefly to do other things (make a sandwich, rub raw meat all over yourself, you know, standard stuff). The only solution to the problem is to exit the game to send a message to your friend, but even at this point things are made difficult by the inability to read messages from in-game, resulting in multiple messages being sent, each with the one entire message crammed into their subject headers. It really does beg the question: Were Sony really serious about taking on Xbox Live, or is the PSN just another box to tick off on the back of a next generation console?

This brings us nicely to Home which could very much be the solution to all our woes (that is if Sony doesn’t cock it up). Just thinking about the possibilities of it is quite interesting. Firstly it’ll provide an interactive lobby similar to those found in GTA4 and Burnout Paradise for every game. Say you want to meet up with a group of friends and just talk for a while. Sure you can do that. Say you then want to play a game? Apparently you’ll be able to do that too.

Thinking beyond Sony’s marketing plans there’s also interesting possibilities that no one’s touched on yet. Consider this: in a typical web browser setting you have no idea of who’s looking at the same content as you whenever you’re surfing the web. In Home however you’ll be able to not only see who’s viewing those luscious screenshots of Killzone 2, but you’ll also be able to talk with them. In essence it’ll ensure that every website has a forum for discussion. Such a thing will very easily allow you to find people with similar gaming interests as you in one centralised location.

It’s occurred to me at this point that I sound incredibly like a Sony marketing rep which I should really point out is not the case. Home has the potential to be a complete disaster. If it’s laggy, or if getting places is a chore, I can’t see it being anything other than an interesting novelty. However, if they get the technical aspects down, and manage to police it well enough to avoid the inevitable griefers that’ll start popping up all over the place (a la Second Life), it could really be something special.

Until then though we’re (well, not Trollydude at any rate) stuck with somewhat of a second rate online service. Here’s to hoping things can only get better. After all, they fixed the Playstation Store didn’t they?

World in Conflict – As Seen by Trolleydude

May 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Okay, so with Team Fortress disappearing over the horizon in a puff of all-medic teams and cheating bastards, I have had some time on my hands lately. As per usual, instead of doing something productive, I dug out my untouched copy of World in Conflict and sat down
to try and remember why I never bothered to get past the tutorial.

The answer- that was around the time that my aging graphics card mysteriously decided to take up a career as a professional paperweight. I make no bones about it. This game will absolutely maul your computer if you aren’t properly equipped with a fire extinguisher and liquid nitrogen cooling systems. Every gunfight goes off in a flurry of volumetric smoke, lighting and gloriously hectic building physics. This game is an absolute joy to watch on the higher settings, but steer clear if you’re still having trouble running half-life 2 on medium.

Unlike most games that herald a new leap in technology (see Crysis, Cell Factor and Doom 3), World in Conflict doesn’t use it as a main selling point. In fact, I was unaware of its existence before it turned up on my doorstep drunk, naked and crying out for attention. It seems that the rise of console ports and completely pointless movie-to-game conversions has worked to dumb-down the general populace to the point that they don’t even appreciate a good strategy game anymore.

However, if there’s one company who I trust to revive this tired genre, it’s Massive Entertainment. The creators of Ground Control (which was fucking brilliant) and the first company to create an RTS in a 3d engine, Massive used to be the last word when it came to intelligent games. They were just starting to edge out Whoeverthefuckmadecommandandconquer Entertainment when they vanished off the face of the earth with Ground Control 2, leaving us lost and confused. In the resulting power vacuum, Whoeverthefuckmadecommandandconquer Entertainment decided to pump out rehash after rehash of the same old formula until the franchise consisted of nothing else.

Anyway, now that I’ve managed to rant for two straight paragraphs without making a single valid point, I should probably start talking about the game. Just like Ground Control, World in Conflict takes all the base-building and resource gathering of similar games and throws it in the bin, then buries the bin under two tonnes of innovative game design and slick controls. You’re thrown into battle with a limited number of units (tanks, helicopters and the like) and left to your own devices. Here’s where the game throws in its first little trick – all your units can die, and you’re still in the fight. There’s no special “kill me to win the game” unit this time around. You simply fly in more reinforcements and get back to laying waste to the surroundings. Obviously it’s more deep than that, or you’d be an unstoppable reinforcement machine. Unfortunately I’ve spent too much time complaining about Command and Conquer, so I’ve got to move on.

The simple Rock-Paper-Scissors formula of most strategy games isn’t apparent here. Mostly you aren’t just throwing colour-coded meat into the grinder, you’re trying to outmaneuver the cunning AI. The lack of a base to defend means that you can move your forces wherever you want, and, as a result, the enemy seems a lot more flexible and intimidating. When you are required to defend a position, the computer is ruthless and uninhibited. The undiluted satisfaction of fighting off the entire Soviet Army to be left with a few crippled, flaming tanks and a lonely helicopter cannot be met by many games of any genre. Even failure can be gloriously satisfying. When you’re forced to call down a tactical nuclear strike on your own men to stop a huge wave of tanks, and are given thirty seconds to flee, only to see your half-hour’s meticulous planning go up in smoke when they circle around to cut off your escape; well, let’s just say I’m finding it difficult to convey the heartbreak.

I’m running out of time, so let me say this: The single player is exceptional, the multiplayer is deep in ways I haven’t mentioned here, and all in all this is one of the most complete games I have ever come across. Buy it if you’re looking for a thoughtful challenge. Otherwise, buy it.

What?!?!

May 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

So I’ve just come across this novelization of a little game called Metal Gear Solid. Just thought it was worth sharing seeing as how I personally at least have heard next to nothing about this interesting development.

It’s written by Raymond Benson who’s written a couple of Bond books as well as novelizations for a couple of the Splinter Cell games. I don’t know anyone who’s read any of his books, but in all honesty I can’t see this book being very good for the simple reason that even though the game’s very heavy on narrative in the context of a game, for a book it may be somewhat….lacking. I was going to try and write a made up extract from the book to try and make your sides split with laughter as you realize how ill suited games are for novelizations but….I can’t really be bothered…and I’m also not terribly funny. Oh well.

I’ll probably buy this book, simply because I can’t resist anything with the Metal Gear label on it (Metal Gear Ac!d anyone?) but for the rest of you suckers out there I highly recommend you buy the Ashley Wood comics either as a physical anthology or the Digital Graphic Novel on the PSP (I chose the latter). Not only do the comics manage to add little flourishes to the original story whilst staying very true to the overall feel, but Wood’s drawing style is also very much in keeping with the dark look of the game.

At any rate it seems to me that the story of Metal Gear Solid 1 has been rehashed enough already. What I really want to see is something based on the MSX originals, either a completely new game after Hideo jumps ship, or a book, series of comics, whatever. I have a copy of Subsistance on order so I can play through them myself, but this period of the MG back story has been seldom explored past their original releases.

Someone needs to remind me to buy this book when it comes out but until then, peace out!

Grand Theft Auto 4

May 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Here follows a review posted by me on Gamespot:

I must confess I’ve been making excuses not to write this review for a while now. “Complete it 100%” I said to myself, laughing gleefully as I watched Niko fly through the windshield of his car, “get into the online first” I pleaded, as I jumped over a waiting helicopter on a bike. I can’t make excuses anymore, I need to somehow condense this massive game into just a few paragraphs to convince you it’s worth your time. It is, by the way.

Chances are you know something about this game already. You’re Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant fresh of the boat from eastern Europe in Liberty City. You’ve come to meet your cousin Roman, who’s been living the American dream…or so he claims. It soon transpires he’s in with the wrong people, loan sharks and gangsters and so begins Niko’s steep decline into the criminal underworld.

It’s the little details that strike you first, the way Niko will smash a window to a car before he can gain entry, or the way you’ll see pedestrians using mobiles, buying hot dogs or holding up umbrellas when the heavens open but soon the major differences become apparent. Firstly the aiming, perhaps the only slightly dodgey component in past GTA games. Holding L2 will lock you on to your nearest target, but then the right analogue stick can be used to fine tune your aim. Pulling off headshots feels a bit easy at times, but rest assured you feel like a complete badass each and every time you do it. Next up is a new cover system, which allows you to crouch behind literally anything in the environment to desperately stop the barrage of bullets heading your way.

It’s at this point though that i should really stop listing the improvements over past GTA games because you see GTA4 isn’t a major leap for the series. You still arrive at contacts doors and ask for work before going out on a mission for example. It’s the way in which everything fits together that makes GTA4 so special. Take the storytelling for example: Cutscenes in previous GTA games had been there largely to accomplish one thing, to advance the story. This time around things are different. You get development of characters, forcing you to care for these people who you’ve come into contact with. When a decisions come up which may harm one of Niko’s friend’s you really have to stop and think about how much they mean to you. I’d even go as far as to say hanging up on a friend when they’re asking to go to a strip club makes me feel a slight pang of regret.

Graphically the game’s no hunch. Characters look for the most part crisp and smooth, but the cars and environment stand out above all else. Liberty city looks simply amazing, from the sunrise which causes the ocean to glisten as you plunge your way into it, to midday when leaves’s shadows play across Niko’s back as he punches a mobster in the noggin to midnight, when you’re hanging desperately from a copter watching the hypnotizing lights of the New Y– I mean Liberty City skyline.

All of this without even touching on the online. When you get round to it though it’s a blast, especially playing the game modes specially made for GTA. Multiplayer will see you doing everything, from escorting a Mob boss away from the police, to racing to destroy cars and drug dealers. It honestly has to be played to be believed, and the fun that can be had with simply getting a load of friends running around with no real objective will make you thankful you’re a gamer.

Of course it’s not perfect, the multiplayer gets laggy at times, there are graphical glitches here and there and the whole friends minigame simply isn’t a load of fun but the simple truth of the matter is thus. Grand Theft Auto 4 is the most fun I have had with my PS3 since I bought it. If you don’t play this game you’ll be missing out on one of the best pieces of entertainment this millennium. You know what to do…

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