Filed under Video Games

[FROM 2011] DEATH BY VARIATION

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

sonymsnintendoHideo Kojima of Metal Gear infamy recently announced that high definition iterations of Metal Gear Solid 2, 3, and Peace Walker would be coming to both the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the near future. Such re-releases are nothing new, currently all the rage and by and large no great shame (unless of course one adopts an air of cynicism and rejects the project as nothing more than a ditch attempt at more money). What’s interesting is the fact that they’re heading to both current mainstream HD consoles in two subtle variations. The core games will be the same for both Xbox and PlayStation owners, however people playing on the Sony machine will have the chance to take their game and save data over to their PSP to continue the stealth action on the go. This is a nice touch for owners of both a PlayStation 3 and a PSP and whether you care to use it or not, its existence can be seen as nothing short of a bonus. This is noteworthy only insofar as this trend of offering a ‘variation’ on effectively the same product is increasingly the only way companies seem to be able to get you to favour buying a game on their system over that of their competitors. And it’s all rather tiresome.

Metal Gear Solid, as a franchise, is no stranger to multiplatform releases. In the past, Nintendo have offered a home to Solid Snake and his ilk as have Microsoft. The fact that the HD re-releases are heading to Microsoft’s console when the last main game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, was exclusive to Sony is not anything to get worked up about. But it’s this move away from console exclusivity that has opened up another more infuriating practice – the ‘pick-me-because’ form of game marketing.

Console exclusives are no longer as prevalent as they once were. Higher production costs means that your install base better be vast, or your game so good that every current console owner (and a few million yet-to-be buyers) will rush out and snap it up immediately. In reality, huge franchises that used to be synonymous with one system are increasingly playing the field. Final Fantasy, while once a Nintendo property, jumped ship and established itself as a Sony franchise for two generations. The releases of Final Fantasy XIII, however, saw the necessity for a multiplatform release and all of a sudden Microsoft is in with a trump card. Hell, it was only last E3, when Hideo Kojima walked out onto the Microsoft stage to announce Metal Gear Solid: Rising as a multiplatform release, that Microsoft boasted the fact that nearly all the major ‘big hitters’ of Sony’s yesteryear were now MS properties too… (minutes before they pealed back their plastic faces and cackled to a backdrop of champagne, forked-lightening and the haunting blare of the Imperial March).

But a loss of exclusives is a baffling state of affairs. The types of experiences you could only get on certain consoles was the major hook. Oddly enough, the hook still remains. It’s moved from the consoles themselves and deferred to the games. Publishers may want their games out on every platform under the sun but the console makers are constantly cutting deals to ensure that the wandering eye of the consumer favours their shinny treats. We’re left with a sea of semi-variation, things that are almost the same but annoyingly different. You could buy a game only to find it’s better supported post-launch with DLC on one system over another. You weren’t necessarily to know this before you made your choice and so the revelation that you’ll only ever get this or that map-pack or side-story on the console you didn’t buy the game for is nothing short of infuriating.

I know that there is good to be mined from multiplatform releases. If you don’t own a PlayStation and now get to experience once ‘PlayStation-only’ releases then that’s thumbs up for you. But what of the folk with more than one system? It’s easy to assume that if they can afford all major systems in a given generation that they deserve no pity and should be shafted at all possible turns. I can attest, however, that it’s not easy being a multi-system owner in a generation where the lines of exclusivity are constantly blurring.

Owning a console exclusively for one or two games and then making your purchasing decisions about multiplatform releases based on controller preference or how many disks it comes on is the very definition of opulence. But it was once a luxury that meant you could play all games no matter the system they were released on. Nowadays it’s seeming increasingly likely that in order to get the most out of a franchise you’ll have to buy the same game for all systems just to see everything. The core game may be the same for both systems, but the PlayStation version may come with one set of bonus features and content, and the Xbox version an entirely different set. Who does this benefit? As a consumer, I get the feeling that it sure as hell isn’t me.

This doesn’t happen elsewhere either. Your choice when picking up a DVD player is a matter of size, price, colour, functionality. Aside from price, these are largely superfluous choices. But companies like Nintendo, Microsoft or Sony cannot let the games industry become like that. There has to be more behind your choice to pick up one console over another than just price or colour convenience. The opposite would just be to have one universal system that does everything. The merits of such a thing are surely a topic for another day.

So we’re left with the current state of affairs – a world with dwindling console exclusives and increasing games with ‘buy-me-because’ features. E3 is mere hours away and the list of known games is long and multiplatform heavy. What delights will Sony and Microsoft have to offer in a bid to tempt you to get a game on their system? As Nintendo sits poised to enter the HD market with their next console I get the feeling we’re staring at a three-way attention-grabbing spree with each major player jostling against each other screaming, “Pick me!”

[FROM 2011] A FIRST PERSON FUTURE

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

holodeckI’ve been wondering about the far-flung future of video games; the direction we’re headed in if one allows themselves to imagine hundreds of years into the future. Pointless, granted, but interesting none the less. Positing some kind of Star Trek-esque holo-deck seems a fairly safe bet. Either that or some Avalon/Matrix style plug-in-and-play method of virtual reality. In fact, that’s actually probably more like it – god bless you Virtual Boy!

I get the feeling that all games will one day be first person. Think about a film where there are really high-tech iterations of virtual entertainment. Invariably the ‘player’ will be in some kind of environment (the holo-deck), or plugged into a device that transports a virtual self into a virtual world (Avalon or the Matrix). In all these instances, while we the viewer see the events in the third-person, for the actual player, events unfold from their own perspective. And that makes sense.

A third person view very much arises from the position the player is in when controlling the action. When looking at a screen at distance it makes sense that the virtual avatar should similarly be distanced in the virtual space. This is largely how film is framed. It is therefore logical, conceptually, that taking control of something/someone else should also be done in this way. But taking control of something/someone is totally different from actually being that person/thing. Current FPS games aren’t all that immersive given the situation the player is in, (probably sitting on their bed or sofa) but in essence they could be. In essence they could be immersive to the point of fooling the brain into thinking you are actually somewhere else.

I guess so long as genres such as puzzle games exist then different perspectives will remain. I can’t imagine playing future-Tetris from a first person view no matter the technology. Although I can totally see a situation whereby to ‘play’ Tetris, you log into the holo-deck or whatever and then play a virtual Tetris as your virtual self. That’d be in the first person, sort of, in the same way life and playing Tetris now is in the first person. Weird.

There is a twinge of sadness to all of this. I’m not the world’s greatest player of FPS games and, as much as I’d like to posit my genuine self into a game environment, it’d be strange to think that unique game experiences (such as JRPGs or third-person shooters as we know and understand them today) could die out with the onset of more immersive technology. But then again, if I could fool myself (with technology) into the belief that I was in a fantasy world, off to slay monsters with a party of friends, all from my own perspective and as real as real life. Yeah, I’d play that.

[FROM 2011] IF MUSIC BE THE FOOD OF LOVE

[THIS IS A RE-POST OF SOMETHING WRITTEN IN 2011]

ifmusicbethefoodoflove-finaIs it just me, or is video game music becoming less memorable? Now, I know that statement will get some people firing up their counter arguments in the form of standout videogame scores, but think about it a while. To my mind, we’ve lost the insanely catchy melodies of the 8 and 16-bit eras. What we have now are sweeping, epic rifts akin to movie soundtracks. That’s not a bad thing… it’s just not as memorable.

Movie scores can be memorable of course. Just hum the Indiana Jones theme in your local supermarket and you’re sure to snag someone willing to hum along with you. But think on the number of films produced each year compared to the number of film soundtracks that have stuck in your mind. Casting back, I’d note Christopher Nolan’s Inception as having an awesome soundtrack. But when I really think about it, all I really remember is that soul-disrupting blaaarrrmmmmm noise. The melody is a vague memory.

Increased game production values have rocketed their associated soundtracks into the world of movie-stardom. Big names can now be attached to projects and big blockbuster titles have soundtracks that are nothing less than impressive. They’re emotive, expressive, grand and highly competent… and lacking. It’s hard to define.

Some people argue that good music, when dealing with film for example, is unnoticeable – it should not intrude on the picture. It’s doing its job, building suspense, exciting, adding mood, all the time in the background. To notice it would be to say that its function had become obvious, thus destroying its very purpose. There is probably a lot of sense to that. And as games seek to convey a greater cinematic experience, perhaps they too must adhere to this. But what of the main score? The character theme that kicks in as the hero does something of note? Even the briefest flurry of the main notes of Star Wars is enough to tell us that Luke or Han had at least done something we should applaud. I’m not sure I could say the same for a slew of current-gen big-name game releases.

You might have thought that the longer playtime associated with games would embed their background music deeper within us over that of a film. The music accompanies our own personal actions and so should increase recognition. But that argument doesn’t seem hold these days. I played through (and loved every second of) Mafia II upon its release. I could tell you nothing about the soundtrack.

Alas, I can see the counter argument. The function of in-game music has changed. Mafia II’s music formed an entirely different function to that of say, Megaman’s. The score was tied up with the atmosphere of the game and the emotions of the characters. Megaman’s level themes on the other hand defined location and pace. They were not required to showcase the Blue Bomber’s range of emotional responses or convey his feelings towards his current predicament.

In the end, perhaps it is function that has dampened how memorable a game’s soundtrack is. That, and a fair amount of nostalgia. But while there are indeed sublime movie scores, they are not as prevalent as you’d suspect. And whereas I could name some great examples of video game music from the 32-bit era onwards, I still feel there is a gulf opening up.

Compile a list of the greatest game soundtracks in history. Look at how many were produced with a minimal range of beeps and bloops. Sure, there’s some potent nostalgia at play… but then again, it could well be telling of something more.

Here’s the thing… Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

mgr revengeanceThe violence in Platinum Games’ Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is really quite shocking – genuinely so – and in a way few other games can match. To put it on in front of anyone unfamiliar with what they are about to witness is to elicit cries of “eww,” and “that’s grim.”  And yet it isn’t overtly gory. This alone is noteworthy, but it is the way the game deftly manages the sensibilities of its audience without sacrificing the core tenants that make it violent in the first place that must truly be commended.

For someone who typically has no problem with violence in games or film, pinning down exactly what it is that makes me say that Rising contains an aspect that deserves attention is tricky. Blood flows with abandon, sure, but that in and of itself should not immediately mark the game out from any number of titles that similarly offer gruesome imagery. Likewise, the game does not appear to inherently ‘get-off’ on its own violent indulgences in the way a title like Manhunt does for example. However, there is something about Rising’s particular brand of violence that is worth commenting on.

For me, it is that there is a pervasive sense of unease that arises from the gameplay. The act of carving and slicing takes on an uncomfortable quality when you’re offered up the fidelity to actually observe each and every incision. In pinning so much of the gameplay onto a mechanic that allows players to ‘cut at will’ (to use the marketing jargon), the whole of the game-world becomes infused with a viciousness that is hard to shake.

The imagery surrounding the ability to cut things in half is present in everything from the game’s most fundamental design to its marketing campaign. Raiden’s ability to choose the exact angle to slice along feeds back into a loop where precision dismemberment becomes your primary means of health replenishment as well as obtaining pick-ups (in the form of soldier’s left-hands). The narrative, too, is shot-through with this same chop-happy motif. Organ trafficking becomes the backdrop, the loss of limb both the highs and lows of secondary character development. It’s all rather odd and would be incredibly distasteful if not for two key points: the first is that Rising is fundamentally a fun game to play. The second is that it freely acknowledges and facilitates the player’s need to distance themselves from all the butchery.

Gameplay first, then; Rising is a blast to play as games go. Its action is fluid, frantic and tightly designed. By removing a more traditional mechanic for blocking and instead demanding the player remain on the offensive – parrying oncoming blows by attacking yourself in the same direction – gives the combat a brilliant focus. The game gains a kinetic sense of hyper-achievement; as to slip into its rhythm is to feel empowered, becoming death-incarnate to your enemies. When you’re on your A-game, everything just works with Raiden leaping from foe to foe, dicing his merry way to victory. And by turns, get pushed onto the back-foot (even for a second) and swathes of your heath-bar can fall in brutal punishment as enemies crowd around you, dolling out hits that stun and revelling in your poor ability to recover. In this sense, the accomplished gameplay goes some way toward justifying the base-nature of its violent aesthetic, if only for the player rather than the spectator.

But herein lies the second of Rising’s good-points. This may be speculative, but I personally can’t shake the sense that the game both knows that it is rather bleak, and wants acknowledgement for the lengths it goes to allow the player to distance themselves from the violence. Raiden is the character we play as but he is not necessarily our entryway into understanding the world. We are allowed to be put-off by his actions despite being the one pressing the buttons. NPCs comment on Raiden’s distasteful means of dispatch in line with the audience’s (and player’s) potential feelings. This is highly vindicating. Witnessing, or even orchestrating, a succession of horrendous deaths on screen can leave you feeling at odds with the enjoyment of playing vs. engagement with what you’re witnessing (this is more so for the observer as they get no control-gratification). It can leave you feeling rather low. To have Raiden’s support team commenting to that very same effect is therefore a perfect pick-me-up. Raiden is cold and ruthless; the game is as vicious in nature as you suspect. And it’s not just you who thinks so. Everyone involved, it seems, gets to heave a collective sigh. It’s very much a case of: “oh good, we were all thinking it, time to move on, eh?”

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Here’s the thing… DRAGON’S DOGMA

dragon's dogmaDragon’s Dogma can, in many ways, be criticised for removing a vital element of character from the standard party-based role playing it offers. In focusing so heavily on user-generated characters the game hampers its ability to weave a tight narrative, and outright condemns the chance for a character-driven plot. Your fellow party members are hired from a pool of user-generated minions (or ‘pawns’ as Dragon’s Dogma affectionately dubs them), and can offer nothing more to the proceedings than glib observations with pre-canned dialogue on agonising repeat. No back story can be scripted, no relationships developed. But here’s the thing, the pawn-system for recruiting a ceaseless supply of new recruits in Dragon’s Dogma may just hold a key ingredient missing from many single player RPGs.

Firstly, there is one thing that must be made clear: Mass Effect this is not. Along with eschewing the ability to effectively tell a meaningful story, Dragon’s Dogma cannot (and never aspires to) create characters that you want to listen to. There is no relationship-forming here, no conversation that can peel back layers; Dragon’s Dogma is utterly flat in that regard. Your protagonist is user generated – disallowing the game the chance to impose anything beyond the most simplistic narrative motivation – as are you band of three fellow party members. Interestingly, your three companions are on constant rotation too, given that these characters will not level as you do, creating the need to switch them out as they become statistically redundant.

This may sound as though there is little to recommend. Why play an RPG that cannot offer you a decent story? Similarly, the pawns that comprise your party, while being user-generated, are just AI controlled drones when you really get down to it. Why play with the digital semblance of others online when you can, just as easily, play with others online?

Yet, there is something to recommend here. And to commend.

That something comes, for me at least, in the form of knowledge – or recognition. Knowledge that, while being a wholly solo affair, you are in fact playing alongside the digital labour of other, very-much real people; people who are similarly engaged in their own adventures, perhaps with your own pawn character in their party. For all that you are alone, a pleasing sense of interconnectivity can develop.

It is the realisation of this that can give the world of Dragon’s Dogma a much needed edge. Actions become more meaningful in the knowledge that you toil alongside characters that will, once you release them, travel back to their parent game enriched. You can’t help but view the pawns as extensions of real players, as more than the modest sum of their parts. As they mill about, playing out the pre-set ‘personalities’ tokenly granted by their creator, in turn they generate an odd sense of character. This is largely projected (for your part), but I would argue it is undeniable all the same.

It starts with the user name. Selecting a pawn based on its name and appearance gives insight into the player who created it. And, when they are in your game, they are liable to both please and annoy you. Some of the game’s greatest moments are to be found in the latter. For example, while causally running errands in the game’s central city, one of my party took it upon himself to loot the room of an NPC we happened to be visiting. Now, the act of theft is not something I’d condemn in an RPG, far from it. But my indignation that he had taken it upon himself to be the one to find and relieve the room of its bounty was not to be understated. In an instant I’d opened his character inventory and snatched back what he had taken like some enraged parent. Were this purely an off-line game with a pre-formed, scripted party, I am not sure I would have even cared. But the fact that it was Bob, the 8ft hulking warrior whose soft (and ill chosen) voice belied the heart of a ruthless sneak thief why, that was intolerable! The knowledge that he was someone’s ‘creation’ lent his action credence. He became more than just the-guy-who-follows-me-around and took on a dimension that many RPG characters lack. I felt something towards him and thus, he’d earned his place in my party.

Forming even the remotest bond can be dire as combat encounters in Dragon’s Dogma can be brutal. Battles raging against your favour take on a genuine dramatic quality as you realise that your fellow travellers are likely to fall. While this translates as little more than an inconvenience to you – past summoned characters can always be re-found and re-recruited at the nearest town after all – there nevertheless exists a sense of loss that seems more genuine than if these were just standard characters chosen by the game rather than you.

In some small way, what Dragon’s Dogma achieves is something that can be found in the superlative player experience of Thatgamecompany’s Journey. It is not that they are alike, or even that they can be compared, but rather the player experience that arises from both has a sliver of overlap. I must stress that this is not to be taken too much to heart; Dragon’s Dogma, for all that it is an entirely different game, cannot come close to the experience Journey has to offer – but they are venn-diagrammatically linked (to my mind at least).

Journey possess and harnesses the same understanding that the player knows they are interacting with something more than just a part of the game, even if they are not explicitly shown it; that they stand alongside someone who actually exists. In deliberately removing player IDs and voice or text communication, Journey draws you into an amazing experience whereby the simple act of knowing that you are gaming with a living, breathing somebody (rather than an AI controlled partner), compounds the whole gameplay experience, intensifying every low and positively ballooning the many highs.

In Journey, the actions of your silent companion generate character. Mini stories emerge from the way they chose to acknowledge you, the speed and direction they walk in, and the help they provide. In Journey’s case, obviously, these are genuine players in your game, acting in real time. Dragon’s Dogma can never achieve that. But it taps into this same pool of experience to some degree.

The knowledge that elements of your game are more than just pre-planned, scripted segments of code means you can’t help but look at your party members differently. They may not be co-op allies, but neither are they fully prescribed. They inhabit a curious half-way house, wholly of the game’s design while appearing to exist beyond it. This appearance comes from you – it isn’t real – but Dragon’s Dogma entertains and facilitates it all the same. There is the ghost of something ‘social’ hanging over the entire campaign that lends something to the gameplay. Your companions may not be as fully-formed as the cast of Mass Effect or exact any kind of worth on the game world. But they can be worth something to you, and in ways that go beyond the standard NPC.

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