Archive for December, 2008

Dead Space – “Dead Space”

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“Dead Space” is an academic work on how to create a (western) horror game. It’s as if a game design student were asked to devise an action/horror game out of existing models. What would happen? The student would go do some research on how to design such a game, he’d then borrow ideas from the major genre references both in and outside the means, seeing how he could glue them together and come up with a  formula of sorts. “Dead Space” is the end-product of that formula. The quality of this academic exercise depends solely on the quality of the student, on his choices for references, and on his ability to (re)interpret them correctly. So how good is Bret Robbins (“Dead Space’s” creative director) as a game student?

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The basis for “Dead Space’s” model is obvious: “Resident Evil 4”. Whatever the view on “Resident Evil 4”, it’s widely regarded as a great game [though I have some issues with it… but that’s a different story], so the choice to use it as a major reference seems spot on. For all intents and purposes, “Dead Space” is “Resident Evil 4”; copied with precision and perfectionism, which is more than you can say about most plagiarists. There’s the claustrophobic camera angle, the sluggish tank-like movement, the “stop, aim with laser pointer and then shoot” interaction, the overwhelming odds against hordes of living dead monsters, the silly item/weapons store in the middle of a war zone, the grueling old school inventory management, etc, etc. Its a thorough and well designed facsimile. Even the less obvious notions that made “Resident Evil 4” a success are mimicked. For instance, level structure: like in “Resident Evil 4”, levels are built as mini-roller-coasters, each starting with a slow crescendo of enemies, properly paced with exploration sequences, but quickly ramping up to a succession of hectic encounters with several monsters. The result is a non-stop thrill ride till the end… and that’s what action games should be all about.

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To add some variety into the “Resident Evil” action formula, there’s the occasional puzzle. The importance of puzzles in survival horror games could be easily overlooked, but for once, it was actually understood. Because puzzles force players’ mind to focus on something other than shooting enemies, they establish the perfect occasion to catch him off guard and unprepared for combat, as another batch of monsters jumps out of nowhere. It’s a cheap trick of course, but a very effective one at getting your adrenaline flowing – “Dead Space” uses it constantly. Moreover, the jumpy chair moments fit perfectly with the “Resident Evil 4” survival horror vibe, thus adding more excitement into the roller-coaster ride notion. Obviously, the puzzle models had to come from somewhere else, and, once again, our student did the job. He borrowed from “Half Life 2’s” gravity gun, arguably the best use of environmental puzzles in modern videogames; “Prey’s” gravity twisting, which allowed players to run through walls and ceilings, a great idea left undeveloped in the original game; and the now standard time bending mechanics from… well any game with time bending – which game is complete without it?

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What Bret Robins lacked in his formal exercise was something that could weave all these game design fabrics into a consistent piece – he needed a game world, a set of artistic assets that could establish a believable background for the interactions. Consistent with his approach, he turned to classic horror movies, specifically, sci-fi horror movies. He took the “Alien” saga’s set up, the environment and religious undertone from “Event Horizon”, spiced it up with a monster design based on “The Thing”, and weaved everything together with a story. The result is a dark, moody scenario, perfect for any survival horror game. And because it’s sci-fi, all those crazy game design notions could be made believable –  in the future, anything is possible. The only thing left was how to translate the story. The word out on the media is that cutscenes are a thing of the past, so “Dead Space” avoids them by incorporating the narrative devices from “Bioshock” (or its predecessors, “System Shock” and its sequel), most notably, the use of disembodied objects, such as text-logs, audio-logs and video-logs, to translate story. The choice is a smart one, because, like in “Bioshock”, these elements effectively allow for the absence of characters’ physical presence, thus enhancing a sense of loneliness and helplessness face the environment – a crucial factor in a survival horror themed game. Once again, our student passes with flying colors.

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But though the exercise was pulled off, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this approach. Copying from others in such a systematic fashion may achieve good results, but can only be regarded as plagiarism, something that challenges the very notion of Art – which is based on human creativity, not xeroxing. That’s one of the greatest problems in this industry, this notion that mimicking others is a good way to achieve great products – the result is out there for every one to see: endless remakes, sequels and rehashes flood the market every year. Furthermore, even if one could accept this  academic process as a valid notion on how to address game design, “Dead Space” could still be criticized. Because, though its author had the knowledge and the resources to pull off the formal requirements, he lacked the ability to reinterpret his references in a meaningful, artistically profound way. His blind faith in successful design models stopped him from criticizing and deconstructing those references, in the process reconstructing what could’ve been a new game, that though based on a couple of references, went further with its own ideas. But there are no original ideas in “Dead Space” save a few stylized gimmicks (dismemberment shooting, in-game HUD/menu system viewed as a hologram, …). The end result is a well executed work, that while amusing in itself, never transcends the sum of its numerous parts. Adding to that, its infatuation with superficial gimmicks and technical minutiae leaves its core experience a hollow shadow of its predecessors. It ends up lacking texture and density in every one of its expressive vehicles: the story is detached and bland, its environments are too predictable and dull to become scary, and as a pure action thrill, you can’t but shake the thought that it never achieves the mastery of its main reference, “Resident Evil 4”. And that’s its greatest downfall. If a game doesn’t add anything substantially new to its genre, and can’t pair up with the game it tries so hard to imitate, then… why bother playing it? The answer is: you don’t.

Overall: 2/5

2008 – “The year of …………. “

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After a slow transition into new platforms, with the Ps2 releasing its onslaught of swan songs (“Ôkami”, “Shadow of the Colossus”, “Final Fantasy XII”), next-gen finally become current-gen in 2007. An absurd amount of games were released, and amongst them, you could find interesting ideas and new paths for games to tread in the future. “Bioshock”, “Orange Box” (especially, when it comes to “Half Life 2 – Episode 2” and “Portal”), “Mario Galaxy” all brought something new into the derivative mix of big budget blockbusters. The thought provoking nature of “Bioshock’s” aesthetic and narrative, the epic and dramatic ending of “Episode 2”, and the gameplay revolution behind “Mario’s Galaxy” or “Portal’s” 4D design, were all good reasons to enjoy 2007. Personal favorites of mine, such as “The Darkness”, “Lost Odyssey” and “Eternal Sonata”, though derivative in terms of design, all told original stories, a rare feat for videogames, whichever the year. Not only that, the quality of most blockbusters was above par, even when it came to the more simple-minded releases. “Halo 3”, “Call of Duty 4”, “Uncharted” and “Mass Effect” were all incredibly polished, and had a distinct identity to their game design philosophies, even if none of them were particularly original. The blooming of downloadable services in all 4 platforms, allowed for indie ventures such as “flOw” to shine and reach mass markets, without the need for big budgets; their more intimate and discrete nature challenge big producers to deliver artsier experiences that rely on more than just high polygon counts. Retro also made a comeback through these services, as games that were once the privilege of a select few (who had the money and the patience to stalk online auctions in search of prized rarities), were now instantly accessible to anyone – classics ranging from “Super Mario Bros.” to “Psychonauts” were just a few coins away from being played in all their glory. Though far from being one of the best gaming years ever (as so many put it), 2007 was a good year for videogames.

2008 is almost over. And I say… thank God. While most might be content with the scale of 2008 releases, which more or less matches that of 2007, I am not, because though there was quantity, quality was sparse. Though not a bad year “per se”, there were no groundbreaking games, blockbusters were mostly sequel-ish and too safe, and there was an insane amount of unfulfilled potential in most games. Simply put, I feel that no new steps have been given towards the future… at least, in terms of mainstream gaming (we’ll get to indie later). Also, because of the barrage of media hype, games were augured as divine, breathtaking, revolutionary, stunningly beautiful… but in the end, never were. It’s the year of wasted sequels (“Gears of War 2”, “GTA IV”, “MGS 4”), failed promises (“Mirror’s Edge”), dying franchises (“Silent Hill Homecoming”, “Prince of Persia”) and lackluster new IP’s (“Dead Space”, “Army of Two”, “Dark Sector”). I’m aware of this being a controversial opinion, as most media outlets and gaming magazines seem thrilled with this year’s batch of games (relax, I’m not going to waste any more time criticizing the media for their opinions, no matter how unfortunate they may be…). Metacritic scores support this notion, as this year’s games rank amongst the highest ever. The 360 all-time top ten (the best frame of reference for the current generation) includes only two 2006 releases, “Gears of War” (rated number four) and “Oblivion” (fifth), four 2007 releases, “Bioshock” (second), “Orange Box” (third), “Call of Duty 4” (sixth), “Halo 3” (seventh), and four 2008 releases, “Grand Theft Auto IV” (number one), “Gears of War 2” (eighth), “Fallout 3” (ninth), “Braid” (tenth). A blunt statement could be made: according to a majority of game reviewers, 2008’s games are on par with 2007’s. I can’t but feel this is far from the truth, and I’ll do my best to show my point of view concerning 2008 in the coming series of articles called “2008 – The year of ………… ” .

The Longest Journey – “The Hero’s Adventure”

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“The Longest Journey” is a classic Adventure game… it almost sounds like a dirty word calling it a “classic adventure”. It’s probably the result of the genre withering away, turned into a past memory that isn’t always the most pleasing. There’s certainly a reason for the death and subsequent shun of the genre, and it partially resides on a range of defects shared by all adventure games; “The Longest Journey” is no exception. Illogical or obtuse puzzles and the thorough use of pixel hunting (the obnoxious habit of devious developers to hide obligatory items in the visual clutter of 2D scenarios) were the only vehicles used in the genre to generate difficulty and challenge, therefore transforming a narrative experience into a game ‘proper’; the truth is that these elements would just end up spoiling the experience. But, putting genre idiosyncrasies aside, as they aren’t really that important, especially in this day and age (we’ve got GameFaqs to thank for that), “The Longest Journey” is a wonderful game because, like all the greatest references in its genre, it focuses on narrative instead of gameplay.

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The journey mentioned in the title is that of April Ryan, a normal young woman, full of aspirations and dreams, who’s working her way through college. One night, her dreams become strangely vivid, even though inside them, she encounters a magical realm where dragons and other creatures abide. Later, of course, she finds out that the dreams really were real: images and sounds from a dimension that was once a part of our world… and so she embarks on a journey to save the universe from chaos and destruction. I’m serious, that’s how the story goes. The plot is a by the numbers application of “The Hero’s Journey” (a structure common to most mythological and religious texts, as extracted by Joseph Campbell): it involves an other-wordily place unbeknownst to all but a select few, a young hero that has been chosen by prophecy to save the universe and restore balance, forced to travel to that other-world in search of some magical artifacts, in the process facing numerous trials that allow for his coming of age and the transcending of his inner flaws, and by doing so, eventually freeing the world from evil. “The Hero’s Journey” is a framework like any other, it’s effectiveness is determined solely by the quality of the writer of the work, and how he develops the narrative structure into a story proper. Ragnar Tørnquist (producer, designer and writer), has a vivid, colorful imagination that blends High Fantasy, Sci-Fi and even some New Age religion into a lush magical world populated by original creatures and civilizations. His writing is engaging, cohesive and extensive, not to mention marvelously brought to life thanks to the stunning art design, which transforms each fantasy piece into a breathtaking digital painting. Like in all fantasy novels, there’s a certain sense of wonder and bewilderment on the account of the aesthetic beauty, as if you were staring at a bright, yet hazy dream, an odd mix of the alien and unknown with the idyllic engulfing your senses and bringing about your inner child’s imagination. Tørnquist’s world is so intriguing and inviting, that you can’t but help delve in, just as April Ryan does.

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However, though the world is detailed and its lore superbly written, the characters that populate it aren’t always so. In part because of the work’s relationship with the “Hero’s Journey”, but also because of inspiration taken from classical LucasArts’ adventures (“Monkey Island”), “The Longest Journey” characters often are a high fantasy archetype stripped to its barest form (the hero, the villain, the mentor), adorned with some nonsensical, post-modern humor traits, which seem straight out of a comedic cartoon. These are, for the most part, not funny, and mix poorly with the high fantasy aesthetic, not to mention that they trivialize characters, some of which, who are later involved in dramatic episodes that end up losing some of its impact. The main character is the biggest downfall, as she keeps hopping from a compassionate and intelligent youngster, worried about the fate the world and its people, to a dumb, pompous brat, shooting silly one-liner jokes left and right, and always whining about “why won’t nobody tell me the truth?”, “why must I be the chosen one?”, “why must I sacrifice everything?”, etc, etc. It’s inconsistent, annoying and a constant mood-breaker. That’s not to say that there aren’t powerful, dramatic, or incredibly funny scenes (the sidekick, crow, is a good example of a comedic character that isn’t disruptive), but all it takes in one ill-devised dialogue line to breakup suspension of disbelief. The voice acting that comes with the characters is on par with the text: it’s extensive and elaborate, but when it goes down the path of predictable comedic tropes, it tends to stumble, becoming absurd and unfunny.

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Despite the disastrous attempt at mimicking LucasArts’ humor, the storyline is what eventually makes “The Longest Journey” a thrilling experience. The universe devised by Tørnquist is truly amazing, and the plot’s climax, with its twists and turns, is sure to make you jump out of your chair in enthusiasm. It’s not Tolkien, it’s not even Lucas, but in videogames, what is? Sure, it can lack the proper tone, and the absence of a meaty subtext to all of the story can be a bit disheartening (at least, one that goes beyond “The Hero’s Journey” main themes), but there’s such a shortage for good (fantasy) writing in the means that it is doubtful anyone will care about such a small mishap. Whatever case it may be, the simple truth is that “The Longest Journey” is an astonishing game inside the frame of its genre. It wasn’t innovative or groundbreaking at the time of its release, and certainly isn’t today, but it exuded a care with aesthetic and narrative uncommon to most videogames; the fact that it came from a Norwegian developer only adds to the value of such a delicate, pondered work. And to enter this mystical land of fantasy all it takes is your commitment to look past the oddities that doomed Adventure games to extinction… and that’s not such a steep price for such a magical journey, is it?

Overall: 4/5

Tomb Raider Underworld – “Welcome Home, Dear Lara”

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The road was long and arduous, filled with unexpected traps and murky terrains, but today, Lara is finally back. Most of you won’t recognize her, for the long road has left many scars and broken ribs, and her face is not as it once was. You’ll probably even dismiss her for being old or unappealing for the XXIst century, but she was the first love of an entire generation that hasn’t forgotten her, and that generation can now finally rejoice. Welcome home, dear Lara. Time has flown by, as she went from explorer to action seductress, constantly misinterpreted by her fans and authors, desperately seeking to keep up with her unexpected pop-icon status. She became hollow and shallow, her figure reduced to that of her own hyper-sexual body, her mind a female replica of a noble Indiana Jones. Her curse lasted several years, and with each passing incarnation robbing her of one more relic, each interpretation became another stab at the core of her inner sanctuary. But all that changed when she went back to her origins, returning to that same place which made her Lara, the tombs.

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There was a sprout of hope in the future of “Legend”, a welcome sense of nostalgia over the forgotten path in “Anniversary” and in “Underworld”, future meets past, and Lara is once again a real “Tomb Raider”. No more action movie stunts, spy movie thrills or sightseeing in Venice, London, or Tokyo; Lara is back at doing what she does best: exploring tombs in the far reaches of the world. Venturing into the cavernous depths of the past is once again the treasure which drives the player, as Lara delves into large ruins of ancient civilizations in search of ancient secrets. Gently paced by the somber and melancholic ambiance, you’ll delve into the monuments of yore, sinking in the idyllic landscape that serves as background for these gorgeous tombs, gazing at the sumptuous architectonic details, crafted with such artistic and historic merit that they could belong to a real museum. Exploring them is like entering a misty realm of fiction and fantasy; your eyes transformed into a dim flashlight uncovering the darkness which laid such wondrous secrets unfettered by men. A sense of exploration overwhelms you, trumped only by the amazement at the aesthetic beauty that feasts your senses. Silence encompasses everything, arresting your thoughts in a reflexive state of mind, punctuated only by the glorious moments of archeological discovery, their tingling sound transformed into delectable orchestral compositions by Troels Brun Folmann and Colin O’Malley (“Legend” and “Anniversary”).

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“Underworld” is darker, moodier, and in almost everything similar to the first “Tomb Raider” and its remake. And yet, it isn’t quite like its original, minimalist outing, as it tries, without compromising its conceptual nature, to incorporate the history of that which has passed in the 12 years that have gone by. There’s a little bit of the action tempos of “Legend”, the gunfights of “Uncharted” and the cartoony animations of “Sands of Time” in “Underworld”. Lara is easier to control, slicker, more agile and realistic, and it helps the game feel more fluid and entertaining. The level design, as always, makes exploration a true delight. By leading and rewarding the player in subtle ways, mostly through the smart layout of tombs’ architecture, the player is engaged to feel like an amazing explorer, without any obtuse thought process. Simply sinking in the environment, through careful observation and reflection, leads to the solution of all puzzles and contraptions. The awe-inspiring scale and complexity of each environment guarantees the notion of a great deed when you get to crack a puzzle, while the stunning level design thoroughly hints at the solutions, unconsciously leading you into the fulfillment of an apparently glorious achievement.

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Also in keeping with times, Lara’s more often provoked into using her guns, and though none of this actually helps the game, because it betrays its true focus, it does keep things more dynamic for less patient players. But in all honesty, this particular Lara will never win their hearts, for the more cerebral, introspective component of the experience will shun them, and Lara never was, and never will be, a Nathan Drake. Gunplay is obnoxiously flashy and too straightforward, action sequences are dull and seem like an afterthought of the exploration scenes, and when it comes to narrative, Lara’s story is still a worn-out cliche filled with pseudo archaeological babble, written by an imaginative teenager at heart (Toby Gard). Of all the elements that serve to build up tension, only the substitute for QTE’s is worthy of note. Instead of flashing buttons on screen for you to press as a mindless drone, delivering some stylish cutscene in the process, the game opts to let you discover what Lara should do in moments of crisis. Let’s say a giant blade approaches Lara, should she jump or duck? The game poses these options by slowing down time, and giving you chance for one single action, selected by a press of the same button that corresponds to the action during normal play. It’s simple, more dynamic and much more rewarding than QTE’s, and it accomplishes the same goal: a thrilling, cinematic experience, that heightens your reflexes and gives a proper climax to action sequences.

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But this is not an action epic, and despite the odd attempts at capturing modern audiences, more favorable to mindless action games, Lara is still the old, intelligent and charming woman that captured our hearts so many years ago. But as in all great personalities, it comes with a price. She definitely won’t garner any new fans, mostly because of the old-school nature of the game, with all its inherent design quirks (let’s just say you’ll see Lara die a couple of times). The technical implementation could also need some more work, coming from such a high production as this, expect glitchy animations (the transitions are still a mess) and some awkward bugs. But those are small details, and Lara is finally back, so who cares? She’s aged, but she’s also matured and is all the more sexy for it. If you remember the wondrous times spent exploring the mysterious realms of the original “Tomb Raider” (or it’s stunning remake), then “Underworld” will be a captivating experience down some truly wonderful vistas. Welcome back, Lara.

Overall: 4/5