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June 3, 2008

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Purple Haze

It's a shame that Haze, the PS3's recent shooter, has gotten such poor reviews for bland design and inconsistent storytelling, because I think the basic concept deserves better. Let me first explain my impressions of that concept, since they apparently might be entirely unrelated to the finished product.

Haze (as I understood it) was supposed to be a meta-game commentary, in many ways. The story's fictional soldiers are dosed up on a drug that leads to some conspicuously game-ish effects--dead bodies simply vanish from the field, enemies are highlighted against the terrain, and their wounds and cries of pain are filtered out.

There's a potential here for what could honestly be a horrifying moment. We're used to games where the enemies just disappear once killed, which tends to nullify the impact of the action. Or where there's no real realistic visuals for the horrible wounds inflicted by weaponry, and the reaction to being shot is as simple as a flinch and a canned sound-bite.

Imagine a scene where the player suddenly stops being dosed, while teammates remain on the drug. They're still cheerily massacreing people left and right--but now you can hear the victims pleading for mercy, see the sickening effects when they're hit, and stumble over the mounds of dead lying around. It would be like watching a DVD of Commando, only to realize too late that you'd accidentally put Saving Private Ryan into the player instead.

Indeed, that scenario isn't just a commentary on video games. It remarks on how we treat violence in a variety of media. And I don't even think it's entirely a negative commentary, but it is thought-provoking and has room for subtlety. In this theoretical situation, fellow soldiers aren't monsters, they're just blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions. They're gamers, in more ways than one. The point shouldn't be to turn on these former allies and kill them in revenge, but to open their eyes to the truth. Ultimately, the question is: when we discover that our actions might not be harmless, how will we react to that new ethical uncertainty?

Sadly, Haze doesn't seem to have taken that route. Instead it demonizes the drugged soldiers, and turns the game into just another shoot-em-up. Several reviews have commented that once the player character changes sides and can't use the performance-boosting chemical anymore, the game loses what little individuality it had--and what a loaded statement that could have been, when gamers found themselves wishing for the comfort of selective perception. In Wired this week, Chris Kohler has written about how these questions can surface (albeit in a limited and unintentional manner) in Ninja Gaiden 2. But Haze had a chance to address them directly, taking advantage of next-generation console power for a thoughtful and provocative message, and it blew it.

September 21, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design»structure

Master of Unlocking

Metroid Prime 2 just makes me tired. My old roommate was a Prime nut, and bought the game to play on a GameCube that didn't even belong to him. When I moved out, he gave it to me, and it's just kind of been staring at me ever since, from the shelf where I keep all the other games that I don't play. Many of them, I will never play, but I don't get rid of them. I think in the back of my mind, I'm assuming that at some point I might contract a horrible illness or something and be bedridden for a week, in which case even Baten Kaitos might look pretty entertaining.

The original Prime is in a slightly adjacent category on the shelf: games that I've started, played a significant amount of, and then have not touched for months. I'm actually at the last boss for Prime, but I just can't bring myself to pick it up and keep going. After long enough, I start to forget where I am in these games, and then I definitely won't pick them back up, because I'll have no idea what's going on. At the same time, I certainly don't want to start over, because I remember full well how many hours it took the first time. If I don't run through a little bit of Twilight Princess soon, it's going to join the half-finished category, which would be a shame.

But with Prime 2, I just started the other day. I figured that with Prime 3 out, and being more of an FPS (my favorite genre), I might want to complete at least one game in the series before failing to finish the next one. But after fifteen minutes, I was confronted with the following demands from some half-translucent alien bug:

  1. The energy power station is broken, and should be fixed, which requires the player to
  2. "Cleanse" (i.e. sterilize with a laser beam) a Dark Temple (or some such nonsense), but you can't get into the temple until you
  3. Gather three keys that are hidden across the world, each of which will probably be placed behind impenetrable barriers until the player can
  4. Upgrade the power suit's capabilities with another beam, or visor, or something crazy like that.

I get a little Scott Evil just thinking about it. "Seriously? All that, just to fix your generator? Look, I've got a toolkit back in my spaceship. I'll go back, get a screwdriver, and we'll fix it together." And then Space Roach McGee has the nerve to tell me that I've got to do all of that three times, at which point he will send me on another long quest gathering parts to fix his lawnmower or something. Who does that?

I think what annoys me most of all about it isn't actually the fetch quests, it's that they're explained as "looking for keys." People in video games do not seem to understand the point of keys. It is a wonder that they don't suffocate after rolling the windows up in their cars. I love this idea that they have, which I think came from bad fantasy novels: when in danger, lock something up and then scatter the keys. Or even scatter them preemptively, because evildoers might be able to master hugely destructive weapons and build their own army, but they'll never take the time to look for your three hidden whatsits, right?

Hey, maybe they're right. Works on me. I just hope the Evil Overlord doesn't have access to a slim jim or a metaphorical credit card to slide into the door jamb.

The whole concept is just silly, and annoying, and juvenile. I almost prefer the way games used to handle it, before they started thinking that they could tell you a story. Remember how Doom handled limiting the player? Now there's a game that practically embodied the phrase "key hunt." Being a janitor in Doom must have been the worst job ever.

"Hey, I've got to mop the floors upstairs. Anyone got a key?"

"Naw, of course not. We keep the upstairs door key all the way across the building, on its own little lighted pedestal."

"Okay. I'll just grab the other keys while I'm there."

"Well, you can't do that. We keep the other key in a room over there, behind a door that you can't open without the first key."

"What is wrong with you people?"

The cleaning staff for the Doom probably cheered when the demons invaded, hoping that someone would finally give them a keyring, or a master key. I can't imagine how disappointed they were when the Imps called a staff meeting and said something like, "Now, we're going to switch all our door locks to the weird crystal skull system..."

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