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March 1, 2010

Filed under: gaming»software»mass_effect

Retcon

There's a moment early in Mass Effect 2 where your character, the resurrected Commander Shepherd, answers a series of questions about the events that occurred in the previous game. I think what they're trying to do is remind you about those plot points so you won't be taken quite so much by surprise when other characters mention them later on--or, if you're a new player, establish a little context so it won't seem completely random. But because the writing is a little awkward, it doesn't come across as an establishing infodump. Instead, in a surreal twist, it sounds like the characters are participating in a kind of retcon--letting the player's answers redefine their past actions. I love this idea, and wish it wasn't an accident.

A retcon, for the non-fandom crowd, is a portmanteau word for "retroactive continuity," and Wikipedia (unsurprisingly) has a fine list of examples, ranging from Nero Wolfe's birthplace to the altered appearance of Klingons in post-Kirk Star Trek. The retcon is a tradition as old as humanity, but it's rarely invoked in a planned fashion--in part, because it's usually so clumsy. Humans are good at maintaining continuity in our narratives, and we don't take kindly to authors who break their own fictional rules unless they can do so very, very elegantly.

But in video games, we have a sort of special case. Often here (and specifically in the Mass Effect games), the player is in control of continuity to a greater degree than other media. Is Commander Shepherd a woman of principle, or a ruthless pragmatist? The player chooses between these two, or even mixes them on a case-by-case basis. You don't know, necessarily, what kind of person she is until the player makes that decision: does this Commander Shepherd approve of the Genophage bioweapon, or find it deplorable? Does she believe in killing mutineers? What about the murder of treacherous former allies? And if those answers differ, it's up to the player to mentally reconcile them as a coherent character, offering up retconned justifications as necessary.

So why limit this to just the character arc, when a virtual world could offer so much more? ME2's dialog misfire offers a glimpse into a game mechanic where dialog doesn't just define a character, it can redefine the events that led up to the current moment, or the world around the player's avatar (cross a gap by insisting that you funded a bridge, perhaps, or clear out dangerous animals by bemoaning their extinction). If I had the time to spend on personal coding projects right now, that's something I'd explore: a game where you can redefine the state of play just by verbally disagreeing with it. I think it could even be an opinionated statement, not just about the way we adapt stories over time, but also the power of rhetoric to effect change, and the subjectivity of human history.

Or maybe I'm just describing a pretentious version of Scribblenauts. Either way, surely it's an opportunity missed.

December 1, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»gta

The Chinatown Episode

At some point, every American television series does The Chinatown Episode. This is particularly true for cop shows, because crimes that take place in Chinatown are always exotic entryways into an inscrutable foreign culture, while those in immigrant neighborhoods of, say, Latino or European extraction are just garden variety crimes of a Real American nature. Sometimes the showrunners will substitute another nationality of origin--Koreatown, most likely. This is because someone has told them that Asia is not a single country.

So it was probably inevitable that Grand Theft Auto, a series whose main schtick is to recycle every possible variety of gangster movie into interactive form, would do its own version of The Chinatown Episode. The surprise is that it's actually pretty good so far (I'm about halfway through, I think). Despite the name, Chinatown Wars is not really based on the immigrant experience (or some screenwriter's shallow appropriation of it). Its roots are more in Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs, even if its ambitions are markedly lower.

I've spent a fair amount of time here picking out faults in the race or gender politics of various games--enough, perhaps, to seem a bit like a scold at times. And I didn't expect much from Rockstar, frankly. So it was a nice surprise to find that Chinatown Wars acquits itself fairly well. Nobody speaks in a chop-socky accent, and hackneyed talk about honor or faux-Confucianisms are, when used, rightfully dismissed as shameless politicking and clearly-marked irony (these are low bars, but ones which are regularly uncleared in pop culture). When the dialog is funny (and this is a funny game, albeit in a typically crude way), it's because of the exaggerated character flaws of each individual (the head gangster's idiot son, for example, or the power-hungry lieutenant) and not at their expense. There's even a few jokes about stereotypes, like this (paraphrased) exchange between the main character, Huang, and a corrupt cop:

Cop: ...so we'll work to take down the Wonsu together.

Huang: Yeah, that's great. One question: what's this Wonsu thing you keep talking about?

Cop: It's the name for the leaders of the Korean gang.

Huang: Right. Why would you assume I know that terminology? Racist idiot.

This is not to say, as I've continued to play through, that it's all sunshine and kittens. There's still a fair amount of sexism, a near-total lack of actual female characters (the most interesting of whom is killed about 30 seconds in), and some jokes that edge into homophobia. A lot of the material also probably falls under "satire," which I'm normally happy to engage with, but at some point in Rockstar's career the satire excuse has started to seem a little strained, particularly given their geographic location (the UK) and resulting distance from the material they're satirizing.

I haven't played a lot of GTA, for one reason or another, so from a purely mechanical perspective it's been interesting so far. The series is often described as being "sandbox" games, but I think that's a misnomer. They give you a big level to play in, sure, but it's less wide-open and more just non-linear--you don't have to jump on the main quest right away. At one point, maybe that was more revolutionary than it is now, I don't know, but with every game I play these days offering about a million collectibles and side missions, I'm not exactly suffering for choice. Besides, when I think of a sandbox game, I think about something that lets me build, like Simcity. There's not a lot of building or world-changing in Chinatown Wars.

The real genius of it, and maybe what leads people to use "sandbox" as a description, is the mechanic for the wanted meter. The rules for when the meter goes up or down are simple and easy to understand, and the cop AI is (intentionally) stupid and suffering from tunnel vision. You can raise the heat, wreak some havoc, and then clear out the meter and keep going, which is a nice way to blow off some steam. This is probably why every time I've seen someone play GTA in the past, they're usually going for a joyride in a tank and seeing how far they can get before the SWAT team takes them out.

This is something that was always frustrating about Assassin's Creed (the first one, the second is currently sitting outside my apartment door), because losing your pursuers was more complicated--more "realistic"--than it needed to be. There were places you could hide, which wouldn't always work, or you could run far enough away, depending on the size of the alarm, but it was never entirely cut-and-dried. The result was that you felt less like an invisible killer and more like a grade-schooler playing hide-and-seek. Realism, counter-intuitively, becomes the enemy of immersion. GTA's wanted level, like the combat system in Arkham Asylum, is all about taking skilled actions that are appropriate for the main character and making them fun and easy for the player to accomplish. Developers should simulate for the narrative feel, in other words, not for the nitty-gritty.

And seriously, let's make a promise: after this, no more Chinatown Episodes in games. There's only so much cliche a single medium can take.

September 10, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»rock_band

Beatlemania

OF COURSE we bought Beatles: Rock Band the day it came out. Belle is a full-fledged Beatlemaniac. Her calendar has eight days a week and when I say goodbye, she says hello--it makes our home life confusing, but you can't fault her taste.

The game was obviously created by equally-intense fans, which comes into play in interesting ways. Not being a real Beatles listener myself, a few things leapt out at me:

  • If you lose a song, it just fades to black. Nobody's going to boo the lads from Liverpool off stage in this game.
  • The whammy bar is disabled on guitar and bass. It still affects the note trail, and for all I can tell it still increases your score, but there's no audible effect. There will be no dive-bombing during "I Am The Walrus," no matter how much you want to.
  • Especially since, in the more production-heavy songs from their studio days, the guitar controller is actually playing strings and synth parts.
  • The songs are arranged chronologically, and have Harmonix's usual care with note placement (for the most part--"Birthday" and "Come Together" are going to bug anyone who's played them on a real instrument, but there's nothing they could do about that). This means it's a great process of discovery for someone who loves the band, but the difficulty level is all over the map. These are easily some of the most difficult Rock Band songs I've seen--not just in the Guitar Hero showers-of-notes sense, but because they're complex songs to begin with. The game provides a helpful "difficulty meter" when choosing a song: pay attention to it. They're not joking around.
  • I love some of the achievements, particularly "Authenticity:" "Finish any song as a bassist with Lefty Mode turned on, hitting at least 50% of the notes." They should really make you sing at the same time--Sir Paul is a monster bass player.

We played for about three hours, and beat every stage but one last night, only stopping when my hands started to cramp up. I think Belle likes it.

September 8, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»arkham

Intensive Treatment

Some three hours into Batman: Arkham Asylum, we are introduced to the Lunatic after someone opens all the cell doors on the island. The Lunatic is a shambling, almost-skeletal enemy dressed in a straitjacket. His attack entirely consists of leaping onto Batman's back and thrashing wildly until thrown to the ground and knocked out with a blow to the head. Because that's therapy, superhero-style: brutally beating the mentally-ill senseless with your heavy, armored fists.

I'm not the only person who has found this a little unsettling: Justin Keverne calls it "the intellectual and social equivalent of bumfighting," and Travis Megill follows up with a post discussing the stigmatization of mental illness perpetuated by the game, and recommends using it as a consciousness-raising opportunity. Both make some great points.

One of the things that I like about Batman as a character is how plainly ambiguous he has become. Other superheroes may be able to perpetuate the myth of vigilante justice, but after The Dark Knight Returns (a barely-disguised John Bircher fantasy styled after Red Dawn), The Dark Knight (the film, which bears little plot-wise resemblance to the comic but touches on many of the same themes), and (most importantly) Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, it's difficult to imagine an interpretation of the character that isn't a damaged, near-fascist personality locked in a feedback cycle with equally-psychotic "supervillains." Calling the modern Batman a hero is hilarious.

So while his treatment of the "Lunatic" enemy is unsettling, I could almost believe that it's purposefully so. Likewise the depiction of the asylum itself: while the game never explicitly comes out to say so, this is clearly not an enlightened institution (and never was, as the hidden story items make clear). The inmates are locked into tiny, solitary cells and effectively left to rot. The guards are vicious, unpleasant people, and the doctors are using their patients as experimental subjects. In Killer Croc's case, they've just dumped him into the sewers, dropping rotten meat to feed him. The warden is a political animal more concerned for his career than for those under his care. It's like something out of Nellie Bly's undercover reporting on the Blackwell's Island asylum. No doubt anyone sentenced to Arkham would emerge more damaged than when they entered, and many are sent there as much from a desire to remove the undesirables as to rehabilitate them.

Indeed, one thing I found interesting, particularly while listening to the "interview tapes" scattered through out the game, is the degree to which several of the inmates are not insane at all. Killer Croc, for example, is violent and dangerous, but he shows no signs of being disconnected from reality: the outside world really does see him as a monster, and Croc merely reacts accordingly. Poison Ivy has entirely valid reasons to identify more with plants than humans--she's half-plant herself. And the Joker, as voiced by Mark Hamill, has never seemed crazy to me--sociopathic, perhaps, but no more so than many mobsters and criminals. It did not surprise me to find out that Paul Dini, the writer for both The Animated Series and Arkham Asylum, has written a story titled "Case Study" that frames the Joker as an entirely sane criminal using a deranged persona to pursue a vendetta against Batman.

Regardless, I have two reactions to the Lunatic. First, as Megill points out, focusing on the individual inmates (such as the Lunatic) or the institution is to overlook the overarching message of the game's view on mental illness, which is firmly rooted in unsubtle stereotypes. In its universe, disorders aren't a continuum of mental function, but a strict sane/insane dichotomy. This isn't necessarily Arkham Asylum's fault--it's derived directly from the comics themselves, which have always treated insanity as a shortcut directly to wearing tights and planning crimes centered on random concepts. ("Calendar Man?" Really?) As counted among the offenses perpetuated in our pop cultural psyches by Marvel and DC, I rank this relatively low on the list, but it's good to see it noticed when it pops up.

Second, the game's unsympathetic portrayal of the asylum itself doesn't really excuse its dehumanized view of the patients themselves, or Batman's enforcement of the status quo (he beats the inmates, but frees the crooked administrators to return to their jobs). It's one thing to say that Bruce Wayne is an anti-hero at best, but another to watch him blithely ignore the conditions around him. This is where Batman sends people, remember, after he's caught them. And it's not like he doesn't know about Arkham's policies: he's on the island enough to have built a fully-equipped Batcave there. Talk about your bad neighborhoods. If that's not indicative of the unhealthy relationship the "Caped Crusader" has with his foes, I don't know what is.

August 21, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»castlevania

Dis-ordered

I never played the original Castlevania on its original platform in its original era. I only got around to it when they released it on GBA. So I think my opinion's unclouded by nostalgia when I say that, with reservations but in general, I like it.

In the pantheon of retro classics, Castlevania slots in right next to Ninja Gaiden. Both are sidescrollers emphasizing close combat (as opposed to Mario-style hopping), with health bars and a rudimentary power-up system. Castlevania has better secondary weapons. Ninja Gaiden has better level design, and is probably the superior title overall--the flow of its levels is pure 8-bit choreography. Either way, they're simple games. Over the years, Ninja Gaiden has stayed fairly simple. Castlevania has not.

Which brings us to Order of Ecclesia, the most recent side-scrolling title in the series. It's not that OoE is a bad game, so much as it is way more complicated than it needs to be.

I'm giving up on the game about seven levels in, having gotten through the first four bosses or so. I'm doing so because the level design (which is awful, having largely abandoned the intricate "Metroid-vania" style of navigation) has begun throwing in enemies that completely wreck the difficulty curve (specifically, the demonic gravediggers). The options available seem to be either learning an attack pattern that's not particularly enjoyable, or improving my character. Since neither appeals, I'm ditching it.

"Improving my character"--what a fun turn of phrase that is, as if Castlevania were Emily Post and Buddhism mixed together. What it really means is going out and either leveling-up (a long, painful process left over from RPGs that I thought we had largely abandoned in the civilized world) or tediously killing the same enemies over and over again until they drop a more powerful weapon. It's all the worst parts of World of Warcraft, but without a sense of humor!

This complication doesn't have any particular justification for its existence. Its only point is to add a pseudo-cerebral tint to an otherwise fluffy and unredeemable arcade experience, something it has in common with the vapid plots that Konami insists on jamming in there, as if I really cared. "We're not just engaging your reflexes," OoE defensively protests, "we're engaging your mind!" Yeah: because making me constantly interrupt play to struggle through a poorly-designed menu system, all to find the collectible weapon that will harm this particular recycled sprite from the last seven Castlevania titles is certainly a challenge that will stretch my capacity for non-linear thinking, isn't it? Give me a break. These games are basically mental Diet Coke. The least they could do is have the dignity to act like it.

Let's make a deal, video games: you don't make me grind for a frakking sidescroller, and I won't sell you on eBay.

July 2, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»chrono_trigger

Do the Time Warp Again

I have probably started four or five games of Chrono Trigger, across four or five different computers (I didn't own an SNES at the time), and never gotten past the Prehistoric Era segment. So while Square's habit of re-releasing its entire classic catalog every time a new platform reaches critical mass may seem grating and money-grubbing (probably because it is), it is sometimes valuable. The DS port of Chrono Trigger is the first time I stand a chance of finishing it. This is probably because, like a lot of adult gamers, I use portable games as a way of multitasking. It's something I can pull out if a movie or TV show starts to drag but I still want to see the end, as well as a time-killer during the inevitable Metro delays. And while I've always got games loaded on a smartphone of some kind these days, it's rarely as satisfying as the experience on an actual console--not to mention that the battery life is far better. So compared to the emulated versions, I've gotten much farther this time around.

Chrono Trigger is almost fifteen years old now, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. It's held up well. More than that: I'd argue that it's better than most anything Square's put out during the intervening years, on either portable or home console. Mostly this is because it's such a lean design: unlike the excesses the company developed in the 32-bit era, there are no collectible card games (FF8) or watersports (FF10) that you have to learn to navigate, and the battle system is relatively simple. It feels like this left the development team free to concentrate on the worldbuilding: the result is a series of rich, often comical time periods linked to each other by a decidedly quirky kind of causality. Great characters, as well, although I'm not the biggest fan of the art style.

Although the game isn't non-linear, it's also impressive how well it fakes it. Shuffle the party as much as you want, they'll all still have appropriate dialog choices (some more appropriate than others, granted). Halfway through, it opens up a whole bunch of sidequests that players can approach in any order. The experience is still basically guided at every step, but in a way that feels empowering and entirely in sync with the time travel theme: at practically any point in the game, players can jump straight to the final boss, although they'll probably get creamed if they haven't done at least a few of the optional missions.

If anything has not aged well about the game, it's the mechanics of the battle system--more specifically, the endlessly frustrating menu options that must be navigated under pressure. At the time, this was how RPGs worked--hell, it's how a lot of them still work today. For a short time, Square seemed to have chafed a bit under that convention: FF6 (released a year before Chrono Trigger) supplemented the menus with oddball conventions like Sabin's Street Fighter-esque combos, while Super Mario RPG went to a far more manageable system of assigning different actions to the largely-unused face buttons. Then the Playstation rolled around, and the company apparently gave up on control innovation and concentrated on putting elaborate CG movies in between boring menus.

In the meantime, it cannot be stressed how annoying Chrono Trigger's menus are, especially since by default they let enemies continue to attack while you try and find the right $%!@-ing Dual Tech. I particularly love hunting for a single healing item through a vast inventory list using a tiny little window, during which time monsters have probably managed to kill the character I wanted to heal in the first place. Once upon a time, this was called "adding tension," but looking back on it, it's a lot like trying to solve sudoku while someone shoots you with a BB gun: a synthesis of tedium and tension that I could personally do very much without. The DS port of Chrono Trigger "solves" this problem by making the same menus into big, touch-friendly targets, which utterly fails to help. It may feel like a blow to your hardcore gamer cred, but I'd recommend switching from "Active" to "Wait" mode instead.

All in all, though, Chrono Trigger's an example of Doing It Right. If everything Square had made was this good, as opposed to say every Final Fantasy except for 6, it probably wouldn't be so galling to see them regurgitate the whole lot every time a marketable piece of hardware came out. There's even a theoretical justification for their actions: even more than other digital artifacts, console games age badly as the march to new platforms and formats makes them difficult--or even impossible--to play them as they should be played, and clearly emulation doesn't always cut it. In theory, I don't begrudge the company for reselling the classics, even if it is just locking them to a newer block of soon-to-be-obselete hardware. In practice, however, the only thing worse than watching them repackage both the good and the awful is watching all of it sell like hotcakes.

June 5, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software

Disinterested Parties

Like most people, I tend to write about games when I either hate them or love them. But in keeping with my new year's resolutions, there are also games I've stopped playing because I just can't bring myself to care about them.

  • Disgaea DS: A critical darling, mostly for the writing, which is (unlike most J-RPGs) wildly slapstick and genuinely funny. Unfortunately, it's wrapped around a game that I just don't find terribly interesting, centering as it does around a single tedious mechanic (ganging up on enemies, then leveling up). Has been replaced by: the slapstick humor of getting the cat riled up and watching her ineffectually attempt to maul a dog five times her size.
  • Zeno Clash: Critics love this one too, and I can see why: the art direction and storyline are a stunning, surrealist treat. Being a child of the eighties, it reminds me of the weirder items in the Jim Henson catalog. The game itself seems fine--repetitive, but fine. My main problem is just how sluggish everything feels. Blocking, pulling back for a punch, dodging--there's a maddening lag between pressing the key and actually taking action, and as a result I find myself frustrated as enemies easily work around my defenses. Has been replaced by: forcing Belle to watch classic science fiction movies Terminator 2 and Wrath of Khan, then sluggishly dodging her snarky comments.
  • Uplink: The game that apparently gave Introversion the funding and confidence to create Darwinia and DEFCON, I'm grateful to Uplink but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Purportedly a game about Hollywood-style "hacking," as far as I can tell it's actually about clicking on menus. And if I wanted to wander aimlessly around a cryptic, mouse-centric interface, I'd run OS X in a virtual machine. Has been replaced by: OS X running in a virtual machine.

April 16, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software

Dual Synth

The fact that the Korg DS-10 exists in the first place is testament to something. I don't know what that something is, exactly. But while music software on game consoles is hardly new--LSDJ, the NES MIDI cart, C64 SIDs, and Mario Paint all spring to mind--the DS-10 is the first program that I'm aware of that A) has the stamp of an actual music technology company, B) is not wrapped in a game or "art project" of some kind, and C) requires no greymarket hardware or hacking to work. That makes it kind of special, to my mind.

The danger in evaluating these kinds of unexpected niche products is the sharp whiplash of expectations: it's too easy to get carried away by the novelty of it all--or conversely, to be upset that it isn't the second coming. The truth, as always, is in the middle there somewhere. Once you figure out what it's not trying to do, there's a lot to be excited about.

The most impressive part of the cart, by far, is the synthesizer package. Each sequencer part gets two monophonic synths modeled on the Korg MS-10, plus four drum voices (these are programmed the same way as the primary voices, but they get "frozen" into samples before playback). Both synths are virtual analog units with two oscillators (each with triangle, saw, square, and noise waveforms), an envelope generator, filter (with low/high/bandpass modes), and an impressive modulation patchbay with its own LFO. (If that's gibberish to you, the DS-10 homepage has an impressive set of synth tutorials that you can watch.) Each synth can be fully automated in the step sequencer, and you can play them live using either an onscreen keyboard or a Kaoss pad interface (for the world's cheapest Theremin).

It had been a while since I'd messed with an analog-style synth, and I'd forgotten how much fun it is. Everything reacts in real-time as you twist knobs and flip switches using the stylus, and the interface has a lot of well-considered design choices. A particularly nice touch is the modulation section, which lets you stretch little yellow cords between the various input/output jacks of the patch bay. I'm not really a discerning synth tone maven, but the sounds seemed perfectly workable to me. You're not going to fool anyone into thinking you've got a Moog in your pocket, but it's hardly an NES, either. If there's anything I wish they'd added, it would be the ability to play the synths using the hardware buttons, maybe with a Band Brothers-style control scheme. As it is, the L and R triggers swap between the top and bottom screens, the d-pad moves around the signal path, and the X button is a play-pause control. That seems kind of like a waste, particularly since the sequencing itself is limited in frustrating ways.

It's not the style of it that bothers me--I like both step sequencers and trackers--it's the way that it's structured. Here's how it works: at the top level, a Song is built out of 16 Parts (capitalization Korg's). Each Part is a setup containing the settings for all six synth voices, plus a sequence of up to 16 steps for each voice. You can copy Parts from one slot to another, and you can save and load your synth/drum voices between Parts. What you can't do is control any automation across Parts, or separate the instrument sequences from each other. If you want to combine the drum pattern from one Part with the synth pattern from another, you're going to have to copy one Part to a new slot, then manually recreate the pieces from the other--there's no mix-and-match ability here. In that light, those 16 Part slots start to look pretty thin, particularly if you want a melody/chord progression that's longer than 16 steps long. Also, you'd better have your patches all set before you start sequencing--even if they're loaded from the same synth patch, changes in the voices of one Part don't apply to the others. Tweak that string sound in one, and you'll have to manually copy the change to every other Part.

But to hold this against the DS-10 is almost certainly a mistake. This isn't really a composition package like Reason. It's a groovebox, powered by a pretty decent virtual analog synth sim. And while you could probably write a song on it somehow, I wouldn't recommend it, anymore than I would recommend trying to compose on an 808. What you could do, and easily, is use the DS-10 as accompaniment to fill out live instrumentation (see: the recent Yeah Yeah Yeahs performances), or as accompaniment while writing songs on a less-restricted instrument. In a niche like that, it performs admirably--in fact, it arguably punches far above its weight range as far as cost and ease-of-use. It's a genuine musical tool for less than $40, running on cheap, durable, battery-powered hardware. What's not to love about that?

March 2, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»mirrors_edge

Faithful

Clearly, Mirror's Edge isn't my favorite game this year. But that's not to say it was all bad. As Brinstar has detailed, the main character, Faith, embodies a number of positive traits. Sadly, I think she also highlights the real problem of designing "franchise" characters: one isn't enough.

Here are the good points: Faith is an Asian-American woman, but her race and gender aren't mentioned in or relevant to the story at all. She dresses sensibly, given that she's in a pretty athletic career, and her body shape also reflects that without being overtly sexualized. She's stubborn, but not snarky (there's nothing worse than a "clever" character written by not-so-clever writers). Perhaps, you might be tempted to say, she's still a little rough around the edges.

The problem is that there might be one decent character there, but there's really no-one else for her to interact with, so those rough edges are never really sharpened. Everyone else in the game is dishwater-dull, from the other messengers to the cops to Faith's sister. The same goes for the dystopian setting--it's vague to the point of nonexistence. That's bad for the players, but it's worse for the protagonist: without anything to push back against, Faith doesn't have much ground to define herself. She has no points on which to take a stand, except for the most basic (I think most of us are anti-framing and anti-betrayal).

There are two trends in game writing at the moment: strongly-defined protagonists, a la Jade from BG&E, or mute stand-ins like Samus Aran. In the latter case, the surrounding world has to be made as interesting as possible. It's not a coincidence that the Metroid Prime titles tag everything in sight with scannable text, or that Half-Life 2 devotes so much work to giving the Combine little bits of "business," like their constant radio chatter and introductory set pieces. On the other hand, if you're going to make the protagonist an actual character, you can probably get away with a less defined world (BG&E's setting does what it's supposed to do, and not much else), but you'd better have someone for that main character to talk to, and their actions had better be strongly tied to concrete, interesting motivations. Jade, for example, is constantly interacting with her companions, and she clearly has strong opinions about each of them. Faith has neither--both her world and her friends are generic--and as a result, she herself is uninteresting.

It's a shame, because as I played Mirror's Edge I was reminded strongly of William Gibson's Virtual Light. Like the game, Gibson's book concerns a city messenger and outsider who gets tangled up in a class struggle. But Chevette Washington (Gibson's protagonist) is surrounded by interesting people: Rydell the reluctant rentacop, Sammy Sal and Bunny the bike messengers, and the eccentrics living on the ruined Golden Gate bridge. Chevette is not only defined for the reader by her interactions with these characters, she kicks off the plot herself when she impulsively steals the titular virtual light glasses from a sleazeball partygoer--at every step of the way, we're learning something about her. Faith never even displays that much initiative: her story really begins when her sister is framed, and she spends the rest of the game reacting to events.

Storytelling in games is like the weather: everyone complains about it, but nobody does much of anything about it. Progress has been slow, but (as opposed to other media) it's often shaped by the technology and culture surrounding it. One of the advantages I see from widespread console multiplayer is that it may build support for ensemble casts, as opposed to mascot characters. Gears of War, for example, is nobody's idea of a well-rounded drama, but its characters are inarguably much more lively than Faith is. Mirror's Edge gets caught on the wrong side of this trend for a variety of reasons: the first-person perspective, emphasis on time trials, and a primary mechanic of player-vs.-environment. I'm not sure that better characters would have saved the game entirely--it's got plenty of its own issues, as I've noted--but they probably would have made its failure a lot less aggravating.

February 23, 2009

Filed under: gaming»software»mirrors_edge

Faithless

Imagine that someone invents a machine that makes omelettes: brilliantly-colored, spicy omelettes made with breathtaking speed. Taken by its combination of verve and simplicity, you order the machine. But when it arrives, to your dismay, you discover that the omelette-making process is actually fraught with danger--80% of the time, due to a misstep in the instructions, it sets your kitchen on fire. Also, for some reason, the manufacturer has added a mode for making breakfast sausage instead. The machine is a very poor sausage-maker, but it keeps getting stuck in sausage-making mode, and until the sausage is successfully cooked you can't get back to the omelettes (and the kitchen fires, which are starting to lower your enthusiasm somewhat for the whole idea of breakfast).

Mirror's Edge is this omelette-maker. It's filled with absolutely gorgeous visual design, presenting parkour from the first-person perspective. Except that it doesn't work, about half the time. The controls are overly touchy, especially strafing, and the context-sensitive options aren't nearly sensitive enough. Worse, the part of the game that's really fun--the running, in between falling--is interrupted regularly with fight scenes. Often, you can't run from the fights, because the soldiers are very good shots and the escape routes are (intentionally) via slow and exposed pipe-climbing. It's like someone on the design team said "We've really got something here, with the running part of the game. Let's make sure to take it away from the player on a regular basis."

There's always a lot of comparison to Prince of Persia whenever a game tries free running and acrobatics, and with good reason, since it did it best. But people often take the wrong lessons from this, citing the "rewind" function that largely canceled out dying-as-punishment. That wasn't the genius of the gameplay, however: what made it really good was in fact the inaccuracy of the controls, the way that the Prince would do the right thing as long as you hit a button with something close to the right timing. PoP realized that the fun wasn't in being a precise platformer, but in the simple thrill of directing a complicated flow of leaps, grabs, and wall-runs around the game's carefully-crafted spaces.

It's strange, actually, that a title with such aggressive visual editing as Mirror's Edge--it's practically monochromatic--would have such weak editing on the interaction side. Eliminate combat from the mix, and you've cut the game down to basically two buttons, up and down. Get rid of strafing while you're at it, since all it does is let me swerve off catwalks by accident, and make it work more like the first Metroid Prime games (which also took a third-person gameplay conceit and moved it into first-person). Those changes would work the level designers a bit harder, but the end result is leaner, more focused gameplay.

What it all comes down to, really, is that when asked to make a choice between realism and fun, Mirror's Edge chooses the former. No doubt, in real life, Faith would be riddled with bullets almost instantly, and so in the game, she is. As a result, the player is discouraged from approaching situations with speed and daring, because it's a process of trial-and-error fatalities made worse by Faith's clumsiness. By contrast, it would be highly unrealistic for players to be able to sprint through a gauntlet of enemy fire, bullets whizzing by but rarely breaking the flow of action--unrealistic, but much more rewarding. As it is, the game just feels unfair: it gives you the tools to do one thing fairly well, and then punishes you for trying to use them.

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