Today’s Forecast: Heavy Rain with a Chance of Sunny Spells

February 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Much to my surprise, last week saw the release of the much anticipated – by this humble Bitmobber at least – demo for Quantum Dream’s ‘Heavy Rain’. It contained two scenes taken from the game’s full release.

David Cage would be proud. I laughed, I cried, and I came away from the experience confident that THIS is the game developers need to ape if they want to tell great stories within their medium.

Or maybe not…

Forward: This will only make sense to you if you’ve played the Heavy Rain demo. If you haven’t, I suggest all you PS3 owners out there go and download it from the PSN store, and all you 360 owners watch GiantBomb’s fantastic quick look.

I’ll admit I may have already been a bit harsh on the game. The demo is, after all, only a fraction of the total experience, and as such is never going to have the impact of the full title. Thus, it’s important for you to realize I’m making these statements based upon the demo alon. There’s a valid argument that says any opinion I hold is worthless until I’ve seen the full game; If you hold this view I can see where you’re coming from, but I suggest you stop reading now.

Are they gone yet? Good. I hate those arseholes.

The demo’s first faux pas is in its construction of the player’s agency. Essentially this boils down to a question of motivation.

You see, in a movie, the set up of a detective arriving to interview someone about a crime we don’t know has happened, works. It works because as a passive observer to the action, we as an audience can be perfectly content working out the purpose of the scene as it goes along, safe in the knowledge that by the end of the scene it should all make sense.

A game is different though. As an active participant in proceedings, it’s important to understand just why you’re doing what you’re doing. Otherwise your only motivation for playing on is completing the game. This might come down to a matter of opinion, but personally I think that’s a pretty bad motivation to have.

That might just be my opinion, but it’s a fact that because you have no idea what it is you’re doing, you’re essentially just looking for anything in the level to interact with. Is this detective work, or just time wasting?

Take the second scene as an example. I had no idea why I was in this apartment block, so when a button prompt appeared, I pressed it, without any idea of the response the action would have.

So let’s summarize. I had no idea why I was there. I had no idea what the effect my button pushes would have. I had no choice as to what button pushes to make.

Bearing all that in mind, ask yourself this, ‘Why does this experience need to be a game?’

Pushing these doubts to the back of my mind I moved on to my next interaction. Aside from another couple of instances of not knowing what I was doing when pushing buttons, I thought this section of the demo was its strongest part.

Finally, during the interview, I had a choice. I could see the options I had open to me, and their descriptions were clear enough so as to allow me to make a clear choice. It made perfect sense for the scene to be interactive.

I also liked the fact that during the dialogue I had complete freedom to move around. Call me inconsistent, but I actually rather enjoyed being able to lean casually against the dresser or sit on the bed next to my interviewee. It may have been completely pointless, but I felt it added some character to a scene that would have otherwise been very dialogue heavy.

More mystery button prompts followed. Apparently that one made me leave my calling card on the table. That’s handy. I didn’t know I could do that. Would have been a bit of a bummer if I’d missed that one right?

Unusually for me, I’ve got nothing to complain about with regards to the next section. The fight, which sees you essentially engaging in an extended quick-time event, was tense, well choreographed, and especially well animated. The characters have just that, character, and the button prompts are arranged in a way which makes sure you’ve always got your eyes on the action.

Most of all, I liked this sequence because the game finally admitted that it was, of course, a game, and you know what? It was fun.

The next scene is likewise enjoyable. You assume the role of another detective, and turn up at the scene of a murder, in order to find clues to aid your investigation.

Weirdly however, you investigate the scene by putting on a pair of sci-fi sunglasses, which point out clues and DNA samples for you to inspect. It’s not that I think these are a bad addition to the game – in actual fact I think they’re what make the level work – but that their presence in such a serious game is jarring. Everything about this game is so realistic and mature, and now you’re using sunglasses at night to help you solve crimes. It just doesn’t fit together quite right.

This fact really sums up my thought on the Heavy Rain demo. Any ‘realistic’ game needs to make allowances for the fact that it’s a video game. The harder they try to avoid making these allowances, the more out of place they seem when the game inevitably has to make use of them.

That’s really the crux of it. Heavy Rain, from what I’ve played of it, seems like a good game, there’s no doubt about it. What it’s most certainly not however, is the future of video game storytelling. It should never have been billed as this, and I’m doubtful and critic will share this view.

Of course, I’m open to the possibility of the full game changing my mind.


Why Comparing Games to Movies is Doing Everone a Disservice

February 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

You may have noticed, but I’ve been a bit absent from Bitmob of late. Work ramped up, exams closed in, and suddenly I just didn’t have the time or energy to write articles that people would actually want to read (some would argue no amount of time and energy can change that, but that’s a debate for another day).

A little bit of distance never hurt anyone though, especially with the amount of time I’ve had recently to devote to just playing games. This extended break has reinforced some old ideas, twisted others, and has completely eliminated any desire I once had to read one particular tired old argument, about gaming and a certain film whose name I won’t care to mention here (though for the sake of those who may not have read the argument before, let’s just say it concerns a man by the name of KANE, who was a CITIZEN of the United States.)

So I’ve been thinking, analysing, and gaming for these past few months, and have come to the following conclusion.

Comparing games to movies is going to get us nowhere.

So perhaps at this point I should rephrase. It’s not the comparison between games and movies I resent – far from it, I think there’s much games can learn visually from such a medium – but the way this comparison is innately attached to the whole ‘Games as Art’ thing. Whenever anyone brings up the fact that games can, and should aim for artistic merit, someone else will inevitably come along and claim games can never match up to movies as art.

Of course games could never match the artistic prowess of movies, in the same way that books could never ‘match’ sculpture, and paintings can never ‘match’ music. They’re two very different mediums, both with their own strengths, and ideas about what they can accomplish.

So the idea of saying ‘Games can never be art because movies will always be better at telling a story’ is stupid, because games don’t need to tell a story to be artistic.

I suppose the reason why this argument is so tired to me, is that a much better medium already exists for comparing with games, music.

I like the idea of music, because you don’t listen to it in order to hear a story. It might tell a story, through its lyrics (similar to the way a game might tell a story through its cutscenes) or through the tune itself, harsh sounds creating the impression of violence, whilst subtler melodies conveying the emotions of love or happiness (or in video games, ‘gameplay’).

The point is that you never pick a song out of iTunes primarily because you want to hear the story the artist wants to tell. You might be interested in any story of course, in the same way that a big reason why I played MGS4 was to see the end of Snake’s story, but if the sound isn’t enjoyable to listen to, or if the gameplay isn’t fun to experience, then you’re never going to listen to an album, or play a game, in the first place.

Games should never try ‘just’ to be fun, but at the same time trying to imitate film is just embarressing. Most of this rant was brought on by playing through the recently released demo of ‘Heavy Rain’, which tries so hard to be a movie, and in many ways fails so badly. From what I can tell, it’s not a bad game, but claiming that this is the future of interactive entertainment is pure self indulgance.

I like films, and I like games, but anyone that tries to mesh the two together is doing both a disservice. Games can have incredible depth, and can illicit raw emotion, but anyone trying to achieve this in the same way as film is going about it in a very wrong way.

Where Would we be Without Gears of War?

February 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s easy to look back on Gears of War now and wonder what all the fuss was about. The story’s fragmented at best, all the lead characters have the combined depth of a puddle, and in at times the movement was so clunky so as to be almost tank-like. At the time however, the game was as close to revolutionary as the game industry gets, and without it we’d be playing games very differently today.

For one, we’d still be playing most of our shooters in first person.

It’s weird to think that in the space of a couple of years, most of the biggest games released now use an over-the-shoulder camera viewpoint as opposed to the first person. It would of course be insane of me to claim that every game has made this leap when this is clearly not the case, but on reflection, the biggest fps games released today, use this perspective because of a history with it.

Games like Call of Duty, and Killzone, have their gameplay systems so focussed around the close viewpoint afforded by the first person, that to change this for a sequel would alter the game so much so as to make it completely unrecognisable. Modern Warfare is, for better or for worse, always going to be a first person game, and Gears of War will likewise – in several years time when first person inevitably comes back into fashion – remain in third person.

So why did this shift occur? You could point towards the increased graphical fidelity afforded by this generation of consoles, and claim that developers have always wanted to work with an over-the-shoulder camera, they just couldn’t make it look good enough until now. A cynic might argue that this change has only taken place so that marketing executives can cash in on the wave of appreciation for Epic’s seminal shooter, and there’s probably quite a bit of truth to their claims.

Of course, there’s another argument that would claim the only reason you’d go for such a camera angle is to be able to jump on another bandwagon.

Cover systems

Again, it would be crazy to claim that cover systems hadn’t existed before Gears of War. How many times playing Timesplitters have players crouched behind a waist-high object, only to stand up briefly to unload a couple of shots before crouching once more. Cover systems have existed for years in the minds and strategies of gamers, but it was Gears of War that took what we’ve always done with complicated strafing and crouching techniques, and mapped it to the ‘A’ button.

It was, needless to say, genius. Gone were the stalemates that often punctuated mid-level encounters, (and I’m sorry to say, still existed in Resistance 2) as were the – in retrospect – insane bouts of circle strafing that would feature against tougher enemies. The solution was simple, elegant, and – dare I say it – cool. Who doesn’t love frantically sprinting for cover, only to be ousted by a well placed grenade at the last minute? It’s almost ironic that an innovation revolving around hiding has the effect of making you feel like such a badass.

Subtle guidance

It’s a small point, something that to my knowledge didn’t exist before this game’s release, but having a button you can hold to point out items of interest is a genius move on the part of Epic. Some might argue that having such a button is an admission of failure by the developer, that a level should be designed in such a way so as to make it obvious what you should be looking at, but not every studio has Valve’s ability in this regard.

Even the best games have moment’s where I’m lost as to where to look, and this problem only increases when large set pieces occur outside of cutscenes. It takes a huge amount of confidence to take camera control away from the player entirely, as as such the ‘hold a button’ method is the perfect half way house in such a situation.

The traditional health bar is empty.

Like many of the things Gears did, thinking about the way things used to be often illicit a response akin to, ‘How the hell did we ever get by without it?’ from me. Having a bar filled with colour to denote your life is such an arcane way of doing things that it’s a wonder there are games that still use it today, especially now that recharging health is almost standard across games.

It’s not that having the screen go all faded and bloody is any more realistic than having a bar denoting hit points remaining, but when everything’s going to pot, enemies are closing in on your position, and you’re close to death, don’t you want the entire screen screaming at you with this information? Call me overly progressive, but I’m glad health bars have died out.

Now if we could just simplify ammo counters in a way that doesn’t involve my gun having ugly numbers on it’s hilt, I’d be one happy bunny.

Hello I’m the Unreal Engine, soon I’ll be powering everything.

It’s something of a given that the future always looks far shinier than the present. Looking at Crysis 2 shots today is like giving my eyeballs a bubble bath, but I just know that when it finally comes out, there’ll be something even better on the horizon.

It’s weird then that Gears of War managed to both show off the best of the present, whilst hinting at the great things that were to come over the next few years. Of course we had no way of knowing that the engine was going to go on to power damn near every other game released this generation, but when Gears loaded up on our shiny new HDTVs for the first time, there combined thought that reverberated around the world, ‘Oh,’ we said to ourselves, ‘so THIS is what games look like now then.’

It would be impossible to try and list the games that have taken inspiration from GoW, so I won’t even bother trying. Suffice to say that the gaming landscape would be very different today without it, even if chainsaws on guns didn’t quite bring about such a plethora of imitators.

Oh, just so you know, I’m not dead.

But you already guessed that right?

Where Am I?

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