Game Eaters

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Spike Lee vs. San Andreas.

Clara and I just got back from seeing Inside Man, Spike Lee's new film about a bizarre bank heist. There's a scene where the bank robber, played by Clive Owen, talks to one of his hostages, a young African-American kid with a PSP. He wants to know what the kid is playing, so the kid hands over the system. Suddenly the movie cuts to a giant, full-screen image of what is obviously a parody of GTA: San Andreas. In it a guy with an Uzi (assumedly the player) chases down another guy, shooting him in the legs. As the victim lay on the sidewalk, the phrase "KILL THAT NIGGA!" flashes on the screen, at which point the player jams a grenade into the victim's mouth and trots away as the guy's head explodes like a water balloon. The conversation Clive Owen has with the kid, which plays out over these images, goes something like this:

Robber: What do you do in this game?

Kid: Rob people. Kill people.

Robber: You think that's cool?

Kid: Yeah. Like my man, 50 Cent. That's what it's all about. Get rich or die tryin'. That's what you're doing, right?

Robber: Never mind what I'm doing. I think I should have a talk with your father about this game.

There's a lot of complicated stuff going on in this scene, and I found myself having a complicated reaction to it. First of all, it's yet another example of videogames shown on film in a visually inaccurate way. The graphics were too clean and detailed for an actual PSP game. Rather, they looked like what they were: some pre-rendered CG trying to pass for in-game footage. This put me on guard, since it's the first sign in any film that the filmmakers aren't gamers. Secondly, there was the obvious way in which Lee was criticizing GTA: San Andreas for its glorification of urban black crime. I think this would be clear to anyone who is familiar with Lee's politics. Bamboozled could be read as (among other things) a rant on the subject. Thirdly, it was a strange contrast to the way the PSP had been shown as blatant product placement in the rest of the film. The kid is never seen once without the PSP in hand, and there are several lines of dialogue, aside from the scene I mentioned, that seem designed only to draw attention to it.

So...

We have a movie where the filmmaker clearly doesn't know that much about games. But the people who hired him want him to sell games to his audience. He shows the hardware, but then he turns the one showcase of software into a suckerpunch at morally corrupt pop culture and bad parenting. You've got to wonder if that was Lee's response to being told he had to feature the PSP.

Whatever Spike Lee intended, I have to admit that I've seen worse. I didn't walk away with the impression that Lee is pro-videogame regulation. The fact that the kid mentioned 50 Cent makes Lee's criticism seem directed more at gangsta culture than videogame culture. And the corrective impulse is constructive: Clive Owen's response is to educate the parent... not do the parent's job for him.

I can't think of many examples where filmmakers showed they understood either the technology or the culture of videogames. Shawn of the Dead is the only one in recent memory, and it was merely showing that games are (gasp!) a normal part of people's lives. I can't think of a movie that used real videogames (which excludes videogame-as-metaphor movies like Tron or The Matrix) to say something positive. Inside Man isn't exactly a step in this direction, but at least it doesn't feel like a step backward.

I guess that's sorta good news.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Splinter Cell: Game Design Theory

I’m finally playing Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.

Chaos Theory has fabulous production values (even if the visual design—aside from Sam Fisher’s signature goggles—is typically forgettable.) The game's biggest triumph is the sheer number of context sensitive animations. They don’t add much gameplay, but they do succeed in making Sam’s actions feel unusually purposeful. The way he switches to a tip toe creep when skulking near an enemy or the way his head automatically turns towards his prey. Not only have the developers made the animations fluid and expressive, they’ve made the *transitions* between animations smooth. This is key to making a character feel life like.

Any schmoe can mocap an animation and stick it on a character model. But to make sure said animation, at any given moment, can be interrupted by another animation and not seem artificial… that’s the secret sauce. Chaos Theory does this as well as any game I can remember. The real show stopper is how Sam stops in mid-creep when you let up on the move button. At literally any point in his creep animation you can just stop, and instead of reverting to his squatting stance Sam just freezes in mid step, wavering ever-so-slightly. This creates a marvelous sense of tension when closing in on an oblivious enemy. It looks like Sam is holding his breath, internally battling to keep his balance in that exact position, lest any movement give him away. It’s a wonderfully realized aspect of Sam’s character, making him seem both more human and more comical. One could imagine a similar physical gesture in a Chaplin or Keaton film. In an artform where movement is everything, characters are defined by how they move. This is what the makers of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus know better than anyone, and a bit of that knowledge is on display in Chaos Theory.

Otherwise, Chaos Theory is not terribly amazing. What Splinter Cell really delivers on is sheer production value and polish. It’s a great looking game and a great playing game. Everything it attempts it realizes effectively. This is why, I suppose, some people consider it the pinnacle of the stealth genre: it has virtually no flaws. But it has virtually no ambition either. Splinter Cell, as a series, brings almost nothing original to the table. It’s a patchwork of features and mechanics swiped from other stealth games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does basically mean that polish is about the only thing that sets Splinter Cell apart from the competition.

I do not prefer innovation alone, just as I do not prefer polish alone. But I tend to favor innovation over polish provided the innovative game contains at least a basic level of polish and its mechanics are not totally broken. I suppose this is why I prefer Hitman to Splinter Cell as far as what the Western world as to offer the stealth genre. The Hitman games are not graphical powerhouses, but they manage to not look shabby while innovating in non-linear gameplay far beyond what Splinter Cell even tries to achieve. The simulatory aspects of Hitman are robust and, for me, encompass all the tension that Splinter Cell has to offer within a larger framework of persistent, realtime world dynamics. In Blood Money there’s a mission where, in order to assassinate an opera singer onstage during a live performance, you have to wait and snipe him at the *exact* moment he is shot by a fake gun as part of the opera. This is not an event that starts and stops as the result of a cinematic or because you cross some invisible line that triggers it. The mission lasts for the duration of the opera, and the rest is sheer clockwork. To me that’s compelling in ways most stealth games don’t approach, and even if the realtime aspect makes it more frustrating than the bite size “one hallway, one problem” design of Splinter Cell, I’m willing to put up with it because of how fresh the experience feels.

There’s nothing wrong with Splinter Cell, but it is not the best the West has to offer. Many like to compare Splinter Cell to Metal Gear because of the military theme, but Metal Gear is such a different creature, operating under a such wildly different design logic, that comparing them doesn’t feel very useful in the end. Hitman is the only other high profile stealth series that seems to have the realism-oriented and simulatory (i.e. Western) design goals as Splinter Cell. Out of those two I think Hitman trumps it in terms of ambition, and the hit it takes in production value is negligible. Since Thief has faded away (thanks to Thief III’s failure to reinvent itself) there hasn’t been much left to carry the torch. Hitman fills this need as well as any as far as I’m concerned. It’s pushing the genre, not just its own IP, forward.

In short, I doubt a Splinter Cell game will come out that I won’t play. But I also doubt there will ever be a Splinter Cell game I’ll truly love. I need something a little more unpredictable to really stoke my passion.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

A mix of H20, Na+. and Cl-

So I know I'm a total sap, but I just finished Kingdom Hearts II and have to admit that I leaked a few tears at the end. What I can't figure out is why...

Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the game. The part that perplexes me whether it was the game that provoked my reaction, or was it just the cutscene? It seems nearly impossible to disentangle one from the other, but here goes.

My first instinct is to say that it's the game, but that's more of a knee jerk "We need more games that have emotional impact," reaction. When I step back a little and consider the exact moment of saline secretion, it was one of those classic moments:

Sora: "We're back."
Kairi: "Welcome home."

which I can guarantee in the Japanese version was:

Sora: "Tadaima."
Kairi: "Okaerinasai."

For anyone that watches any Japanese film, drama, or Anime, this is a fairly typical narrative device that wraps up a lot of pent up emotion into a ritualistic phrase. (Note: Not trying to imply here that this device isn't found in other nation's media, just that this particular instance is a quintessential moment in cheesy Japanese dramas.) Despite their cheesiness, these kinds of moments tend to 'get me' more often than not. So maybe it was just the cutscene...

... or maybe not. I invested a solid 35 hours into getting to that one moment. And it wasn't because of the mechanics. The gameplay was tight, but uninventive. More often than not, it's a lot of mashing the X and Triangle Buttons with an occasional nod to the Square and Circle. So imagine this, I was actually playing the game for the story *gasp* and not the gameplay. Does that make all gamey the stuff in between the narrative chunks irrelevant? Or does the investment that one has to make in order to move from one chunk to the next fundamentally alter the reception of the chunk?

David Cage, the self-proclaimed auteur behind Indigo Prophecy, came to MIT, and said that all American games were like pornography - that their stories are irrelevant and trifling, and people generally skip through them because all they really want is the action. While he is right to some degree, it's experiences like the one that I had this evening that make me question the 'disconnection' between cutscene and play. To draw a parallel to film - if you're watching Zatoichi, are you constantly thinking about the reprecussions to the town that Zatoichi's violence will have, or maybe, just maybe, for a few split seconds you think "how @$!*ing cool was that move!" So, does one have to constantly have in mind the particular narrative context that drives their action in order for it to connote truly 'narrative' gameplay? Or is it sufficient to have the context set up the action, and then we resolve the narrative outcome to reflect the new state of affairs that has arisen as a result of the action?

Or is this all moot, Square RPGs don't make people cry, and maybe I'm just a melodramatic simp? ;)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What's a boy to do?

This is probably going to end up more as a plea than a post, but here goes:
In the near future, I'll be starting a job where I will be working at a studio that has a more balanced male/female ratio (compared to the rest of the industry) and on a game that will be looking squarely at women as a primary audience. I'm very excited about this; I'm also very frightened. No, I don't think they'll eat me alive. What I'm afraid of that I will unwittingly make some comment or design suggestion that, while seeming like a perfectly natural thing to me, will estrange my co-workers or the audience that I really do want to reach.

The latter is what really gets me. I'm not as worried about my co-workers; I'm hoping and expecting that they'll smack me if I do something unintentionally 'male.' What's of greater concern is the fact that no matter how hard I've tried over the years to get occasional gamers (that are women) to comment on what they want to see in games, the response is almost always "I just don't like games." Granted, the question is ill formed: if they only know video games as has been defined by what's been out there for the past 20-30 years, it's little wonder that they don't like games.

I guess this is where the stroke of brilliance is supposed to come in, pulling that concept out of the ether that makes a mysterious and not well understood concept plainly simple. Before I attempt that though, I want to ask the readers (and contributors ;) of this blog the following:

What aspects of 'guy' games are unappealing to women?
What would you like to see more of in games?
Is there any scholarship (beyond Henry's "From Barbie to Mortal Combat") that you would recommend? (This would also include editorial articles etc.)
How can I, as a guy and a game designer, start a better dialogue about games with women, whether they are gamers or not.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Online Gaming is like High School.

I recently tried to get a friend of mine into the online mode of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. His answer was eye-opening...

"I have no interest in a game that's going to be like High School gym class all over again," he said.

For him, playing competitively with strangers was bringing to videogames all the things he originally turned to videogames to escape from. People ganging up on you. People bullying you for no reason than to make themselves feel powerful, etc. This is what he imagined playing online is like.

I tried to explain to him that it's different if you play with friends, but he just wasn't interested. Although I am not much of an online gamer myself, I have been dabbling in MGS3S's multiplayer mode. I find it generally fun, but something happened tonight that helped me understand my friend's attitude.

I was in a game, and one player seemed to be playing for no reason other than to abuse people. As Snake he refused to capture the microfilm, but rather just liked to see how many people he could kill by headshot. One time, when someone else was Snake, I sat down in a nook and drew my sniper rifle. He, playing a fellow soldier now, ran up and kicked me out of the way and took my place. As I was about to walk away, he shot me in the head. This really made me angry so I vowed to knock him out next time, just to express my frustration. I eventually found him, grabbed him, and threw him to the ground, a move that does no actual damage when done by a teammate--it merely is a humiliating animation. Literally two seconds later I was booted. He, it turns out, was the host.

I know much has been written about player behavior in online worlds, so I'm not here to suggest my above description is particularly enlightening. But it did remind me of why people such as my friend have no interest in online competitive play. The feelings I experienced in the aforementioned situation were uncannily like, well, High School gym class. I remember those sneering fuckers, kids who were so filled with hate that they exploited the magic circle of sports as an opportunity to humiliate others. I remember one time playing some kinda water basketball. I missed a basket because I wasn't very good. One of the other kids on my team, who took winning VERY seriously, gave me a very nasty look. It was really frightening. It's like he thought I was sub-human. If he could have made me disappear out of that pool, I'm sure he would have.

I felt a little bit of that unease tonight. After I got booted I put down the controller and tried to imagine what was motivating the host's behavior. It was like he had started a game for no other reason than to satisfy his fetish for shooting people in the head. And by god, if you didn't submit to the rules of his little world you would be taught to fear him... else you'd be silenced, instantly and permanently.

What kind of a mind needs that sort of stimulation? I really don't know. But I understand why some players would want to have nothing to do with it. I also understand how, depending on your life experience, the potential pleasures of online play don't seem worth reliving the worst era of your life.