Sunday, September 3, 2017

Difficulty Vs Design: Revisitng X-COM 2

Almost exactly a year ago I played X-COM 2, Firaxis's follow up to the wonderful X-COM: Enemy Unknown reboot from a few years prior. I was rather disappointed with their sequel. While the X-COM games have always been difficult, even oppressive, I found X-COM 2 to be more frustrating than fun. At the time I chalked this up to a decision to add in mission timers and stress in my own life. I just wasn't in the right place mentally for slamming my head into a wall. A year later and on the eve of a major DLC release for the game, War of the Chosen, I decided to revisit the base game and give X-COM 2 another shot. An additional 12 hours of gameplay later (bringing me up to a modest total of 19) I have a similar, though better understanding of what I found so frustrating the first time around.

The X-COM reboot saw a pretty familiar Earth invaded by an alien menace like so many pulp stories and summer action films. A secret organization of government officials band together to push back the alien menace. The Commander leads the organization, developing new technologies, training recruits and fighting back against the alien tide. The second X-COM envisions a world in which humanity lost that war. The aliens have arrived, taken over and rule with an iron fist. X-COM is no longer a global organization of futuristic technologies, but a rag tag band of rebels fighting in isolated cells, using whatever scraps they can find along the way. The game opens with them rescuing the Commander from the first game, leading to what was for me the best moment in X-COM 2.

"Welcome back, Commander."

The voice actor who delivers that line is absolutely perfect. It's a great set up and an interesting way to build off the first game while still leaving players in that underdog, against all odds position. The Commander, using a massive airship as his base, flies from place to place, building contacts with the resistance, researching the alien's technology to use against them and probing the enemy's defenses for soft targets they can hit with lightning efficiency. So where does it all go wrong?

In my first playthrough of X-COM 2 I blamed the mission timer for much of the games unneeded difficulty. To add to the theme of outnumbered and outgunned rebels fighting back against a totalitarian regime, the game adds an arbitrary turn counter to many of the missions. You have eight or nine turns to complete your objective and get out. Fail to complete the objective in the allotted time and your entire squad becomes captured, even if they were in a defensible position they could otherwise have escaped from.

To add to this, in the meta layer of X-COM 2, they eschew the global panic of the first game for a more ominous and vague "Avatar Project". In the first game, failing missions or neglecting certain regions would increase a level of panic in the region. If the panic reached too high a level, that region would pull out of the global initiative and decide to fight for itself. Lose too many regions, and it's game over. It was a meta level threat that made sense thematically. Nations consumed by fear, losing confidence in a world government leaving them to die deciding to go home and bunker down, defending themselves first and foremost. Lose too many regions and the world couldn't hope to stand against such a sizable threat. The themes of all for one and one for all felt at home with the game's larger message, of diverse groups banding together against a common threat. In X-COM 2, all of this goes out the window in favor of the Avatar Project. A red bar at the top of the world map shows how far the project is progressing. At certain times facilities appear on the map, targets which if destroyed will delay the completion of this mysterious project. While a weaker threat narratively, it does force the Commander to go on the offensive, taking the fight against the enemy even when the odds are against them.

Unfortunately, the odds are the problem.

Saying the Random Number Generation (RNG) is bad in X-COM is nothing new. It's like saying Nintendo panders to kids or Dark Souls is hard. The problem is that the RNG in X-COM is not just bad, not just poorly balanced, but instead serves to highlight fundamental weaknesses in the design. Some of these were present in X-COM: Enemy Unknown, others are new to X-COM 2 but all serve to highlight how a fault in one critical piece can bring the entire machine down. RNG, essentially programmed dice rolls, control the accuracy of how your guns shoot in X-COM 2, it decides how much damage those shots do and it decides whether getting hit means a wounded soldier or a dead one. A great many games do this to a lesser or greater extent. The Achilles heal of X-COM 2 is that the entire game hinges on them.

In the tutorial players are taught one of the most vital tactics in the game, using an ability called Overwatch to lure in and ambush enemy units. Overwatch puts units in a guarded state, making them shoot enemies if they move within their line of sight. Add to this the knowledge that enemies always get a free move when revealed and it becomes clear that Overwatch is essential to surviving in the game. The situation unfolds as such, if you move your units and reveal enemies, those enemies get a free move to get into defensive positions. Then on their turn they are in a good position to attack you. If however, you have units in Overwatch, when the enemy's free move is triggered, your units will attack them. This basically, though not exactly, gives your units a free attack to counter their free move. It is the basic building block of the game's strategy and impacts almost every decision you'll make.

Except that those Overwatch attacks are also decided by RNG. On occasion after occasion while playing X-COM 2, I would have my troops in the perfect location, everyone behind cover and in Overwatch and trigger an enemy movement only for the entire squad to miss. Now some of this may be bad luck, but when you add on to it the turn timer ticking down, the punishing damage that every enemy does, the sheer weight of the operation coming down on you, it's heartbreaking. Aside from causing me to pound my fist on the desk in frustration or curse at my monitor, it really breaks the illusion the game is trying to create. Here I have an entire squad of trained, battle hardened soldiers fighting with assault rifles at ranges of 30 ft. or less and they can't hit a super mutant the size of Andre the Giant? It doesn't make any sense for one of them to miss much less all of them.

Time and time again through playing X-COM 2 I would have a soldier aiming at an enemy three or four squares away, a distance of maybe 20 ft. with an assault rifle and their chance to hit would be around 70%. That's insane. Give an untrained person a pistol and have them shoot at a target twenty feet away that's eight feet tall and two feet wide and try and tell me they'll miss more than 70% of the time. And these aren't untrained civilians. These are trained soldiers, sent into battle after battle, promoted for their efforts on the field.

So they miss? So what? Shoot again. After all, that's what you would do in the first game. You might take some damage or lose a soldier in the process, but that's all part of X-COM, that is in some way part of the fun. But in X-COM 2 there are prices for that failure. You aren't just losing a soldier, you're losing a turn on a timer, maybe one of only eight for the entire mission. Not only did all your soldiers miss and someone die, but they are going to have spend the entire next turn shooting at enemies that should already be dead, and they'll have one less gun to do it.

And this, finally, brings me to my point. When is a game merely difficult, and when does it cross over into a flawed or poorly executed design. X-COM has always been hard. That's part of it's charm. A hard pressed Commander fighting impossible odds with less than ideal tools to do it. Make a bad decision, send your troops to a position they can't defend and you pay the price for it. A soldier falls on the battlefield and another name is added to you memorial wall. You got into the next battle not with an experienced veteran, but a rookie prone to panic. Your actions and your choices have consequences, making those choices more interesting.

But in X-COM 2 you aren't punished for you decisions, you aren't punished for attacking when you should have defended or going left when you should have gone right. You are punished for dice rolls you can't even see. Put a squad in Overwatch, use the tactics the game teaches you and watch as they all miss. Watch as they fall on the battlefield while an arbitrary floating timer decides you're out of time, out of chances. Watch as the game decides everyone on the ground was captured, when they could have easily escaped.

Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls are two of the poster children for difficult but rewarding games. They are trotted out when anyone says a game is hard. Oh you think this is hard, you should try Dark Souls. Both of those titles are not without their faults and there's more than one unfair death to be found in the Souls series, but there are a few crucial differences. The first is control. In Super Meat Boy, a harrowing, nail biting platformer, you have some of the best control of your jump to be found in the entire genre. The cause of this is pretty simple. When you die in Super Meat Boy it's meant to be your fault, not the game's. You missed the jump, you screwed up the timing. In Dark Souls the enemies are punishing, capable of dealing great damage, but they have patterns and wind up animations to show you what's coming. You can learn and adapt. You can't learn a dice roll. You can't control the whims of fate. Sure, you can start relying heavily on grenades and the few other items in the game that are guaranteed hits, but this is far from the intended design. You can research new equipment and unlock better gear, but how many players will get that far, how many Commanders will trust them when it all comes down to a roll of the dice anyway?

Secondly, in both the titles listed above, any setbacks from these failures are temporary. Levels in Super Meat Boy are short and load times instant so that no matter how frustrating of a death you just suffered you're back in the level and jumping before you can even think to throw the controller. In Dark Souls, dying cost you souls, the currency used for improving the stats of your character, but even this is only a temporary set back. New souls can always be gathered. There's no permanent price of failure like there is X-COM 2, no Avatar Project always getting a step closer to completion.

Difficult games often get a pass. Criticism isn't justified, it's simply the complaining of someone who needs to get better at the game, who needs to stop whining and learn the strategies to beat it. In some ways I would agree with that, but in X-COM 2 it isn't the aliens I'm fighting, it's the dice. Chance is a fundamental part of the X-COM series. In war, nothing is guaranteed, nor should it be. What I contend is that the developers need to pay careful attention to how these things are balanced, and the effect they have on the larger game. Without the turn timers, the missed attacks and botched die rolls become far less of a set back. Without the Avatar Project, losing a squad to chance means building a new one, rather than suffering a permanent setback that could result in the loss of an entire several hours long campaign.

There is much to like about X-COM 2, in the story, in the presentation. In the weapons and gadgets they give, in the varied enemies they send you to fight against. It's a shame I won't see more of it because I'm not willing to gamble any more of my time on a game that feels more rigged than fun, on something that feels more cheating than challenging.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Batman: Arkham Knight and How You Only Get One Shot

The following article contains minor spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight, mostly related to the early game and side missions.

Batman: Arkham Knight, the third game in Rocksteady's Arkham trilogy had a rough launch to say the least. While the game was generally reviewed positively by the press, consumers found the game at launch to be buggy and plagued with technical issues. This was most severe on the PC, where even high end machines struggled to run the game, leading to Warner Brothers to eventually pull the game from sale on PC until it could be fixed.

As a primarily PC gamer these days and a huge fan of Rocksteady's treatment of the dark crusader's franchise, I was devastated. I've been a big fan of the bat since I was a knee high tyke running around in my bat symbol underoos. Having been introduced to Batman through the amazing and still worth watching animated series from the 90's (which I've written about previously here and here) I spent most of my life suffering through lack luster adaptations of Bruce Wayne's story in both movies and video games. Thankfully Nolan came along with a darker, more grounded trilogy and helped launch a new interest among the popular culture.

Which is where Rocksteady came in. Working with publisher Warner Brothers, they released Arkham Asylum, a fresh yet traditional take on the Bat, weaving together decades of characters and story lines into something that felt familiar and new all at the same time. The genius came not only in how they handled the characters of Gotham, remixing characters and storylines as needed, but in the gameplay as well. They wisely eschewed the beat em up past of previous Batman games in favor of a stealthy, cerebral metroidvania that had players filling the role of Batman as he explored the infamous Arkham Asylum, solving puzzles, battling goons and catching the bad guys. The sequel, Arkham City, expanded the concept into a small, pseudo-open world that featured a sub-section of Gotham as a hub, linking areas together and allowing the player to brood on rooftops like their favorite hero does in all those movie posters. Both were great games and left players with a taste of an open world that wouldn't be fulfilled until the final third act of the trilogy.

Rocksteady had a proven track record, had made two great games in the franchise and had built up a trust and respect among fans. There was no reason to suspect the third game wouldn't be anything but amazing. Then the reviews hit, the game launched and word began to spread. Massive frame rate drops, technical hitches, bugs, crashes, etc. Everyone was left to wonder what the hell happened, meanwhile the narrative of a bad, buggy game took hold. Fans like myself who were so desperately waiting to get a hold of the game pushed it away, disappointed and heart broken at what happened. We moved on, to other games, to other franchises, wondering what the next great super hero game would be.

Except, thing is, Batman: Arkham Knight is a great game, fully worth its place as the end of the trilogy. I picked up the game during a Steam sale and have spent the better part of last weekend tearing through it. From the opening intro of a cop wandering into a diner only to get overwhelmed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, to soaring over the rooftops of Gotham, Arkham Knight puts the player right back in the boots of the Bat, beating up bad guys, catching crooks and rocketing through the streets in your bat mobile. The game isn't perfect of course. I wish the controls were a bit tighter and there's one too many "jump out of the bat mobile just so you can hit a switch" segments, but the overall game is a wonderful blend of open world mechanics and the polished, loving treatment of Batman we've come to expect from Rocksteady.

First, let me say the Joker in this is an absolute delight. I was initially skeptical of the narrative device of having the Joker accompany Batman through the game as a hallucination, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Mark Hamil's delivery and portrayal of a character he helped define for a generation is perfect, backed by strong writing and decades worth of chemistry with Kevin Conroy, the definitive voice of Batman. But it's more than just the voice acting or the dialogue. Rocksteady goes all the way with the gag. The Joker doesn't just appear in cut scenes, he lurks outside of buildings, waiting to get in a verbal jab or two at the Bat as he leaves. He's a constant stream of jokes, insults and verbal stabs, constantly trying to get under Batman's skin. Observant players will even notice him causally sitting on rooftops as they glide over the city. The inclusion of such a beloved, well known character, for so much of the game not only gives fans a chance to see more of him than they would in the passing role of a villain, it gives us a chance to delve deeper into the character's relation to Batman and the history the two have shared.

How can you not love this guy?

But it goes beyond that, beyond being able to finally drive the batmobile at high speed through the streets of Gotham in hot pursuit of the baddies. There are clever touches all throughout this game. The way the main story gives you an excuse to go do side missions, to not feel guilty about leaving someone in peril while you tick a few things off your checklist. The absolutely genius way it handles side missions, disguising them as tracking down the bad guys. Let's face it, the Azrael no hit challenges, racing against Firefly's fuel, tracking Penguin's vans, all of these would be simple markers in any other open world game. Here's a racing flag, time to do the race side missions. They always feel so tacked on, so video gamey in other games. Here they are worked intelligently and seamlessly into the world and the experience overall. From solving Riddler's challenges and freeing Catwoman to tracking down a serial killer, the game never stops letting you feel like Batman. As an added touch of pure brilliance, when you finish a chain of side missions, you get to take the bad guy to jail, where they stay locked up for the rest of the game. In most open world games you get an achievement, a little tick on a box that says completed. Here you actually get the sense of closure of hauling them off to the local PD station.
Oh, and the police station. The Gotham City Police Department is my favorite part of this game. The whole thing is amazing. All of the cops you can talk to with real names and personalities, the bowl of Halloween candy on the bad ass Sergent's desk, the evidence room where you can hear little snippets about villains you've defeated in previous games. All of it works together so damn well to make you feel like the Dark Knight. The way the cops treat you with a mix of reference and suspicion. The sheer bad ass action of walking a big shot criminal like Two Face or the Penguin past their own locked up goons. It's brilliant and it's also home to one of my most beloved moments in the game, that of the corrupt cop.

You see, in Arkham Knight, you will occasionally find goons in the open world that are highlighted in a bright green to signify they work for the Riddler. Isolate them and you can interrogate them to learn where Riddler's hidden his puzzles around the city. So how is one to react when casually strolling through the Gotham City police department and you see a cop outlined in bright green? The game also features elements of Batman losing his sanity, of battling against the Joker's crazy. You have to wonder if you're seeing things, if it's some kind of glitch. The cop's just hanging out, talking to his buddies. You can even go up and talk to him and he's just like everyone else. Hit the interrogate button however and Batman will slam him into the wall, accuse him of working for the Riddler, only for the guy to confess. It's a great moment, not only from a gameplay perspective of using past taught mechanics to let the player discover something on their own, but in making the player feel like Batman, like the world's greatest detective.

There's a ton of other things I could gush on about with this game. The camera framing is wonderful. The little touches of a rescued firefighter hooking a thumb toward the horizon, toward the ruins of Arkham City in the background as he talks about it. The lovely art and set design of the varied locations, from Penguin's hideouts to the Haunted House at the movie studio. The way Riddler writes notes around his traps showing how he built them and providing hints to the player. Bruce Wayne's voicemail at Wayne Tower. The variety in Gotham from the seedy, trash strewn under city to the glamour of Founder's Island. The paintings and billboards scattered around. The whole city feels alive and fresh, despite being abandoned and run down. It's a wonderfully constructed world with some truly amazing design decisions littered throughout, both in gameplay and presentation.

But how many will play it? How many will remember the messy stories of a botched launch, of technical failures and hard crashes. It reminds me of Assassin's Creed Unity. A game that looked gorgeous leading up to launch, that promised living, breathing crowds and fast paced action set during the French Revolution. But no one remembers that. Ask someone to tell you about Unity and the first thing that comes to mind is the horrifying screenshot of the eye ball man. And yet the game is also capable of true beauty, of wonder artistry.

No one loves the eye ball man.

 Look at how gorgeous this is. 
Hard to believe they came from the same game.
Is Arkham Knight going to suffer the same fate? In this era of constant game releases are people going to revisit the Dark Knight's final chapter? Or will they remember all the stories from the launch? Of even mega powerful machines struggling to run it? These days the game runs fine even on a medium powered gaming laptop. The bugs have all been patched, the technical issues resolved. But the crowds have moved on to newer games, to better releases.

In such a fast moving industry, it really does seem like you only get one shot. I'll spare you the beaten to death Miyamoto quote, but it's a lesson that could be learned by a few more publishers. To wait and let your title get the attention it deserves, the praise it so easily could earn, rather than being tarnished by the scarlet letter of a broken game.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Doom 2016 In Translation: Tension, Horror and the Evolution of the Doom Guy

Earlier this year, the long awaited sequel/reboot/revival of the classic Doom series arrived to a cautious and skeptical crowd. The original Doom released in 1993 during the grunge heavy days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and cemented one of the biggest genres in video games, the First Person Shooter. You could forgive fans of their trepidation. Like most long lived franchises, the sequels and follow up projects to Doom had failed to capture the imagination in the same way. Doom 4 had languished in development, only to eventually be morphed, reborn into Doom 2016. In a pleasant turn of fate the fans ended up being wrong. Dead wrong. Doom 2016 was not only awesome, not only a stellar celebration of everything Doom had been and could be, it was also a damn fine video game.

It appears the making of the game, like most projects, was not without its own battles. Thanks to the great work of Danny O'Dwyer and his excellent noclip series, viewers are given an eye into the internal struggles the team went through in trying to decide the game's atmosphere, tone and gameplay style. One of things brought up frequently in the interview with Hugo Martin, the game's creative director (you can watch his extended interview here), is the inspiration that came from action movies and comic books. Ideas of tone and pacing that helped guide them in their vision of a new doom, something that was fast paced and bad ass in all the ways the original had been.

The shadows bathe the corridors. Lights, struggling to maintain power flicker and spark. A woman, dressed in a lab coat and business attire runs though the darkness. She reaches an intersection of once pristine metal corridors. To her left, light, salvation, to her right, only darkness. Two beady red eyes appear, attached to a hulking black shape in the shadows. The shape lets out an angry snort. The woman runs down the corridor, toward the light. Toward safety.

The thing that makes Doom 2016 so brilliant, so satisfying is not the action, not the push forward combat as defined by the creative team, but the tension. The tension that is formed by all of these things and feeds back into them. The art style, the animations, and especially the amazing soundtrack pump the player up, it gets their blood boiling until they need that release, until they are dying to punch something. We've all likely had that feeling before, when your blood pressure it up, when you're angrily pacing back and forth and you just want to hit something. Its a violent urge, an urge that must be controlled in a productive and safe society, but when you give in, when you let out that pent up rage it feels good, damn good. And that's exactly what the new Doom taps into.

There's a great scene in Breaking Bad where Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston goes to the doctor. He's fighting cancer, his life is a mess. All the tension, all the rage that has been building up inside of him is finally threatening to boil over.  He goes to the bathroom, chest heaving, face contorted, fists clenching. Finally, in an explosive release of anger he goes absolutely ape shit, beating the hell out of a paper towel dispenser. It doesn't sound like much, but it's an excellent scene, one of the most memorable in the series. That's in large part to that tension, that anger slowly building up in the character that we the viewers also feel. The act of losing control, of pummeling this inanimate metal object not only acts as release for the character and the audience, it shows how close the character is to losing control, and how dangerous he will be when he finally does.

She can hear it behind her. The massive, fleshy footsteps of the beast. The heavy, snotty breath. The doors are just ahead. The lights gleaming around the edges show it is still alive, still has power. The doors can still save her, if only she can reach them before the beast does. The doors open automatically, welcoming her, offering her their salvation. She gets inside, she slams her hand on the control panel. The doors shut, they lock. She's safe. The woman leans against the wall, her own chest heaving, breath labored. All is quiet. Then SLAM, the beast crashes into the double doors like a fright train. They hold. She lets out a breath. Outside the door she can hear it, hear the beast's snarls. It snorts and walks away, the massive steps echoing in the silent corridor. 

I have to admit, in this internet confessional, I have never much cared for action movies. When I was a kid action movies were big explosive things. The eighties era was winding down to a close, flooding old action movies into syndication. The nineties were still living in the shadow of the previous decade, struggling to find a voice of their own. Action movies were loud, vulgar things. Big guns, big explosions. The good guys were gruff, unshaven, beat down by the world. The bad guys were rich and sophisticated, trying to make a buck off of people's misery.

I never cared. Big dumb action guy fights hordes of less interesting storm troopers. They were invincible, walking tanks of pure destruction in human form. There was no tension, no fear. Not on the side of the hero and certainly not on the side of the bad guys. Everyone was so sure of their purpose. The good guys march forward into the face of certain death to rescue the girl and save the world. The bad guys who would inevitably exclaim "it's just one guy!" only to run out into the open and be gunned down. Set piece after set piece, explosion after explosion, it was all just meaningless noise to me.

Modern action movies aren't much better. Sure they put more effort into the story, sure they take the time to beat the crap out of the hero, but for every step forward they take two steps back. The stories in modern action movies are barely comprehensible, filled with more plot holes than you can keep up with and arranged by a spine twisting number of conveniences and coincidences. The music is instantly forgettable, blending in with a half dozen water downed soundtracks. And the dialogue, worst off all, has drifted from the era of iconic one liners to snarky, comedic quips that often don't gel with either character or situation.

And the action itself. Oh boy. Old action movies would take a zoomed out approach, set the camera somewhere far off and watch the hero run and gun, dive and dash as explosions reigned supreme. In the modern era, people wanted something up close, more real, more intense. What we got was shaky cams, blurry footage and a mess of sound effects and stunt doubles until you can barely manage to figure out what in the hell is going on. much less be invested in it. Somewhere along the way action movies forgot what they were about, the action, and have been diluted into some all purpose big budget thing that fails to capture anyone.

Breath caught, she pushes away from the wall. She's standing in some sort of locker room. Wooden benches without backs sit in the middle in neat rows. Tall, metallic lockers line the walls. All are shut but none are locked, waiting to be opened. She looks down, she's bleeding. Stomach wound. Lots of blood, won't last long. She pushes on. Devoid of the adrenaline of the chase, her steps are slow, breathing ragged. At the far end of the room is another set of doors. There are no lights on this door. No salvation. Cold and unwelcome, she presses on. 

Originally the protagonist of Doom was known simply as "the Doom Guy", a phrase that arose as a way to refer to the wincing face at the bottom of the screen. Over time "Doom Guy" and "The Marine" were fused into "Doom Marine" a phrase used interchangeably with Doom Guy. Now, in Doom 2016, we have the Doom Slayer, a mythic, legendary version to carry the legacy forward.

I think the evolution of the names is important, as it hints at a larger evolution in tone of the series itself. The original marine didn't need to be special. He was just some guy. The Doom Guy. Like the action heroes of the late eighties, of buddy cops and Die Hards, we didn't need him to be special. Then we have the rise of the Doom Marine. Even though he was always a marine, it is now addressed in name. He's not just a guy, not just some random person, but a soldier. A marine. A warrior meant to protect and destroy.

But here, in the modern day, is that really enough? After 9-11, after two wars in the middle east, does that term still carry the mythic weight it once did? Chances are, if you aren't a veteran, you know one. Likely more than one. While everyone acknowledges their bravery, their sacrifice and dedication, can something that common still be legendary?

The scientist punches in the code. The access panel blinks red. Wrong one. She looks back across the locker room, at the dented double doors. She can hear them out there, scurrying, screaming, looking for a way in. With one hand holding her wound, she uses her other to press in another code. Still red. She tries a third time, finger jabbing the buttons, hand shaking. Green. The doors open.

Enter the Doom Slayer. No longer a guy. No longer a marine. The Doom Slayer is now something out of the mists of legend, out of the fables and stories passed down through the ages. Something more than our everyday selves. The Doom Slayer exists not to protect, not to live but to kill demons. That is his role and that is what he does. The Doom Slayer is a symbol of human triumph, of fighting back against the shadows and driving them into the darkness.

It is in this that I am reminded not of the Doom Guy of yore, but of Master Chief, from Halo. In the original Halo, the character of the Master Chief was himself a space marine of mythic proportions. A literal super soldier meant to turn the tide against the aliens, against the monsters that people feared and to win the war for humanity. The irony, and one of the brilliant things Bungie did, was the aliens thought Master Chief was the demon, not the other way around.

The tall, tough Elites of the alien forces would run down regular space marines, would slaughter them in mass. But against Master Chief they would dance, side step, push and retreat. They knew he was a worthy advisory, something to be be feared and respected. The diminutive grunts had a strong reaction, out right running away in fear at the first site of the Master Chief. They would wave their little arms in the air and run in circles, crying and screaming for help until the faceless demon cut them down.

It's here that Doom 2016 does so well, executes so smartly. The demons aren't the enemy here, the Doom Slayer is. He's the thing to be feared, to run from. He's the unstoppable, uncontrollable, wrecking ball of a weapon that consumes all in its path. The Doom Slayer has no fear for the demons, he is the fear. He alone is the death bringer, not them.

The room is cold. Cold enough for the scientist to see her own breath as the door shuts behind her. Ahead lies some sort of stasis pod, standing against the wall. Large pipes and wires run into it, keeping it cold. On the right is a control panel awaiting a hand print. The scientist walks forward, stumbles, drops to her knees. She can't go on. The wound is too bad, too deep. She struggles, she crawls forward. Almost there. She reaches out. Not close enough. She curses, grunts, claws her way forward. At last she reaches up, her bloody hand finding the control panel. She places her hand on its surface and waits. The panel chirps and blinks green. The scientist lets out a long sigh, her hand slipping from the panel leaving only a trail of her blood behind.

There's a dual tension to Doom. A horror in two parts. The first is the one we are used too. Giant, hulking demons, snorting with flared nostrils and pointed teeth. We fear them, because they are familiar, yet different. Twisted animal forms beyond the normal pale that mean us harm. While we fear them, they fear the Doom Slayer and by making us the Doom Slayer, the circle is complete. The tension and horror flow freely until they are indistinguishable.

We run through levels, down corridors and across hellscapes. The music ebbs and flows, haunting and metallic, cautious yet loud. Driving us forward, driving us onward. The demons are huge, imposing, hulking. They hurt us, they out number us and they are without end. The horror, the anger, it all melds. It runs together as we pick up ammo, as we fire our gun. The tension builds and builds until at last we get close enough, we close ranks and we punch them. We punch them as hard as we can and they explode. Into health, into ammo, into the things we need to push ahead, to continue the fight. The tension is released. We enter the next room, the next corridor, rise over the next vista and there they are. Dozens of them, hundreds. The tension rises again.

This is what makes Doom 2016 so amazing, so refreshing. And it's exactly the sort of thing modern action movies are missing. Not special effects, not big explosions or cheesy one liners. Not impressive action sequences or witty quips. Tension. Pacing. Release. These are the things that action movies need to return to if they hope to catch audiences in the same way Doom 2016 was able rekindle that love its audience held for it. Maybe the action movies of tomorrow can learn from the Doom of today, just as it learned from the movies before it.

And a kick ass soundtrack. That definitely helps.

The chamber opens. Inside lies not a hero, but a man. Dressed in an undershirt and boxers, he looks small, weak. He steps out of the chamber and looks down at the scientist on the floor. Bleeding. Dead. He knows why. He knows why they have awoken him, what his purpose is. In the locker room he finds what he's looking for. His armor. Cleaned, polished. Ready. Piece by piece, he puts it on. No need to rush, they'll be waiting. Armor on, he stands not as a man, but as a Marine. A soldier ready for battle. He steps toward the dented doors, shotgun in hand. He knows they are out there. He can hear them. With one hand he punches the doors control panel, with the other he pumps the shotgun. The doors open. In the shadows beyond, red eyes gleam back at him. Dozens of them. He's ready. He steps out into the hall, shotgun leveled. No longer a man, no longer a marine. He is the Doom Slayer.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Lineage of Influence, From Catch 22 to Scrubs

I'm currently on a bit of a classics kick lately in my reading, having read The Man in the High Tower, then All Quiet On the Western Front and now Catch-22. I've enjoyed all three quite a bit so far even though I am only about a third of the way through Catch. One of the things that struck me about it how similar it is to the TV version of M.A.S.H.

MASH itself has a bit of a confusing legacy. It's best know as the TV show that ran from 1972 to 1983 about surgeons serving in the Korean War, a TV show that was an adaptation of a largely forgotten movie that was itself and adaptation of an even more forgotten book, overshadowed by the TV show that bares their name. And for good reason, MASH is unquestionably one of the greatest TV shows of all time, a personal favorite and one I re-watched in its entirety early this year. So what does all this have to do with a novel written in 1960 that no one really remember outside the phrase that it gave its name to?

Turns out quite a lot. You see, Catch 22 is about a pilot in World War Two who's only goal in life is not to die. Drafted and thrown into a war zone he spends as much of time trying to get out of fighting as he does getting thrown in to it. Surrounding him are a group of wacky, crazy characters who get into their own antics and adventures. The whole book is basically one long, incredibly manic episode of MASH, even though it came out over a decade before MASH the TV show and a whole seven years before the book that inspired the movie that inspired the show. Confused yet?

Don't be, cause they're all rather similar from a bird's eye view. You see MASH the TV show is about a surgeon drafted into the Korean War who's only goal in life is not to die. He spends a great deal of time roaming the camp and getting into trouble with his hair brained, psychotic cast of background characters until the shells start flying and the casualties start coming in. Then he's up to his elbows in blood and guts trying to save the lives of kids who should be making out at drive in theaters instead of dying in a war zone.

Both of these stories are about people trying to stay sane in living hells, in the worst places on earth and craziest of all, both stories are meant to be funny. They are comedies through and through. They exists to make you laugh. Cause what's funnier than war?

I cannot say for certain what inspired the collective writers of MASH over the years because I have never met them, but I think the influence of the novel on the show is fairly clear to anyone who has witnessed both works. And there's nothing wrong with that, taking influences from what came before is how we grow as writers, it's how we push the medium forward.

I think too, that a novel like Catch 22, itself coming out to mix reception at release and then going on to becoming one of the classics of American literature helped pave the way for shows like MASH, itself a risky and boundary pushing show of the time. MASH, the show, had an enormous challenge ahead of it. This was a show about Korea, the last great American War coming out in a time of America's current greatest war, Vietnam. The show was meant to serve not just as comedy, but as a political statement. That was hard enough to do at the time, hell it's hard enough to do now. But to go the extra step and say we want this to be a comedy, to go even further and say we want this to be a comedy with a message, with dramatic intent, with a political will, well that's damn near impossible. Even if you can pull it off on paper, even if you get a studio to green light it, getting an audience to ride the emotional waves as you crest and crash from comedy to casualties, from laughter to tragedy is a challenge for any writer in any medium.

But they pull it off. Both Catch 22 and MASH are able to pull off this effortless drift along the spectrum in a way that somehow feels natural, maybe because that's how real wars are, laughing one minute and running for your life the next. Catch 22 tends to be more blunt, punctuating sentence after sentence of jokes with an off hand, casual mention of a characters death. MASH tends to play its focus tighter, sometimes pushing its downer moments to the climax of an episode or separating the antics in the Swamp from those in Surgery.  In the end they manage to strike a balance that allows the reader and viewer to experience the whole range of emotions intended, to be pulled to and fro without ever getting ripped from the story completely.

Which brings me to Scrubs.

Scrubs is also, in my opinion, one of the greatest half hour sitcoms to ever grace a television set. "My Screw Up" and "My Lunch" are two of the greatest episodes of television period and ones I think back to often. The show as a whole, while largely a goofy comedy was able to, seemingly effortlessly, slide into more dramatic and sometimes tragic moments. It walked a path laid down before it by shows like MASH, by books like Catch 22.

There were many, many medical shows before Scrubs and even medical comedies. MASH even had its own ill fated spin off set in a normal  hospital back in the states, so it was by no means the first. But the works that came before helped inspire it, they helped lay the ground work for future shows to follow in their footsteps, for future creators to point back and show a precedent for when it was successful.

Through works as these we can see the lineages of our own works, of those that came before. I think we often spend a lot of time looking at and thinking about our direct influences, on our creative idols and the altars upon which we worship them. Perhaps we should take more time to consider those who paved the roads we now use, rather than those who walked them.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Missed Opportunities - Final Fantasy 7 and the Death of Aerith

Missed Opportunities is a series dedicated to looking at narrative and mechanical choices in games.  It is not an indictment of a game's quality, nor is it it a look at mediocre games that could have been better. It is a discussion of differing paths, of choice in design.

Final Fantasy VII is a great game. While it is not my Final Fantasy of choice (that honor would go to VI) it is unquestionably one of the most influential JRPG's in video game history. It was, for many, their first major  JRPG and one of the first to tackle major themes and ideas. I came late to the FF VII party, not owning a playstation until well into its life cycle. By the time I got around to cracking open the multi disc case of Final Fantasy VII, it was already one of the most well regarded games around. It was raved about, not just in magazines, not just in playgrounds but among the entire spectrum of video game enthusiast. It was a phenomenon within the industry and made a wide impact on gamers.

FF VII was not my first JRPG. It was not even close to my first JRPG, and VI, the previous entry in the series, had left a high water mark to overcome. The 2D, sprite based predecessor of this newer game, with its expansive cast of characters, memorable story sequences and amazing soundtrack had left an impression on me that would be hard to beat. I have to admit, going into VII, I was skeptical.

This newer game, this latest in a long series was a departure. It was the first Final Fantasy to be 3D, using primitive polygons and textures over the handcrafted look of sprites exhibited by the game's predecessors. It was the first on a disk based platform, complete with loading times and impressive, pre-rendered cut scenes. But those were only surface differences. A deeper, more meaningful change was waiting.

This of course, was the materia system.  The previous Final Fantasy games were class based with the familiar mixes of Fighters, Thieves and Mages. Black Mages cast powerful destruction magic while the ever useful White Mages healed the party and kept your characters in the fight. There were Red Mages and Monks, Bards and Knights. Each character had their role to fill in the party. While they may level up, earn new abilities or change to advanced classes, their roles were largely the same. The brave knight hitting hard and soaking up damage, the wizardly black mage hanging back and casting fireballs or calling down lighting bolts and the battlefield medic of a white mage, curing poisons and patching up wounds.

In Final Fantasy VII, this all changes. Now, instead of classes or jobs, characters had materia. These little, spherical items of magic were slotted into the characters equipment and gave them special abilities. You no long had to be a Black Mage to cast a fireball, or a White Mage to heal, now all you had to do was equip the fireball materia to whichever character you wanted to be able to use the ability and it was theirs, enabling them to sling balls of fire with the best of the them.

And this is where I think they missed an opportunity, not from a game play perspective, but from a narrative one.

The story of Final Fantasy VII is not what one would call simple. There are the familiar tropes of the series for sure, oppressive governments out to put down the little guys and evil masterminds seizing powerful magics to destroy the world and become a god. A rag tag band of heroes who have to come together to stop it. This is not just well worn territory for the series, but the fantasy genre as a whole. Final Fantasy VII mixes their magic with technological elements, a terrorist with a cybernetic gun for an arm, energy reactors controlled by evil corporations, and cloned cells from an alien specimen known as Jenova.

The story weaves itself through these tropes, beginning with the main character, Cloud Strife, acting as a mercenary for hire to a group of eco terrorist trying to save the world by destroying a city's energy reactors. The job goes sideways, the reactor explodes and Cloud falls down into the city's slums, separated from the rest of his party. It is here that he is found by Aerith, a lowly flower girl with a pretty face and a pure heart.

Aerith is who the player would presume to be the love interest. A sweet, idyllic young lady living in the slums, making a living selling flowers to passers by. She is also who one would presume to be the White Mage of the party. The healer, the nurturing hand to bring the party back to life. She even gets Cloud back on his feet after he crashes on to her flower bed from above. In true fantasy fashion, bad guys show up for the girl and Cloud agrees to be her bodyguard. All the pieces are in place for a grand adventure, for the hero to save the world and woo the girl and live happily ever after.

But this is Final Fantasy VII, and in Final Fantasy VII, Aerith dies.

Her death, more than any other in video games up to that point had a profound effect on those playing the game. Even knowing her fate before I ever started the game, her death was an impactful and meaningful scene. This wasn't a one off character, this wasn't some living piece of the background with a generic name and a few lines of dialogue. This was a major character, one the player's party had spent significant time with. Aerith was the sage of the story, the Zelda to Could's Link. She, with the help and protection of the hero was supposed to save the world, not get stabbed in the back and be left dying his arms.

This was a video game, and characters aren't supposed to die in games. Well, at least not permanently. Mario might fall down a pit, Link might need a fairy to get him back on his feet, but in Final Fantasy the death of a single character was never game over. A trip to an Inn or a Phoenix Down would bring them back to life as if they only needed a little rest, a little time to get their strength back. It was only when the entire party went down would you be faced with a game over, forced to restart from your last save point and continue as if the defeat had never happened, as if it was part of some aborted timeline that no longer held impact on the rest of the world.

There would be no Phoenix Down for Aerith, no bandage for her wounds. Our hero carries her to a pool beneath the city and lays her to rest beneath the water. You could restart from a previous save, but it wouldn't matter. There was no avoiding this fate. This is how the story goes. Aerith dies and there's nothing you can do but swear vengeance and chase after the villain who killed her.

Vengeance was not what I was thinking about when Aerith died. It wasn't anger at the game's villain who killed her, or how I was going to stop his plot to end the world. I wasn't shocked, or horrified. I wasn't stunned by the lost of the pretty flower girl or a potential love interest. I was worried about my materia.

You see, Aerith was my White Mage. She held all my healing magic, all my spells that I used to keep my fighters fighting. And when she died, those spells were lodged in her inventory. An inventory that was now floating at the bottom of a pool around Aerith's lifeless corpse. How was I going to continue without a White Mage, without a healer? Would I be able to get enough potions? Would I find new materia that would allow me to heal? How was I going to stop the bad guy, to fight through his army of minions and save the world without the ability to heal my party?

Here was an idea that I had never encountered before in a JRPG. Killing a character is one thing, killing the love interest even more shocking, but to kill the white mage, to kill the healer. This was unheard of. Remove a character from a story and you're left with one less character. Remove a class from a]the party and you're left with an entirely different game.

Video games, the best of them anyway, are not just stories, they aren't just game play, they are the marriage of the two, each supporting and enhancing the other. This is where, to me, Final Fantasy VII fails, where it misses its opportunity. Because the healing materia, the spell I needed most, was safely moved to Cloud's inventory after Aerith's death.

All gameplay consequences were removed from her demise. Now another member of the party could be the healer, could be the defacto White Mage as we traveled across the world in search of an evil man and his evil plans. Aerith, while fondly remembered, would no longer be missed. Instead she would fade into the background as the party pushed on, meeting new characters and finding new spells.

How often would one have thought of her, had FF VII kept their class structure, had removed their White Mage from the game half way through? How often would you have missed her when neck deep in a dungeon, when in the final stretch of a tough boss battle?

Final Fantasy VII could have shown just how important a single character can be to a party, just how important of a role one person can play among a larger narrative, among a war. Instead they chose to build a system around materia, around spells that can be transferred from character to character with little consequence.

And in the process, missed and excellent opportunity. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Fallout 4 and Missed Opportunity

Disclaimer #1: The following contains minor spoilers for the beginning of Fallout 4.
Disclaimer #2: I have not finished Fallout 4 and am only a few hours into the campaign, thus if there are any late game revelations about the following, I have not yet seen them.

Fallout 4 has a fantastic intro. It's an intro that I believe lives up to the studio's pedigree despite what I'm going to talk about. Waking up on a storm battered ship in Morrowind, escaping from prison along side a king, being saved from execution by the timely arrival of a dragon, seeing the early years of your life as you grow up deep underground. The studio has always had a knack for openings that draw the player into the world while setting up the grand adventures to come.

Fallout 4's intro is no different. The game opens with you, the player, standing in front of the mirror, getting ready for another pleasant morning in the idyllic Sanctuary Hills. Your beautiful wife stands behind you, lovingly commenting as you alter your character's appearance. When you're finished, she takes her turn getting ready and the player is free to roam their simple house awash in Fallout's altered version of 1950's America. 

Your infant son, Shawn, lies in a crib with a rocket ship mobile, his wooden blocks scattered around the room. A forgotten board game sits in a closet. Your household robot is waiting for you in the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee. You spend the morning watching TV with your wife, calming your crying son and dealing with a pushy door to door salesman. It's the American dream bottled down into a short, ten minute experience and it works wonderfully.

Then the world ends and you're running. Where to or why you're not so sure. You just know that it's safety, safety for your wife and child in a world suddenly changed, in a world forever lost. You make it, one of the last to reach the Vault as the bombs fall. You watch as the mushroom cloud grows in the distance, as the elevator starts to descend into the earth. Technicians waiting for you at the bottom assure you that everything's going to be alright, that you, your wife and your child are going to be safe and sound and provided for. You relax, trying to figure out what this new life will entail. You finally let your guard down and let yourself breathe, right before the people you trust stick you in a tank that cryogenically freezes you.

And here's where I think Fallout misses a great opportunity, while you're there in the tank. I love the idea of freezing the player, of taking the fish out water approach with the vault dweller. Like the player, the character didn't grow up in this wasteland. They're use to fast food, the nightly news and all American apple pie, not super mutants, rad roaches and Synths. It's a great way to marry what the character is going through to what the player experiences. My problem is what happens while you're in the tank.

They shoot your wife in the head. 

They shoot her right in the damn head and they take your baby and then you go back on ice like the world's worst Captain America impression.

You wake up, cold and alone and venture out into the world. Into your neighborhood shattered by the bomb. Into the ashes of your once perfect house. You wander off into the wasteland in search of a son you may not even recognize, unsure of how long you've been asleep.

And I know why they do it. They want to motivate the player. What better motivation than kidnapping your only child and shooting your pretty, lovely, complimenting you while you fix your hair in the mirror, wife. They do it because they don't want to deal with the baggage, they don't want to anchor the player with this nagging wife whining about her missing son. They want to motivate the player while simultaneously giving him the freedom to conquer the wasteland however they want.

They know what they're doing. They put her in that classic 1950's dress, give her that pleasant, homely voice and the slender figure and then they shoot her in the head. You can't do anything to stop it. You can't fix it. All you can do is take her wedding ring off her cold dead finger and swear revenge like some 80's action hero.

I hate it because it's easy, because it's cheap and easy. And I hate it because it caused them to miss something with so much more depth, with so much more reason.

Imagine what would have happened if they hadn't shot your wife in her adorable little temple. Instead, they kidnap your kid and push her back in the ice box and the two of you thaw slowly out together. She panicking, crying. You wrap your arms around her and tell her everything's going to be all right. The two of you emerge into the wasteland together. You pick through the ruins of your shattered house, comfort your house robot that's been slowly going insane from two hundred years without anyone to talk to. Try to put the pieces of your lives back together.

Narratively, it's a far stronger option. But that's not the only reason I thought they should have gone that way. You see, Fallout 4 has a problem. It has the same problem every Bethesda open world game has. The player has to find their son, it's the only thing that matters to them, the only thing on their mind, a singular goal to motivate them through the trials ahead. Except it isn't. There's the minutemen to rebuild. There settlements to grow. The Brotherhood of Steel to join or fight. The question of the Synths and what should happen to them. The wasteland of the commonwealth is a complex and ever evolving place that the player is asked to weigh in on. Hours into the game I haven't even begun to look for my son. But my settlement has defensive turrets and some pretty sick lights, so clearly my priorities are in order.

This isn't a new problem for open world games, even outside of Bethesda's. So often the player is tasked to save the world, to close the Oblivion gates, to find Ciri and prevent the endless winter. Yet all around them are distractions. Races and card games, companions and damsels in distress. What bothers me so much about Fallout 4's opening is that the player's spouse gives the perfect solution for this problem.

Why does my character, who wants only to rescue their son, give a damn about the minuteman or their settlements, why does he care whether or not they are safe? I think the player would care a lot if their wife was still alive, if she was back at Sanctuary Hills, trying to pick up their life while the player was out trying to rescue their son. Why does my character team up with these random companions, often after only a simple conversation when they could walk through the wasteland side by side with the person they swore to spend the rest of their life with? Shooting side by side against super mutants and the like? Why does my character care about the food supply of settlements, of rebuilding society when there's no one to rebuild it for?

Even the two areas of growth for the character, their moral alignment and their relationship with companions would be made deeper by the presence of the player's spouse. In the beginning of the game, while your player is looking at their eyes in the mirror, your wife remarks that was on the reason she fell in love you, because of those eyes. Wouldn't it be better to have her comment on those same eyes hours into the game, how they've hardened thanks to the horrors of the wasteland, or how, even after everything they've been through they still have that same kindness she fell in love with?

The same applies to companions. Maybe she's supportive of the synths, or doesn't trust you bringing one around the house. There's a throwaway line in the beginning about her taking time to trust the handyman with your son, how does she react to a walking, talking Synth in the house? What about your female companions? Is she jealous? Does the player feel more drawn to a tough woman of the wasteland than to his sheltered wife back home?

There's so much room to explore, so many avenues to go down with these characters that would enhance the experience while simultaneously helping to ground the player in the accomplishments around him, that give the player reason for their actions. Instead they took the easy way out.They took the simple route. Why worry about any of this, why give this person character, give them hopes and dreams when they could shoot her in the head and be done?

The last thing I'll say is this, one of the first things you get after waking up is a recording your wife made for you, safeguarded all this time by your trusty house robot. It's a tear jerking tape of your wife and laughing son telling you what a great father you are, of how much your wife is looking forward to the two of you spending more time together as your try and raise your son in a rapidly changing world.

It's a great tape, one of the rare instances in games when audio logs actually have a meaningful impact. It's shame, cause I would have like to see far more of that interaction between wife and husband.

Instead I'm left with only a corpse sitting in a Cryo tank. With a wedding band in my inventory to symbolize all the conversations that were lost. All I'm left with is a wife that was shot in the head.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Self Publishing Experiment and a Short Story: Already Dead

Earlier this week I published a short story called Already Dead. It's a story I originally got the idea for two years ago to the month before re-discovering it. I started writing it, got about a quarter of the way through and then gave up. I got stuck, realized I had no idea where I was going with it and moved on to something else.

A few months ago I decided to embark on an experiment with self publishing, to put some of my work out there and see if it could gain any traction. To see if I could muster up some feedback from the public on where I was as a writer. I didn't have any novels or other projects ready to go, so I turned back to my old short stories to give them a good polish and put them out in the wild to live or die on their own.

Already Dead was the first one I picked out. I liked the opening, a man clawing his way out of his own coffin. It was immediate, primal, and a fear I think we all hold at some level. Of being buried alive. Of being forgotten. I new how to get the character out of the grave, how to get them home. But not where to go after. That was where I had gotten bogged down in the original draft. However, reading through it again I got a few ideas going and re-wrote it over the course of a few busy weeks.

This week I published it. It is the first story I have every really published, ever put out in the market place to be ripped apart by anyone who happens to pass by. So far I have sold one copy to some random person in the UK. Whoever they are, I hope they enjoyed it.

If you would like to take a look at Already Dead, you can find on Google and Kindle.