Sunday, December 17, 2017

Take Note: Why Star Wars has the Best Battles in Cinema

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea for others to consider.

Spoiler Warning: The following article contains minor spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The article below only talks about the space battles in the film. Characters and locations will be discussed loosely, and without names. If you're sensitive to that sort of thing, check back later. Everyone else, let's do this.

One of the opening scenes in the latest Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, is a big space battle. I know, you're shocked. A big space battle in a film called Star Wars. I'll give you all a minute to catch your breath and finish clutching your pearls. Good? Good. It was during this scene that it occurred to me why Star Wars battles are so memorable, and why they work so well, even when they are largely inconsequential to the overall plot. These  long movies, with several story lines to deal with, philosophies to expound on and secrets to reveal. Do they really have time to waste on all the pew pew and bang bang? More importantly, how do they get away with wasting time on them? In a film about space wizards fighting with laser swords, which is already pretty awesome, it's saying something that many of memorable moments come from rust buckets trying to gun each other down.

Stop me if you've heard this one: In a Star Wars movie there's an enemy fleet of baddies about to kill kittens or something. And there's another fleet of good guys trying to stop the bad guys or run away or save the universe. Both sides have launched their fighters and the big battle is about to really get going. And then this happens:

Do you remember this guy? Looks familiar right? Do you know his name? I sure don't. But this, right here, is why Star Wars battles actually work. This guy isn't one of the heroes. He's not even an important second tier guy like Hawkeye or a recurring jokes like the Cabbage Vendor. Nope, this lovable fellow exists only so that a handful of minutes from now a lucky tie fighter pilot can turn him into charcoal.

The obvious move here would be to say that Star Wars takes the time to show you the pilots, to humanize them. To remind us that behind the cockpit of those crafty X-Wings and speedy A-Wings are real people with real emotions. That in conflict, fighting for your ideals has a price. But in truth, you'd have gone to far. It's not that Star Wars takes the time to show you a human face, it's that Star Wars takes the time.

The space battles in Star Wars have stakes. They have moves and counter moves. They have tactics and gambits that either pay off or fail and they have a resolution. In essence, they are a story unto themselves, a stage play of battleships and aircraft dog fighting on the endless sea of space. The films take the time to show us this, to let us know who and where all the pieces are on the board before things really get under way.

The opening space battle in The Last Jedi is about a Rebel fleet trying to escape from an Imperial fleet. The Imperial fleet has a big battleship that can punch through the shields of the Rebel fleet's capital ship. That's it. That's all you need to know and it's set up in like thirty seconds in the film around story dialogue and other bits. The Rebels release all their ships to take out the big Imperial ship and then we get our quick cuts to each pilot's cockpit. More important than the score, we know the rules of the sport we're playing. The Rebels have a ship they want to protect, the Imperials have a ship they want to protect. The time limit is determined by when the Rebels can escape. Everyone releases their fighters onto the field and it's time to play ball.

So much of modern cinema forgets to do this, or dices it up so finely that it is unrecognizable. So many fantasy movies with battles full of orcs and mystical beasts and big explosions and it's all meaningless, not because we don't know what the stakes are, but because we don't know how the game is being played. All we see is two mobs smash into one another interspersed with clips of our heroes cutting through mobs of faceless enemies while exchanging witty one liners. It's all fluff. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the details of any big, army sized fight scene in a Marvel movie for instance, or Lord of the Rings, but I can recall just about every space battle in every Star Wars film to date. I can tell why they were fighting, what they were fighting over, who was in the battle and where they were.

I can tell you those things because the Star Wars films, all of them, the good and the bad, have taken the time to set their stage. In the Marvel movies, which are all great, often times our heroes are reduced to punching baddies until the plot timer goes off. Four or five of our team is left to thinning out the herd until one of them can reach the thing they're fighting over. And that's not to knock the Marvel movies. They've done a lot great work that puts the ten-thousand-cuts school of film editing in modern action movies to shame. But the reason why Star Wars is so enduring, why it is so memorable on top of the lightsabers and the Force, is because each of their battles are communicated to the audience effectively. Who, what, when, where, why? These are questions we're all familiar with, questions we all apply to our stories, but how many of us stop to ask them of our battles?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Take Note: Terrain Elevation in Sniper Elite 4

Take Note is series where we examine a single idea or mechanic for designers to consider.

The Sniper Elite series by Rebellion is one of those titles that always seems to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough into the mainstream, but is never quite able to get there. I've been playing the series and its Nazi zombie flavored spin offs since Sniper Elite V2. The series falls into the stealth action mold alongside titles like Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell. The games follow the exploits of Karl Fairburne, a ken doll looking sniper working for OSS during World War II. With each release of the game, the developers over at Rebellion have improved their design, refining a fairly basic sniper title into an excellent third person stealth action game.  If the name of the series doesn't ring a bell, you've probably seen their best known mechanic, the bullet cam.

I recently picked up the latest in the series, Sniper Elite 4, and was blown away by the level design of the game's first mission. In Sniper Elite 4, each mission takes place on its own open map, where the player can freely explore around the area, complete objectives and find collectables in the form of letters and reports. The maps give the player the freedom to tackle the objectives in which ever order they like, and explore the map's nook and crannies at their own pace.

What at first appears to be a standard open world map slowly reveals itself to be a great example of level design. Each objective takes place in a desecrate combat zone that seamlessly blend together across the map. Each of these areas has multiple approaches from different directions. This allows the player to tackle them from what ever direction they choose and offer approaches for different play styles. A typical choice in the game may be to try and find a tower to snipe from, a hidden path to sneak around the encounter, or heading up the main road guns blazing. While stealth is a big component of the game, its forgiving enough to let players disengage from a fire fight, regroup and try again.

The thing that impressed me most with the game, from the very first mission, is the change in elevation across the map. The game goes beyond adding simple towers to snipe from, to having massive changes in elevation across the same level. In the map above, the beach at the bottom of the map is down a steep cliff face, as is a pocket of beach further up the map. In most games that would be an inaccessible area. In Sniper Elite 4, it's not only accessible, one of the objects are located there. More subtle changes in elevation litter the map. Creaks and gullies below the main road that allow you to sneak past enemies, or hills cresting above that you can snipe from. While we've seen this type of difference in elevation in games before, Sniper Elite 4 manages to make it feel natural. Each path, each approach, is tied together in a way that makes it feel organic that other games struggle to pull off.

In something like Far Cry, you may have a observation tower to snipe from, or a hill that crests over an encampment. Even in Metal Gear Solid 5, one of my favorite stealth action titles from recent years, the changes in elevation are often anemic. A building may have multiple stories, and the surrounding country side may have a hill or two, but they aren't enough to affect gameplay.  There's really only one combat area in Metal Gear Solid 5 with a drastic change in elevation, that being the terrace area in the Afghanistan map, but even that is a linear progression from low to high. The rest of the game features the box stand cliff to observe from, but few actual changes in elevation.

Sniper Elite 4 manages to tie its high, low and medium areas together in a way that gives the player options, allows for a variety of play styles and look natural in way most games do not.