10.29.2007

Gun

I was briefly very curious about GUN, the Neversoft game.

The original announcement of the game only revealed the title and an ominous tagline on a black background: "Pull the Trigger. GUN." And, to someone immersed in the video game dialogue, how provocative is that?

Popular games, following the sea change caused by Wolfenstein and Doom, have been about the power and allure of the firearm. Firing guns at living targets encapsulates the two biggest psychological draws of video games: being able to do something you otherwise can't in the real world, and a sense of power and control over a chaotic situation. I expect most people who play shooter games haven't actually fired a gun in the real world, much less killed, or even badly injured, another person. It's unthinkable on some level, but on the other hand it has the appeal of the taboo-- I can't actually shoot someone... but what is it like? It's an experience that is familiar to the audience via film and television, but even then still only secondhand; games deliver the visceral sensation of actually doing. Games play out the audience's illicit love affair with the firearm. And not just America's, but Japan's and Europe's. A fascination with instant death.

I've fired real guns. Admittedly, my motivation was game-related-- I'd virtually shot so many guns in my life that I felt a need to have the real-world experience to back it up. After a trial shot or two, I was actually rather good; games had taught me to line up the sights and adjust for recoil. I've only gone shooting once, in a quarry with some friends and some beer cans. And midway through our session there, I pictured actually having another person in front of the gun when I pulled the trigger. And it's just terrifying to even imagine, once you know what the shooting itself is actually like. Once you've gained first-hand knowledge of how it feels to fire a real gun, it's easy to construct the rest of the scene.

It's horrific. It's not like in a video game where a blood decal appears on the bad guy's shirt and he peacefully ragdolls into a floppy pile. In games, if anything, shooting someone is simply about neutralizing them, not actually hurting them; enemies shot non-fatally don't express pain, and fatal wounds silence the target instantaneously. It's the sterilized version of the act. The ideal killing. And it happens a hundred times more in any given shooter game than in all the action movies of a year combined. Never has so little screentime been devoted to so much gun violence.

So the teaser for GUN held an enormous amount of promise. The title alone--GUN-- begs a game about the gun itself: about our relationship to it as entertainment consumers and game players; about the presence of the firearm in our society, about the implications and effects of gun violence, the power of the gun itself and the lives it affects. A deconstruction, an analysis, maybe even a meditation. A game that acknowledges all the things that shooters normally take for granted, and asks the player to consider them anew, through their own actions and decisions.

Then the tagline-- "Pull the Trigger"-- adds another layer of reflexivity to the prospect. In most shooter games, pulling the trigger is a foregone conclusion. The game begins with a gun in your hands, and never asks if you're going to fire it, but where and how often. Could GUN be a game wherein the gun itself is an element of the world that isn't grafted to the player's hand? Where the decision to even pick up a gun, much less fire it, is an actual decision, with gravity and import? In the vast majority of films, aside from such as Predator and Rambo 2, the simple act of picking up a gun is meaningful, foreboding, and dangerous. The entire dynamic of the film changes at that moment. This character might kill another person now. And an actual shooting-- again, in a film with humanity-- has impact and sobriety to it.

Consider the following scene from Taxi Driver: the climactic gun battle in the flophouse, immediately before the ending of the film.



In some ways, the setup is much like that of an urban shooter game: the heavily-armed lone hero storms a nest of criminal activity and cleanses it through the barrel of a gun. But unlike in a game, it's not "cool" or clean or fun. It's harrowing and bleak, filthy and gory and frightening. Only three people are killed, but the scene has more impact than all the combined hours of gun violence I've played out in video games this year. Why is that? Why do games only glorify the gun, without addressing the ugliness and the aftermath, or the compulsion to kill? Could this mysterious "GUN" game actually question our assumptions about the gun's role in the modern video game?

No, as it turned out, GUN was just a cheap GTA-alike set in the old west. It could hardly be less high-minded if it tried. Neversoft continued its financial success by carrying the torch of the Tony Hawk and now Guitar Hero series, and GUN faded into obscurity.

Hopefully, somewhere, the spirit of the game that GUN could have been is still alive, waiting. It's just too bad that the perfect title is already taken.



*note: images used are from Larry Clark's photo series Tulsa.

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10.11.2007

Ideas

I've heard variations on the sentiment: "The least valuable commodity in the games industry is ideas," "ideas are a dime a dozen," or "ideas are like assholes..." But I think this is a fallacy. People who believe the above are thinking of video game ideas wrongly. The kind of ideas that have no worth, and maybe the kind most common, start out such as: "You're a space marine, and an evil galactic corporation has taken control of your homeworld..." or "I've got a great idea for this game that's like GTA, but in feudal Japan..." They're narrative or setting ideas, vague framing concepts for the artifice that props up a game. But they're not ideas for a game. When we look at the popular landscape of video games, we see derivative mechanics and stale dynamics. We don't see new ideas for what a game can be or how a familiar genre can be approached in a unique way, and when we do see a spark of something new that works, it gets copied and rehashed by half a dozen minor studios without ideas of their own. So I disagree with the aforementioned "truisms." I think one of the most valuable commodities in the games industry today is truly unique and feasible ideas for new gameplay mechanics.

The example here is the newly released Portal. It's a compact "big game" the history of which is fairly well-known now: Narbacular Drop was the senior project of a group of students at Digipen video game college. It was a first-person perspective game wherein the player was required to solve puzzle rooms by placing and rearranging pairs of interconnected portals on surfaces at their choosing, allowing them to pass otherwise insurmountable obstacles. Valve saw the team's work and brought them on internally to continue developing their game concept into a full product. What we come away with is an extremely polished, cohesive, and advanced version of Narbacular Drop, in the form of Portal. And I'm confident in saying that the three or four hours I spent completing Portal (and two or so more playing it again with Developer Commentary turned on) were some of the very best hours of gaming I've ever experienced.

The point is this: the Narbacular Drop team was adopted into Valve because of the idea they came up with, not for a setting or story (which were ditched from the original version) but for a truly new mechanical concept, one which they were able to demonstrate was novel, feasible, and led to a wide range of engaging gameplay dynamics, and was therefore worth building a big game around. The key to this entire saga was the idea itself behind the point-to-point portal mechanic, and its application to a familiar framework, the first-person perspective action game. Embracing and investing in these kinds of ideas is the only way that big games will be able to overcome the widespread rut of killing a thousand grunts in slightly different ways. And as Portal proves, when an experienced, skilled and dedicated crew of developers pushes a novel gameplay concept to its fullest potential, the results can be absolutely astonishing-- a big game literally unlike we've ever played before.

I think I'm in love with Portal a little bit. It shows how things can be done right.

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10.09.2007

Demo

The playable demo for F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate, a standalone expansion by TimeGate studios, has been released!

I was responsible for creating this demo, but most of the content isn't mine. I grabbed large sections from one level created by Shane Paluski and another by James Kneuper, a nightmare sequence from one of Sam Villareal's levels, stitched them all together, cleaned up some elements, added more of my own (including the final room,) did a bunch of bugfixing, and voila, there we have it: one playable demo that is truly a team effort.

I'm happy with all our work on the demo. It's a fun little playthrough, looks nice, and does a good job of illustrating what Perseus Mandate is all about. I hope that if you're a F.E.A.R. fan looking forward to the expansion, or just a gamer who happens to try it out on a whim, that you enjoy the experience we've put together.

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10.05.2007

Harvey

There's a candid, and very interesting, interview with Harvey Smith up at gamasutra right now. Smith talks about his upcoming game, Blacksite: Area 51, as well as a range of political, business and general design issues with the very engaging interviewer on the piece. Harvey Smith was lead designer on Deus Ex and Deus Ex 2: Invisible War, and Blacksite will be his first game for Midway Studios Austin.

The interview touches on a couple of subjects that I've taken interest in myself: he explores the idea of games as a vehicle for subversive political statements and the appeal of using residential and everyday spaces as settings for games in ways that are quite thoughtful, as well as being lent gravity by his long and influential career.

Whenever I've had a chance to read Smith's thoughts online or see him speak in person, I've always been impressed, and felt that he wants a lot of the same things out of games that I do, and thinks about these issues deeply. I wish he kept a blog!

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10.04.2007

Ubermensch

What is it like to be a mafia crime lord? Judging from the film The Godfather, it involves ruthless business dealings behind closed doors, cigar smoke-enshrouded conferences with your consigliari, the pain of exchanging your own humanity for the good of the Family, suddenly losing your loved ones to a hail of bullets, sending out hitmen to do your wetwork, and only occasionally getting your own hands dirty.

Judging from The Godfather video game, it involves a one-man army systematically eradicating hundreds of rival gangsters to conquer every business in the city one block at a time.

The same goes for any other role explored through an action game-- what was it like being a soldier in WW2? You ran down streets killing dozens of nazis at a stretch, blowing up tanks, planes and bridges single-handedly while absorbing, and near-instantly recovering from, hundreds of gunshot wounds. What is it like being a New York police officer? You gun down dozens of heavily-armed criminals on an hourly basis (sometimes with the assistance of slow-mo abilities.) A secret agent? A ninja? A yakuza thug? A space marine? A refugee in an underwater utopia gone wrong? Hell, an MIT-educated nuclear physicist? They all frame the same hook: single-handedly destroy a constant stream of hostile cannon fodder through binary violent conflict. Be a force of nature that crushes his enemies by the truckload. Be an √úbermensch, a being that has surpassed mere humanity.

There are generally two aspects of the player character that set it apart: The first is the very autonomy granted via the PC being controlled directly by the player, as opposed to the surrounding characters who all follow programmed behaviors within the gameworld. The PC is an extension of an external force, the human, while NPCs are extensions of the machine.

But the form of the second aspect is specific to each given game, and is a mechanic or set of mechanics that improves the player's chances of survival numerically-- a designed-in advantage that makes the player outright more powerful or hardier than his enemies. Sometimes this power is supported by the game's fiction and sometimes not, but regardless always functions to elevate the player character above his foes, allowing him to kill them off in droves. In Crysis, it's the super-advanced "nanosuit;" in Max Payne or F.E.A.R. it's the ability to engage slow-mo "bullet time;" in Half-Life it's the hazard suit; in The Darkness it's Jackie's demon shroud; in Gears of War it's the ability for the player to regenerate health and be revived by his teammates; in Halo it's Master Chief's recharging energy shield, and so on and so forth.

For most games it's the simple logical fallacy of the player being the only actor in the world capable of refilling his own health. Do you see enemies in any shooter or action game slugging down medkits or painkillers during a fight like the player is able to? Do enemies in the Half-Life universe ever use the med stations placed around the world? Why don't the enemies in Halo or Gears of War have recharging health like the player does? The closest I've seen is the enemies in BioShock running up and using health stations, but they still don't use portable medkits to recharge their health in the midst of battle the way the player does. This imbalance between the player's and enemies' abilities in most combat-based games is simply nonsense, but it gives the player the edge to survive, to rise above his enemies.

The need to cast the player as an √úbermensch stems from these games' inability to make a clean break from their roots: the old-school arcade shooter. Let's look at Robotron 2084. In Robotron, the player is presented with a sequential set of rooms. Within each room are two general types of actors beside the player: hostile enemies, who wander around in set patterns, and innocent civilians, who also wander aimlessly. Enemies will attempt to kill both the player and the civlians; the player's goal is to touch ("save") the civilians before they can be destroyed by the enemies, and to clear all the enemies from the room in order to move on the to next. The player character's advantages, beside being an autonomous agent of the player, are the ability to rapidly fire projectiles in each of 8 directions, quicker and more nimble movement than his foes, and the ability to use extra lives to continue once killed. The fiction of the game explains the situation of the player facing a massive enemy force and having extraordinary powers this way:

Inspired by his never-ending quest for progress, in 2084 man perfects the Robotrons: a robot species so advanced that man is inferior to his own creation. Guided by their infallible logic, the Robotrons conclude: the human race is inefficient, and therefore must be destroyed. You are the last hope of mankind. Due to a genetic engineering error, you possess superhuman powers. Your mission is to stop the Robotrons, and save the last human family.
The game's intent was to overwhelm the player with superior numbers, in order to more quickly steal his quarters and thus turn a profit on the game machine. The thing is, the overall structure of the popular single-player video game hasn't changed since Robotron was released in 1982 (note: also the year I was born.) Even today, when the vast majority of video games are played on home consoles and computers, the player must progress in a linear fashion while destroying an army of enemies using his superhuman powers. That's Robotron, it's Double Dragon, it's Resident Evil 4, it's Halo 3, it's BioShock. It's even RPG's like Final Fantasy wherein I kill thousands of monsters over the course of the game, or MMO's where I stomp dozens and dozens of mobs each time I level up. It's beat'em-ups like Bully, The Warriors, or Yakuza (in which my final tally of enemies defeated was 994.)

Single-player games have the potential to be something else. I don't want to be an inhuman, one-man army anymore. Games could instead couch the player as a normal person within a functional gameworld, an equal actor in parallel with all the other characters, an individual that isn't tied to a progression of power from pistol to machine gun to rocket launcher. When I say I want a "GTA with gravity," I necessarily want to play a truly human character. Not a superbeing that can instantly refill their life bar at will, or respawn, unscathed, at a hospital when they die. Not a Man on a Mission to destroy the droves of hellspawn that have invaded the planet. Not an invincible killing machine with a nanosuit and slow-mo powers, or the result of a genetic engineering error. Just a person. Games need to find their humanity.



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