5.28.2008

Call to Arms entry 07: Jump

Duncan Fyfe, blogger and former contributor to Idle Thumbs, submits a bleak dreamscape to the Call to Arms.

It starts in a house -- don't know how you got there -- and this game is clearly a shooter because there you are in first-person perspective with a crosshair and health/ammo meters and weapon slots. But your health is set at 40 for some elusive reason, and you don't have a gun. Neither does the game. No weapons at all and no enemies either. You can jump, crouch and strafe but there's nothing to jump over, crouch under or strafe around. Nothing in your inventory. What you can do is wander around the dark, empty rooms of this boring house looking for, well, a game to play. The doors are locked. You can see out the windows, but because the game won't let you punch anything you can't break them. There's a complete lack of direction to the level design: it's not subtly or overtly ushering the player down a specific path. Everything's open to you; you can go anywhere you want. It doesn't matter.

There are people in some of these rooms, but you can't talk to them. You have an all-purpose 'use' button, but nothing happens when you press it. You can't ask him what you want to: what's going on and how do I get out? If you're within a certain proximity, something will trigger and they will talk at you -- but they won't address you personally and you have no input into the conversation.

These NPCs will give you a quest -- something to find or something to fix. You oblige them, because what the hell else have you got to do. This is added to your quest log, which is viewable at any time. It's a big house and there are no clues so you can only hope that you'll stumble across this thing. Say one guy is looking for his telescope and say you do actually find it. You center it in your crosshairs, press the 'use' button and nothing happens. Check the key bindings, yeah, okay, that's right, press it again. Still nothing. You could walk back to the guy but you're unable to tell him anything, much less the whereabouts of his dumb telescope. Using a late-90s physics engine you can kind of nudge the telescope with your body or other objects. But the thing only gets so far before it breaks. Whoops. Immediately, you lose the quest.

Now the guy will talk to you; in fact he'll start yelling at you. There are other people around, so you can repeat this process for a while, but the object will always break. After x number of failures, word gets around (via our groundbreaking influence system) and NPCs you've never met will decide not to give you any quests. If you keep trying to help them then nobody will even talk to you.

The quest log is represented in-game by a piece of paper. It will soon surpass that original allocation -- you've taken on more than you thought you could handle-- and you'll start to see quests written all over the screen, with failed objectives furiously scratched out. Eventually, even though there's some space left, you'll stop writing down quests even as you get them, because what's the point?

It shouldn't take long to recognise that this game isn't very good. The game really sucks. And once you learn there's no way to win then the only thing left is to lose. After a certain number of quest failures, the world changes. It gives you a break. One of the windows swings open and at this point all you can think to do is -- from ten stories up -- jump.

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I like the idea of a game where you act out one long metaphor, forcing players to empathise with a certain psychological state. I like subverting typical game mechanics to render the player depowered and useless. It takes away the basic tools players rely on to cope in a game world, while retaining enough dead-end artifice (weapon slots) to make them feel like there's all this potential they're failing to unlock. Players don't feel like a hero or even competent. They're depowered and useless and no one likes them.

Have I achieved profundity yet?

3 comments:

Steve gaynor said...

Well, I'm not sure exactly how to couch this. I guess I'm wondering, what is it supposed to communicate? "The author is depressed?" It's an interesting vision of maybe an extended dream sequence, and it certainly plays with a gamer's expectations of what they're able to do in a video game. But is it trying to convey something specific to the player through the interactivity itself? Disorientation? Frustration? Futility? I guess what I'm stumbling over is that playing this wouldn't make ME feel depressed (that game would be a challenge to design,) as much as it expresses that whoever put it together probably felt that way.

Further revisions might focus on a specific aspect implied here and push the gameplay toward that end: if you're trying to express "futility" for instance, you might allow the player to fail at first, then to pursue another set of actions which seem like they should allow them to progress... only to have that inevitably result in failure as well. Is a game with the thesis "you always fail" even that novel or interesting, though? People love Tetris.

Duncan said...

Yeah, you're right, this game wouldn't make players feel depressed. I think the goal of this design was to present emotion as an abstraction so that players can better empathise with it. I wouldn't know where to begin designing a game which would actually cause depression in players; I can barely design this one! The idea here was that players would have more of an intellectual response than a reactive, emotional one.

I have to say, you've completely disarmed me with your rational argument.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I wouldn't give up on this one just yet. I've fantasized about what would happen if David Lynch made a video game for a long time and I think this is getting closer to the mark. There must be some way a game can create that sense of confusion and terror in 'Eraserhead' and 'Mullholland Drive'.

The emotion you need to be gunning for is confusion and terror. You'd need to coordinate some seriously strange imagery and sound. Like have a guy wearing a rabbit mask just walk out and start asking the player to answer the phone. But there's no phone. Or when you pick-up a gun and try to use it, the gun just starts talking and screaming at you. Naturally, it'd need a musical number featuring your wife with a bloated face singing, "In heaven...everything is fine!" Really, why not make a game about having an intense nightmare?

Just having a horror game that doesn't rely on shock & gore would be a stunning step forward for the medium in of itself.