Critique: Haunting Ground

Quite a while back, I was turned on to Haunting Ground by Leigh Alexander's writeup of it for her Aberrant Gamer column on GameSetWatch. Her insightful critical read of the title made me want to see it for myself, but the disturbing subject matter she described kept me from diving in for a long time. And now that I've played through it, I've been taking even longer to write up my experience.

It's because Haunting Ground is a tough game to write about. Half of it's brilliant, the other nearly unplayable; it treads patently unpleasant and distressing territory, but features clever, enjoyable design that can be great fun to play. It uses exploitation and objectification to challenge audience identity and gender expectations in ways that only a game could, but feels simultaneously pandering and puerile. It's a great success, and a great failure. It's a weird game.

Haunting Ground is a Capcom survival horror title of 2005, following in the tradition of the Clock Tower series. The player is cast in the role of Fiona Belli, a young woman who wakes up in a strange castle with vague memories of a car wreck floating in her head. Fiona soon befriends a helpful German Shepherd named Hewie, and with his assistance must navigate through a convoluted series of puzzle rooms while evading the depraved denizens of the castle.

The first half of the game is an incredibly well-crafted example of classic survival horror design. The castle itself has a creepy-but-plausible layout which includes bedrooms, sitting rooms, bathrooms, gardens, studies, a kitchen and dining room, along with a number of stranger, more baroque locations such as alchemy labs, a gallery filled with dolls staked to the walls, and a demented merry-go-round. The dense puzzles filling the castle hinge on a distorted abstract logic, and beg the question of just what kind of madman would construct such a lair. The setting layers surreality on top of mundanity with aplomb.

Mechanically, the clues and solutions to the first half of the game's tightly-knotted puzzles are wonderfully decentralized and satisfying to solve. Much like the dreamworld of Silent Hill 2, Haunting Ground's early puzzles operate on an otherworldly but readable ruleset which begs nonlinear thinking from the player.

The gameworld's structure and puzzles encourage the player to constantly make connections between distant points, while providing just enough direction to keep the player from getting completely lost: the clue to any given puzzle always lies in one room, while a pertinent object lies in another, and the place the puzzle must be completed in another still, resulting in puzzle solutions that sketch complex webs across the playable space.

The castle is divided into distinct chunks composed of a dozen or so rooms apiece, each chunk initially blocked off from the other by doors "locked from the other side." As the player enters a new chunk, he builds a mental map of that isolated physical space, then by clearing obstructions unlocks the blocked doors to prior sections, gradually building out the full map of the castle as a whole. From the nonlinear objectives to the physical shape of the gameworld and the player's course of progression through it, the first half of Haunting Ground presents a wonderful mechanical experience centered on completing circuits within a system driven by interconnectivity.

The character dynamics and narrative frame that buoy the gameplay in the first half of Haunting Ground are equally compelling and challenging, in totally different ways. Filling the role of Fiona Belli places the player in limbo between voyeur and subject, exploiter and exploited, violator and violable, and for most players, between masculine and feminine. It's a distinctly tense space to occupy, and can only arise from the play of a video game, as opposed to passively observing other entertainment media.

We first see Fiona in Haunting Ground's attract screen movie, padding down a long, red corridor wrapped in a translucent bedsheet, intercut with footage from a camera that follows a blooddrop trickle down the contour of her nude body:

The symbolism makes itself clear here, and colors the game's ongoing depiction of Fiona, which emphasizes her femininity, vitality and vulnerability. These aspects of the protagonist drive all of the ongoing narrative and secondary character motivation in the first half of Haunting Ground, which finds a pitiable rogue's gallery chasing lustily and relentlessly after Fiona. She is expressly designed as an object of desire.

In an early scene, Fiona trades in her wispy bedsheet for a set of clothes she finds disconcertingly laid out on a bed as if for an expected guest, and which furthermore seem to be tailored just for her. As she dresses, we observe the scene through the eyes of an unseen figure watching from behind a painting hung on the wall; we are momentarily put in the shoes of someone preying on Fiona, while simultaneously charged with keeping her from harm's way. The clothes she's been given are exploitative and degrading: a skirt much too short for decency, a bodice cut too tight for modesty, bringing into question the motives of her gracious host. But meanwhile, the game's developers also intentionally invested in a system for simulating breast-bounce as Fiona moves about the castle. The revealing costume serves a fictional purpose as an outfit orchestrated by Fiona's perverse captors, but the computational power poured into depicting boob jiggle can serve no one but the (predominantly male) developers and players of the video game. The overall effect is to reinforce Fiona's vulnerability as a captive subject within the gameworld, while also indicting the player as a voyeur in league with the story's antagonists.

Fiona is hereafter imperiled by the ongoing threat not just of death, but of vague and looming bodily violation. Her first pursuer is a hulking manchild referred to as "Debilitas," seen in the attract screen movie above. When he initially encounters Fiona, he glances from a filthy ragdoll he's holding, to our protagonist and back, then tosses the doll aside and lurches after his new object of desire. As Fiona progresses from room to room, Debilitas will attempt to chase her down when their paths cross. During the pursuit he'll shout out "Dolly!" giggling and stomping with child-like delight, but also sometimes stop to paw at the crotch of his pants in frustration. The implication is that his adult body and stunted mind may be in conflict: the player gets the feeling that Debilitas wants to rape Fiona when he catches her, without even understanding his own actions. The dissonance between physical and mental intent places the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between the threatening-but-blameless Debilitas and the helpless Fiona in an exceedingly uncomfortable frame.

If Debilitas embodies the conflict between male and female, lust and innocence, brawn and intellect, Fiona's second pursuer, Daniella, explores a range of conflict between two female forces: sensation and function, humanity and inhumanity, servitude and dominance.

Daniella is the maid of the castle, and takes over as Fiona's pursuer when Debilitas steps down. She reinforces one of the ongoing themes of the narrative frame, which deals with alchemy and reanimation. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that Daniella is an automaton: she has a body and sentience, but no humanity. As she says, she is "not complete," and can't "experience pleasure or taste." Daniella's turning point from observer to pursuer comes when we find her running her hand over Fiona's body as the girl sleeps, her palm coming to rest over the womb. As Fiona awakes, Daniella goes on to study her own reflection in a window, then bash her head against it in disgust until it shatters, from which point forward she mechanically follows Fiona around the castle, wielding a huge shard of glass as a blade.

Unlike Debilitas, Daniella isn't after Fiona due to any physical urge, but out of jealousy, confusion and contempt. Daniella covets everything Fiona represents: her vitality, her fertility, which spring from her femininity and youth. Daniella has no youth because she has no age; she's an empty shell and she knows it: simply being reminded of such by her own reflection drives her over the edge. When her polar opposite arrives in the form of Fiona, she simply can't process the contrast. Daniella is associated with dolls and puppets via mise en scene throughout the castle, and is just that: a body without a soul, a tinman without a heart. She is broken, pitiful, and terrifying.

The most unsettling aspect of Fiona's predicament is the vagueness of the threat that looms over her. If she's caught by Debilitas, what is he capable of? What is Daniella's true nature? And who is the madman orchestrating all the events in this demented castle anyway? Dolls, mannequins, puppets, earthen golems, mummified girls and even partially reanimated corpses occupy room after room; what is the obsession with life from death?

At one point, Fiona's unseen host, a mysterious hooded figure known as "Riccardo," tells Fiona to remove the tarp from a form sitting on a couch in the study. Upon pulling back the sheet, Fiona finds a clay replica of herself in a state of full pregnancy. Just what the hell are these people's intentions? Overtones of Rosemary's Baby intensify. While the player wraps his head around the castle's abstract puzzles and flees from an array of freaks, an abiding, oppressive fear of the unknown always looms large over the proceedings. It's the opposite of the explicit threat of having Leon's head chainsawed off in Resident Evil 4. Does Fiona face a fate worse than death? Not to know is to dread it all the more.

Haunting Ground chooses a female protagonist deliberately, almost perversely. Unlike many games that put an attractive female shell on an otherwise genderless protagonist, Haunting Ground exploits the trope of the woman imperiled in a way only video games can, twisting it to overlap with the player, resulting in a strange duality that requires the player to really delve in and inhabit the role, to identify with the uniquely female aspects of the character and be driven by her fear and vulnerability, as opposed to observing from a detached viewpoint. The player of the game is charged with protecting Fiona, but also with being Fiona, a character who is different from the player in much more psychologically significant ways than your standard video game protagonist. It's a unique experience for a male player, and uncomfortably so, but one worth braving for its truly alien qualities. Both as a set of engaging game mechanics and as a novel and affecting transportive experience, the first half of Haunting Ground is an overwhelming success.

But here's the thing though:

The second half of Haunting Ground takes every aspect that made the first half interesting or enjoyable and turns it absolutely on its head. Once the third of four acts begins, puzzle design devolves almost instantly into a linear set of rote objectives, with no thought or deduction required. The areas thin out and transition from unsettlingly surreal to simply goofy and implausible. While the early acts had me making interesting mental connections and criss-crossing the map to clear obstructions, successive acts had me simply walking from room to room pressing the buttons in the order I was instructed, or worse yet participating in terribly-designed boss fights.

Player feedback, which was a point of emphasis in the first half of the game, takes a nosedive: I banged my head against one bossfight for the longest time because using the "come here" command on Hewie seemed to be resulting in an aggressive attack that I was just mistargeting, while in fact a FAQ revealed that I had to use the "attack" command explicitly to achieve my goal, while nothing in the game even pointed out that I was making a mistake in the first place. I solved another puzzle by sheer coincidence: one progression gate requires you to simply have a candle in your inventory while your pursuer follows you into a room which also contains some dynamite, at which point a cinematic plays, solving the puzzle for you. Thank god I hadn't actually been trying to figure that one out in any kind of intentional fashion. The final sequence in the game is horrifically punishing, obtuse, and just awful: an invincible boss that kills you in one hit chases you through a gauntlet, requiring the player to restart over and over, scouting with death to build enough precognition to perform the routine perfectly, lest the "game over" beast catch up to you for the dozenth time. The abruptness with which the quality of the game design drops off after the second act is striking, and it continues plummeting all the way til the final credits roll.

Furthermore, any subtlety or restraint the game showed regarding its themes is sandblasted away. We go from uncomfortable sidelong allusions to reanimation, fertility, and impregnation, to Riccardo shouting in the player's face, "Your father and I are clones! WE.. ARE.. CLONES!!" and yelling outright, "Fiona! Let me into your womb!" The story, which pointed in an intriguing direction in its early stages, descends into silly nonsense along with the gameplay self-destruction. We see clones floating in green goo tubes, Riccardo makes himself invisible by casting some spell on Fiona's eyeballs, and we meet an ancient alchemist named Lorenzo who falls from his wheelchair and scrambles along comically behind Fiona, flailing his arms in triple-time, practically begging for strains of Yakkety Sax to play in the background. Everything foreboding and unsettling about the game's narrative frame is transformed, alchemically, into its polar opposite: laughable, eye-rolling camp.

Haunting Ground is a game that I can recommend emphatically, up to its halfway point. Buy a used copy of the game for cheap and play up through the end of Daniella's chapter, then turn off the PS2 and don't look back. Despite the second half's implosion on every level, I completed it out of respect to what a great game the first half was, and out of some vain hope that the conclusion would make my devotion worth it. It wasn't worth it though, except to be able to report with confidence that you definitely shouldn't do the same.

Haunting Ground isn't pleasant. It isn't uplifting. Hell, it isn't even noble or progressive, considering its queasily pandering depiction of its protagonist. But its first half is incredibly well-crafted and entrancing while it lasts. At its best, Haunting Ground will take you to an unfamiliar place, ask you to put yourself in a pair of shoes that are particularly difficult to wear, and to experience all that comes along with that challenge. Good luck.



Call to Arms entry 12: Bereavement in Blacksburg

Manveer Heir, designer at Raven Software, writer of the Design Rampage blog, and weekly columnist for GamaSutra, contributes a Call to Arms design based on his personal reactions as an alumnus to the Virginia Tech shooting incident of 2007. Please visit his original post on Design Rampage for a thoughtful preface and conclusion to the outline.

Bereavement in Blacksburg centers around the concept of loss and grief, and how people cope with it. The game takes place on April 17th, 2007, the day after the shootings. You plays as a male character who resides in a dorm on campus.

You begin the game laying in bed, early in the morning. The phone rings and goes to message. It's your girlfriend's voice and she's asking you to answer and talk with her. It is apparent from her dialog that you knew someone directly killed in the attacks. For obvious reasons, who that person is isn't revealed, nor is it relevant.

Once the message finishes, you take control of the character. From here the world is rather open. There are multiple objects to interact with in the opening room. You can use the phone to call your girlfriend back. You can use your computer and see e-mails from the administration, as well as condolences from friends. You can watch TV or listen to music to escape from things. You can turn to bottles of alcohol to drown your sorrows. Or you can just leave the room and venture to other parts of campus and find other interactions. The choices are yours and they affect the way your character progresses through the game.

Getting drunk and then talking to your girlfriend may cause you to speak in a belligerent or flippant manner. It may also make certain choices unavailable to you later, such as going to the school's convocation with her later. Speaking to her sober may open up a dialog that wouldn't occur otherwise, one that may have the character ultimately express his true feelings verbally.

Internally, the game keeps a “grief score”. You start at zero, and positive influencing interactions will increase this score and negative influencing actions will decrease it. However, the player is not aware of this scoring mechanism. In my experience, often during the grieving processes we do not see the whole picture of how our actions can positively or negatively affect us. Hiding the true outcome of different interactions helps proceduralize that state of mind.

The player has an idea that drinking isn't probably the best idea, however they may not realize how bad of an idea it may be. Additionally, this means different actions can have different values depending on the circumstances surrounding it. Using alcohol again as an example, drinking alone may be negative but drinking in moderation, with friends may be neutral or even positive.

As you leave your room and explore more of campus more interactions are available. You can write your thoughts in your journal or compose music that expresses your feelings. You can attempt to go on with life as if nothing is wrong, by just doing normal everyday things such as going out to dinner. You can stop going to classes, once they resume. You can visit the memorial erected to the victims. There are many possibilities available.

All of these minor interactions will force scripted major events, depending on your “grief score” at the time. The minor interactions of beginning to drink and never answering your girlfriend's phone calls may result in the major event of her breaking up with you. The minor interactions of regularly writing in your journal and communicating with others can lead to the major event of moving to the next stage of grief.

Ultimately, there should be multiple paths to end the game, just as there are in life. One can move through all the stages of grief, or become stuck at certain stages. The needs to be a clear end to all narrative paths. In the end, the game is one of choices and how these choices ultimately affect how we deal with grief.

My concerns with this design are numerous. Are there enough interactions available to make a meaningful experience out of? How does one define what are positive and negative choices? One person's positive choice could be another's negative. Also, does this actually help the player understand the grieving process or does it rely too heavily on narrative to push this feeling and just have simple interactions as the way to branch that narrative?



Quick Critique: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King

The Nintendo Channel worked on me. I was drawn in by its video and description of My Life as a King, and after looking up a few generally-favorable reviews, cashed in some Nintendo points for this WiiWare title.

The first four-to-six hours were great by my estimation: I was introduced to the world and began building my town and sending out adventurers to explore nearby dungeons. The story was fairly tepid but new buildings were quickly and steadily introduced to my town, keeping my interest and encouraging me to keep playing just one more game-day to gain the next unlock.

Before long my town was bustling and I had a crowd of (all basically identical) skilled adventurers lining up to do my bidding. The story kept grinding on stupidly but was overall inoffensive. I acquired all the building types (including the DLC ones I paid for) and integrated them into my little city.

And then.. the game fell flat. I'd exhausted the mechanical payout curve by unlocking every building type before the story ended, so that my motivation to advance another game-day went from "discover what new kind of building you'll get next" to "build a second instance of that same building you already have."

My two major critique points would be these:

  1. Extend the mechanical payout curve to match the length of the campaign. My Life as a King reminded me of an FPS where they feed all the weapons to you in the first half of the game. "Do the same thing, but more" is not a compelling motivation for me to complete your game. Sure, building more of the same buildings allows me to expand my city, which in turn allows me to advance the storyline. But the storyline is so boilerplate and uninspiring that it fails to keep My Life as a King afloat on its own. The game should have spaced out the reveals of new buildings all the way into the final chapter, so that I would have new mechanics to keep striving for up til the end.
  2. Allow me to customize individual adventurers. There are a few different classes of adventurers in My Life as a King: fighters, thieves, and white and black mages. But aside from some slight cosmetic differences, a fighter is a fighter is a fighter. Individual adventurers who complete quests for you gain (invisible) "medals" which buff their stats, but all adventurers still basically look and act the same. Let me personalize my individual adventurers! This fosters emotional attachment to individual pawns and motivates the player to continue forward in the campaign, to gear up his favorite adventurers and track their little lives. As the king, let me bestow the armor, weapons and accessories of my choice to my favorite adventurers, along with stat-tweaking medals. This way it becomes not just the story of my town or my voiceless little king, but of the individual adventurers I decided to specially favor.
I'm not sure how far through the campaign I made it, but I'd guess about halfway. I have a mild urge to pick it back up, but it feels like there's nothing left to discover, and the urge passes. I don't understand the predilection for mechanical frontloading that so many game designers have, but at this point I feel like I've seen all My Life as a King has to offer. It plays into the self-fulfilling prophecy wherein traditional wisdom states that most players don't complete games, so we should put all our content up front, which makes players unmotivated to actually complete our games... and whoops, here we are.

It was a very nice first half, though!




It's fun to look back at what we thought the future might be.

It's why Tomorrowland was better before they updated it, and why Buck Rogers, The Jetsons, Star Trek and the like make us grin. It seems we've come far enough that Ghost in the Shell has entered this category as well.

Ghost in the Shell felt incredibly futuristic at the time of its release, and saw 2029 through a particularly Japanese lens-- a world of artificial humans, gleaming Tokyo skyrises, and rampant cybercrime by extranational organizations.

It's a world where people replace their bodies with mechanical ones and love jacking cables into their skull sockets, and today it all seems pretty silly, if still cool in its retro way. The original movie is almost 15 years old now, and the manga it's based on even older, so it has a right to be outdated.

But it makes me think about what form my version of a soon-to-be-retro future vision might take. And it mostly centers around the net, subconscious media, and the death of the written word. I imagine a world where each one of us is connected to the other by a digital "psychic" network.

I've been using Twitter from my computer and my phone, allowing me to see what my friends are up to at any given moment. Between blogs, social networking sites, and web-enabled cell phones we're capable of being connected to our chosen network of individuals and organizations constantly-- constantly, but indirectly. To update my current activity on Twitter, I have to access a web-enabled device, open up the software, type in the text, and upload the entry to the net; similarly, to check my friends', I have to access a web-enabled device, navigate to Twitter or refresh the page, then read their entry. Along with needing the physical device present, I also need to occupy multiple parts of my body-- eyes, fingers-- to complete any given transaction. Even a cell phone call requires at least my ear, if not a hand. All of this makes communicating with others a semi-exclusive activity which, when attempted simultaneously with another act, is distracting at best and dangerous at worst. In any case, it's cumbersome. At the root of all this is that we must input and output data physically, via our hands and sense organs. Our bodies introduce one step of remove.

I imagine a world where any required communications hardware is minuscule and acts merely as a relay-- it could be carried on something like a keychain or necklace, or maybe implanted subdermally if you're more sci-fi inclined. This device is keyed exclusively to the user's particular brainwave pattern, and transmits data directly into and out from the user's consciousness as pure knowledge. The sense organs are bypassed entirely, allowing the user to acquire new information without manually processing it via representation in the world.

Consider a present-day RSS feed from a news organization like CNN. Maybe I have it set up on my cell phone, and each time the RSS is updated, I receive the headline as a text message (I may reply to the message to receive the full story as a series of texts.) I feel my phone vibrate, open it up, check my new message, read it, and now I have at least the knowledge provided by the text: "Obama secures Democratic nomination," let's say. This process assumes I notice my phone has received a message, and that I am able to execute the required functions with my hands and eyes to receive this knowledge.

In the future I'm picturing, once I've attuned myself to the future version of CNN's news feed, each time the feed is updated I simply "know" what has happened. So, I've signed up, I'm driving along in my car, someone at CNN updates the feed, and within moments I simply become aware that Obama has been nominated.

It's a world where the collective unconscious exists as a literal entity. When a major news event occurs, everyone in the supermarket would instantly know what had happened, and be able to turn to one another and share their shock, sadness or delight without having received the information itself from an audio/visual broadcast, or relayed it via word of mouth.

From the invention of the printing press to the popularization of the internet, text has been the primary means of mass communication; the technology I'm picturing ("direct knowledge transmission"-- DKT?) would make the written word all but obsolete. Buildings could be wired to transmit information from limited-proximity nodes, making physical signage pointless: as one approaches a door they become aware that it's the men's bathroom, or better yet a map of the building is transmitted to anyone crossing the threshold onto the premises, providing the user with the foreknowledge of where their destination is and how to get there. Decentralized information would no longer be visual or auditory-- instead of using Google image search to look up pictures or video of a celebrity, you would transparently become aware of what they looked like, just the way you remember the faces of people you've met in real life. Many concepts could be received simultaneously by the user, condensing the act of processing a day's news into seconds, instead of the minutes or hours taken to read a series of news stories or watch a cable program. Foreign languages would no longer be a communication barrier, as your conversation partner's speech would be translated into your own language by the net in realtime and delivered straight into your brain. At any time you would have knowledge of your current bank balance, the time, date, phase of the moon, strength of the US dollar, what music your best friend is listening to, exactly how far you are from the corner of Market and Sixth in San Francisco (and how to get there from your current location,) so on and so forth-- the act of wondering about any given concept would send out a query to the net, and in moments you would become aware of the knowledge you seek.

I'm not the biggest sci-fi buff: is this vision of the future already an established one that I hadn't been aware of? Is it too out-there to be a feasible future at all, or will it soon seem short-sighted and quaint like Ghost in the Shell's mechanical humans? Imagine if we never had to type another word or make another phone call, but had more knowledge instantly available to us than ever before.




I bought a used copy of Bushido Blade for the PSX and began replaying it tonight. It's still a fun and very interesting game from a mechanical standpoint, but what I hadn't remembered was its broad set of subfeatures and its unapologetic localization style.

There are a number of "flourish" features in the game that are just sort of strange, left-field ideas that could nevertheless make it to retail in the age when Bushido Blade was first released. For instance, while Bushido Blade is first and foremost a third-person swordfighting game, the developers also included a "POV Mode," which allows the player to control his avatar in a (near-useless) first-person perspective. It's novel-- hell, semi-experimental-- but in 1997 warranted its own main menu entry. Smaller touches include a black & white mode, which desaturates the screen entirely, much like the same feature found in Sam & Max Hit the Road. Presumably in Bushido Blade this is to emulate the feel of an old samurai movie-- a worthy aesthetic goal, and nice to see as a supported menu option as opposed to a hidden cheat code.

The localization of the game is striking for how little it tries to hide its Japanese origins on any level. Except for one opening narration, there is no English language track: Bushido Blade is a subtitled game, period. Unlike newer games with an equally Japanese premise, such as Sega's Yakuza, when you pick up Bushido Blade you're signed on for Japanese vocals with subtitles. Kanji also appears prominently throughout, on the character selection screen and elsewhere. Where many publishers attempt to Westernize Japanese games as heavily as possible to draw a mass market audience, Bushido Blade stands by its identity unabashedly.

Other great touches in the core game include the player character getting bandaged up in places they're struck non-fatally by a sword swing, resulting in most of my playthroughs ending with my character sporting a cool-looking bandage eyepatch. The game also offers the ability for the player to mix-and-match any character with any weapon. While many games would automatically pair the quick, weak character with the small, nimble weapon and so forth, Bushido Blade allows you to equip a rapier to the hulking brawler or a battle hammer to the waifish female fighter, to your own handicap (and amusement.) The internal matrix resulting from all those combinations of characters and weapons must have been incredibly complex from a production standpoint, but pays off in the player's feeling of agency and the inherent replayability of the game.

These are all risky decisions that I feel may only be possible with a game of Bushido Blade's limited scope. If the production costs had been in line with a modern-day AAA title, and the target audience broad enough to support such an investment, could the game have gone out on a limb for oddball features like black & white or POV mode, committed to a huge mix-and-match matrix of fighting styles and animations, or stuck to its baldly Japanese presentation? I'd wager not.

Looking back on a number of older games recently has caused me to ponder a specific kind of 'discipline' that might be required to create a modern commercial game with the attitude of experimentation and discovery that was prevalent in the time of Bushido Blade. It's another manifesto kind of thing, and elaborates on the 'game noir' ideas I posted some time ago. I'll think some more and write on it soon.




By god, it is the dawning of a new day.

This little guy is my favorite:




Oh, the inanity!



Call to Arms entry 11: Friends Like These

Justin Keverne of cleverly-if-distressingly-titled blog Groping the Elephant presents "Friends Like These," a Call to Arms entry which heavily abstracts human relationships on the path through life.

Friends Like These represents the player as a blob, constantly traveling onwards through a void filled with various other blobs. Your progress is signified by three metrics, two bars which indicated Hope\Optimism and Guilt\Self Loathing and the speed at which you are traveling through the world. The aim of the game is to reach the natural end of your existence (A point that is not explicitly know, as we never known when our time is up), without your Guilt reaching its limit or your Hope running out; if that happens, the screen fades to black with the a message that “You succumb to your Guilt,” or “You are lost to despair.”

Since you are always moving forward through your life, your only control comes in the ability to move across your life stream to bring yourself closer to, or further from, the other blobs in the world. In terms of appearance all blobs look similar but unique. Once you get within a certain distance of another blob they begin to have an affect on your own blob; the distance at which this effect is felt and its strength is different for each blob.

If you spend too long without coming into contact with other blobs your Hope will begin to lower.

Some blobs are friends: the closer you get to them the faster you both begin to travel, and they will also tend to stick with you if you move away (up to a certain distance) allowing you to bring in more friends and collectively rush to the end together. When a large group of blobs is together like this your own Hope begins to increase.

Some blobs are not friends. These blobs will slow you down but they will not be so likely to stick close to you if you move away.

The third type of blobs are toxic, they follow an erratic path but if you can stay close to them your speed increases dramatically, everything else seems to rush past and you race towards the end together. However these blobs also dramatically increase your Guilt, the effect growing exponentially the longer you stay with them.

The effect of other blobs on you is not the same as their effects on each other. Though two blobs might both be your friend they may not be friends with each other; some may even be toxic to another but not you. Bringing such blobs into a close group results in other blobs slowing the group down and could potentially lead to the group itself fracturing if you are not careful about how close you allow those opposing blobs to get. If you bring in a blob to a group that then causes the group to split apart your Guilt will begin to increase until you either manage to bring the group back together or leave it behind (Life is harsh).

How do you want to live your life? Do you stick to your friends through the good times and the bad, or do you leave them behind when the going gets tough? Do you latch onto that one person who burns with an inner fire? They’ll show you the world but might kill you in the process.

-J. Ross Keverne




I saw this on GameSetWatch earlier today: a trailer for Square's upcoming "Nameless Game," along with an insightful writeup by Chris of niche blog Chris's Survival Horror Quest.

The game itself sounds wonderfully clever: first off, it takes the idea of the "haunted video tape" from The Ring and rolls it into a video game cartridge-- the one you actually put in your DS and play. Part of your time is spent playing the game contained on the haunted cart: an 8-bit Dragon Quest-like RPG which exhibits graphical corruptions quite authentic to media of the time, according to Chris. The other side of the game is first-person 3D exploration seemingly set in eerie deserted apartment buildings, giving off a Silent Hill vibe. Tying it all together, your actions in the 8-bit game-within-a-game affect the state of the 3D gameworld and vice-versa, creating a surreal dialogue between the game you're playing and the game your character is playing... in the game. It sounds just brilliant.

I love how it embraces the specific language of a bygone era of video games and uses it as a tool of subversion, presupposing that the player will be familiar with the touchstones it's referencing and then playing with the assumptions of that informed audience to upset their expectations.

I love how the 3D and 2D games are supposed to be deeply intertwined. It's not like playing Space Harrier in Shenmue as a little distraction; instead, you're indirectly communicating between two digital worlds via your play in each. Awesome.

I love how it takes a staple of Japanese urban myth and casts the physical media you've actually purchased as a supernatural artifact. Like buying a book that's about a cursed book... which is in fact the book itself. It extends the game's mythos into the real world in a way that is quite rare.

And I love that it's a game about playing a video game. Yeah, it's "meta" as hell, but it speaks through an act that its target audience all shares, kind of the collective unconscious of people who have all been playing video games since the 80's. It's speaking to a community, like a film that speaks directly to film lovers: "you get it; this is for you." That the trailer begins with footage of the cart being booted up on a DS just reinforces its self-referential nature. Much like No More Heroes, it's the opposite of the all-inclusive blockbuster that lives under the mass market umbrella, which I think is incredibly important as a means of maintaining balance... and also because I feel like I'm one of the people it's aimed at, which is nice.

Also just a note that I love dedicated, passionate niche sites like Chris's-- people that drill deep into a particular subset of media and clearly take joy in immersing themselves in the genre. Chris, for instance, is on a quest to play every survival horror game ever made-- or at least the ones that live up to his exacting criteria. It takes a certain devotion to explore every nook and cranny of your chosen twisting back alleyway, and I really appreciate the folks that put in all the work to share their expertise with the rest of us.

In any case, Square's "Nameless Game" could be great or it could be a total wash; who can say this early just from a short trailer? But conceptually, it's off the charts. If it does turn out to be great, and it does get translated to English, I'll be tickled pink. If it fails, it won't be for lack of potential!




Clicking through the previews on the Amazon mp3 search results for "Nintendo" is hilarious and absurd.

[UPDATE 6/8/2008]:
This band rules.




The highway is kind of horrific. I've been doing a lot of highway driving lately for my job (about an hour every day,) and it's the only place I'm routinely exposed to the indignity of death, at 80 mph no less. This morning I saw unidentifiable lumps of shredded meat between two lanes, probably a misguided forest creature but maybe someone's former pet? Who needs that in their head? On the off-ramp into Novato I saw a dead little spotted fawn curled up on the shoulder. I'll sometimes see people's dogs, golden retrievers and such, that apparently escaped from their truck bed or back window, pathetically laid out against the center divider.

I dunno, it's just strange how getting a new job has indirectly exposed me to seeing all these poor dead things. If I notice something in my peripheral vision along the side of the 101, I kind of dread looking directly at it, because who really wants to look over and see some sad, dead animal lying there in the middle of their morning? What a world!!




[INTERMISSION: And now for something completely different.]

There are some games that would be just plain fun to design. For instance, Golden Axe: Beast Rider:

What have we got to work with? A hot chick, beasts, swords, blood, magic, and not a whole lot else (including, notably, any axes.) How can you not just jump in with both feet and have a blast designing that?

Here's my crack at an outline inspired by the premise:

The Rise of the Warrior Queen
a design pitch inspired by the Golden Axe: Beast Rider trailer

RotWQ is a game about a badass barbarian chick that I'm going to give the placeholder name of "Shanna" (in homage to the comics series recently reimagined by Frank Cho.)

Shanna runs around barren cliffsides, ruins and jungles, tearing her foes asunder with her fearsome battle skills and bathing in the resulting fountains of viscera. As she goes about her journeys, she prays to the Darke Gods for strength, and eventually smites an ancient evil, returning to be crowned the queen of her people's domain.

Core values of this design:

  • Shanna is a smokin' hot barbarian warrior babe. Shanna's saleable physical appeal is emphasized by a variety of scanty outfits and an array of vaguely sexualized combat techniques.
  • Shanna is badass, and through her quest becomes more badass. As Shanna shreds her enemies, she gains more and more powerful weapon- and magic-based attacks.
  • Shanna rides beasts. Beast riding is central to play, allowing Shanna to traverse the landscape and crush her enemies.
Core gameplay:

  • RotWQ is a weapon-based brawler featuring character skill and equipment progression.
  • Fighting, weapons, and combos: Shanna faces hordes of foes on her quest. She may attack them with swords, axes, hammers, or her bare fists. Using the controller's face buttons, Shanna breaks through her enemies' guard and unleashes deadly combos, ripping her rivals limb from limb. She sprints and dives into the fray, throwing herself into the thick of battle. Massive finishing moves mow down half a dozen foes at once.
  • Weapon skill progression: As Shanna uses a particular type of weapon, her skill with that weapon increases. Over the course of the game, Shanna may find a wide variety of individual weapons, each with its own stats. Shanna's damage output is determined by her current weapon skill coupled with the stats of the particular weapon she's found. Over the course of the game, the player may choose to generalize and become moderately skilled in all weapons, or to specialize and become the master of only one or two. For instance, Shanna's fists are the weakest to start and the slowest to progress, but inordinately powerful when fully mastered. Introduces interesting choices when a player finds an inherently powerful weapon that falls outside their current specialization.
  • Magic skill progression: As Shanna progresses through the wilderness, she happens upon many small shrines built to the four Darke Gods, each representing an element: Wind, Fire, Ice, and Earth. Her interactions with these shrines alters her alignment with the Gods. If she presents a sacrifice of her own blood to a shrine, her favor with that God increases, while her favor with the other Gods decreases; if she destroys a shrine, the reverse happens. Some enemy types are weaker or more resilient with respect to each element; like the weapon system, the player may commit to completely dominating one or two elemental resistances, or spread their tributes evenly across all schools.
  • Unleash barbarian rage by bathing in gore: As Shanna uses her powerful moves to tear her foes asunder, she is splashed with their gouts of blood; similarly, when Shanna takes damage, her own blood flows out of the wounds. Over the course of a battle, she eventually becomes covered in gore from head to toe.
  • The more blood Shanna is covered in, the more quick and powerful her attacks are. This encourages the player to throw themselves headlong into battle, and risk death to gain stronger offensive abilities.
  • Dive into a healing spring to recover: At checkpoints along her path, Shanna finds isolated healing springs. She may dive in, emerging with the gore washed off of her body and her wounds healed, losing her bloodbath-derived combat buffs but refilling her health.
  • Get new stuff by shopping: Shanna gathers valuables from her fallen foes, and may barter with traveling traders she encounters along her journey. She may buy additional empty vials to fill at healing springs which provide partial rejuvenation in the field, as well as charms which increase her attributes, upgrades which improve her current weapon, and new scanty outfits to show off her form.
  • Ride beasts: Shanna may jump on beasts she encounters and ride them as a mount. Wild beasts must be tamed with a balance-based bucking bronco minigame, while saddled beasts wrestled from her foes are immediately ridable. Beasts are hulking creatures, capable of striking down most foes with ease: beasts are strong against normal-sized and large human enemies, and evenly matched with other beasts; their weakness is in fighting swarms of small enemies, which overwhelm them with their agility and numbers. Shanna must dismount and fight off these sorts of enemies lest she see her beast dragged down by the mob. Similarly, Shanna is weak against beasts and large humans, but equally matched with normal-sized humans and strong against little guys. Shanna and the tamed beasts' relative strengths and weaknesses mean that neither is a silver bullet for all enemy types. When riding a beast, Shanna's mount may grapple with another beast, locking the two into a struggle for power. During this struggle, Shanna may leap across and slay the rival beast rider, wrestling his mount into submission.
  • To complete her quest, Shanna must defeat the powerful marauders who generations earlier stole a sacred artifact from her people, retrieve the artifact and return it to her homeland, whereupon she is crowned warrior queen and leads her valiant tribe into a harmonious future.
That sounds like fun to me, anyway. Godspeed, Secret Level!