Successful storytelling is difficult to pull off in videogames because — unlike movies, TV, and books — most games actually have two separate stories: the story being told to the player by the game’s writers and the story the player is creating through gameplay.
Sometimes, gameplay trumps plot. Sometimes, plot trumps gameplay. Sometimes, both stories are excellent, but largely separate. And, once in a while, a developer gets it right and realizes that maybe there shouldn’t be two stories at all.
Gameplay Story Quality > Game Writers’ Story Quality
From what I can remember about the PS2 Strategy-RPG Gladius, the game’s plot is about a young barbarian girl and an aristocratic soldier teaming up to fight an evil that threatens the world. It’s been a few years since I played, and I’m fuzzy on the details of the characters and the great evil. The plot, as written, just didn’t stick with me.
When I think about the game, I think of a different story — one I remember clearly. There was one battle in which I was down to the last hit points of my last character, a weak, javelin-throwing guy named Daryn. Through some unorthodox strategy and a heap of luck, Daryn single-handedly defeated a horde of faster, stronger attackers. When I won that battle, I shouted, fist-pumped, and high-fived Kathy (all of which we also did instead of exchanging vows at our wedding).
Daryn’s story wasn’t written by the designers of Gladius. It was all a result of gameplay. Yet this battle had a greater impact on me than anything scripted for the game. The plot, as it often is in games, was just connective tissue between battles, there to give a feeling of narrative progression.
Gameplay Story Quality < Game Writers’ Story Quality
By contrast, there are games like those in the Xenosaga series, which are loaded with story. The gameplay, however, often seems like little more than a device for killing time between the cutscenes. I loved the Xenosaga games, but I hardly felt like an essential participant in what was happening. In fact, I was as happy watching Kathy play as I was playing it myself.
Gameplay Story Quality = Game Writers’ Story Quality
And then there are games like those in the Uncharted and the Final Fantasy series, which have plenty of story to tell and oodles of gameplay, though the two don’t always mesh. I enjoyed the political intrigue in Final Fantasy XII’s cutscenes, but the politics were often a distant abstraction for the characters I was playing — and had nothing to to do with most of the game’s countless battles with random monsters. Uncharted’s cutscenes were hilarious, and its gunfights were exciting. But the humor rarely bled into the gameplay, and the action wasn’t as stirring during the movie sequences, because I wasn’t controlling it.
The Gameplay Story Is the Story
I love all the above games: those with great gameplay and little story, those with lots of story and average gameplay, and those that are strong in both categories.
But the best console game I’ve played has only one story. In Shadow of the Colossus, the story is the gameplay — except for bit of narrative framing at the beginning and end (and one mean trick the game plays on you before the final battle). The story is about a character who travels around and fights giant creatures in an otherwise empty land, and that’s what you, as the player, do.
When talking about Shadow of the Colossus, I don’t say things like, “And then Cloud fought Sephiroth.” I say something like, “And then I jumped onto the colossus…”
This sense of it being me starring in SotC is exemplified by the mechanics of riding the game’s horse, Agro. I’ve heard many players complain that Agro was a bitch to control. And it’s true. He doesn’t always move exactly how you want, when you want.
He’s not supposed to.
In most games, when a character rides a horse or steers a vehicle, the player controls the vehicle directly. At this point, you are no longer playing as the game’s main character. You are (temporarily) playing as the vehicle, itself.
In Shadow of the Colossus, you are always playing the main character, even when riding your horse. The reason Agro is slow and erratic in his responses is because you are not controlling the horse. You are controlling a character who is trying to control his horse. You can spur him on and tug the reins left or right, but Agro’s responses are — like a real horse’s — not always immediate or completely predictable.
In the 1980s, Electronic Arts ran an ad asking, “Can a computer make you cry?” My old boss at EA, Neil Young, has spent most of his career trying to create games that do just that. And even Steven Spielberg is trying to prove himself up to the challenge.
But Spielberg will have fight the moviemaker’s urge to tell his story to the audience/players. There’s a strong temptation to make the emotional gaming moments things that are acted upon the characters — or things that the characters do in cutscenes, without player interaction. In Shadow of the Colossus, the emotional hooks come from the actions the players take.
For the most effective storytelling in games, the player shouldn’t be told the story. The player needs to be the story. It’s a simple concept, but too few games trust their game design (and their audience) enough to attempt it.
Postscript: Here’s an easy test to see if any game you’re playing (or making) tells one story or two. Ask yourself these questions:
What is this game about?
What do I do in the game?
If the answers aren’t the same, then the game has two stories.
For a brief, in-browser example of an emotionally effective game whose story matches its gameplay, try ImmorTall.
Until this fall, the only PS3 games I’d played and really loved in 2009 were Valkyria Chronicles (a 2008 release that I started last Christmas and replayed in August) and Flower (a brief, downloadable game). I replayed Final Fantasy XII (again) and Shadow of the Colossus (again). And there were spans of several weeks where I don’t remember turning the system on at all.
But my console got plenty of use over the last three months of the year. I recently played through several high-profile, well-received games: Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II, and Dragon Age: Origins. I thought all of them were great. They were all ambitious, and each of them was successful. I can’t complain about any one of them being awarded GOTY by variousothergamingsites.
However, my game of the year is Strategery: a $2 game for the iPhone with no music, no story, simple gameplay, and bare bones graphics.
Strategery is a stripped-down clone of the board game Risk, with a few major alterations: map layouts and initial army placements are randomly generated, and each game lasts between 30 seconds and ten minutes. The highest difficulty setting really is tough (your four computer-controlled opponents will often conspire to attack you, even if it makes no strategic sense for them, individually), which keeps it challenging — sometimes impossible — even for seasoned vets. And the short duration of each game always compels me to play just one more round.
I’ve played Strategery almost every day for the past nine months. If I’ve averaged a mere fifteen minutes per day (a modest estimate), that’s almost 70 hours of gameplay. And Kathy’s played it at least as much as I have.
We’ve played twice as much Strategery as we have any other game this past year. And it’s the one game I’ve played that I wouldn’t give up for any other. That makes it my game of the year for 2009 — and I’m still playing plenty of it so far in 2010.
Game of the Year: Strategery (iPhone/iPod Touch)
Favorite Console Game (2009 Release): Uncharted 2 (PS3)
Favorite Console Game (2008 Release): Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)
Pleasant Surprise: Flower (PS3)
Biggest Disappointments: Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (PS3) and Noby Noby Boy (PS3)
Quick reviews of books I’ve enjoyed (or, sometimes, not) over the past few months:
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater arrives at magic college a gifted cipher and emerges as a witless, drunken dick.
Author Lev Grossman’s writing style is engaging, and I was impressed by The Magicians’ locations, its well-constructed system of magic, and (especially) its intricate plotting.
Unfortunately, the book is undone by its characters. We learn just enough about them to know that they are nearly all horrible people — especially the protagonist. The dialogue is sarcastic and ironic, yet almost totally humorless. And the main romantic relationship makes no sense, start to finish.
I get the feeling that Grossman was trying to write a fantasized version of The Great Gatsby, but The Magicians is more like a Bret Easton Ellis edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide.
I’m glad I read The Magicians, but I can’t say it was good.
Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I’m lumping these two books together because I read them in succession, they’re both young adult novels with dystopian themes, and they were my two favorite books of this past summer.
In Life As We Knew It, an astronomical event causes a cascade of disasters on earth. Faced with rapidly diminishing resources, the characters must struggle not only to stay alive, but also to maintain their humanity. This book scared the hell out of me, because Pfeffer made it so easy to imagine being in such a situation. As with some dreams, when I was done with the book, I almost believed it did happen.
The Hunger Games takes place in an alternate North America, several decades into the future. Pairs of teenage residents from each of the continent’s twelve districts are pitted against kids from the other districts (and each other) in a televised competition that both entertains the ruling class and quells dissent from the underclass. It’s a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” mixed with a whole lot of Battle Royale, which makes it just my kind of story.
Both these books are fantastic. I don’t want to say too much about them, because I’d hate to spoil them. They’re quick reads and well worth seeking out.
Selkirk’s Island, by Diana Souhami
From 1704 until 1709, stranded Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk reigned as the only human resident of a small island, 300 miles off the Chilean coast. Armed with little more than a knife and a Bible, he adapted and survived until he was rescued by a British privateer. Years later, Daniel Defoe wrote the Robinson Crusoe books, basing his main character at least partially on Selkirk.
Souhami’s book on Selkirk isn’t that well written, but it is well-researched. Considering how fascinating Selkirk’s story is, that’s enough to recommend it. Plus, it’s short and contains references to sex with goats, in case you’re into that kind of thing, which you are.
Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner
Like Grossman’s The Magicians, Swordspoint is another book in which a few unrelatable assholes — who are neither as clever nor charming as they (or the author) may think they are — threaten to ruin the whole book. Fortunately, Swordspoint is able to overcome this flaw through witty writing, brisk action, and several characters who are likable, including (unlike in The Magicians) the protagonist. Swordspoint has a Dangerous Liaisons feel to it, which I liked a lot. It’s also that rare fantasy book that incorporates no magic.
Here are some other books I’ve read lately, a few with mini-reviews:
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
This book is essential — and entertaining. Read it, and you may learn more about science (and the history of science) than you ever picked up in all your previous schooling, combined. I know I did. If you don’t read it, at least listen to the audiobook abridgement. It’s only five discs long.
Deadline, by Chris Crutcher
Crutcher’s previous book, The Sledding Hill, wasn’t so good. Happily, Deadline is Crutcher at his best: hilarious and sad, with broken characters trying desperately to prove that they matter. (He should probably stop trying to infuse his characters with his own musical tastes, however. In Whale Talk, athletes psyched themselves up to Bob Seger. In Deadline, the protagonist quotes Linda Ronstadt.)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
A bestseller that deserves to be one. I read the first 150 pages before buying an extra copy for my 94-year-old grandma, who still likes a good mystery, so long as there’s no objectionable material. After dropping the book off for her, I went home and continued reading my own copy. The very next chapter was little more than a brutal, extended rape scene, described in a dozen pages of detail. Sorry, Grandma!
Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, by Charles Willeford
This Perfect Day, by Ira Levin
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan
Entertaining and/or Informative:
Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
Suarez does a decent job of making the technologicially impossible seem semi-plausible in this thriller about an overly ambitious computer program. It’s a cookie-cutter thriller filled with stock characters, but sometimes that’s exactly what I feel like reading.
Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
Ariely’s book explores the shortcuts our brain takes when making decisions. It’s a good book, though you could just watch Ariely’s TED presentations and feel like you’ve gotten the gist of it.
Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
I wanted to love this, but I can only give it a lukewarm recommendation. It’s a great idea for a book, with solid commentary on our surveillance society and the War on Terror. But, as with Grossman’s The Magicians, the lead character is an arrogant, unlikable twit: a self-righteous, superhacking stand-in for the author.
Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
Lehane wrote this as an homage to the mid-century pulp novels, and I’d say he was successful. The whole thing is as formulaic as a Twilight Zone episode. Predictable, but fun.
The Gunslinger, by Stephen King The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
I used to read King all the time between junior high and college. When I read him now, I still like him a lot. He’s the world’s most comforting horror author. I’d never read The Dark Tower books before, so I’m starting now. The first two books are only okay, but momentum seems to be picking up.
The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer
The Dosadi Experiment, by Frank Herbert
Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
The Red Wolf Conspiracy, by Robert V.S. Redick
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I don’t know when I was last this disappointed by a book. Ishiguro ruins a decent story with an annoying narrative gimmick. This Amazon review describes the problem well. (Also, as a nitpick, the font is horrible: very pretty, yet hard to read.)
Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
There’s one major caveat regarding my placement of this under the “Bad” heading. The book itself may actually be quite good. But the audiobook is awful, and it made me hate the book. It’s one of the worst readings I’ve ever attempted to endure; I gave up about halfway through.
The Gate House, by Nelson DeMille
This sequel to The Gold Coast is easily DeMille’s worst book. The protagonist is funny, as Demille protagonists usually are. But he’s unbelievably stupid. The other characters keep calling him smart and tough, despite him evidencing neither trait. He kind of reminded me of Lana Lang’s character on Smallville in this regard.
Patricia Briggs — Moon Called (Amazon Link)
As far as supernatural chick lit goes, Moon Called is better than everything else I’ve read: Twilight, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, etc. Unfortunately, that’s a backhanded compliment. This is just the first supernatural chick lit book that isn’t horrible. Mercy Thompson isn’t a loathsome protagonist, and Briggs knows how to write dialogue and construct a satisfying mystery.
But, at its core, it’s just the same old crap done more competently. There’s something special about our size-2-but-tough-as-hell heroine that makes her irresistible to every straight male who meets her, and oh my god how will she ever choose from amongst her countless suitors? The only major difference between Moon Called and other books of its ilk is that werewolves play a bigger part than vampires.
Speaking of which, the book would be so much better if there were no vampires in it at all. Enough with the fucking vampires — especially ones that aren’t even scary! Once upon a time, they used to kill people. Now, they just want to fuck us.
Warren Hammond — Ex-KOP (Amazon Link)
I enjoyed Hammond’s second KOP book every bit as much as the first one. The pace is fast, the plot tight, and the characters solid. But the real star of the books is Lagarto, the world where the novels take place. Lagarto’s an oppressively hot, corrupt shithole that relies on a constant cash influx from rich outsiders just to stay afloat. For some reason, it reminds me a bit of Miami, as written by Charles Willeford. And just like I’d rather read about Miami than ever go there again, I’m happy to visit Lagarto only in books.
Stephen Bown — Scurvy (Amazon Link)
From a modern person’s perspective, it seems silly that scurvy was ever a problem. Why didn’t someone just tell sailors to eat an orange, drink some lemonade, or pop a vitamin every few days? Yet, for hundreds of years, scurvy was the scariest, most misunderstood disease (really a deficiency) this side of the plague. It must have seemed like some sort of supernatural, karmic punishment for the mariners who had to watch their old wounds reopen and feel their mended bones split apart once more.
Bown’s book is not only an interesting history of scurvy. It’s an examination of how difficult it is for experts and influential groups to accept simple truths that contradict the current conventional wisdom. In this sense, Scurvy has much in common with another favorite of mine, Moneyball.
Carrie Ryan — The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Amazon Link)
Probably my favorite book title, ever, and the book itself isn’t too shabby. It’s a zombie novel, and though I’m just about zombied out these days, I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth in a single sitting.
The book is so bleak and unrelenting, it read like a coming-of-age version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — though I liked TFoHaT better. It’s a neat trick when bleak and unrelenting can still be fast-paced and entertaining. Author Carrie Ryan says her writing process consists of sitting down at the computer and asking herself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” It shows.
In a novel about adults, the melodramatic love story within TFoHaT may have seemed tacked on. But in a story about teens, it worked just fine. No matter how dire the circumstances, I believe a pair of attractive, melodramatic kids would find the time to become obsessed with one another. There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet weren’t in their mid-thirties. That said, I dare some modern-day Shakespeare to write a chick lit tragedy about two single parents who fall in love, only to kill themselves over incompatible eHarmony profiles.
Patrick O’Brien — Master and Commander (Amazon Link)
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this book. I loved the movie, and I’ve been on a maritime kick, of late. But it was hard to shake the prejudices I’d held against this series, ever since I used to work in a bookstore. I’d always thought of the O’Brien books as humorless, bloodless books written by one old guy for a bunch of other humorless, bloodless old guys.
I was so wrong. If I could go back and punch my 23-year-old self, I probably wouldn’t, but my time machine would make me a billionaire. Anyway, Master and Commander was both graphic and surprisingly funny. Like the movie (which is really based more upon one of the other books in the series), the book has plenty of action. But, at its heart, it’s really a buddy story about two very different, yet equally likable, protagonists. I’m excited that I’ve got about 20 more books to go, before finishing the series.
Frank Herbert — Whipping Star (Amazon Link)
Most of this strange little novel comprises conversations between a human special agent and a powerful but imperiled alien, whose (likely) imminent death will cause a chain reaction that will kill off 99% of the sentient beings in the universe. Because one of the book’s main themes is how difficult it would be for us to converse with members of alien cultures, the book itself is a little difficult — at least for the first several chapters. But since the whole thing is under 200 pages, it’s still a pretty quick read.
Some of the sci-fi elements are weird, if not outright silly (e.g., chairs have been replaced by chair-shaped animals). But Herbert always mixed weirdness in with his big ideas. For me, it works. I still have a soft spot for Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune, which was about a psychic human-turned-giant-worm who ruled the universe for hundreds of years.
I’ve never embraced the mobile revolution. I have a piece of crap Virgin Mobile cell phone that I use mostly to store my friends’ and family’s phone numbers. I once had a Gameboy Color, made it a few hours into a Final Fantasy Legend game (I don’t even remember which one), and then never used the system again. I have no desire to get a DS, and I only want to borrow a PSP long enough to play the God of War and Final Fantasy games on it.
About a month ago, I got an iPod Touch, because I needed to redesign my work website to display properly in its browser. I figured I might use the Touch to check my email, and I knew I’d transfer some songs to it for a vacation Kathy and I were taking. But I didn’t think I’d be sinking any money or time into games from the iTunes App Store.
I was so, so wrong.
The iPod Touch has become my (and my wife’s) main gaming platform. We already own more games for it than we do for the PS3. It’s just so easy to get addicted to churning through iPhone games, both free and paid. And there really are some great apps out there.
Here are quick thoughts by Kathy and me on the best games we’ve tried, so far. Though, at the rate we’re downloading new ones, they might be replaced by next month.
Favorite Game (Greg): Galcon
This is, easily, my favorite app on the platform. I downloaded it within a week of getting the Touch, and it’s still my go-to game.
Galcon is like a high-speed version of Risk, only with planets instead of countries. In the basic game (included in the free Lite version), you and an enemy send fighter ships from your respective home planets to take over other planets on the game map. Once you’ve taken over a planet, it starts to manufacture fighter ships of its own, for you to take over more planets — or to defend your own. The game continues until one player has taken over all of the other’s planets.
Gameplay is simple, and the interface is perfectly designed for the iPhone. Touch one (or more) of your planets to select its ships, and then touch (or swipe toward) a neutral/enemy planet to send those ships to attack it.
Games are quick — usually just a couple of minutes. And, should you fail, you can always try a new map or switch to another of the game’s dozen or so difficulty levels. So, frustration is kept to a minimum.
The paid version of the app ($4.99) includes multiplayer support and several other game variations, all of which are great.
Favorite Game (Kathy): Drop7
I’m our home’s resident puzzle game fanatic, and Drop7 is the best the iPhone platform has to offer. It’s a mobile version of the online Flash game, Chain Factor (which developer Area/Code originally created as part of a promotional experience for the CBS show, Numbers).
The creators wisely eliminated some nonessential features from Chain Factor, resulting in a game that’s perfectly sized for the iPhone. Unlike some iPhone games that require pixel-perfect fingers, the spaces on the Drop7 grid are large enough that you’ll never catch yourself saying, “No, that’s not what I meant to hit!” Games can be as long or short as you want, depending on which gameplay method you select. A strong game concept makes even short games satisfying, and the comparatively large graphics make Drop 7 less frustrating than many other iPhone games.
You can learn the basics of Drop 7 in about a minute, but — well over a year after discovering Chain Factor — I still play it as much as any other game. There isn’t a Lite version of Drop7, but you can always try Chain Factor before buying the iPhone version ($4.99).
Honorary Mention (Greg and Kathy): Distant Shore
Distant Shore is hardly a game at all; it’s more of an anonymous messaging system. But it’s definitely fun.
By touching the screen, you guide your avatar (who appears only as a set of footprints) across a beach, picking up shells and glass bottles. When you pick up a bottle, it contains a short text message from someone else who is currently playing. Sometimes, people will just tell you how they’re feeling or what they’re doing. And other times, the message will be a question (e.g., one player recently asked if I liked Chipotle). Once you’ve received a message, you can respond, and a lengthy bottle-mail conversation will likely ensue.
For every five shells you find on the beach, you get an empty bottle of your own, so you can send new messages to random players.
The game is addictive. Whenever I think I’m about to quit, I comb the beach for just one more bottle, and then another, and so on. And when I’m not playing, I can’t wait to log in again to see if anyone’s responded to one of my own messages. I think I’ve become much better at writing to random people than I am at responding to emails from friends and family.
One thing I love about Distant Shore is how nice all the other players are. I’ve received (and sent) some goofy messages, but I have yet to see anything mean or stupid. All the players seem to be invested in the virtual world they’ve created. I suspect things might be different if it were a free app, but Distant Shore’s minimal price ($0.99) seems to be enough of a barrier to keep the riff-raff at bay.
Distant Shore will be great so long as there are plenty of people playing. And, for now, it seems to be going strong.
Because man cannot live on videogames alone, here are some quick thoughts on a few of the books I’ve read lately.
Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold
This novel takes place in the same world as — and stars some of the minor characters from — Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (which is the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the last four or five years). Many authors are good at writing interesting supporting characters. But, judging by the two books I’ve read, Bujold’s specialty is making her protagonists the most compelling and likable characters in her books. I loved everything about Paladin of Souls: the characters, the dialogue, the mythology, and the story.
Matter, by Iain M. Banks
I’d heard good things about Banks, and I’m a sucker for space opera, so I picked up this book to read on vacation. The first 500 pages (of over 600) were mediocre, but I kept reading, in hopes that things would get better. They didn’t. The last act falls apart completely. (Spoilers ahead…)
Banks spends hundreds of pages introducing us to about a dozen major characters, only to kill them off unceremoniously — and often “offscreen”! — near the end. And the main antagonist is a kind of planet-destroying deus ex machina who appears only as a plot device. Some of the book’s otherwise unlikable protagonists are supposedly redeemed by their decision to sacrifice themselves in order to stop the big bad guy. Whatever. They also would’ve died if they hadn’t done anything at all, so what they did wasn’t all that brave.
KOP, by Warren Hammond KOP is a sci-fi noir story that stars a miserable, corrupt cop on a planet of miserable, corrupt citizens. Despite its dumb title, it’s a good, fast-paced read. It’s more of a mystery novel than a sci-fi book, and the mystery is very well-crafted. It was like reading a Michael Connelly or George Pelecanos book that just happens to be set in a bleak future world. It was the perfect junk food reading for a cross-country flight.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this 1974 sci-fi classic. Just like KOP is really a mystery novel, The Forever War is really a novel about Vietnam. In fact, it may have supplanted Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato as my favorite Vietnam book. Like Bujold, Haldeman does a great job of making his protagonist the best character in the book. The Forever War is funny, horrific, philosophical, and touching. I don’t want to say too much about it and spoil anything; if you haven’t read it, do so!
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
I hadn’t read this since I was a teenager. And I was a little scared to re-read it, just because I was afraid it wouldn’t live up to how I remembered it. I didn’t need to worry. It’s still great. I was amazed at how well its aged. In fact, it seems pretty obvious that current genre TV shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica are just now trying to emulate the mature storytelling style of this 1980s graphic novel — probably because the young readers of Watchmen are now old enough to be the writers of those shows.
Holy shit! Nintendo just filed a patent application for a system that would allow all players — regardless of skill level — to enjoy and finish even the most difficult games.
The application proposes in-game video hints, to help guide you through the tough parts of a game. Though you can already find tactical help at YouTube or GameFAQs for most games, I appreciate the convenience of having the assistance right on my TV.
But the big breakthrough mentioned in the patent is that Nintendo would offer players the ability to skip to any section of a game at any time — even if you haven’t “earned” your way there. (As if I didn’t already earn the right to see everything I want when I plunked down sixty bucks!)
I’ve written before about how game developers are, for some reason, still reluctant to give us players control of how we use the content we’ve bought from them. Now, there’s a perfect solution that gives them financial incentive to cater to players like me, but it’s not yet being used to its fullest advantage.
Many of us — maybe even a quiet majority of us — who buy videogames are more tourists than explorers. We don’t need to master each and every game we play. We just want to get through them, picking up some skills and enjoying the highlights along the way. This is especially true for us gamers who work full time, have gotten married, and have less time to dedicate to each title we hope to play.
When I vacation in a new city, I take advantage of maps, books, and guided tours, and I don’t feel like I’m being shortchanged on the experience. I know it’s not the same as taking up residence, immersing myself in the culture, and learning about my environs through trial and error. But I don’t expect it to be. If I don’t have the money or time to go native, an assisted visit is still a major step up from vicariously traveling via a Rick Steves special or a magazine article.
I often play games like a tourist, too. There are plenty of titles that have inspired me to perfect my skills (e.g., Shadow of the Colossus, Gladius, all the Final Fantasy games, etc.). But with many games, I’m happy just to get through them — and to do so with a reasonable amount of speed and ease. If I need outside assistance, like walkthroughs or cheat codes, so be it.
As online access has become ubiquitous for this generation of consoles, publishers have started offering downloadable content (DLC) for their games. For a small fee (usually topping out at a few bucks), players can buy additional costumes, weapons, songs, and other items for games. So long as the add-on content isn’t stuff that should have been included in the game in the first place, I’m fine with the concept.
DLC could, and should, be the perfect vehicle for giving me the gameplay I want — and at an extra profit for the developers. But they haven’t gotten it quite right, at least not yet.
A couple of weeks ago, EA posted several DLC packages at the PlayStation Store for Dead Space. Some of them were pretty cool and useful. Eugene, who’s playing through my copy of the game, bought a supercharged version of the force gun, which is already one of Dead Space’s best weapons. Additional packages included upgraded armor and overpowered versions of the game’s other weapons.
Those packages are decent. I applaud EA for making some game-enhancing DLC available at all. Most games still haven’t latched onto the trend.
But EA didn’t go far enough in their efforts. They missed a shot at offering the one option I would have bought immediately: invincible armor. If you’re going to offer upgraded items, why not offer the ultimate in upgrades? Why only go partway?
I enjoyed Dead Space, but I probably won’t be replaying it. However, were invincibility available, I just might feel like revisiting the game, whether playing it seriously or just for laughs. It might be fun to put the game on Impossible difficulty and just run through it weaponless, killing everything with my bare hands. Or maybe I wouldn’t kill much of anything at all. I’d see how many creatures I could get to follow me through an entire level.
And it’s not just for replaying. Even for my first go-round, I would always purchase invincibility (or its offensive counterpart: weapons that kill everything onscreen in one shot) for those games that are too difficult or that take too long to finish in the first place.
Sometimes, I really do want to play through a game, but I don’t think it’s quite good enough that it’s worth spending more than a few weekend hours to suss out how to beat it (Conan and Viking come to mind). DLC could be the solution. Similarly, it’s a great way for publishers to make some money off of those players who rent or borrow a game and only have a limited time to finish it.
In the future, I hope developers will consider offering this kind of content. It’s worth it for players like me — and for them. Satisfied gamers who finish games quickly are customers who will be happy (and ready) to buy another game, soon!
I don’t scare easily. I used to think I didn’t scare at all. Hell, I’ve watched every minute of every episode of every season of Dancing with the Stars, and I sleep just fine. (Lame excuse: My wife covers DwtS for her blog.)
But Dead Space changed all that.
It isn’t scary in the Silent Hill sense: eerie, foreboding, cerebral, and lonely. Dead Space is more along the lines of a Universal Studios amusement park ride or a high-budget haunted house, and about as subtle.
As you walk down a mostly predetermined path, shit jumps out at you, you scream “Eff you!” at your TV, and then you dump an entire clip of hard-earned ammo into something that you could’ve killed with a couple of well-placed shots — if only you weren’t still so ratcheted up from the last time this exact same thing happened, two minutes earlier.
Basically, it’s about twelve straight hours of this:
For the first several chapters of Dead Space, I could only play for an hour or so at a time. The game wasn’t too creepy or gross, but it made me so tense that I started to get a headache. Eventually, I was able to remind myself that videogame death, while undesirable, is often inevitable and always temporary.
A good deal of credit for the game’s effectiveness goes to the sound design — specifically the music. There’s almost always music playing in Dead Space, though you often won’t even notice it, because the music matches your mood so well. It’s more reactive than evocative.
In most games, music is used to elicit feelings: excitement, joy, sadness, dread. But in Dead Space, the music seems to react right along with you, reinforcing your emotions rather than altering them. When you’re in a safe area, the music is almost unnoticeable. When you accidentally kick a metal box in in a dark hallway, the music thumps and swells a bit, like your heart in your chest. And when a creature drops from the ceiling right in front of your character, a string section squeals (likely in sync with your voice from your couch). The cacophony lasts until you’ve killed the beast and taken some time to catch your breath.
There are few actual musical themes in the game. The score feels largely aleatoric (random and/or improvised). Combining this randomness of content with the reactive nature of the music makes the score almost feel more like sound effects than an orchestral soundtrack. It’s an interesting approach, and I loved it, in concept and execution.
The game looks good, too. The ship’s interiors and exteriors are detailed and gorgeous, the characters are well-designed, and the game’s humanoid monsters, called necromorphs, are suitably nightmarish. The occasional epic set piece really does look epic, even on my measly 32-inch screen. (The game’s concept art is well worth checking out, too, once you’ve completed a playthrough.)
Occasionally, though, I felt that the creators mistook dark and claustrophobic for atmospheric and spooky. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, Disaster Report, Raw Danger, and Indigo Prophecy (Hey, the first half of it was good!) have shown how true atmosphere allows the coolest and creepiest moments to happen in plain view.
But Dead Space doesn’t always trust itself enough to scare you with the lights on. When you’re in an empty room, and some necromorphs suddenly drop in, the ship’s security system locks all doors — to quarantine the area, sensibly — and then…shuts off the lights. Why the hell would the ship’s designer make it that much more difficult for the crew to spot, capture, and kill invaders? There is no reason, of course. It’s just an obvious excuse to stack the deck against the player, and it brought me out of the game whenever it happened.
And it took about two chapters (of the game’s twelve) for me to get tired of the long, twisty, cramped hallways between almost every set of rooms. Even if there were no monsters onboard, it would be a chore to make it to the nearest bathroom in an emergency.
Fortunately, the game’s designers added a cool technique for navigating the ship. Instead of the little maps that often appear in the upper-right corner of some games (e.g., Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy), you press in your controller’s right analog stick, and a line lights up on the ground, directing you to your next destination. You never have to worry about the frustration of being lost or wondering what to do next. I sometimes depend so much on those little maps that I watch them more than what I’m supposed to be looking at. Dead Space’s on-demand pathfinding was much better for keeping me immersed.
And I was immersed, despite a story that kind of sucks. The mythology of the game is interesting, if cliched: something about mystic artifacts, religious zealots, and eternal life. And I liked learning about the Ishimura’s last days from the video, audio, and text logs you find laying about. But your own story is just stupid.
You play Isaac Clarke, an engineer on a small spaceship, the Kellion, that responds to a distress call sent from a big spaceship, the Ishimura. After crash landing on the Ishimura, the Kellion is disabled, so you need to find another way home for you and your surviving crew members.
Your ex-girlfriend, Nicole, happens to be stationed on the Ishimura, so I guess you want to save her, too. At least I’m assuming that’s the case. It’s hard to tell, considering that Isaac never says a single word throughout the game. There’s never any reason for you to care about Nicole — or Isaac, for that matter.
And why make Nicole my ex-girlfriend? What kind of incentive does that give me? You couldn’t get me to lend one of my real life exes twenty bucks, much less run through a ship of zombie-aliens. Nicole should have been a family member, or at the very least your current girlfriend, so there’s some sense of emotional consequence connected to her survival.
Apparently, the only way to save Nicole and get off the Ishimura alive is to embark on a series of fetch quests. Your Kellion compatriots order you to get this part and that part to fix this machine. Then, get this chemical and that chemical from different labs to make a poisonous solution. And so on. Each of these quests is, of course, really just a way to set you up for a series of ambushes by the necromorphs that lurk inside the ship’s ventilation system.
When the necromorphs show up, it’s time to start shooting. Isaac has plenty of weapons to choose from, though you’ll probably settle on a select few that you like best. I just used one, the Line Gun, for almost the entire game, because it could hit from long range, did a ton of damage (after upgrades), and had a wide enough area of effect that I didn’t have to worry so much about my horrible reflexes and aiming skills. It was the one weapon that didn’t really have a downside, except that its Line Rack ammo was sometimes at a premium. When I was low on Racks, I temporarily switched to the game’s default weapon, the Plasma Cutter, a laser pistol for which it’s almost impossible to run out of shots.
When you can’t find the ammunition and med packs you need inside one of the Ishimura’s many supply boxes or strewn among the viscera of slain enemies, you can always purchase them from one of the automated stores stationed around the ship. I felt a little guilty that I always seemed to have enough money to buy the weapons I needed to commit monster genocide, and yet the hundreds of Ishimura crew members before me were so poor or foolish that they apparently never combined their meager resources to buy themselves a few guns and some armor.
Speaking of armor and feeble civilians, I’ve always thought it was silly in videogames that the faceless extras in cutscenes always die from a single gunshot or stabbing, while the main character can somehow take a dozen bullets to the face before slowing down. In Dead Space though, this actually makes some sense. Isaac himself isn’t any more invulnerable than a normal human. His armor, however, is. Your hit points aren’t really yours; they belong to your armor. It’s a small detail, but I appreciated it.
Dead Space’s standard combat is fun. The mechanics are similar to other third-person shooters (e.g. Resident Evil, Uncharted), and the difficulty is well-balanced. There are spots where you’ll die a few times. But because the necromorphs are programmed to pop out of the exact same place at the exact same moment each time you enter an area, it’s easy to prepare yourself for subsequent attempts after a restart.
The trick to fighting in Dead Space is retraining yourself to keep from targeting the usual body parts. Unlike most shooters, going for the head or chest hardly does anything to your enemies. Instead, you kill them most efficiently by going for appendages: arms, legs, tentacles. This can be tough, especially when your instincts scream for you to blow off the head every time something jumps into view. But that’s part of what keeps the game fun and tense; you decapitate an enemy, and he still comes running at you.
If things get too frantic or your ammo gets too low, you can use Stasis and Kinesis powers, which allow you to slow down enemies and hurl nearby items (including detached body parts) as weapons, respectively. I didn’t use Kinesis too much. But I grew addicted to Stasis. It gives you a few seconds to duck out of the way of an incoming attack and put yourself into a better position for retaliation. Your supply of Stasis Juice (or whatever gives you the ability) is limited, but I used a cheat code to get more whenever I was in real danger. I’m not proud.
Though every enemy encounter seems like an event of some magnitude at the beginning of the game, the sameness of the hallways and small labs and control rooms — and the endless battles that occur within them — eventually seem like filler to make sure the game lasts at least ten hours. Almost every chapter is essentially the same: fetch this, fetch that, fetch the other thing, and then leave the deck. And sometimes, even the locations are the same. By the fifth chapter, you’re already revisiting areas you’ve previously scoured.
But amidst the filler, there are some truly epic set pieces and some innovative twists on typical shooter gameplay.
At several points in Dead Space, you’ll enter zero gravity areas. In these, your magnetic boots turn just about any surface into a floor, from your perspective. So, you can leap to a ceiling a hundred feet overhead, and the room will flip over for you. This adds a truly three-dimensional feel to the game, it can make a single room feel like like several different ones, and fights become much more complex — and less predictable.
The scale of some of the set pieces is awesome. In particular, a task that consists of placing an SOS beacon on an object suitable for launching into deeper space provides one of the most memorable sequences in the game.
And all of Chapter Six (Hydroponics) is a blast. Rather than strict fetch quests, it’s more of a Hide and Seek or Capture the Flag level. Plus, it has what may be the best battle of the whole game. I enjoyed that chapter so much, I was a little disappointed when the fetch quests returned.
Overall, I enjoyed Dead Space a lot. Sure, I have some complaints, but I almost always have complaints. The combat was fun, the visual design was fantastic, the music was outstanding, and — most importantly — it was truly scary. At twelve hours, it did feel a little padded. I’ll take a tightly executed four (Portal) or eight (Heavenly Sword) hour experience over a longer good-but-repetitive game every time. But, all in all, it was twelve hours well-spent.