Saturday, November 10, 2012

Can literature be art?

Low art:
High art:

One day I'm finally going to write that treatise on games and art, and it's going to rock the world out of its complacent stupor. However, I suspect that today is not that day.

(Can you guess which game I finally got around to playing, several years after everyone else?)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The making of a Portal 2 test chamber

Those with their finger on the pulse of contemporary gaming will be aware that Valve recently released the new user-friendly level editor for Portal 2. Consequently, there are now over 100,000 user-made levels available, all of them uniformly terrible. (DISCLAIMER: exceptions may exist; I have only played a few.) There's a reason for this, of course. It's not that easy to design a good map. There are only about six different things you can include in a Portal 2 puzzle. I haven't done the mathematics on this, but I'm pretty sure there are fewer than one hundred thousand ways to combine these things.

I'm new to mapping. I did once boot up the Hammer map editor, but it's tricky to get to grips with. Certainly there's no point even starting with it unless you know what you are intending to create. And that was just the problem; I didn't have an idea. There's no point haphazardly arranging walls and floors at random in the hope that a level will emerge. The advantage to the new editor is that you can do this - I wouldn't necessarily say you can start with no idea at all, but you can start with a sketchy, half-thought-out idea and refine it as you go along.

To my mind, there are three kinds of levels you can make in Portal:
  • Good levels, where you have to solve them by doing something unexpected.
  • Gimmick levels where it's clear what you have to do, and the designer probably thought it was cool, but it takes at least a dozen tries to actually pull it off.
  • And huge levels where the only challenge is in figuring out what each of the buttons do, and in which order the designer wanted you to press them.
Before continuing I should point out that I'm not casting stones here; I have made levels in all of these categories. (Maybe not the first one.)

Before the editor came out, I was convinced I had only one idea for a level. Since then I have confounded my own expectations by releasing upwards of three levels. Doing this has made me realise that there are two stages in designing a level, and consequently two challenges. The first challenge is having an idea for a level. This was the one I never imagined I would overcome, and I have to give credit to the flexibility of the map editor for putting me in a position where I have been able to come up with almost five level ideas, some of them bordering on reasonable.

The second step/challenge to designing a level, however, is one which I had never anticipated. It turns out that having had the idea, you subsequently have to design the level. This was entirely new territory.

I thought that it might be interesting to detail the procedure by which one of my levels was produced (note that I said might.)

Dual Bridge Deactivation: the making of
(NB: if you have not played this level yet, this post will give away the solution. So maybe you should play it first. Also, most of what's written below is going to seem utterly nonsensical otherwise, so maybe you should definitely do that.)

Wednesday 9th May
On my way to work, I wonder whether I can think of any ways to combine puzzle elements that did not already receive ample coverage in the main single-player game. (My first map was based on a combination of light bridges and repulsion gel.) At random, I select lasers and excursion funnels. How can they be combined? The obvious concept seems to be that of a laser that has to be diverted by moving a reflective cube through the excursion funnel. So I decide to go with this.

Why should the player have to do this instead of diverting the laser through traditional means? After some further thought, I decide: maybe they have to activate two laser receptors in succession, and something stops them from activating the second one once they are part-way through the solution.

By the time I reach the office, I conclude that the player should need to deactivate two light bridges in succession (extra doors being currently unavailable as a test element) so as to drop down and reach the exit at the bottom. Deactivating only one bridge will lead to a middle area which contains only an excursion funnel to get back to the top: thus hiding the solution in plain sight. It seems to me that in order to create an effective puzzle, it should seem like the crucial elements are there for a different reason than they really are.

The laser receptors will be high up in the main chamber. Opposite the first one will be a portalable surface, making it easy to deactivate. Opposite the other will be an alcove with a portalable surface facing the wrong direction, making the player think this is where they need to use the cube.

In a moment of down-time at the office, I sketch out this blueprint on a blank self-adhesive label which I have printed by mistake:
As you can see, the design is basically complete.

Thursday 10th May
The only problem with coming up with this idea on my way to work was that I would subsequently be on the road for the rest of the week, and thus unable to actually make the level. Needless to say this is a little frustrating. I while away some of the time by wondering what problems may emerge in the design. I am unsure of the best way to approach the alcove area opposite the second laser receptor. There is nothing wrong with a little deliberate misdirection, but I tend to think it's not quite right to have an area which exists solely to wrong-foot the player. Perhaps I will put a button up there which the player pushes to release the cube? This would provide a justification for its existence and my conscience would be clear.

I'm also not sure what to put in the area below the first light bridge. If I put a portalable surface there, will that enable players to bypass the puzzle? I can't be bothered to work it out. That is what play-testing is for.

Friday 11th May
I do not get home until the evening, at which point I am required to attend a friend's birthday celebration. This wastes several hours. I am unable to start building the level until late evening.

Upon starting to create the level, I become aware of some unanticipated problems.
  • For the cube to activate the laser receptors while in the funnel, the receptors must be placed in the centre of the tile. However, for the player to activate them by placing the cube on the floor, the receptors must be placed at the bottom edge of the tile. This, I feel, tends to signpost the solution somewhat.
  • When the laser is redirected into the receptor by the cube floating past, it does not deactivate the bridge long enough for the player to fall through it.
I give up on the level as unworkable.

Saturday 12th May
While lying in bed it occurred to me to wonder; what if instead of the player having to fall through the light bridges, it was a cube? Maybe there would be enough time for a smaller object to drop down. I put this idea to the test and it seems to work. However, the level will clearly need to be revamped.

Reluctantly, I am forced to delete the area below the main room which once housed the exit. I try to think of a way that the cube could fall through a separate set of bridges, and in the process somehow cause the original bridges to deactivate for longer, but quickly decide this would be contrived and unworkable. I leave the tiles grey where the hole used to be, in its memory.

The problem now is that the excursion funnel has no obvious reason for existing other than to solve the puzzle - in other words, it is obvious how to solve the puzzle. (Or so I feel.) Initially I put the final button used to open the exit on an inaccessible high-up platform which must be accessed via the funnel, but this feels inelegant. Eventually I hit upon the idea of the funnel forcing the player away from the exit and needing to be switched off. This seems gimmicky enough that players might just take it at face value.

Originally the player would have been unable to do anything after manually deactivating the first bridge, as they would have fallen halfway down. So, I introduce a fizzler to destroy the sphere if certain conditions are not met (oh yeah, it's a sphere now. Otherwise you could just deactivate the funnel using the original cube.)

I still haven't solved the other problem from the original design: the laser obviously cannot be redirected by placing the cube on the ground. To get around this, I come up with what seems to me the perfect finishing touch. I add a second cube, and a button it must be placed on to solve the level. Armed with two cubes, players are free to assume the level might be solved using cube-stacking - the hallmark of hack level designers the world over.

I am pleased with the level of variety introduced by this utterly redundant cube and button. Players are now faced with a plethora of options in terms of placing cubes on buttons, standing on the buttons themselves, placing cubes on cubes... It's not possible in every design, but I think the more non-workable options you give players, the better the challenge.

Sunday 13th May
After some play-testing I publish the map. It's after midnight, so, technically Sunday. An acquaintance has suggested I turn to popular internet web site Reddit for feedback on my maps, so I post this map among others for the perusal of a kind soul offering free play-testing.

Upon going to bed, I suddenly realise that due to the placement of the second fizzler it's now possible to destroy the two cubes. I get back up, add cube dispensers, and republish.* It's important.
Unfortunately this is the only existing screenshot of the original version of the level. It is a bit small.

The following morning I watch the video of the play-test. Aside from the minor niggle that the puzzle was not solved in the intended way, it is a resounding success.

(*I am certain that this happened, but it is not reflected in the level version history displayed in the Steam Workshop. The dispensers are present in the tiny screenshot above, but not in the video. Maybe the version number is not incremented for a very early edit, and it wasn't rolled out until after the video was recorded? Or is my mind going? We will never know.)

Monday 14th May
Nothing happens.

Tuesday 15th May
Away on business again, I decide to solicit more feedback on the map. I am concerned that I may have inadvertently left in more unintended solutions, so I post my link with the comment that there is "only one solution that I am aware of". This is intended as a hook to entice people to play the level, and in no way constitutes arrogance on my part.

Wednesday 16th May
The "Redditors" have done themselves credit by finding several different solutions:
  • Holding the cube up very high to redirect the laser while standing on the button
  • Using a portal near the button to reflect the laser at both receptors
  • Balancing the cube on the edge of the button to reflect the laser upwards
  • Turning the excursion funnel back on itself to reach the exit without switching it off
Suddenly I understand the true value of crowdsourcing. It would have taken me forever to find all these solutions. I vow to reward their ingenuity by changing the level so none of these exploits can ever be used again.

First, I make the room one unit taller and move up the laser stuff so it can't be reached from the ground. This removes the first solution on the list and hopefully the third. I move the second button away from the wall, and make the wall adjacent to the first button unportalable, in the expectation that this will preclude using a portal to redirect the laser from ground level. (These are some really incoherent explanations, aren't they? It's lucky those people took screenshots. It was this one, remember?)

After some further experimentation I find that the exploit is still possible if the wall is within two tiles of the button. So, I add another angled surface on the one remaining wall. This has the bonus consequence of removing the slightly-wrong solution found by the first play-tester. (I would have been fine with leaving it in, but for some reason the bridge doesn't always deactivate for long enough when you're moving the cube vertically. For this reason, it has to go - it doesn't feel as intentional as the correct solution. Because it isn't.)

I add a third angled surface by the ceiling for no reason, other than to make it look like I wasn't just putting them in to stop people from solving the level. And for aesthetic purposes.

It looks a lot nicer now! See how the grey tiles are still there where the hole used to be?

It's still possible to get to the exit using the exploit with the excursion funnel, but I don't mind leaving that in - it's so obviously not the intended solution that it can remain as a trick for speed-runners. Also, I can't think of a workaround that isn't going to really signpost that part of the ceiling as the required place to put the portal.

The level is complete, or at least for the time being. It's impossible to be sure whether someone else might point out something terribly wrong with it further down the line. For now, I am happy with it, and the rave reviews it has subsequently received (average rating: three stars out of five. I think it's weighted so that only maps with lots of reviewers can get a higher score. Yes, it must be that.)



This has been a lot longer than I anticipated, and slightly less interesting. It also suffers from something of a dearth of screenshots, but I did actually anticipate that. I hope it's potentially of some interest to someone somewhere, anyway.

There are exceptions, of course, but I think generally the best levels have a lot of portalable surfaces. I had to block some of the surfaces because they would have made the level easier, but I could have made it very easy by blocking everything except the two portal placements required to solve the puzzle. All solutions are obvious in retrospect; the trick is in trying to make them less obvious the first time round. It's hard to tell whether I have succeeded in this, as I have next to no experience and my maps have only been played by a handful of people.

Oh yeah, that's the other thing. I should point out that you shouldn't listen to my opinions on level design, because I don't know what I am talking about.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The house that Morrowind built

"I've got a reservation, I was given it for free/ 'Cause I killed all the cliff racers in the state of Vvardenfell" - Alan Price

Why do we play games? Is it for the memories? Surely not, because memories will one day fade. They are WORTHLESS. But the in-game treasure and artifacts you collect along the way will last forever! And in a way, they are the only (in)tangible remainder of the dozens of hours you have squandered. Now, the thought occurred to me: surely these accomplishments are empty and meaningless unless they are put in the public domain where they can be observed. So sit back and relax as I take you through a guided tour of all the stuff I collected in Morrowind and put in my character's in-game house. This represents the sum total of my achievement, and I am entirely convinced that people will be interested in seeing it.

I spent a long time on Morrowind, and most of that time I spent looking up all the quests in the online guide to make sure I wasn't missing anything. This is arguably the wrong way to play the game, but I paid for that content and was damned if I wasn't going to experience it all. Anyway, the launch of Skyrim seems an opportune moment for this Elder-Scrolls-related post, and no doubt you can look forward to a similar one about Oblivion in about seven years' time.

Here we see an exterior view of my prestigious manor. I think this guy came to join me on one of the quests at some point down the line, but I had a better plan for him: stand guard outside my mansion 24/7 for the rest of time.

The downstairs area. To be honest I don't see this that often, as I usually teleport straight upstairs with a Recall spell, then straight back to the local temple with a Almsivi Intervention spell. So I generally don't pass through this... dining room/store room/lobby type area? Now that I think about it this doesn't make all that much sense as a house. There are a couple of traders in here; they just appeared when I had the place built. They're not really a whole lot of use, but I still keep them around.

Despite the fact that they spend 90% of the time blocking the stairway. You make a better door than a window, lady!

These are some of the different types of armour I collected, which I have laid out in a series of effigies of the individuals I killed in order to acquire it. Ha! Only joking. I probably stole most of it from shops and caves; I can't rightly recall.

Here's where I do most of my alchemising. Apart from the collection of miscellaneous swords there, and my display of different varieties of alchemy equipment, this doesn't look much different from when I moved in. It is therefore even more boring than the rest of these pictures, so you should probably move on.

Upstairs now, and this is my room. You don't want to know how long I spent getting it this tidy after I had finished all the quests. I won't deny it was satisfying but I acknowledge it could also be interpreted as deeply anticlimactic.

Due to a lack of convenient storage space I had to organise my weapons into slightly neat piles on the floor. Here we see some daedric and adamantium weapons. There's also a little bedtime reading in the form of the one in-game book that namechecks your player character, because I am easily pleased like that.

Writs of execution for the people I have killed in a legitimate fashion. I held on to them in case of legal disputes further down the line. You gotta keep a paper trail!

These shelves are where I keep my collections of projectile weapons, tools, precious metals and gems, animal pelts and hearts, human flesh and broken glass.

Aside from some trinkets and gewgaws, this table houses my collection of ridiculous helmets. Excellent for playing pranks on the locals, and also card games.

These are some magical amulets I stole from some undead lords. At least... I think they were undead? Maybe they weren't technically undead. Anyway, the enchantments weren't all that much to write home about but they did all have unique in-game models, so I put them on this tray here.

Next to the potions and moonshine are some of my soul gems. They contain the souls of all kinds of mythological creatures and pirate skeletons I have defeated. Highlighted here is the trapped soul of an insane goddess. I like to think that in the closing moments of our battle, she realised that she was going to lose and be sealed forever in a cheap piece of jewellery. I really hope she spent those last moments trying to think of a way out and realising there was none. I don't like gods very much.

I have a bunch of shields, both with and without scary faces. So I stacked them on these attractive throw pillows here. I know most of these are almost identical and I never use them anyway, but I could never sell them. They hold too much sentimental value. Like that one on the far left, which was gifted to me by the Imperial Legion for completing an important questline. Unless... unless it was the one on the far right. Hmm.

The one downside of this place is a severe lack of shelf space. I've had to line the stairwell with the weapons I have never used but couldn't resist picking up because they had an interesting name.

Seriously, one day I'm going to trip on my way down and that will be the end of me.

(Is that... is that a human leg?)

Why yes, I did abuse a scripting error in the game to acquire two Daedric Crescents, thank you for noticing

Some kind of magic glove and weapons? I dunno, I must have picked them up at some point for some reason or another. It probably wasn't all that important.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Longest Journey Is Not A Very Good Game

Oh man, now I have to back that up. Why have I done this to myself? Even I don't agree with it. Well, here goes.

The Longest Journey is a classic point-and-click adventure game developed in Norway. In it you play April Ryan, a teenage girl who finds herself embroiled in a metaphysical conflict between her slightly futuristic sci-fi home and a parallel magical dimension. It is at this point that I should admit that I have not played the game since 2005, so must apologise if some of my recollections are slightly hazy.

The game is rightly acclaimed for its story and characterisation. The soundtrack is stirring and atmospheric, and resides on my mp3 player. The graphics are graphics.

And then we come to the puzzles. The Longest Journey is famed for an early puzzle in which you have to retrieve a key from a railway line without electrocuting yourself. You achieve this by combining some clamps, an old clothes-line and an inflatable rubber duck. Now, I know what you're thinking - any list of items is going to sound a little odd when recited like that with no further explanation. It must have made sense in context. I must have kicked myself when I eventually looked it up in an on-line walkthrough. However, let me assure you that the solution is not one that would be considered for even a moment by any sane individual in any possible universe. Really, April? That's what you're attaching to the clothes-line? An inflatable duck-clamp? Not, for example, a bit of wire or pipe cleaner bent into the shape of a hook, or literally anything that isn't an inflatable duck?

It is at this point that the developers perhaps concede that puzzles are not their strongest suit, and from this point onward you are shepherded along from one situation to the next where the puzzles are, by contrast, trivially easy. Now I'm not saying I didn't get stuck at any point - I can't remember; I probably did. But this has to be one of the most linear adventure games I have ever played. Rarely do you have to consider which location you next need to use an item to progress, as you rarely get a chance to even turn back. Instead you just look at the latest obstacle which has been presented to you, and think "this item will probably do it." Followed occasionally by "no? Maybe this one then."

I must stress that all through this, the story remains well written and engaging. After crossing over to the fantasy world, I found I needed to place a bet at a market stall to continue, and was prompted to offer something valuable. The obvious solution was April's gold ring, but I was genuinely hesitant - I had no idea how I would win the bet, and it had been established that this ring was all April had left as a memento of her estranged family. After some deliberation I offered up the treasured heirloom, only to be told that it was worthless. This was a fantasy world, after all, with different rules and values; gold was in plentiful supply, because of magic or something. With silent relief I instead gave the stall-holder some commonplace real-world item which fascinated them.

A nice bit of player-oriented storytelling, but it still boiled down to me picking items from the inventory until I found the right one. The only such game I can think of with simpler puzzle design is Discworld Noir, where every single locked door or container was bypassed by smashing it in with a crowbar. And you've got to at least admire the inherent deconstruction of the genre represented there.

Perhaps I'm naysaying. Maybe I just don't get adventure games? (You certainly know I'm in trouble when I start generating straw man arguments to defeat.) The stuff I've described - trying out items from the inventory until you figure out how to proceed - that's what point-and-click adventure gaming is. But it's all in the execution. This is what frustrates me, as The Longest Journey stikes me as one of the biggest missed opportunities in game design. So instead of simply criticising, I will try to elaborate on how it should have been done.

You have a story in which the heroine can travel from one world to another. Oppressive, futuristic Stark and strange, fantastical Arcadia. But these two worlds parallel each other. Everything has its counterpart in the other universe, and what you do in one will affect the other. Instead of crossing from one to the other only at predetermined points in the story, you should be able to do so at will. Think, for a moment, of the possibilities. You cannot get past a fearsome dragon in Arcadia, so you shift to Stark where it is replaced by a mechanical digger (I am aware that this is terrible, but I'm thinking off the top of my head here.) Cut the wiring in the JCB and suddenly the dragon has a severe aortal aneurysm. Instead of progressing in a linear fashion, you might have two or three puzzles to ponder at different ends of different universes. An innocuous item collected in Stark proves infinitely useful in Arcadia - which happens already, granted, but in this case you would have to figure out for yourself how and where to use it.

All of this has been done before in objectively the best adventure game ever, Day of the Tentacle. (Which is, coincidentally, another game with a well-written female protagonist.) Day of the Tentacle is a masterpiece of design wherein your characters interact with three different periods in history, every action you take affecting the future timeline in a logical way. Everything makes perfect sense and I can only remember two puzzles irking me even slightly: one where I was apparently trying to use the wrong sharp object to deflate a clown, and another where you have to make it rain by washing a car. And even that one makes sense within the cartoon logic of the world presented to you.

The Longest Journey, on the other hand, stumped me completely near the end. None of my items would gain me access to the spaceport. Eventually, I consulted an on-line forum and determined that I had failed to exhaust all of my dialogue options with a character in another location. I went back and did so, which, through some ineffable cosmic wheel of metaphysical cause and effect, inexplicably caused a random pedestrian to throw a pizza box into the litter bin.

Understand that this is a cardinal sin in adventure game design. It is literally the worst thing in the entire world. I feel like I shouldn't have to explain why.

I've been complaining a lot and I should talk a bit more about the writing. At the beginning of the game you encounter an acquaintance of April's named Zack, who is swiftly identified as an obnoxious creep. So effective is this characterisation that you really feel April's pain when you later find that you are going to need to ask him for a favour in order to proceed. The worst case scenario ensues in which Zack insists that April repay him by going on a date. Later April is at the bar with her friends when she remembers about her end of the bargain, and you are given the option to keep to it or stand Zack up. The choice you make has no real bearing on the story, but by this point you are right there with the protagonist. Why should you stop having a good time with your friends because of Zack? That guy's a twat. There's always tomorrow to worry about that sort of thing anyway.

The Longest Journey is a very good story and I am happy to recommend it. It's just not a very good game.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Not so much about computer games as about this big game we call life

File under "oh crap, I sent the Guardian cartoon to the Catholic Herald and the Catholic Herald cartoon to the Guardian!"

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Hotel Yorda

I'd like to write a little about ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. However, I am well aware that in doing so I am bound to restate things that have been written a thousand times by other people. Still, perhaps I can convey something of my own viewpoint in there; who knows?

As you may be aware, ICO and SotC were both developed in-house by Sony under the direction of Fumito Ueda. You may also be aware that ICO is pronounced with the I as in Igor or Iannucci, and not as in Idaho or iPod. The games share certain thematic similarities, and whilst Shadow of the Colossus is a worthy successor to ICO, I believe ICO to be the better game. Perhaps my reasons for thinking this will become clear at some point.

One of the most discussed aspects of these games is their aesthetics. The graphics in both are indeed beautiful, and have inevitably given fuel to the endlessly tedious "can games be art?" debate. (Oh, all right. My opinion is that it is a meaningless question, given that art is an entirely artificial and man-made concept, and thus has a definition which extends to anything we want it to.) Perhaps less attention is paid to the soundtracks - for one thing they are less easy to convey via the medium of screenshots. ICO has a relatively sparse soundtrack, with only two actual songs, both semi-inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair. SotC, conversely, is home to a wide selection of majestic orchestral and choral pieces, which well suit its theme of titanic battles over ICO's claustrophobic/agoraphobic isolation, which was for the most part scored only by a vaguely sinister ambience. Both games are well suited to their music, although it must be said that Colossus sometimes suffers from some unpleasantly jarring musical transitions, which take you out of the experience somewhat.

Controls are the barrier between player and avatar. (It's pretentious because it's true? I dunno.) ICO certainly has the upper hand in this stake, as SotC is slightly too ambitious with its control system and aspects of it, especially the camera, can feel unnatural. By way of contrast, I will tell you a story about ICO. My first experience of the game was with a demo disc which a friend had received with a magazine. I was round at his house when we put the demo on, and for whatever reason I ended up having first go. When the opening cinematics had finished, I set to running and leaping around the crypt. After a few moments, my friend asked me uncertainly: "Is that you controlling it now?" Years later, no such uncertainty was expressed as I stumbled ineffectually against Agro's flanks.

What of the themes of the two games? What does each have to say? ICO is about a companionship born of need, and the entire game is geared to make you care about this helpless girl with whom you share no common language. For me, it works. Some people found it annoying to have to shepherd Yorda around all the time, and on one level I can see where they are coming from, but to complain too loudly is to miss the point. Battling a wave of shadow monsters in a desperate struggle to stop them from dragging Yorda into the pit is not a pleasant experience, nor is it meant to be. You can only survive through her salvation, and I suppose whether this makes you care about her or resent her says something about you. (Probably nothing more than how seriously you take this sort of game, but still.) Here is what is symbolic of ICO as a whole: often, you must jump across a chasm and then beckon Yorda across, and because she cannot jump as far as you, you must catch her and pull her up by holding R1. Now, if you let go of R1 mid-maneuver, it doesn't matter. You can't drop Yorda. But it took me a while to find that out, because it was a long time before I dared to see what would happen if I let go.

Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, is a study of inevitability and perhaps a comment on the nature of games. One of its most striking features is that it presents you with a vista suggestive of endless possibilities, and yet permits you only one. To play the game is to buy into the wanderer's ill-fated quest, whether or not you truly believe it is a good idea. You might think that if you could take control of a fictional character, as you do here, that you could make wiser choices. But it turns out that you are driven on by a sense of narrative inevitability. And as ruin approaches, you are equally driven in a doomed effort to escape it. These, then, are the defining moments of the game: every time you slay a colossus, black lines emerge from its crippled form. They race through the air towards you, and soon they plunge into your body, knocking you unconscious. I quickly learned that there was no way to escape them. But I never stopped trying.

Now that I come to dwell on it, I think that games rely more on suspension of disbelief than any other medium. You can sit in a cinema making sarcastic comments and the show will go on, but a game relies on the player to drive things forward. If the player becomes bored, the story will quickly grind to a halt. If a game is good, I'll usually buy into the reality it presents to the greater extent. I don't think I have it in me to be one of those gamers who is always shooting the hostages for a laugh within the first five minutes. I lived in abject fear of Catherine the nurse in Gregory Horror Show, purely because I was supposed to. (Oh, and because she genuinely is terrifying. Come on.) This could go some way toward explaining my utter inability to get on with survival horror games, as I can never bring myself to walk past the first screen.

I'm straying from the point, and I'm not sure I've explained why ICO is better than Colossus. Perhaps it isn't, and I'm being unfair. Shadow of the Colossus certainly has more things wrong with it, but then it might also have more things right with it. It's probably a matter of personal taste (++SHOCK REVELATION ALERT++) but I will leave you with the tale of the most memorable thing that happened to me playing ICO.

We were in a courtyard with a drainage stream running underneath it. I could get out of the stream by getting Yorda to stand on a switch to open a gate, but for the life of me I could not figure out how to get Yorda up there too. I don't know how long I ran around looking for a solution. A long time. Frustration was setting in; the point at which the only reason you haven't looked up the answer in a FAQ is sheer wounded pride. Suddenly, Yorda paused in her random wanderings. She stood on one point, pointing up at the ceiling excitedly. "Ico!" she exclaimed. I looked to where she was pointing, and sure enough - one of the drains had no cover. All I had to do was help her climb up.

She solved the puzzle for me. She had worked it out for herself. Because we were a team.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Games with sad endings

Okay, you're going to need to be pretty blasé about spoilers to read this, because obviously it's going to spoil the endings of lots of games. Furthermore, if you see a game you don't want spoiled and stop reading, you now know that it has a sad ending, which is still a spoiler. Catch-23, eh?

(No, it's not Catch-22, because that is a rule about being in a bomber crew. This is different.)

There was a time when games were designed to be nigh-on impossible to beat. This allowed developers to put less effort into the ending sequences. We now live in more enlightened times, of course. We can look forward to the end of a game because it will show our avatar being praised and rewarded for his/her good deeds, and we can bask in the reflected glory. Hooray for me, and for what I have achieved!

Except... sometimes, instead of this, the game chooses to simply punch you in the metaphorical gut. Your deeds go unrewarded. You discover you have been fighting for a lie. You die to save the world in some trite Christ metaphor. Whatever actually goes down, you are left wondering why you put in all the effort.

And it's good. Some of the best endings are suffused with melancholy. Wall-to-wall happy endings are a sign of an immature medium, right? I mean, just... just look at fairy tales. Um, I mean, just imagine I came up with a better argument there.

Anyway, on with the sadness:

Loom

The dead have been awakened from their graves, lead by Chaos, the villain with surely one of the greatest introductory scenes ever ("I am Chaos," it says to the archbishop. "Join me." Then it kills him horrifically.)

The protagonist does his best with the situation, but in the end the only solution is to unmake the loom and split the universe into two - thus saving one half, but dooming the other to oblivion. This is, it has to be said, fairly harsh.

Another World

(Known to some as Out Of This World.) The premise of the game is that you are a scientist who has been thrust into a baffling alien dimension by an unfortunate accident involving an electrical storm and a particle accelerator. You spend the entire game fleeing from beasties and aliens who are out to get you. Finally you escape their clutches, along with an alien who has become your sole ally, and fly off into the distance on some sort of pterodactyl thing.

Which is nice and all, but... you're still trapped in this baffling alien dimension forever, aren't you? I mean, we're not exactly talking best-case scenario here.

Oh, also apparently he dies. I mean, it's like Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie here.

Flashback

A quasi-sequel to Another World, Flashback sees the player travelling via a roundabout route to a far-flung planet in order to deal with an alien threat to Earth. In the closing scenes of the game, you plant a bomb deep in the heart of the planet, blowing it to pieces while you escape in a convenient spacecraft.

And then... you just drift indefinitely through space in suspended animation. You don't know the way back because you got to the planet by some kind of teleport. So you just... you just sort of drift. In the vain hope that someone will find you and take you home. Presumably forever. Was it really worth it?

Walker

You have battled across time in your badass walking tank. (NB: the premise as described in the manual is that you are interfering with the outcomes of historical wars in order to effect a victory in the future. It doesn't say what this future war is about, what the sides are, or what you are fighting for. You're just sent back in time in a walking death-mobile with instructions to kill every damned thing. I suppose the fact that you fight Nazis could indicate that you are on the good side, but with chaos theory being what it is, you can't be 100% sure, right? This is good.)

Anyway, having defeated the final boss you leave the Walker in your ejector pod, which immediately explodes. Really. It only lasts for a few seconds.

Monkey Island 2

I'm maybe pushing it a bit here, because it's not exactly sad, but it certainly is baffling. You've spent two entire games as a pirate in the 17th century Caribbean; now, suddenly, you are a child in a theme park being scolded by his parents? The great treasure of Big Whoop clearly isn't all it's cracked up to be. "This is weird. What's going on here?" says Guybrush, and I agree with him.

The mystery of MI2's ending is enhanced by creator Ron Gilbert's non-involvement in its sequels. The explanation offered in The Curse of Monkey Island is fine if you're prepared to accept that sort of thing, but as far as I'm concerned it isn't the 'real' answer. What was really going on? Is Guybrush really under a spell? Was it all a dream? What is the ever-elusive Secret of Monkey Island? Must these questions haunt me for the rest of my days!? I fear this may be possible.

Okay, now it's time for some pointless speculation. (Who doesn't love pointless speculation?) The voodoo lady tells Guybrush that Big Whoop is the gateway to another world, and I choose to believe this. The moment Big Whoop is opened, Guybrush escapes from his highly-fictionalised swashbuckling world into someplace rather more mundane. Furthermore - and this is where I get really overanalytical - I believe that such is the power of Big Whoop that its effects are felt back in time. The encroachment of this new reality is a gradual process (the underground tunnels, pipes and storage rooms lead gradually to an inescapable conclusion,) and it has been happening throughout both games. How else does one explain the humorous anachronisms? Take the Grog machine at Stan's Shipyard. It sticks out like a sore thumb, but nobody thinks it odd or even mentions it. "Well," you might say, "that's because it was just drawn into the scene by Steve Purcell as a sort of joke, and they decided on a whim to keep it there." And that may be true. But it is also true that that Grog machine is there because Guybrush is going to open Big Whoop.

The Dig

Okay, not only does this game not belong on the list either, but it's also not even the last Lucasarts adventure game on it. I guess it turns out I have fairly narrow tastes.

Everything in The Dig is leading up to a depressing, bleak ending. You're stranded on a long-dead alien planet. One of your colleagues has gone completely and utterly insane. You find out that the race that used to live here became so advanced that they discovered a way to transcend space-time itself - but that doing so turned out to be VERY BORING. When you revive one of their leaders and explain how you were brought to the planet by a sort of ambassadorial asteroid, his paraphrased reaction is "Oh, crap - another one of our really bad ideas." Things aren't looking hopeful.

Your only hope, it transpires, is to follow the aliens into their cursed dimension, and lead them all back. But if such an advanced species were all trapped by its allure, what possible hope do you have? How can you ever negotiate this impossible obstacle?

Well, as it turns out... with great ease. You just go and do it. Just like that. There isn't even a puzzle to solve. Then the aliens magically revive your dead crewmates. Then you get to go back home. And you all live happily ever after. The end.

This game was conceived by Steven Spielberg, the director of A.I. and Minority Report.

Silent Hill

There are a number of endings on offer, depending on your actions. In the worst one, it turns out you died in the car crash at the start of the game.

Planescape: Torment

This is at once happy and sad. Your character, The Nameless One, has been questing to discover the reasons for his amnesia and immortality, and has discovered some unpleasant truths. It turns out that his selfish decision to cheat death has been causing untold suffering, as indeed have many of his subsequent actions. Eventually he travels to the centre of the Fortress of Regrets, defeats his antagonist, and is finally, cathartically, killed. He awakes to find himself on the infernal fields of the Blood War where, with a grim resolve, he joins the battle.

And, in the context of the game, this is a good and satisfying ending. But that doesn't stop it from boiling down to "You die and go to hell."

(I will take this opportunity to add that Planescape: Torment is fantastic, and that Final Fantasy games wish they could address philosophical themes or make you care about characters like this. You should play it. Also, you should not read the last two paragraphs.)

Grim Fandango

(See, I told you.) As Manny Calavera, you embark on a four-year adventure through death with the aim of exposing a grave* injustice being perpetrated in the afterlife. Anyway, Grim Fandango is at times profoundly affecting. You eventually triumph and enter Heaven, of course, but at the cost of many of your allies. And their deaths in this game resonate much more than they would in any other. They suffer a "death within death", being permanently incapacitated in the afterlife the game takes place in. So, having established in the game that there is indeed a Paradise, these characters are denied the chance to ever get there. That's depressing. When I think of the sacrifices they made... Also, your best friend and companion throughout the entire game can't even come with you. Sigh.

*Sorry, but it's the only word that fits there.

Metal Gear Solid 3

The twists and revelations in the Metal Gear series sometimes have a tendency to render impassioned speeches delivered by characters earlier in the game virtually meaningless. But that's maybe a subject for another time. Anyway, one such twist occurs right at the end of MGS3: Snake Eater, also known as the DARK GENESIS of Big Boss.

So, having killed your former mentor for defecting to the Soviet Union, and thus saving the world, you return to America where you are lauded as a hero. But then it is revealed that your mentor never really defected, and was acting as a double-agent the whole time. There was no practical need to kill her, and you were ordered to do so merely as an exercise in diplomacy, necessitated purely by the insane actions of the game's main villain earlier on. Also, the part she played in the aversion of disaster must remain a secret, and thus she must go down in history as a traitor for all eternity. Oh, man. You begin to see why Big Boss decided to try and plunge the world into nuclear chaos, although I have to concede he may have overreacted slightly.

By the way, I'd love to see a game set in the 90s, dealing with the DARK GENESIS of Liquid Snake. Man, why'd all those Snakes end up so messed-up?

Shadow of the Colossus

It's made clear from the start that what you're doing in SotC is a profoundly bad idea. The entity you make a deal with is very up-front about it. But narrative imperative insists that you do it anyway, striking the deathblow on each consecutive colossus, trying not to think too much about the significance of the flow of dark energy that transfixes you each time.

The ending is sad, but it's beautiful sad. There's something about the unfortunate trio - the resurrected girl, the lame horse, the cursed baby - making their unsteady way up to the temple roof that etches itself into my consciousness. One one level, it's beautiful. The garden they find is an Eden, populated by cute animals that have learned no fear of humans. The wanderer swore that he would bring the girl back to life no matter what the cost, and perhaps this resolution would have satisfied him. But at the same time, there seems little hope. They are trapped in the forbidden lands, forever. What will they do, cut off from all civilisation? There was reference to the girl having a 'cursed fate'. Is this it?

In the final images of the game, we follow a bird of prey as it soars above the secret garden. It flies out over the landscape, into the rain. Grey clouds and thunder dominate the sky. The bird is flying to a place far from Eden. But at least it is free.