Monday 27 February 2012

Alternate Endings in Singularity & Jurassic Park

NB No spoilers for Singularity, ending spoilers for Jurassic Park: The Game.

I'm fascinated by the psychological and creative theory behind interactive narrative. It scares, confuses and enthrals me. Much as there's more and more writing on such topics, I still don't feel like we always understand just what we're doing to the player when we give him a decision to make. I still hold that the logical solution is to tend towards more procedural (albeit less narratively detailed) content: the more dynamic a game world is the more decisions within that world function like real ones (ie a question of knowledge, odds and cause and effect); however more often than not I find myself working with more scripted experiences which send the player off to either (a) or (b).

Where this approach often seems most indelicate is in games with multiple endings. Take Singularity. Without spoiling anything significant, the game's entirely linear, encouraging the player to let the fiction take over: these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, go fight for what's right. At the end, though, you're given a choice: side with the good guys, or the bad guys. For me it renders the rest of the experience completely disingenuous: if this was always an option, why have I only just heard about it? If you wanted me to actually engage my brain and consider the ethical situation I'm presented with, why force me to fight for the good guys the whole way through?

I'm sure we can guess why this decision point is in here. In fact the presentation of the endings tells the tale for us: the good ending is a lavishly presented cut scene; the other two just have naff voice overs. A last minute decision that sounded good on paper, then: of course the player wants to choose who to side with! Of course branching endings are better than straight ones!

It's understandable, because surely more player choice can't be a bad thing? I'm going to argue that, in fact, as far as endings go it can be just that.

Endings in Games vs Endings Everywhere Else
I was considering a scenario for an unannounced project the other day. There was an obvious opportunity for the player to make a decision at the end of the game (let's say he's got a bad guy at gunpoint). It's a secondary character who we can kill off or let live, and we can let that decision affect one or two minor story elements later on. But here's the thing: what decision are we asking the player to make here? Is it between revenge and mercy? Is it between good and evil? Is it between practicality and empathy?

The truth is that in real life (which is what we tend to be modelling with decisions in games) it's all of these things, but the only thing that defines the outcome of the decision once made is raw cause and effect. The more we know about the situation the more able we are to predict its outcome; and when it swings unpredictably (let's say I kill the baddie to be on the safe side, but his brother comes and takes revenge) we accept it as either an oversight on our part, or an unfortunate roll of the dice. This is exactly how such decisions play out in an entirely procedural environment like Spelunky.

But how does this sort of decision point work in the game? Well, for one thing we're going to pre-define the outcome based on what we consider realistic or, perhaps more likely, on what the story and gameplay demand. We're also incapable of understanding what your reasons were for that decision (unless it's a very particular one), which largely negates any useful story consequences we can impose.

Jurassic Park
Let's take a further example from Jurassic Park: The Game. Major plot spoilers here, but honestly the story's not up to much anyway so don't fret. At the end of the game one of your characters has a decision to make (just like Singularity, it's the only one in the game): save the valuable dino DNA, or save the little girl. I accidentally selected 'Save Little Girl', and I got the happily ever after ending where everyone escapes together and - incredibly - they also happen across a great big bag of gold. Now, the way this is presented suggests going after the DNA was a valid alternative, so I went back and tried again. Turns out when you go after the DNA the character in question winds up getting eaten, and the little girl escapes anyway.

It's obvious enough what Telltale are doing here. We're not being asked to make a practical decision (since both options seem equally risky), we're being asked to make a moral one. The message: be good and your rewards will come; be an arsehole and you'll get digested by a T-Rex. But what if I went after the DNA because I thought the girl was already done for? What if I just put higher ethical value in scientific progress as a whole than in individual human life? What if I panicked and hit the wrong button? Because it's not clear this is a soley ethical dilemma we're confusing this decision; with so many unpredictable factors (the author's hand, the artificial cause and effect of gameplay, the implied freedom of choice) the decision winds up doing very little. 

Games vs Films
I don't think there's been a single game with branching endings (since, at least, the internet age) where I didn't immediately go online and see what I missed out on, and I wonder whether that's telling of how unsuccessful games often are in selling to the player that the ending they got is their ending; that it's appropriate to their story. But it also raises some interesting comparisons with film that might shed some light. The entirety of film is 'tainted' by the author's hand. Sure, things usually roll out with a semblance of plausible cause and effect, but unlike games there's nothing in here that's down to chance. There is one route through this narrative, the intended route, and when a character reaches a decision point it's usually made abundantly clear what the alternative was, and why he didn't choose it. The question of 'What if?' is either answered implicitly, or unimportant.

When I dig out the alternate ending to Singularity or Jurassic Park it certainly decreases my identification with the ending I naturally received. The illusion that I had much ownership of this tale is shattered, and often there's little that occurs that isn't predictable (and yet, of course, were it less so we'd be complaining that it wasn't appropriate for a bunch of other reasons). These endings tend to be so run of the mill: we're making a cyber punk shooter, there are three factions in the game, of course you get to choose which one you like at the end!

However, viewing what might have happened can also be illuminating, and it's an option unique to our medium. The good ending in Jurassic Park is an awful lot more meaningful (though sadly no more interesting) once I know what the alternative was. When we consider the difference between the illusion of freedom and true freedom, knowing what your other options were at least confirms that you had freedom of a meaningful sort. 

So back on topic, what did I do in my execution scenario? Well, I thought about playing the odds. Make it clear to the player what possible ramifications exist (ie the vengeful brother), and then assign it a probability. For 75% of players it's a risk worth taking; the rest get unlucky. In the end I decided there were too many factors at work. I'd rather provide a linear experience that's at least true to itself (whose drama plays out in a meaningful way) than provide the player a decision point just because I can, and risk him being alienated because I haven't properly accounted for his motivation.

There's a danger, in this piece, that I'm just complaining about all the options available to a narrative designer, without proposing solutions. Given my theoretical leaning towards procedural play there's no doubt some truth to that, but I'm not happy leaving it there.

At Southbank, I always push my story design students to ensure any branching they consider is appropriate to the player. There's no point giving him ownership of the story if it doesn't branch in a way that's more meaningful for him than it might be for differently disposed players, and that principle carries over to this discussion. Singularity: there's nothing wrong with a tightly crafted linear experience, so just bite the bullet.

The game I'm working on does have multiple endings. It's a risk. But we're conscious of that fact, and we're working hard from the get go to ensure it's based on meaningful player decisions. Perhaps more importantly we're not throwing in decisions just for the sake of it. When a player comes into our game I want him to know what his options are, and what they're not; and while I don't want him to see the ending coming, I want it to feel appropriate nonetheless.

We'll find out whether we succeed early next year.

Monday 20 February 2012

Worth Writing Home About: AssCreed Revelations & More

Assassin's Creed: Revelations - Most of what I play games for comes in singleplayer packages, but Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood in multiplayer really captured my attention, and its follow up does so in very much the same way. I can't speak for the campaign, because it seems like it's been much the same since the second game, and I'm bored of just holding down three buttons and watching as Ezio does all the hard work. Multiplayer is essentially a polished, profitable version of The Ship: act like an NPC so your hunter won't spot you, while simultaneously tracking down your own quarry. Unlike the CoDs and Battlefields, this rewards patience, planning and smarts over trigger fingers, and is massivey satisfying for it. In fact, after L4D I think this is my favourite multiplayer game of all time. It dosn't strictly deserve a high tilt score since it's identical to its forebear and draws uncomfortably from The Ship, but what the hell. It's a smart, competitive game, and it's outstanding.
Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 2 out of 2

Oil Rush - Another cheap Steam strategy offering, this time with less to recommend. I don't know why I played this game to the end (I do: it's short and vaguely addictive). It's Eufloria, only with an entirely superfluous 3D engine, and set at sea. Perhaps it has some twitchy multiplayer complexities I'm unaware of, but failing that there's little here of interest.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 0 out of 2

Postal III - OK, so I only managed about half an hour of this one. Believe everything you've read: this is not a good game. I was a huge fan of Postal II back in the early noughties: for the time its open world was more innovative, its satire more necessary than the poo jokes suggested to many. Sure it was rough at times, but it was worth sticking with. This game, on the other hand, is just not finished. It is not fun. It is a poorly made (or at least a drastically rushed) game that fails in most respects. If this looks good to you, go pickup the second one instead. Fewer badgers, more collsion detection. Still, if you're reading this, Running With Scissors - I'd kill to work on the fourth one. There's so much potential here, I honestly would.
Polish: 0 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Dead Island - I'm a sucker for zombie stuff, and the agency that put out that trailer has been drafted onto a project I'm working on, so I figured I'd check this out. It's fun, and it's pretty, but to be honest hitting zombies just doesn't hold as much tactical engagement for me as shooting the buggers (or even better, running away from them). here, you run from place to place, you click a lot, and that's that. I got a good six hours in before tedium set in, but set in it most definitely did.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Bestseller - Worst game name ever (I spent ten minutes trying to google it, only to keep returning games that made a lot of money). This one caught my eye on a list of indie games because it's one of those database-based life simulators (a la Kudos, GameDevStory or Alter Ego), only oriented around the life of an author. Frankly I picked it up knowing roughly what sort of thing it would be, and when I found out that it was I dropped it. For what I played of the demo it looked a decent amount more complex than most offerings, but I'd still struggle to sink time into this over a more content-driven game or, you know, doing some actual writing.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Tuesday 14 February 2012

I Have Been Playing Some Games; Maybe You Should Too

A few week ago I lugged my PC up to Birmingham so the lovely chaps at Sega Hardlight could set it up to run the game we're working on. Apart from scaring the hell out of me (tower unit in a suitcase, wrapped in binliners, in the rain) and reminding me how long it's been since I went to a LAN party, it was eye opening for the producer's reaction on seeing my desktop. Apparently I play an awful lot of games.

A lot of that is down to my messy desktop (there's a reason I have a work laptop) and tendency to buy games cheap just to take a look. Many of the games installed on my PC I never got more than half an hour into. This said, I may not play as much as I did when I was 13, and the further I delve into the games industry the less time I have to play (ie the less time I'm prepared to spend staring at a computer screen); but still, I work hard to play the big stuff that everyone references, and the little stuff that inspires me to do new things. Here's some of the stuff I've played recently, in case you might also like to do so, and because you can tell a lot about a person from the games they play.

The Darkness II - I was asked how the campaign for Digital Extreme's shooter came across the other day, and I think I said something like, "This is what happens if you give a writer a bit of time and budget." To say that The Darkness II's writing or story are strong is to miss the point a little; what's really going on here is that if you're making a narrative driven shooter you should do it like this. Aside from the gameplay (which is fun and polished, reminiscent in style even of Arkham) what stands out here is how much the story is weaved into the gameplay. It reminds me of Uncharted in that respect: it's not that this is an especially smart piece of work, it's just that it has the confidence and freedom to make you an inmate in a make-believe insane asylum, or to give you a two minute scene where you dance with your dead lover. These are interesting things.
Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 2 out of 2

1916: The Unknown War - This one grabbed my attention. It's an indie demo (it actually reminds me a little of Penumbra's) in which you navigate an abandoned trench in WW1, while being hunted by robot dinosaurs and looking for the ladder out. Presented in B&W and with a claustrophobic head bob and level design, it's taught and terrifying. I wish it wasn't written in German, but there you go. Word is a commercial game is on the way, consider that one tipped.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2
Gotham City Imposters - This was on Steam for not very much so I figured why not. It's the latest in a string of mediocre-to-good, budget online shooters (see Monday Night Combat, Bloody Good Time or Hei$t), and it's towards the mediocre end. It promises fun and innovation, but delivers something rather cynical (a tendency, I suppose, work for hire stalwarts Monolith could sometimes be labelled with [though definitely not always]). Aside from the varied selection of navigational tools (cape, hookshot, roller skates) that genuinely mix things up, the rest is just shooting people with guns. The progress system is ripped straight out of Assassin's Creed (and probably half a dozen others), yet lacks that game's depth. The matchmaking system doesn't trust you to choose your own server, but cannot itself be trusted to find you a game anytime this year. Try one of the others.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Batman: Arkham Asylum - Just about one of the best games I've ever played. The writing is nothing outstanding, the format is not wildly different from its predecessor, but good lord is this a sound piece of entertainment. It's the combat system that really draws me in: it absolutely nails the three tenets of a great brawler: the controls are simple, yet there's massive tactical depth, and it makes you look super cool. I don't remember the last brawler I played to the end (or, really, at all). Not every game has to do something new, provided it does it with this level of confidence and fun.
Polish: 2 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Memoir '44 Online - Here's one that I didn't expect to be my bag: a multiplayer turn-based WW2 game. I do have a love for turn-based strategy, but I strongly get the impression this game isn't meant for me. It is, I assume, a board game conversion, and a cheap one at that; one aimed at real lovers of the tabletop version. It's slow too. However, the tactics are sound (though sometimes I feel a bit too much rests on the dice roll), it's free to play for a good few hours, and it engaged me enough to shell out a few quid for extra battle tokens. Definitely worth a free look.
Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Friday 3 February 2012

Top Indie Stealth Games

Stealth has been an under-served genre for some time now - ever since the heady heights of the early noughties that established the franchises that to this day are left waving the flag: Thief, Hitman, Splinter Cell. For each of those there's a Metal Gear that's lost its way in another firefight, or a Project IGI that's silently slipped away.

This is why we love indies.

Games That You Can Play Now

What Deity establishes that most of the games here also display is almost puzzle-like gameplay. Here you play a demon thing who can possess light sources in order to move undetected, and who must strike his foes from behind, stringing together leaps from enemy to enemy before shooting back into the shadows. The omniscient perspective and simplified mechanics work together to make each room a combination lock that only needs the right timing, the right angle and the right plan to pull off. It's slick and it's fun, but it doesn't stop me yearning for something meatier.

Trilby: The Art of Theft
An oldy but a goodie. Ben 'Yahtzee' Crosshaw's back catalogue is a gold mine, but this is the jewel. It's a 2D side on noir following master thief Trilby as he's stitched up, double crossed and generally harangued. It is, really, everything you'd hope that game would be. Varying levels of shadow, AI guards to avoid or blacjack (well, electric umbrella-ify), lock picking, stealing shit, exploring people's bathrooms... All that's missing is more. There must be around an hour of play here, but it's to the credit of the framework that that feels like short change.

Merry Gear Solid 2
Arthur Lee
Another 2D, this time top down in the vein of the Metal Gears of the Gameboy generation. It loves its subject material, and the lengthy dialogues strike a familiar balance between drama, tedium and variable voice acting. It's the most fleshed out of the offerings here, and features some entertaining lines. Still, Thief this is not.

Some honourable mentions include Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole (Trilby-esque, sharp visuals and heavy on the puzzle aspect; made by a couple of the chaps at London's Curve) and Splinter Source, a 2D reimagining of Fisher et al.

Great as they are, none of these games quite captures the magic of Thief or Hitman for me. I'm drawn to the stealth genre for what I assume are some of its necessary (AAA) features: plausible locations and AI, large, detailed environments and a phobia of combat that leaves room for a more thoughtful narrative. These aren't features that an indie game cannot incorporate. It's all there for the picking, and that's exactly what these games aim for.

Games You can't Play Yet
Andy Schatz
Obvious, I know, so I won't take too long over it. Monaco is looking like a fast game, and as such I don't know ho
w well I'll get on with it. Something else I love about stealth is the thoughtful pace that rewards strategy over twitch; this being said, I'm still onboard with this co-op heist' em up.

Tom Francis
Gunpoint, on the other hand, is looking very much like my kettle of fish. I'd be shocked if its creator wasn't comfortable throwing a nod Trilby's way, but there's plenty at work here that goes beyond that formula. The USP is a hacking system in which every building's wiring can be monkeyed with behind the scenes to create dastardly machines of death/ghosting. Wires the elevator to the light and wire the light switch to the door: when the elevator arrives the light goes out; the guard goes to switch it back on and locks himself in. It looks smart, engaging and pretty; perhaps most importantly we ought hope Francis' time as a journo has taught him how to deliver a full experience.