Monday 28 January 2013

Stories in Unlikely Places: Giants: Citizen Kabuto

Good comedy games - small list. Good comedy games that aren't adventures - smaller list. Toward the top of it, though, nestled just next door to Psychonauts, is Giants: Citizen Kabuto. I won't commit to which takes the biscuit, but I will suggest that of the two, Giants is the game that carries its comic ideals right to the heart of its design ethos.

Founded by a bunch of ex-Shiny chaps and very much carrying the mantle of that studio's deranged comic styling, Giants was an incredible game of open world combat, lush tropical visuals and cockney aliens. It's a game of vastly disparate ingredients, united by Planet Moon's refusal to consign its boundless imagination and comic juxtaposition to the cutscenes alone.

You start out Giants playing as a crew of cockney aliens crash-landed on an alien planet on their way to Planet Majorca. It's an immediately ridiculous scenario in which to frame the subsequent island-hopping action. Once you're introduced to local boy 'My name is Ahmed, but call me Timmy' you'll never look back.

You won't spoil things too much by checking out the first few minutes of cutscenes below.

The levels that follow excel in mixing up conventions. Sure, a large part of this game is going places and shooting dudes, but the team at Planet Moon obviously relished finding ways to disguise that fact. In the second mission you get a jetpack and have to rescue dangling Smarties (the comically disfigured locals), and this was long before the likes of Just Cause gave us similar freedom. It's worth noting, too, that as good as that franchise looks now, Giants looked back in 2000.

As the game progresses - always interspersed with those fantastic cutscenes - your objectives are messed about with. One minute you're planting a bomb in an enemy camp, the next you're hunting Vimps (cow-bug things) for meat, the next you're knee deep in the base building game. Yes, there's even a relatively fleshed out RTS in here, which forms the cornerstone of the benchmark multiplayer mode. Every one of these elements is considered, presented with flair, and imaginative in ways it's hard to comprehend in these homogeneous times. The multiplayer standing alone would have had an impact - it was 8 player, non-symmetric teamplay with base building and Vimp hunting and a giant bloody Kabuto running about eating people. And it was 2 years before Natural Selection.

To put it in soundbite form, Giants is a game that reminds me how lazy the likes of GTA and The Elder Scrolls really are with their mission design - and how much more attention, variety and contextual detail we as players have a right to demand.

So you play on, and it's true - some of the levels become a little repetitive - but then you leave the Meccs behind and become a Sea Reaper. Suddenly the waters - which as a Mecc mean death by piranha - become the shadows you stalk through before you strike. You're able to move in ways that entirely change the game, and to overcome the hordes of enemies, that for the Meccs were becoming overwhelming, with precision and flair. You also have your boobs out which is again bucking convention, if nothing else.

All the time your objectives are being framed in ways that make sense. Gameplay rarely devolves into something that feels familiar. You're looking forward to the next joke, or the next time Planet Moon are going take you completely by surprise. Surely they're not going to let me do that?!

Playing it again now, it's naturally not as pretty - but it still has the charm. The timing is off in some of the cutscenes - Psychonauts comes up trumps for sheer polish and consistency - but I feel closer to these characters and, perversely for such an off the wall tale, the story itself. The world feels like a real place, and there's a darker tone to the game than the cartoony visuals suggest. From the grotesque design of the Smarties' physical features, to feeding children to giants, to the tensions between the different species, there's an edge here that keeps the game from feeling flat.

There's also the bit where you play as the giant, which was rubbish even at the time. Ignore that bit.

Planet Moon released one game of interest after Giants, Armed & Dangerous, before hitting financial woes, switching to smaller, licensed projects and finally being subsumed into Bigpoint. A&D retained the feel of Giants, but lacked the spark of invention (though it did come up with the shark gun long before it rose to fame in the latest Saints Row). Comparing the two games is nonetheless a fruitful engagement - doing so demonstrates just how much more is going on in Giants than gameplay + funny cutscenes.

Giants is a must play. You can get it from GOG for $9.99 (I make no money from sending you there).

Friday 11 January 2013

Little Inferno & Plato's Allegory of the Cave

I played Little Inferno just before Christmas. Like others I found the simplicity of the gameplay a little underwhelming compared with the ingenious developments of previous Kyle Gabler offering, World of Goo; unlike some others I found real depth to the game's fiction. This post is about that.

Little Inferno isn't just a simplistic game of burning amusing objects in different combinations to score points - it's one in a very familiar mould. Perhaps I've been reading too much Plato recently, but that seems to me rather like the point. Let me explain.

I Think Little Inferno is Plato's Allegory of the Cave
In The Republic, Socrates asks his audience to imagine a cave in which slaves are incarcerated. They are held in place by shackles, forced to stare at a wall. Their captors stand behind them, using puppets and firelight to cast shadows onto the wall. All the slaves know of the world are the shadows before them.

Socrates then asks what would happen if one of these people was to be released and allowed to look upon the puppeteers. The slave would be shocked and confused at first; but in time they would come to realise that the shadows were mere illusions, and that the real cause of them was the puppets. Next the freed slave emerges from the cave and, though blinded by the light, learns another level of truth - the puppets were themselves only copies of real animals which the puppeteers were mimicking. Finally the slave looks up at the sun, and realises that every object perceived so far is reliant upon it, both for their continued existence and for the slave's ability to see them.

The idea is that the slave's journey mirrors our own intellectual journeys as human beings. We begin life taking the information from our senses to be the ultimate truth. Some never leave this state. Others look around and realise that there are greater forces at work which themselves explain the information received by our senses. As the slave leaves the cave and witnesses the real world, human beings are able to engage their rational thought and begin reasoning out the truth from the lies. Finally, we are supposed to come upon the ultimate truth, or the Form of the Good, which is analogous to the sun, and represents ultimate enlightenment for Plato.

And in the Game
Major plot spoilers from here on out.

Little Inferno sees you play as a faceless, nameless character who stares at a fireplace and burns things. Everything you know about the world is arrived at through letters which are opened in front of the fireplace and then burned. You engage in a repetitive, simplistic activity which - while amusing - is ultimately demeaning. As a player you're engaging in a format designed to waste time; as a character you're burning up all your worldly possessions just to stay warm, all the while being reassured by the manufacturer that what you're doing is fun.

The parallels are pretty thick. As the game progresses your nextdoor neighbour - who so far has only been present in letters - becomes more and more physical. Things she does affect your game and make you aware for the first time that you're not staring at a gameboy screen, you're staring at a wall, in a house, next to another house, in a town... There's a whole world outside this cave!

When the denouement comes it's unexpectedly different to the last 4 hours. Everything you learnt in that time becomes useless in the broader context. Despite never having thought about it before, you learn that those letters were being delivered by a postman/puppeteer you could never actually turn around to see. You're told you can do whatever you like, but that you can never go back. Then the skies clear, the sun comes out, and the weather man takes you up in his balloon to see it all.

The Difference
There's one quite radical difference between Plato's version and Tomorrow Corporation's, which is that Plato's philosopher is supposed - once enlightened - to return to the cave and to govern it using all that acquired wisdom. I suppose in a sense that's what the weather man does, though by blowing up the player character's house the game does rather put an exclamation mark on the no returns policy.

Perhaps the journey depicted here is that of the developers - starting out in the dark, struggling to make ends meet, then joining a huge corporation and finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps Little Inferno as a product is analogous to the enlightened one returning to the cave and translating their new knowledge into something those still shackled to the wall can understand; or maybe that's going too far.

Perhaps Tomorrow Corporation aren't entirely sold on Plato's metaphysical and political manifesto, and the allegory of the cave is just a resonant metaphor for people waking up and taking charge of their lives instead of wasting them.

After all, you don't need to believe in philosopher-kings, ritualistic group marriage or god to believe in that.

Monday 7 January 2013

Happy New Year, Happy New IGF Shortlisting for FTL!

It's been far too long since I posted anything, so let's get the new year off to a proper start with a quick work update.

The last time I checked the calendar it was still September. Since then we've launched FTL, rewritten The Swapper a couple of times, recoded the whole of Ir/rational Investigator, and formalised doubts about laissez-fair capitalism and traditional democracy (no link for the latter, I don't think you want to read the products of my Political Philosophy MA). Now I'm just about ready for 2013, and only a week late!

The year's off to a good start, with FTL literally just being announced as an IGF 2013 finalist. If I'm honest the odds were rather stacked in my favour - with FTL, The Swapper and my own Ir/rational Investigator all entered, one of them was sure to come through. Congrats to Justin, Matt and the rest of the team!

Development on The Swapper is continuing apace. Following a complete story redesign based on PAX feedback we've now introduced new characters with full voice recording planned for the coming month. The script has just gone through its first major redraft, and the guys are working to get us up to Beta in time for a release some time this quarter.

Ir/rational Investigator meanwhile is benefiting from the involvement of our new programmer, who has been recoding my crappy engine and providing me a full suite of content management tools which should make development of the full game rather more manageable. The Christmas panic has slowed narrative and puzzle design, but that's what January is for.

In other news, I've been providing some insight for a new Rogue-a-like book, made the news section of Philosophy Now in an entirely unexpected way, been turned down for a job on Thief 4 and been courted for a job on the last franchise I ever thought would come knocking on my door.

More news as it develops.