Wednesday, December 26, 2012

#51: Medievil 2: Going Medieval on London

(Spoiler Alert: Both of the Medievil games are up for discussion in this article. You've been warned.)

Last week, I wrote a piece on the original Medievil game from the PlayStation era. As I promised at the end of that article, this week will be dedicated to the game's sequel, which was released two years later in April 2000. Comparing these two games from the same series is rather interesting because when these two games are compared to each other it is possible to draw parallels to the design of sequels to modern games, but that will become more clear once I have finished the comparison. Before we begin, you should know that I expect you to have read my previous article on this first Medievil game or to have played the game for yourself as a point of comparison. Since this is a sequel to one of my favorite games for the original PlayStation, it invites such comparisons. With that in mind...

The premise of Medievil 2 is a little easier to understand than the original game's. After defeating Zarok once and for all, Sir Dan returns to his crypt and finally rests in peace. Fast forward 500 years later, in 1886, Fortesque's remains have been moved to the Medieval exhibit in an old museum in London. At the same time, someone else in the city has managed to acquire Zarok's now-legendary spell book and has begun to use it for his own end, casting the spell of Eternal Night and placing London square in the throws of an age old curse. Once again, Daniel rises from the grave in order to combat this new threat, which is where the player gets involved and the game truly begins. From there he meets the ghost of a ten year old kid who was summoned to guide him to Professor Hamilton Kift, who is an expert in both scientific and magical pursuits. The professor points Dan to the Kensington district of the city in order to look for clues as to who is behind recent events. There, he investigates the site where the spell was cast and finds a few clues to take back to Kift. Before leaving, he sees an anthropomorphic lizard and dog leave the museum, lamenting the inability to enter the tomb in the King Ramses exhibit. This leads Sir Fortesque into the tomb himself (after a few puzzles), where he finds a young mummified woman named Kiya, who was one of King Ramesses II's 200 wives. After Daniel discovers that the villain is an English noble by the name of Lord Palethorn and thwarts a number of his schemes, the Professor receives notice of two sites of psychic disturbance, one in an old mansion and the other in Whitechapel district. Kift suggests having Dan and Kiya split up, but Fortesque argues against it, saying that it is too dangerous for Kiya to go off on her own.

Eventually he concedes, going to the mansion and allowing Kiya to go to Whitechapel. After returning, the Professor tells Daniel that Kiya has yet to return, sending him to go look for her. Unfortunately, Sir Daniel was too late and by the time he arrived, Jack the Ripper (who is a demon in Medievil 2) has just finished draining the soul from her body, leaving her for dead. Rather than fight to avenge her second death, Fortesque falls into a depression and runs away into the sewer system, where he meets a tribe of warriors who make their home down there and worship him as a god because they found a statue of him. They tell him that they need help because a sewer monster kidnapped all of the women of their tribe, which killed their will to live. Being the medieval knight that he is and desperate for a way to prove himself, Sir Dan rescues the women and slays the beast. Along the way, he is given a poster to the Time Machine exhibit in the Museum and safe passage back to the surface, courtesy of the tribe. As he is leaving, the tribe's chief makes a passing mention of the Time Stone that is in their possession. Once back in the professor's lab, Daniel and Kift have a talk where Kift reveals a few things. First, he tells Fortesque that he knew Palethorn was behind the second coming of the Eternal Night and that his time machine only partially works in that it moves through space, but not time.

With this information in hand, Sir Fortesque once again ignores the threat of Palethorn in order to use the Time Machine to rescue Kiya. After returning to the Museum and finding the prerequisite parts, Daniel uses the machine to head back into the sewers. As previously noted, the machine can only travel through space, not time. In order to get it fully functional and return to Whitechapel in the past, Fortesque steals the Time Stone from the sewer tribe and disguises himself as the tribe chieftain to escape and get back to his Time Machine, now in complete working order. Traveling back to the past, Daniel fights Jack the Ripper and kills him before history repeats itself. Once the battle is over, Dan meets the Dan from the past, where they shake hands and fuse together, giving the new merged Dan a new suit of magic armor. Resuming where he left off before Kiya's death threw him into a spiral of stupidi... I mean depression, the Professor has discovered that the final page of Zarok's spell book is located in Cathedral Spires. After braving the horrors of the Cathedral, Sir Dan finds the final page. It gets stolen by Palethorn with the help of a levitation spell he apparently has, and used to summon a powerful demon to begin his subjugation of the world. Successfully goading the demon into attacking Palethorn, Daniel defeats them both and finally saves the day.

Like in the first game, the plot starts off fairly strong. But as the game goes on, the story begins to feel padded out for no reason but to lengthen the game and provide additional levels to explore. For a game that is already short, lasting for about four hours, this is pretty bad. One level that perfectly illustrates what I am talking about is a two part level, the first part called “Dankenstein” and the second part “Iron Slugger.” In one of Palethorn's miscellaneous schemes in the first half of the game, he builds a mechanical monster with the intent to kill Dan, Kiya, and Kift in one fell swoop. To combat this creature, the professor and Kiya devised a plan to create a creature of their own to fight it. Dan's job for the first part of the level, “Dankenstein,” is to head into the London underground in order to collect limbs to use from the results of the professor's previous experiments in creating a superhuman through magic and science. As they are about to finish up and attach the head to it the creature, the professor trips, dropping and destroying it. With no other options, Fortesque affixes his own head to the creature in order to pilot it to fight Palethorn's monster. In the second part of this level, “Iron Slugger,” the creature named Dankenstein (Get it?) fights the Iron Slugger in a boxing match. This level and plot point seems completely out of place because it breaks the (admittedly rather loose) continuity of the game. It does not make sense for these two sides to just take a break from one-upping each other in the search for Zarok's spell book pages to have a boxing match. This not only breaks continuity, but it also inconsistent with the tone of the game. Medievil has always had a bit of comedy to it, but this crosses into the truly ridiculous.

The other example I could point to of the plot being weaker than the first game's is the whole subplot regarding Kiya and Sir Daniel's romantic interest in her. Honestly, aside from her death in Whitechapel which leads to Dan's depression and the whole Time Travel arc, Kiya does not serve much of a purpose in the overarching story. I hesitate to use the label of “sexist” because I find that the label is thrown around far too much, but it is hard to deny the fact that the only female character's major contribution to the plot is to die and postpone the conclusion of the game because Daniel had a romantic interest in her and wanted to act as her chivalrous knight. It does not help that the whole section with the Sewers and the Time Machine contains some of the game's weakest writing, approaching the levels of bad fan-fiction. Even worse is that this whole depression that Fortesque falls into detracts from his development in the original game, where the entire point is to prove himself worthy of being a true hero. It turns out that the moment where humanity needs him the most to save the day, Dan can only think of a girl he just met and how she was killed, damning everything else. I am not kidding in this either. When the professor tries to get him back into the game by saying “If we don't stop Palethorn, he'll take over the world” before he runs into the Sewers, Sir Dan mumbles (He still lacks a jaw) “He can have it, I don't care.” As a child, I just went with it because I did not know any better. As an young man, it infuriates me that they shoehorned in a love interest and completely negated the entire point of the first game.

Before I conclude in my analysis of the plot to Medievil 2, I want to note that I feel that in the designers failed to really utilize the central premise of the game effectively. What I mean by that is that I think it would have been interesting to see a resurrected medieval knight come to grips with the new reality of Victorian London. When Dan comes back to life in this new world, he does not seem to have any questions regarding the technology, society, or anything really. This is a minor point to make, but I think acknowledging and poking fun at the differences between the two societies would be entertaining while staying true to the feeling of the original Medievil, which combined humor and horror quite effectively. As it stands, Daniel has no questions regarding Victorian level technology and instantly understands everything he comes across. For a brief example, the very first ranged weapon Fortesque gains is a pistol, which he instantly knows how to use. This is not necessarily a complaint, but it is something that I feel could have been used effectively by the developers.

Now enough with the plot comparisons, it is high time we went into the gameplay and how it changed from the original. For the most part, it plays very much the same and the controls would feel very familiar to a fan of the original Medievil playing for the first time, but there are a few key differences. The first of these differences is the addition of analog stick support. However, since this was when the pressure sensitive nature of analog inputs were still in their infancy, it was difficult to use the analog stick to just walk around and for the most part it would result in just running everywhere, which made precision platforming difficult at times. While the gameplay was still similar, the level design proved to be much more lethal. Medievil 2 remains as one of the few games that I have been completely unable to beat without the use of cheat codes. (Remember those things?) There were a higher concentration of levels that involved platforming in Medievil 2. Given the health system of the series, which is the exact same system of health bar and Life Bottles from the first game, this means that unless players were willing to exit and replay levels over and over to perfection, they could lose lots of health on platforming. Even worse is that getting health back is harder in Medievil 2. I did not talk about it, but it the original Medievil there were Fountains of Rejuvenation in every level, which healed players and refilled Life Bottles when standing in them until they ran out of health. A popular way to replenish lost health was to replay the first level repeatedly because fountains “respawned” each playthrough of a level. In Medievil 2, they clamped down on that by tracking how much health was taken from each fountain even when players left a level and came back, meaning there was a finite amount of health in the game's world. Paired with the difficult platforming, this could potentially leave players in an unwinnable state without cheating.

Combat also became much more difficult with a reliance on enemies that either become invulnerable during certain attacks or just cannot be killed conventionally. This is especially true of the levels Wolfram Hall, which contain vampires that can only be killed by moving them into sunlight, and the Sewers, which have creatures that possess the tribals and goad them into killing the player. These creatures cannot be slain until they are removed from their host and the tribals themselves can only be dazed. The puzzle element to Medievil 2's gameplay was still at the same level of the original games, but made more interesting. One of the additions that helped keep puzzles fresh was the addition of the Dan-Hand mechanic, where Sir Daniel can put his head on a reanimated, undead hand and control it remotely, separate from his body. Dan can also place his head in many different places in order to help him solve puzzles. It was a refreshing an interesting way to add variety to the game. But as a general rule, while it still plays very much the same, Medievil 2 is a much harder game than its predecessor.

The last returning element from the original game that returned is the Chalice of Souls. Just like in the first game, most of the levels of Medievil 2 contained a Chalice that would fill up with the souls of defeated enemies. Redeeming this Chalice at the professor's lab after completing a level would reward players with a new weapon. The problem with this mechanic is that it seems out of place in Medievil 2. In the original game, the Chalices came from the Hall of Heroes as a challenge for Sir Dan to prove himself. In the sequel, there is no real justification for these magic cups to be scattered throughout the world. They are just lying there waiting for the player to collect and redeem. As for why Fortesque wants to collect them, there is a small reason. The professor asks him to collect magic energy to help power his lab so that he can craft new equipment. Unlike the original game, the Chalices are no longer a central element and seem to be only a vestigial mechanic whose purpose is to make the game a “true” Medievil game. They seem to have no real bearing on the actual story. I say “seem to” because the ending is actually determined by how many of them out of a possible ten the player has collected. The good ending can only be acquired by NOT getting all ten Chalices and beating the game. In that ending, Dan and Kira return to Kira's tomb in the Museum and rest in peace together. Should the player beat the game with all ten Chalices, and thus a full arsenal, they will be treated to the game's bad ending, where Dan and Kira take Kift's time machine back to the past... and land in Zarok's arena in Gallowmere from the first game. They look up and see the giant monster Zarok transformed into at the end of the first game, except Palethorn's head will be there instead of Zarok's, and the screen fades to black. I cannot figure out how the ending could be determined in universe by the number of Chalices collected. The time machine does not need magic energy to work, it already works because there was a whole segment of the game dedicated to fixing it and getting the Time Stone. It just seems like they did it this way because the original games also did it this way, without thinking about the logistics of it.

Back in the year 2000, when Medievil 2 was first released and I was a seven year old playing a game I was eagerly awaiting for a long time, I though that this game was a great game in its own right, even if it was not as good as the original. Now that I have replayed and reflected on both of them, I have to say that this game is pretty lackluster. It had a mediocre story and extremely difficult gameplay. The game shows what happens when designers reuse old mechanics for the sake of reusing them without considering why they were used in the first place and whether or not they still fit. Developers of the game also really failed to properly play test the game since among fans of the franchise, the second game is notoriously harder than the first in an almost unfair way. Lastly, Medievil 2 suffered a major mistake by overwriting key aspects of the protagonist established in the original game's bare-bones (pun intended) plot by forcing elements like a major love interest for no benefit to the overall storyline. Since many major releases from modern gaming often have similar problems in their writing, it is still worth pointing out these kinds of mistakes when they happen. Overall, as a life long fan of this franchise, it is pretty painful for me to say this and when I went back to replay these games that was not my intent. I still hold the original game up as a classic, but I have to rethink where I place the sequel. It is just not as good as I remember.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

#50: Medievil: When Being Goth Meant Something Completely Different

(You probably don't care, but there are spoilers for Medievil, an old PS1 game. I guess you've been warned.)

A few weeks back, I went ahead and purchased PlayStation All-Stars: Battle Royale. I am still having a great time playing the game and reconnecting with old characters from games past. One of the characters in that game was my good old friend Sir Daniel Fortesque from the Medievil franchise. As a child, I adored these games and loved playing them. It got to a point to where I was able to play through the original Medievil from start to finish in a four-hour long play session. Anyway, seeing Sir Dan make a return made gave me the excuse to go back and replay the two games in this old franchise. While they still hold up relatively well to the test of time, they also serve to demonstrate the necessity of many of the conventions that became popular in both this console generation and the last. I think this retrospective will serve as a good lesson for both gamers and developers.

First off, what is Medievil? Medievil is a old Gothic-themed platformer released for the original PlayStation in 1998. It takes place in the fictional kingdom of Gallowmere in the late 14th century. The actual story begins in the century prior. In the year 1286, Gallowmere was in the midst of an era of peace and its citizens were quite prosperous. During this period, the court wizard Zarok was caught doing heinous experiments in resurrecting the undead and was sentenced to exile. As vengeful as he was, Zarok began to wage war upon Gallowmere, summoning an army of shadow demons to begin the onslaught. The King of the nation responded by sending his army to fight the sorcerer head on, led by Sir Daniel Fortesque, who received his title by spinning interesting stories for the King to hear (it was an honorary position as no one seriously expected to go to war). Sir Dan ran head on into enemy forces... and died in the first wave by being shot in eye with an arrow. The army fought on without him and Zarok's body was never found. Knowing the truth would cause unrest with the people, King Peregrin altered the history books to give Dan the title of Hero of Gallowmere for dying valiantly after slaughtering Zarok. Peace returned for 100 years, until Zarok was finished nursing his hatred and began his revenge. He successfully cast a very powerful spell, cursing the land to Eternal Night, robbing the townsfolk of their free will, and resurrecting the undead for his new army. Unfortunately for him, his spell brought old Sir Dan back from the dead as well. Hoping to redeem himself of his past mistakes, Daniel takes this chance to save the land of Gallowmere from Zarok for true and become the hero in undeath that he could never be in life, finally taking his place in the Hall of Heroes, where dead heroes gather to boast, feast, and arm wrestle for all eternity.

As the description above might show, this is a game that is equal parts horror and humor, and it uses both to great effect. Playing this game in my childhood, many of the enemies in the game, from the Stained Glass Demon trapped in the Hilltop Mausoleum to the Shadow Demons in the Enchanted Earth, and even minor enemies like the scarecrows in the aptly named Scarecrow Fields filled me with a mixture of dread and excitement. Seeing a monster formed of stained glass be released from his prison to terrorize me was horrifying in a compelling sense. It is a hard feeling to explain as it has been so long since I felt that way. As an young replaying the game for the first time in years, it is only now how funny that game was. Medievil has humor on both a small and large scale. Small little gestures like Sir Dan removing cobwebs from his empty eye-hole when waking up are very good moments. Other larger, repeating gags are the constant mockery of our would-be hero. Throughout the game, players can visit the Hall of Heroes to pay homage to the heroes there and earn rewards. Nearly all of them bear a grudge against Fortesque and/or mock him constantly, saying the they do not think he can succeed and will likely not be the hero. The gargoyles scattered around, who serve as the tip dispensers for the game, also constantly chastise Daniel. The other recurring gag is Sir Dan's missing jaw, which fell off in the 100 year time span since his death. This is repeatedly acknowledged and lampshaded throughout the whole game, and Daniel speaks in mumblings with subtitles helping the playing understand him.

The game also had very interesting and varied level designs. Despite taking place in a decidedly Medievil (pun intended) setting, they used more than the usual fare when designing the game. The game has many different levels including a graveyard, a mausoleum, an enchanted forest, an hedge maze, a cursed medieval village, an insane asylum, and flooded battlefield, a pumpkin patch, and a pirate ship. These areas are more varied than in just their backdrops. Each area also tends to emphasize one of Medievil's three different styles of play: Puzzles, Platforming, and Combat (much like other 3D platforming games of the time). For example, in the hedge maze level, the theme of that level is puzzle solving. The maze is ruled by a unique gargoyle named Jack of the Green. He will only allow the player to exit when they answer four of his riddles by searching the maze for the answers. While he thinks his riddles are so clever that no one can solve them, the game acknowledges that they are not hard at all and lampshades it quite effectively. The challenge comes not from answering the riddles, but from discovering what task the player has to perform to complete the riddle through Jack's growing irritation. It is pretty intuitive though, so most players will not have trouble. This puzzle heavy level leads to the asylum, which is a combat heavy level in the form of a gauntlet where players have to kill all the enemies in a room before proceeding. Lastly, there are platforming levels like the pirate ship, where the emphasis is on timed jumps and making it from the beginning to the end of the level. Each level is well planned to fit its theme, giving players much appreciated variety.

All of these levels have one thing in common, though. In every stage, there exists a Chalice of Souls from the Hall of Heroes. While defeating Zarok is certainly the primary goal of the game, the secondary goal for Sir Daniel is to prove himself capable of being a hero. To this end, the champions of the Hall of Heroes have issued a challenge: To gain standing in the Hall and prove his worth, Dan must collect the complete set of Chalices and then defeat Zarok. While every level contains one of these Chalices, Fortesque cannot simply collect them. They are powered by the energy contained within malicious souls. In order to materialize the Chalice of a given level, it is necessary to dispatch enough enemies to fill the Chalice to 100% capacity. Once that happens, the Chalice can be collected. There are also stages where the Chalice starts off partially filled. This is both a blessing and a curse. While it means that players have a kill fewer enemies, it also means that there are innocent souls in the stage. Should an innocent person die on Dan's watch, their energy will reduce the level at which the Chalice is filled. This can make it impossible to collect the Chalice in most cases. Again, this makes sense because Dan is trying to prove his worth as a hero, so letting people die is directly opposed to that. Completing a stage with Chalice in hand grants the player an aforementioned trip to the Hall of Heroes, where they can pay homage to one of the great warriors of the past. While few respect Fortesque and fewer still among the greats in the hall even like him, they all will offer him aid on his quest. This aid can come in the form of money, health, a Life Bottle (which can be use as an extra life), or most likely a new weapon which can make the player's life easier going forward. Also, the good ending where Daniel ascends to the Hall of Heroes can only be obtained by completing the game with every Chalice in hand. I liked this whole system of collecting the Chalices and still do because it encourages players to stand their ground and fight all of the enemies in a level instead of rushing to complete the game, which is entirely possible in most levels.

As much as I loved this old game though, it has a problem: A major problem. As with many platformers of the era, the camera practically conspires to kill the player at every turn. Replaying the game from my modern perspective, there were more than a few instances where the platforming of the game was made unnecessarily difficult by the camera putting itself in odd positions that made it difficult to perceive distance between Sir Dan and the platform he needs to jump to. The combat is also worsened by the camera's tendency to move around mid-fight and force players to adapt to a new perspective while enemies are beating on them. This different perspective often reoriented the directional controls, which further complicates what should be a simple confrontation. Also, the game was created before Ape Escape on the original PlayStation made dual analog sticks standard for most control schemes, so the camera was awkwardly controlled by the shoulder buttons and it does not work quite as well as the “left stick controls movement, right stick controls camera” style most games utilize today. This lack of dual sticks also makes platforming itself unnecessarily difficult. The directional buttons do not allow for the same level of precision that analog sticks can provide, so certain jumps are made harder because of technological limitations. This is even more painful since Medievil comes from the era where all game protagonists were completely unable to swim in water and drowned instantly, even if it makes more sense for this to affect a skeletal knight in heavy armor. I am willing to forgive it for these issues, often brought on by growing pains and worsened by the camera, simply because 3D platforming was still just starting to take off at the time. Your enjoyment of this is largely, but not entirely, dependent on your willingness to forgive the rather archaic (by modern standards) control scheme. The rest of the game has aged rather well by comparison.

Medievil was a great game and a fantastic case study for the use of Gothic architecture and themes in video games, combined with a healthy sense of humor. Few games since then have re-imagined this period of history in the same way. Luckily for everyone in North American (and I think Europe), the game is available for download and use on the PSN store for the PS3 and the PSP. It only costs around $6, so it may be worth trying out (and the PC crowd among you could probably just pirate it and use a PS1 emulator). Next week, I intend to go over the sequel*, as it has a list of pros and cons that are related, but altogether different from the original. This is a series I adore and Sir Daniel is one of my favorite protagonists in video games. I hope that one day it can see a another sequel, taking the elements that made the first one and its sequel so great, but re-imagining them using conventions and systems brought on my developments in modern game design. While still not as well known as other PS1 games, Medievil still has a huge cult following and it would be worth revisiting.
*This statement is subject to change.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#49: The 2012 VGAs: A Sign of Good Things to Come?

Despite my many misgivings, harsh criticisms, common sense, and prior threats to boycott them this year, I went ahead and watched the Video Game Awards when they aired via Spike TVs livestream. For those who are unaware, the Spike TV Video Game Awards are held annually every holiday season. Most people who follow the industry write off the award ceremony because the show usually announces the awards in the background and places a major focus on the announcements and trailers for upcoming games in their stead. While this is no less true for this year's ceremony and the VGAs were still very groan-inducing, something happened which may prove to be significant in the coming years: The Game of the Year of 2012 was revealed to be Telltale's The Walking Dead. It was chosen over Assassin's Creed 3, Dishonored, Journey, and Mass Effect 3. While some might argue that this is largely irrelevant, I would strongly disagree. This week, I will explain why this decision to make The Walking Dead Game of the Year is great for the medium. (Note: I do not intend to spoil anything about The Walking Dead and will be speaking in broad strokes. Those afraid of spoilers should not be worried.)

One of the first reasons that this is a big deal is that unlike previous Games of the Year for the Spike TV VGAs. The Walking Dead is not a AAA game. Up until now, the Game of the Year has gone to a AAA published game without exception. Previous awards have gone to Madden '04, GTA: San Andreas, every Bethesda RPG since Oblivion, and Uncharted 2. While these are all well made games that deserve some sort of accolades (even Madden, despite my total lack of interest in sports games), they are all games that come from the biggest publishers in the industry. Given the nature of the VGAs as more of a hype machine than an awards show, this makes sense and is something to be expected. However, this year, the title did not go to one of the ingrained and well-established names in the industry or one that has a very high brand recognition. It went to Telltale's take on a comic book franchise that receives a fairly positive reception, but it largely irrelevant to the industry at large. This defies the trend of previous VGA awards. Many people, myself included, figured that Game of the Year would go to one of two established franchises in the running, either Assassin's Creed 3 or Mass Effect 3. The Walking Dead is a game that is produced on a lower budget and on a much lower scale than most of the other games released this year. This proves to developers and publishers that AAA-style extremely high budgets are not required in order to game a great game that can achieve a high level of popularity and profit, which is something I have complained about more than one.

The next reason that The Walking Dead “walking” away with the trophy is a good thing is that unlike other previous winners of Game of the Year, it does not have a high emphasis on action. The Walking Dead is very much a game about talking to people, making decisions, and observing the emotional impact these decisions have on the ensemble cast of characters that players meet. It also has a slight emphasis on puzzles, going back to its roots as a point-and-click adventure game. This is not the kind of game that one would expect to win Game of the Year. Those types of games usually have a large focus on other types of gameplay. Bethesda games tend to focus on exploration of the world and dealing with the enemies and obstacles that confront them on a regular basis. Uncharted 2 is a very solid third-person shooter/platformer hybrid. Bioshock, which won in 2007, is a very tightly polished shooter. The Walking Dead is a massive change from all of these. While it does have “combat,” it is incredibly rare and takes the form of quick-time events. Players will mostly be talking and solving simple puzzles. What this communicates to the industry is that games do not always need to involve violence and killing waves and waves of mooks. It is okay to experiment with mechanics and try to make games that involve minimal killing or violence on the players part. Gamers are willing to give new ideas and concepts a chance. In the past, many people have criticized our medium for its focus on violence. Knowledge that we can experiment with this is a very healthy for the industry. Maybe one day we can see a game where protagonists can be less violent than the usual fare.

The last reason that The Walking Dead's victory is a great thing for the industry is that unlike other games who have won the award in the past, the primary reason to play The Walking Dead is its story and how players interact with it. This is directly contrary to years past, where the winning game's real draw was the mechanics and the gameplay associated with them, which were almost always completely divorced from the story. In Bethesda RPGs, the plot is rarely ever of great significance. The real reason to play is to explore the world that Bethesda has crafted and see what players can find. GTA games are well known for giving players the ability to disregard the campaign in favor of screwing around and playing in a open-world sandbox. Uncharted 2 and Bioshock do have an emphasis on story, but they are mostly referred to by their gameplay mechanics and their nature as shooters. The Walking Dead is not a game that is heavy on “gameplay” as much as it is “interactivity.” (This is going to get a little confusing as the vocabulary used to describe video games is decidedly limited.) Characters and their interactions are very much at the forefront of the game. Players are encouraged to talk to people and get to know them. Although it is a “point-and-click” game, puzzles are not the real reason to play it. The message this sends to the industry is that we encourage developers to meddle with the definition of a video game. It is not vital to include quick-time events or puzzles so that something is “technically” a video game. After all, those parts of The Walking Dead tend to be the least interesting, but not necessarily bad, parts of the game, especially in Episode 1.

To me, the VGAs are indicative of what the average gamer's perspective. The enthusiasts like myself sometimes forget that while we love the industry and are highly involved in it, we are not the only ones in the industry. Most of the people who are gamers only buy one or two games per year, probably a Call of Duty and another game, and mostly play those. It is these people who the VGAs cater to and there is nothing wrong with that. Looking at it through this lens, the fact that a game like The Walking Dead was able to win the Game of the Year is truly astounding. It means that the average gamer is willing to branch out from their normal gaming routine and try something new and different. This can only be a positive thing. While I know this is not going to dethrone the major shooters of the industry, it is a great start to instilling some sort of change. It is a small victory that will allow us to press on and aim for larger changes. Do not think of it as a large victory so much as a shift in momentum. A small victory is still a victory and we should celebrate while we can. Now that The Walking Dead game has been achieving so much and doing so well, it allows us to call into question many deeply-entrenched beliefs and practices of the industry.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

#48: The Post/Zombie Apocalypse: Is it Overused?

The prospect of zombies and the undead has always been a theme explored in video games since the days of the Atari 2600. The reasons for this are obvious, since they pose an easily comprehensible threat and provide cannon fodder for players. In recent times however, they appear to have seen a bit of a resurgence. Many modern games have incorporated zombies and zombie-related tropes and as a result many people, including myself, have begun to think that zombies, “infected,” and their ilk have grown to be overplayed, stale, and increasingly uninteresting. Having said that, I have recently finished a game that has made me rethink my sour opinion on the subject. That game was Telltale's adaptation of The Walking Dead, available now on the PC, the 360, and the PS3 via their respective online stores. After playing the game, I appreciated the zombie apocalypse (and general post-apocalypse) setting much more than I used to. The realization came that this setting is stagnating not because it is begin overplayed, but because game developers have not done anything new or different with it until now. This week, in a long overdue article, I delve into why this is and how it may be fixed.

First, we need to have a discussion on the zombie apocalypse and what it does. A zombie apocalypse is exactly what it says on the tin, it is a fantasy apocalypse scenario where, due to either supernatural or biological/scientific influences, the dead are somehow reanimated, causing the collapse of society as a whole and ushering in a new world order. This is a subset of the post-apocalypse setting, where the world as we known it is fundamentally changed and significantly set back due to some catastrophic incident or scenario (like zombies). In these types of settings, there are not very many types of plots that a writer can utilize. The only overarching plot lines that this kind of setting can support are typically as follows, but could include more.

  1. The “Fight for Survival” where an individual or group has the goal of making it by from day to day. Typically, this will involve finding some kind of shelter, gathering food, water, and supplies, and dealing with threats to one's safety or supply cache.
  2. “Rebuilding Society” where the individual or group has typically finally etched a permanent/semi-permanent existence in this new world and decides to start rebuilding what was lost, forming cities, cultivating land, banding groups of people together, and establishing infrastructure and government. This is all done in the hopes of bringing back some semblance of law, order, and stability that was lost in the apocalypse.
  3. The “Power Fantasy” in which the player is thrust into an apocalypse and told to just go wild and kill as many things (living or undead) as they possibly can. The protagonist has a large skill set and great physical prowess and/or a large arsenal of weapons and gadgets that can handle a wide variety of situations. The plot will generally be bare-minimum or fall into one of the previous categories and will exist for no other reason that to give the protagonist an excuse for racking up a large kill list.

Compared to other types of settings, this is a very small list, even when compared to other settings that are often used, like sci-fi or fantasy. Those settings allow for plots involving political intrigue between nations, world-spanning adventures, and even plots on a smaller scale like murder mysteries and revenge stories. This lack of plot types in itself is not really a significant problem. The true issue is one that lies within the sphere of video games: the plots are almost exclusively of the “Power Fantasy” variety. Out of most of the modern day games that involve zombies that come to mind, there is a disproportionately high number of zombie-murder-shotgun simulators. What my mind calls forth when I think of zombies are the likes of Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, Resident Evil, Dead Island, and the zombie mode in the Call of Duty franchise. In all of these games, the zombies are nothing more than an obstacle that players point and shoot at until it falls over. This is what leads to a feeling of being overused and overplayed. It is not that we are using the same setting over and over again, but that we are doing it with the same general plot and narrative structure as well.

Fast forward to The Walking Dead, and now we no longer have a Power Fantasy. Instead, the designers at Telltale chose to embrace the source material and use the “Fight for Survival” plotline with a well developed and realistically written cast of survivors. This enabled them to focus on small scale, highly character driven, personal, stories where the player and his party are forced into desperate situations and experiment with the gameplay, where players are forced to make painful choices and bear the weight of those choices. Emotions run high and players can often be brought to tears when faced with the events that are unfolding in front of them. The shift away from the standard Power Fantasy refreshes the setting, making it new and interesting. Players never plow through tons of zombies. Whenever the zombies come, they are presented as a genuine threat and the best course of action is always to retreat. All these characters are trying to do is stay alive and see tomorrow. This is where most zombies games get it wrong. Designers forget that there are other plots they can use in this setting and go for the standard power fantasy. These other plot types can add a weight and emotional backbone to the game. There is nothing wrong with a good Power Fantasy, but gamers want more than that. As they say, variety is the spice of life.

But Power Fantasies are easy to craft. All designers need to do is create a hoard of mooks and some weapons to fight them. It takes more work than it does to think up of quality writing and good gameplay mechanics that reinforce the other two plot lines. Aside from the Fallout franchise and the flash game Rebuild, which focus on the rebuilding of society in a post-apocalypse, and The Walking Dead, where the daily struggle for survival is on display, one would be hard-pressed to find post-apocalypse games that are not strictly in the realm of Power Fantasy. (And yes, I am very much aware that there is a very strong case to be made for Fallout being a Power Fantasy. You do not need to tell me.) I would petition game designers to branch out every once in a while and break the mold. Do something different from that which we have all seen before and show the creativity in all of those development studios. I know that game designers are more than capable of experimenting with new concepts and/or reiterating on old ones in interesting ways. I just wish that they would show off the capability more.