Showing posts with label feedback. Show all posts
Showing posts with label feedback. Show all posts

Monday, 5 May 2014

Alien: Isolation and The Two Hardest Problems in Horror

So I recently saw this reaction video to Alien Isolation and I thought it showcased a few interesting problems with horror games. These are not issues that are specific to this game, but that plague horror games in general. We've had these problems in all of our games and are currently trying avoid them as much as possible in our upcoming game, SOMA. So I'm not trying to take a shot at Alien Isolation here (I'm looking forward to playing it!) but the video demonstrated these issues so clearly that it's worth focusing on it for this article. That said, let's move on to the two hardest problems in horror.

1) Death Means Relief and Repetition
If you watch the video you can see that the players aren't being freaked out of their minds when they die. They're laughing, and feeling relief. And the death sequence is non-interactive, which further enhances this sense of sitting back and becoming a spectator. You can clearly see the effect here, where there's a stark difference in emotion compared to the fear that was expressed earlier.  So when a death occurs, the situation has lost its sense of fear and the unknown. The player now knows what they're up against. It's gone from tense terror to "I need to beat this gameplay section".

We saw this in Penumbra Overture, where the player's experience of a chase sequence depended on the number of attempts. And what's important to note is that even if the first one or two attempts are exciting, the frustration that ensues from repeated attempts will spoil those initial memories and the sequence as a whole. Of course, there are only a certain percentage of players that will have this bad experience, and if that number's low enough it might not be such a big issue. But if your game is based around this kind of experience, like Alien Isolation and many other horror games are, then it becomes a much bigger problem. The game is under constant danger of losing its basic tension, the most fundamental ingredient of engagement that a lot of the game depends on.

What's the solution for this, then? The only proper solution is to make sure that death is postponed. Outlast has a monster that throws you to one side, giving you a chance to run off, a mechanic that works well in its story. Daylight has damage build up on the screen, which gives you time to escape. Both of these are great ways of extending the terror. Some kind of death must happen sooner or later, though, or the player will quickly realize that the monster is harmless - and that's no good at all. When death occurs I think it's important to remove this sense of repetition. For instance, in Amnesia we changed the map a bit after each death (which in some cases led to additional scares).

It might also be interesting to look into 'a fate worse than death', a subject that's perhaps too big to cover here (check here for some examples in various media). This is something we're trying out for SOMA right now. The basic idea is that "death" is not final but takes the player closer and closer to a very disturbing state of being.

I think the crucial point here though is to think outside the mechanics and to trust the player to be immersed in the fiction. From an abstract point of view of the game, there are only three options really: repeating, branching or skipping a section. Whichever is chosen the important thing is to keep the player in the right mindset and let their immersion do the bulk of the work.

2) Monster Exposure Makes The Horror Familiar
If you don't have weapons in your horror game - which, for many reasons, should be the case (for those needing arguments see this talk) - then you need to have some form of avoidance. This in turn leads to longer periods where the player's forced to pay attention to the danger, i.e. looking straight at it. This means that the player gets used to the monster,  figuring out details and their mental picture of the beast breaks down into the prosaic reality of the implementation. In the worst case, the player will start noticing AI glitches and animation issues. The possibility space for the danger is reduced and it becomes obvious to the player that the monster is just a puppet.

This is a serious problem. It's well known that the most effective horrors are the unseen ones. This is obvious in the most successful horror books and films. If games want to achieve good horror, they need to keep this in mind and be careful when and how the monster is seen. Having said that, I think that games have a bit more leeway, because players are not just passive observers but are also engaged in an activity and responsible for the outcome, and therefore prone to take the monster more seriously.

Which brings us to the first problem: showing the monster in a cutscene (as Alien: Isolation can be seen doing here). I can understand the reason for doing this, to be certain that the players "get it". But this is a major dent in the creature's effective level of horror. You leave the player passive, and free to notice tons of detail about the monster in a much more relaxed way than if they were the ones in control. It also means that you're missing out on making one of the most potent horror moments interactive. The reveal of the monster is almost always a high point in a horror story; it's such a waste to let it be a non-interactive part of the game. Actually, they've already had a good reveal moment here, which I feel could have been used better. This one also perfectly nails the proper alien look: a swirling mass of Giger-esque limbs and claws.

The problems deepens as the game progress. Here is a good example of this. Just imagine what sort of AI quirks and animation issues might pop up when you are under a desk and the alien is a few meters away in a tight space. On top of that, the player is getting a really good look at the creature, just throwing away any chance of the player having their own subjective mental image of the beast.

This is really hard to solve. Outlast has a good solution where they use the night vision mode on the camera to blur out the monster features and add creepy glowing  eyes. It doesn't work for the entire game, of course, but it makes it possible to have more glimpses of the monster without lessening the scare factor. In Amnesia we had the player's vision blur when a monster was in sight, something that worked pretty well. Or an even more successful monster was the water lurker, that just gave away its position with splashes in the water.

The best solution is really simple, though; keep monster encounters down to a minimum. I think the first basic problem is to rely on "monster hunts player" as a core gameplay foundation in the first place. This also exposes another big problem in horror games. If the monster hunting you is not what makes up the majority of the playing time then what does? This is an even harder nut to crack than the problems presented in this article.

In SOMA we try and solve this with a couple of tricks. First, all of the monsters are connected to the narrative; the more you figure out about them, the more you understand of the story. Therefore simply just looking for signs of monsters becomes a more interesting activity (compared to a game where the monster itself is not that interesting story-wise), and we can make do with fewer encounters. The inspiration from this comes from the SCP Foundation wiki, a collaborative database for weird artifacts, where many of the really spooky entries are just a collection of vague clues about a creature. Second, we keep the types of monsters fresh and varied throughout the game (which should fix one of the bigger issues in Amnesia: TDD). Finally, all of the monsters are connected to a sort of "worse than death" mechanic, to give the feeling that the encounters are more disturbing than simply "I will get a death screen if it catches me".

Again, I want to make it really clear that these problems are not specific to Alien: Isolation. These are things that just about every horror game struggle with, including our previous efforts and our upcoming Soma. Alien: Isolation is looking good and I'm excited to play it once it comes out. But that doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile looking closely at it and discussing any problems that might arise. Also, I felt the reaction video was great a springboard for the topics covered in this post. For me as a developer these sort of discussions are crucial, and whenever I see footage of a new horror game, I try to analyze what things might and might not work in it.

Finally, it's really fun to see this kind of game being made by a large studio. I wouldn't have imagined that happening a couple of years ago. No weapons, few monsters etc. are features not very common in a high budget game. Hopefully Alien Isolation will do well enough for us to see more of this!

Friday, 5 July 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us

I have now finished playing The Last of Us and feel it has quite a few things worth discussing. Overall it is a great game and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. Especially noteworthy are the nerve wrecking encounters. When at its best they top even the ones in Resident Evil 4 (2005), which I think features some of the best action gameplay ever. It also manages to use just about every trick in the book to tell its story. It is a very solid package and masterfully crafted. At the same time, while wrapped in an emotional plot, it is really just a game about combat and part of, what I think is, a worrying trend in video game storytelling.

Before The Last of Us can be properly analyzed, we need to go back to the early days of the game industry. At the beginning of videogame history, games were just about doing a few simple actions over and over. These games did not have a recognizable story as such, but simply provided a rough context for the action.

In Asteroids (1979) the visuals consisted of simplistic line drawings, but in the mind of the players they controlled a spaceship blasting incoming chunks of rock. While this thin veneer of story was not really important for the game as such, it greatly enhanced the experience. This was clearly shown in early advertisements where the screenshots are small and concept art showing off this fantasy takes up most of the space.

For the remainder of this article I will refer to this extra high-level concept as the story layer. This essentially refers to any part that does not directly support the core gameplay but is there only there to add an extra sense of purpose and narrative. Important to note is that the gameplay can still incorporate parts of the game's story; all of the narrative experience does not reside in the story layer.

While these high level concepts were (and often still are) very simplistic, it is pretty clear that they are essential. There are very few games that do not share this quality and just go 100% abstract. Even a weird game like pacman has some form of story layer to it.

This slowly gave rise to storytelling in action games. Rudimentary plots were added, for instance a summary of the background story at the start, and this eventually expanded to cutscenes in between the levels. The extra story content was not connected to the gameplay as such but simply provided context and rewards. But while it did not directly influence the gameplay in any meaningful way, cutscenes and an explicit plot could still improve the feel of the game.

The biggest evolution in storytelling came from Another World (1991) where the story layer and gameplay fit almost flawlessly into one another. No longer were the narrative elements superficial, but instead carefully ingrained with the gameplay. Actions that were made in gameplay smoothly transitioned into a cutscene and vice versa. The interactive scenarios were also carefully designed in order to make sense in the games story. Despite this tight coupling, it is important to point out that the focus of all gameplay segments was still about challenge and "fun". The game contained a number of mechanics and each section tested the player's skill in one or more of these. While the non-interactive plot elements improved the experience, they were still not crucial. Were the story layer to be taken way, the gameplay sections would still work fine in their own right .

Another World was a ahead of its time and it took a lot of years before the rest of the industry got up to speed. But when it did, the idea to close the gap between the gameplay and the story layer really caught on. Earlier, the story layer had mostly been seen as an extra, but ultimately superfluous, feature. But it rose in prominence, and was seen as increasingly crucial. Along the way, a host of new ways to add a story layer emerged. The audio logs from System Shock (1994), in-game cutscene from Half Life (1998) and the omnipresent narrator from Portal (2007) are probably the most important ones. All of these provided tools to merge the two conflicting elements. Along the way, the complexity and maturity of the story layers increased as well.

Even though modern action games now come with a wide variety of stories, the basic format is still the same as in the early days. The player is given a narrow set of mechanics that needs to be skillfully used in order overcome the challenges provided. On top of this is an extra narrative wrapping, the story layer, that helps shape the experience into something more meaningful. This is a recipe that most recent high profile games use, including Dead Space (2008), Uncharted (2007), Tomb Raider (2013), Halo 4 (2012), Portal 2 (2011), Bioshock (2007), and many more.

Here is where The Last of Us comes in; it is the latest step in this evolution. It is probably also the game that, so far, managed marry the gameplay and the story layer most elegantly. This makes it into an emotional journey, but it is crucial to remember its pedigree. It is still an action game with an additional story layer.

Just like a number of recent games with narrative ambitions, e.g. Spec Ops (2012) and Hotline Miami (2012), it takes the gameplay as a starting point for the story. This is different from a game like Uncharted where the high concept came first. In Uncharted's case it was to replicate an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. Because of this, the gameplay's need for constant bloodshed has a hard time fitting the happenings in the story layer. This caused a very noticeable discrepancy in the game's narrative, the so called "ludonarrative dissonance". The game's protagonist would slaughter hundreds of people and afterwards crack a joke and worry about his relationships. But in a game like Last Of Us, the violent gameplay is taken as a given and the whole world shaped accordingly. The game is set in a story where butchering hundreds of people makes sense, giving the holistic experience a strong feeling of consistency.

There are still a few problems between of the story layer and the gameplay, but on the whole the played narrative is quite coherent. It has been rightly celebrated for doing this, but few voices have been raised by the troubling development it is part of. If we agree that The Last of Us represent a high note of videogame storytelling, an example to follow, then our boundaries for telling stories are very narrow indeed.

The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but what it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence. If this represent the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

When faced with the problem of reconciling a character like Uncharted's Nathan Drake with the massive violence, the proposed solution is simply to make the character better fit with the killing. I find this close to giving up on the problem altogether. In a way games like Uncharted are, despite their gameplay and story layer discrepancy, much more interesting as they try to be about something other than raw survival. Embracing that videogames is all about violence feels very cynical and uninspiring to me.

It is also crucial to keep in mind that the core gameplay has not changed much over the years. These games are still about doing a few actions over and over. When these actions do connect to the story, like they do in both Spec Ops and The Last of Us, it is not so much because they are proper narrative devices, but that the story has been shaped to fit with them. The repetitive action is still king, the need to have a massive body count is still a must. This is not bad as such, I thought Last of Us was a great action game. But, I have problems with it being seen as good interactive storytelling, it is really just good usage of the story layer. This might seem like play of words, but there is an important aspect to have in mind: Like games of the past, The Last of Us would have worked very well with its story layer removed.

When taking a closer look at The Last of Us, its action heritage is quite evident. It is very clear that at the core lies a straightforward game about looting, sneaking and killing enemies. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The goal of the player is always to go forward to a place highlighted early on. Once there, a cutscene takes over and reminds you of your next goal. It is basically a modern incarnation of the the ancient "walk left to right"-mechanic.
  • Every non-combat challenge of the game is a combination of a few simple elements: ladders, planks, pushable dumpsters, floating pallets and generators, all used in predictable and streamlined ways. This is typical of what you see in old actions games; there are a few well tested puzzle devices that gets reused throughout the game.
  • During gameplay, NPCs turn into combat objects and are streamlined to support the action above everything else. This is evident in how they do not affect your ability to sneak, can stand a lot more damage than the protagonist, have infinite ammo supplies, etc.
  • The game features plenty of looting and crafting which is just a revamp of what we have seen in Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and many more. It is there to give the player something to do when going through the world and is used as a way to provide more variety to the combat. 
  • Environments where combat encounters occur are almost always crafted in such a way that it is possibly to know that a fight will ensue long before it actually happens. Strategically scattered bottles, carefully placed cover spots and early depots of ammo are among the things that hint that the game is now all about making sure the core mechanics of an encounter work.
There is more that can be pointed out here, but I think this is enough. The takeaway is that this is the core of the game; all of these elements are what sum up the game's underpinnings and what provides the central experience. I think it is an incredibly important point. Before we speak of the game as some highpoint in storytelling we must realize where it comes from - it is an old fashioned action game. And if we do not realize this, we will be stuck in a dead end, because there is not much in terms of storytelling that can be done with this. The Last of Us probably represent as far as you can go with stories that are based on this foundation.

This is when things get interesting. We can now see that the emotional narrative is not part of core gameplay, but comes from a totally different direction. Here The Last of Us has a lot that can be learned from and be inspired by.

First of all, the game uses just about every trick in the book to get the story across outside of the cutscenes. And not only that, pretty much every one of these elements has an excellent implementation:
  • Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through. 
  • Overheard conversation. This can either come from hostiles in combat situations or from the characters in one of the few non-violent section with other people. They are effectively used both to convey the state of the world and to give more information about the characters.
  • In-game cutscenes. In a few areas, events takes place as you walk past them. For instance, at one location the military can be seen rounding up infected people. And if you go in for a closer look, the armed personnel act accordingly and push you away. This makes the scene feel alive instead of becoming some kind of carnival ride (as was the case Bioshock: Infinite (2013),  for instance). What I also think makes them work is that the game use these events sparingly and make sure they happen in appropriate places. For instance, in the above military scene it makes perfect sense why the player cannot get close to the civilians.
  • Artifacts. Various artifacts can be picked up that tell something about the world. These are things like maps, dog tags, photos, etc. All help to build up setting and are lot easier to fit in than notes (which easily feel contrived).
  • Protagonist and partner banter. As you walk through the environment there are conversations back and forth between the protagonist and his partner (for most of the game a teenage girl). This is also one of the few places where some of the responsibility is placed on the player. Once a conversation starts, the protagonist can be made to go off in whichever way; it is up to the player to act in a way that makes sense. Because of this a lot more and varied content can be put in these dialogs.
  • Graffiti and billboards. Here and there, texts are placed on the walls that help explain what has happened to a place or to just give some more texture to the environment. Survivors scratch words of warning, a settlement have lists rules and so forth.
  • Environments. The environments themselves is a great source of the storytelling. Abandoned homes, fortified warehouses, etc, all help to build up the world the game takes place in and tell the story of what has occurred.
None of these are new or revolutionary tricks, but they are put together really well and are never overused. It is so easy to just use one trick for everything, but Last of Us show restraint and use its devices where appropriate. Much of the time these devices work in tandem and that is when they really shine. A common example is walking around in a derelict building while the characters comment on the surroundings and notes found; this really increase the sense of presence and feeling of being inside a narrative. 

One has to have in mind that the world of Last of Us fits perfectly for the above devices, but there is no inherent problem with using them in just about any sort of story. Also noteworthy is that, apart from the overheard conversations, the narrative devices have very little connection to the core gameplay; they are all part of the story layer. It is incredible how many elements that make up this layer now. What began as a simple intro text or just a painted image is now a large collection of systems. While the story layer was once a fragile structure, merely having a supportive role, it is now so complex that is can pretty much stand on its own. In fact, that is just what it does a few times in The Last of Us. And it is now that we enter the really intriguing territory. We have now come to a point in the evolution of videogames where a once upon nonessential element has gotten enough substance to branch off and become something in its own right.

The best example of this is The Last of Us' opening. Here the player takes on the role as a young girl who finds herself home alone while it becomes increasingly apparent that something terrible is happening in the outside world. Just about all interactions here has something to do with the story and minor details like the girl's animations help set the scene. It features just about all the narrative devices mentioned above and uses them to tell the player a story through play. 

The opening is also a good showcase for how and when to use cutscenes. I normally see the goal with interactive storytelling is to let the player play from start to finish. However, in order to play certain parts properly you need to be in the right mood and have certain background information. The opening cutscene helps establish just that, and makes the gameplay so much more effective. While I still feel that cutscenes should be used sparingly, I am thinking more and more that it is wrong to dismiss them entirely. Many interactive scenes are not just possible to jump right in to, but require some kind of setup. Many times this setup is just not possible to play through, and needs to be carefully directed. In these cases a cutscene is required and lets the player play through a scenario that would not be possible otherwise. I think the main rule is just to make sure that the interactive part is where the engaging actions occur. The cutscene should not be the main attraction, it's role is merely to be there as support. It is also worth mentioning that the opening cutscene works so well because it happens at the start of the game; the player has not become used to being in charge yet and is much more willing to be passive.

The next great story layer sequence is the deer hunting scene. Here you are hunting a deer in order to get food. The first arrows are not enough to bring it down, so you need to find it again and take additional shots. As you are doing this, you will eventually figure out that the best way to find it again is to follow its tracks. Having hit it once the deer will also leave a trail of blood, making tracking easier. While following the wounded animal you will eventually find yourself right outside a previously unseen building, the deer lying dead nearby. By letting you track the deer, the game has managed to lead you into finding a new location all on your own. This transition is really awesome and great way to progress the story simply by playing.

One could argue that this scene use the combat system and therefore part of the core gameplay, but I argue that is not really correct. It does use some combat mechanics, but the scene itself contain none of the dynamics of an enemy encounter. Therefore I think it is okay to say that this is scene is almost purely part of the story layer.

The final sequence I want to discuss is the giraffe scene. Like the previous scene, it is quite simplistic but extremely effective. It starts with the protagonist's companion, the teenage girl Ellie, getting excited over something she has seen and then running off. This starts sets up a mystery, and gets the player curious over what it is she has spotted. She continues to run ahead of you, seeing the mystery object more times and getting increasingly excited. You run after her, but are never able to get a peek of what it is she is seeing. Finally you come to an opening and see that what she spotted is a herd of giraffes. It all ends with a serene scene as the couple watch the herd walk among a city block overtaken by trees. The build-up and final comes together very nicely.

Worth mentioning is that part of the power comes from all the hazards you have had to face earlier, but I do not see that as evidence that the core gameplay played an important part. These hazards could just as well have been made using other techniques.

The scenes I have described takes up a tiny part of the The Last of Us. Most of the game is about combat, looting and solving repetitive puzzles, elements that you are expected to find in a classical action game. But these sequences and a few others shows that there is much more to this medium than repeating a core gameplay mechanic. The truly poignant and yet fully playable moments of this game is a testament to this.

So when talking about how well The Last of Us does storytelling, it is not productive to discuss how consistently it manages to merge its gameplay and story layer. I hope to have shown that this is a dead end. What is important are the other things, the elements that used to be fluff but has now become a force to be reckoned with on its own. There is a lot to learn from The Last of Us, but it is important that we look in the right places. It might be an classical action game at heart, but also contain elements that show the way forward.

In case you are in need of more info on the game, wikipedia is a good place to start.
To get some more insight into the workings of Spec Ops: The Line, I recommend this Errant Signal Episode. It is an excellent overview of how the game uses its violence to send a message.
In case you enjoyed this critique of The Last of Us, you will probably also like my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. There are a lot of similar topics discussed.

  • My history of videogames is a very quick and dirty overview. For instance some early games like Project Firestarter have some of the story integration seen in Another World, but I skipped those in order to make it a bit more clear. Also, many of these early games never really caught on and did not have nearly as much influence as the games I mention. I would have liked to do a more in depth article on the history of violence and storytelling in games, but not sure I will have the time in the near future, so this will have to do for now.
  • Once the story layer got more prominent the discussion about "story" versus gameplay started to grow. Many people thought that the extra story segment was really distracting and that games should only focus on the core gameplay instead. I cannot recall this discussion ever being about the incoherence between the two, but simply that the extra story elements were not very engaging. It took a lot longer for the idea to pop up that there was a sort of friction between the story layer and the gameplay.
    It was not until the story layer had grown quite a bit until the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance" was brought up. First coined by the Far Cry 2 (2008)  lead designer Cliff Hocking, the core issue that it address is that the storytelling layer and gameplay disagree with one another. This of course has always been the case, but in a game design equivalent of the uncanny valley, it did not become apparent until the gap was small enough. So while the problem is true, the whole idea is kind of a truism. The gameplay and story layer has always been separate elements, and are conflicting in their very nature. I am not really a big fan of the term, as I think it is a bit backwards way of thinking. If the goal is to do interactive storytelling, all is already lost once you start dividing gameplay and narrative into different categories.
  • As I played The Last of Us, it also hit me that sometimes cutscenes work best when you there is no need for interaction. First of all, it makes the project so much easier to manage. Scenes with extensive dialog often require quite a lot of preparation and if they are to be highly interactive, then there is a constant need for tweaking. If the interaction is very simple (like button mashing), or not present at all, then you can evaluate these bits of the game at a much earlier stage and save a lot of headache.
    It may also be good for the narrative if the player does not have anything to do during certain sections. In most cases a real life dialog is not a very active experience as many utterances come almost automatically. So not having much for the player to do might actually feel more natural. Also, if the player is forced to perform actions then it might detract their attention from what is being said. So instead of trying to make the dialogs highly interactive, it might be better to just make sure they are short and keep them free from gameplay.
    This is actually an approach that we are taking with our new Super Secret Project. We scrapped many of the more wild initial approaches because they were too hard to do and often made dialogs less engaging.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Thoughts on Slender: The Arrival

Slender: The Arrival is the commercial version of a free game called Slender. The original was based upon a a simple concept: find eight pieces of paper before the Slenderman, a now famous creature that started out as an internet meme, gets you. I wrote a blog post about the game when it was released and as a short experiment I found it quite interesting, but wondered how one would make it into a longer experience. So when I heard a commercial version was in the works I became quite curious, and gave it a go soon after release.

My initial guess was that the game would essentially be like the original, but set in different locations. Each of these would have special collectibles, instead of the original's pages, and some form of modifiers, e.g. mud that makes movement slower. So when I launched the game, I was quite surprised to find out that it started out as an adventure game. Slender:  The Arrival began with my car having broken down somewhere in the forest; I was met by a beautifully rendered forest path, the sun was shining and there was a sense of calm. As I started walking the sky got increasingly darker and by the time I arrived at a desolate house it is almost pitch black.

This was a very simple start, but also an extremely effective one. It set up a notion of how things ought to be and gave something to contrast with later on. Part of the trick was also that I knew there would be a Slenderman, but had no idea what shape it would take. The game had planted an idea in my head and put me in a very suggestive state.

Walking around in the abandoned house, I found notes, news clippings and other things that hinted of normality. But among these were also signs that something was wrong. At first it was just some weird graffiti and the tone of some texts, but as I progressed further things got worse. Having found a flashlight and a key I came across a room filled with weird sketches. Numerous of these depicted a dark, slim figure. My hear-rate was quite rapid now. The slow pace combined with my expectations was making my imagination run wild. Approaching a window, a scream echoed through the night.

I did not want go outside, but felt that I had to. I exited the house and entered the woods. Being unsure where to go I headed in the wrong direction and became lost in the wilderness. At this point a slight distortion appeared on my screen and a vague whisper was heard. Normally, I am not very affected by horror games, but at this moment a chill literally ran down my spine. I was honestly unsure if I could continue playing the game any longer. The build-up was hitting with some force.

Eventually I found my bearings and headed in the direction of the scream. I walked through a gate and a new map loaded. I started the new map facing a canoe and some ranger cabin; the environment did not seem to fit and the house I came from were nowhere to be seen. Instantly I had a real problem with the continuity. It felt like I had been transported somewhere else entirely. Walking around I also quickly figured that I was supposed to collect eight notes scattered around the area. I had no idea why, it made no sense to my subjective narrative. All of this meant that my sense of presence took a drastic drop; a drop from which it never recovered.

The game was still spooky, but a far cry from what it had been. I managed to pick a few pages and it was not long until I got visual distortions and heard creepy sounds. I quickly understood that this was simply a mechanism for telling me when Slenderman is getting closer, and it never became very effective. Soon after I had some sightings of the creature too. It was spooky at first, but could not compare with the terror felt during the prologue. The encounters became increasingly frequent and the effect was lost. Finding the notes turned out to be tricky for me, and I found myself running in circles most of the time.

At this point my sense of presence was obliterated and the game had lost all of it horror. It is all just a mechanical and repetitive trudge.I eventually died and tried again, but never managed to to complete the level. I quickly checked some guides to make sure was not missing out on some upcoming twist, but it seemed the collect items style of gameplay remained throughout. I felt I could not really bother forcing my through the levels and gave up on the game.

Despite being let down (or rather having my predictions confirmed), my time with the game was extremely valuable. The prologue was fantastic and induced horror in way that I have not felt in a long time. While the game failed to make use of its excellent introduction, it gave me a lot to think about, providing more insights into what really makes a great horror experience.

Now follows a summary of the most important takeaways:

 - Normality Makes Immersion Easier
Most of the creepiness comes from the game featuring perfectly normal situations and locations. It is easy to draw parallels between the game's scenery and your own life experience. There is no need to figure out the world and your place in it, all that comes automatically. This makes it possible to become immersed in the atmosphere almost instantly. It also makes the game leave a certain amount of dread behind after you have finished playing.

It is worth noting that having normality can cause problems as it also sets strict assumption of how the world should work. This is mostly problematic when a game has a wide range of interaction possibilities. It often cause players think some actions ought to be possible but are not or that the world behaves in the wrong way. Slender: TA escapes this problem by limiting the interactions available.

- Flow Is Crucial
When I first entered the house in Slender: TA it was engaging to explore it; every room I visited added to the atmosphere. But once I had gone through all rooms I was unsure how to progress. This state lasted for quite a while and I just ran aimlessly around trying to figure out what to do next. It turned out I had just missed a, not very visible, flashlight and were therefore been unable to properly explore the pitch black rooms. For the five or so minutes I was stuck I was pulled out of the fantasy.

This tells me that is is of utmost importance that the player does not get lost like this, especially at the start of the game. When a game is all about atmosphere it must always be clear for the player how to continue. One must make sure the focus is to become part of the virtual world and not to figure out its rules. Slender: TA has this problem later on as well, and is an excellent example of why maintaining the flow is so important.

- Narrative Purpose Matters
When I started out the game, I felt like as part of a narrative. Sure it was not the a very complex one, "car breaks down and it starts to get dark", but it felt consistent and was easy to become immersed in. The most important aspect of this is that the player's thinking becomes centered around story elements. Happenings are not evaluated as output from a rule system, but as occurrences inside a story. This is a strong contributor to the sense of fear; for instance, sounds are not just part of some random event generator but utterances by the world that the player inhabits.

However, Slender: TA is not able to sustain this for long. The narrative reason for moving on became increasingly vague, and I soon found my self doing things simply because the game told me so. This is devastating from a horror standpoint as the world now get treated as system. The fiction is no longer the point of reference, but any event is evaluated in an abstract manner.

- HUD Can Increase Sense of Presence
It is often said that a really immersive game should get rid of any HUD elements. This is simply not true, and in many cases it is actually the opposite. Among many things, the HUD can be used to portray information impossible to display, help keep the player on track and add to the story of the game. In this game the HUD is that of a camcorder; looking at your shadow early in the game shows that the protagonist is in fact holding an actual camera. In a way this is a bit forced (why would one be recording at a time like this?) but I think it is rectified by the positive effect it has on your sense of presence. By having this filter between the world and your vision, you are never seeing anything directly; it becomes easier to accept the rendered, artificial world. By using this kind of HUD the game also emulates the feel from a shaky cam ghost/ufo/bigfoot/etc video, something which is closely tied to the mythology of the Slenderman and increases the effect further.

The camera HUD is also a great vessel for the visual effects that happen when Slenderman is near. Static noise, image tearing and chromatic aberration (where the components of a color are spread out) are all common camcorder artifacts and shaky video tropes. It is a great way to symbolize the presence of an evil being and connects the game with the surrounding fiction. In weird way, this also links the game to real-life: if you see any of these signs when filming, you will interpret them in a very different way.

Despite all the good stuff, I think the HUD is still underused. The most obvious thing to add would be some kind of navigational help. This would be a great way to fix the flow problems that were pointed out earlier. The camera HUD would also have been great for displaying story information; messages and strange images  could pop up in the HUD and give more depth to the narrative.

- Being Cute Just Ain't Worth It
The house at the beginning contains two a posters with logos of the developers. I really dislike things like this. There is no reason for these posters to be in the house apart from being an attempt at a joke - a joke that I think few appreciate. If a game wants to have  a world that the player take seriously, these type of things are horrendously out of place. They destroy the sense of disbelief and makes the player less likely to put any significance to objects found in the environment  In a game like this it is crucial to make sure of ever last detail serves a purpose and help tell something of the game's story. They should never be used to deliver some lame joke or easter egg.

Summed up, Slender: The Arrival is far from a great game and has many flaws. But it also contains some excellent things. Especially noteworthy is the the build-up, which is one of the best I have ever seen in a game, rivaling my memories of the first Silent Hill. The bad elements are also bad in a very enlightening way, which makes the game especially interesting. It is a must play for anyone interested in horror.

Official page for Slender: The Arrival
My blog post on the original free version of the game.
Information on the Slenderman.

  • It is interesting to note that part of why I found the start so frightening was because I knew some of the game's fictional aspects. This means that the way PR is made for a game can greatly influence the experience of playing it. We noticed this with Amnesia as well; some players started out very tense simply because of what they had heard about the game,
  • The counter intuitive idea that a a HUD can actually increase immersion reminds me of Metroid Prime (from 2002 on Gamecube). Here all HUD elements are displayed on your visor which sort of exist in the actual game world. This visor HUD is also used to enhance other effects  such as rain, and does so to great effect.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

So I just finished Bioshock Infinite and I feel I need to write something about it. There is a lot that is really good about the game, but the way it all comes together seems like a wasted opportunity. This does not mean it is a bad game, far from it. I played the entire game in a couple of days, a rare thing for me, and had (mostly) fun doing so. What really stuck to me, though, is how it abuses its own premise. The capability for true greatness can be seen throughout, but is constantly hindered . This is also why it is so interesting to talk about it. By taking a closer look at Bioshock Infinite we can perhaps learn to harness its dormant potential.

Before we get into it all, I need to clear up a concept. When I talk about the narrative in a game, I see it as the totality of the experience. It is not just cut-scenes and audio-logs that make up a narrative, it is also the shooting, jumping, and all other actions that I perform as a player.

While not that many talk about narrative in this way, I think it is really how most of us interpret our experiences. When we take part in interactive storytelling, what we really care about is our activities and the scenarios. While we of course are able to talk about the narrative in a separate, dual world-like, sense, it is not how we live through the experience. We do not absorb gameplay on a purely abstract basis, we connect it to the game's virtual world and incorporate it into our subjective narrative. The journey we take through the game becomes our narrative.

We want to play the story. I think this is true for anybody who has interest in a videogame storytelling. I see this as the gold standard for any work of interactive fiction, and it is through this lens that I will inspect Bioshock Infinite.

Combat Design
First up, I will go over the combat. I am not fond of combat in games, mostly because it is so overused, but when done well I have nothing against it. The grandfather of Bioshock Infinite, System Shock 2, is a great example of combat done right. Every enemy conveys an aspect of the story, the flow complements the overall mood and the tactics are connected with the progression of the protagonist. When fighting in System Shock 2 an engaging narrative is created; one that ties neatly in with the rest of the story elements.

On the other hand, Bioshock Infinite's combat has probably the worst narrative connection of recent memory. It is basically on the level of Smash TV; arena like battles where you need to kill all hostiles in order to progress. Enemies just run at you and attack, lacking any of the awareness-state nuances seen in previous Shock games. It all boils down to a hectic and often chaotic spectacle. While it can have some charm, it very rarely creates any sort of narrative experience. It is just a matter of clearing waves of enemies in order to move the story forward.

Worse still is that the elements of the battles have little to do with the story. Enemy fiction does not get any better than them being the henchmen of whichever bad guy happens to be your current antagonist. The same is true for your powers. The different magical spells acquired seem to be there simply because they were present in the previous game. They get mentioned on some billboards at the start, but serve no further narrative purpose. Like so many other things in the game they are there just to comply with the predefined combat mechanics.

The game also features looting and vending machines, elements that seem to belong in neither in combat or the story. Yet again these elements are there because they were in the previous game. Possibly also for fear that the player might get bored. To me the overall impression is just one of disconnect. It is a clear example of how much the little touches in earlier games mattered. Combat in System Shock 2 is probably a lot less complex than that in Bioshock Infinite, but because it ties neatly into its fiction, the emergent narrative is so much more engaging.

By having this detached fighting system, a very interesting question is exposed. Does Bioshock Infinite need combat at all? The problem is so obvious that many mainstream outlets have picked it up, something I have never seen before. But before this issue is dealt with, there are other things to discuss.

Basic Elements of Story
I will now go over the different ways in which Bioshock Infinite chooses to tell the story, and point out the many problems that it has with its story's basic constituents.

The first thing to note is how the combat design spread to and corrupt other parts of the game. When in combat mode most of the normal storytelling bits go away, but when leaving a combat arena many of the combat mechanics still remain. The most obvious of these is the looting. In System Shock 2 this made sense, but in later installations it has been simplified and lost much of its narrative connection. The problem peaks in Infinite, where it boils down to mindlessly searching and emptying any vessel in sight. Searching objects would be used to contextualize the backdrop, but it does the opposite here. Much of the scenery is turned into power-up containers. This cheapens exploration, giving it a mechanical and forced feel. All these problems get so much worse when the contents of the loot directly contradict the surrounding environment; for instance, starving children standing next to barrels of fruit. The insistence to place coins everywhere is a similarly damaging feature. Adrian Chmielarz has written a very revealing article of how these elements infest the very beginning of the game.

Vending machines that turn up in strange places and magic potions thrown about are all also hard to mold into any sort of narrative. But perhaps worse of all is how the combat ties into, and corrupts, a major character and theme of the game.

For most of the journey the player is followed by a young woman called Elizabeth. She comments on scenery and keeps the narrative going.The game shows how having a character that stays out of the way, and manages herself, makes her a lot easier to get attached to than one who is in constant need of attention. When not in combat she is a great companion who has her own personality, feels like a fluent part of the game and is of great narrative importance. It is really something to take notes from. But when in a fire fight, which is the bigger part of the game, she is reduced into a power-up dispenser and portable lock-pick. I guess the intention was that this would help the player bond, but because it happens so often it just dispels the illusion. As the game passes, she turns more and more into a gameplay device, and less of a living individual.

Another prominent feature of the games fiction is the existence of parallel worlds. Elizabeth is able to peek into these, opening tears that can let objects travel between dimensions. This is an intriguing concept and something that should be possible to explore in an interactive story. As it turns out, except for a few rare occasions,  the only real interaction with these tears is during combat. They are simply used to conjure up generic objects, all used for their mechanical gain only. Here we have a feature that could have had an almost limitless array of exploration opportunities, and it is used solely as a gimmicky combat tool.

While Bioshock Infinite paints a breathtakingly beautiful world, it is all on a "look, don't touch"-basis. The code governing the game's plentiful NPCs are on par with an old school JRPG. They are all static automatons waiting for the player to show up so they can deliver their one canned response. This is especially jarring in a detailed first person game where objects can examined so closely. I think that even the slightest AI improvement, such as moving out of the way, would help tremendously. The rest of the scenery follows the same formula. Apart from a few, and often rather boring assets, the world is static and void of interaction. It is evident that most code complexity has gone into the combat mechanics, instead of features that give rise to narrative.

Building from its pedigree, the game is of course loaded with audio-logs. The System Shock games handled this quite nicely and tried to fit them into the fiction. It has since been abused in many games, and I have to say Bioshock Infinite is one of the worst examples I have seen. The reasons for recording are dubious and, worse of all, the placement is awful. For instance, you can find personal recordings of the city's ruler lying on the table of  a crowded cafe.

After the game literally smashes a book about Quantum Mechanics in your face, you expect the technology to at least be somewhat justified. This would also make sense as the game has plot aspects that encourage thinking about similar topics. Older games in the series have at least tried to do this; making sure that creatures and contraptions form a coherent whole. But in Infinite, almost nothing is explained. I am not saying there needs to be an in-depth explanation, but it must at least seem plausible in the fiction. When the game is so dismissive with most of its story elements, it is hard to give anything a deeper consideration. This directly counteracts the intended deep themes of the game.

Also worth noting is how simplistically written the characters are. The game paints a backstory and world that could allow for really elaborate discussions. Instead we just end up with villains without much depth. The game simply points out that both sides can be evil, and that is it. It is a shame, as these kind of worlds are often great ways to explore many social issues; China Mieville's books being excellent examples.

What we arrive with is a game that does not seem to take its fiction seriously. It builds up this extraordinary backdrop but never makes any attempt to pull it all together or make any deeper explorations. It seems content with being shallow. It really is a shame.

Narrative Focus
I will now drop the specific details and talk about the narrative experience as whole. Here I think the flaws show up even more clearly. I can forgive that specific elements make little sense, but I find it much worse when a game lacks a clear ambition and focus in the way Bioshock Infinite does.

It seems obvious that the narrative has not been intended as the main source of engagement  During most of the game understanding and enjoying the story is not of importance. There is always an arrow telling you where to go, combat encounters are frequent and there is ever present loot to be found. The game never relies on you being caught up in the narrative, but makes sure that you are constantly exposed to the core gameplay loop. Despite this, the story is a very big part of the game, the world reeking with narrative elements. It seems like the game is not sure what it wants. It tries to do two very different things, and end up doing neither particularly effective.

It feels like an attempt to tell a serious story through a theme park ride. The game tugs you along these fantastic, but mostly lifeless settings; often stopping to engage you in some repetitive activity. It is hoping that the sheer spectacle of the ride and constant feeding of candy will make you forget all of its short comings. Because the game is such a straightforward ride, there is never any proper thematic exploration. There is a lot of things to discuss after a play session, but nothing of the sort happens during actual play. An engaging narrative never emerges, and the good things left are punctured by unrelated activities.

Because of the game's insecure nature I am forced to constantly doublethink. I need to neglect certain elements, forget what I have heard/seen and toggle my view of the world. When in smaller bursts, one can often see past this. For instance, it is possible to feel part of a play even though you know it is just actors on a stage. But when the conflicting elements are so interconnected and frequent it just gets harder and harder to ignore. In the end, the only way for me to go on was not lose myself in the fiction at all. I had to take it all in on a very superficial level. The doublethinking just became too much. It was still possible to enjoy the game, but all along it was evident that a lot was missing.

To me, Bioshock Infinite stands as a clear example of how a lack of focus lessens the emotional impact. Had the game just made sure to set a firm focus on telling a story, it could have been so much more. I am having the same kind of feelings I had after playing Dead Space 2; the feeling of unlocked potential, that the developers just did not dare to take the game were it should have gone. I hope that people playing Bioshock Infinite will see this and take note.

No combat?
Back to the question I asked earlier: is combat needed? This is something that has been uttered by many: that the violence is detracting from the story. This is response is awesome, and I cannot recall the issue being raised in this way before. But at the same time, I have not seen any good examples of what to have instead. This is what I will talk about here.

First of all, note that the combat does not need to be removed. It is possible to have a narrative focused game with a lot of fighting. System Shock 2, or whichever other immersive sim, can be checked to see how it can be done much better. That is not really that interesting though; it seems much more rewarding to see if we could do away with the core combat gameplay all together.

Before going into that, it is worth asking the question if it is worth it. Would the experience improve? If the goal is to have a game that is about relationship, revolution and parallel universes then I would say yes. Some quick reasons:

  • Having any sort of cognitive demanding activity has been shown to decrease our capability to feel emotions.  Not having combat can heighten the sense of empathy and connection to the characters.
  • Avoiding combat removes the tunnel vision that comes with it. Competitive fighting makes players focus on a very specific activity and make it easy to ignore other aspects of the game. The world's non-combat features come to a stronger focus if combat is dropped.
  • As I have argued at length, the common combat design drastically decreases the set of actions we can let the player do in a game. If fighting is removed more actions can be added for the themes we want to explore, actions that will make the player think more deeply.
(Important to note here is that the above reasons all concern a core combat loop. The game could still have the player shooting stuff, but it would have to happen in special sequences like in Walking Dead or Snatcher.)

If we just use the current Bioshock Infinite as foundation, removing the fighting is fairly easy. The most trivial solution would simply involve taking away all of the combat sections. I have not checked this down to all the details, but I am pretty sure that Bioshock Infinite has such separate combat that you could just rip 99.9% of it out and the narrative would remain essentially intact. A slightly more interactive Dear Esther would emerge. Given almost all problems above come from some extension of the combat, I am fairly certain this simple change would make a much better game as well. (I wonder if it would be possible to mod and try and make it happen.)

This is of course not something a major studio would consider doing. The most obvious reason would be that it is hard to market and sell. This might be true, but I think there is another reason that lurk beneath. Many designers are simply dead afraid of the player getting bored. When a game is missing a "fun" core loop it gets extremely hard to test. Some experiences are only possible to be engaging to a fresh mind and cannot be easily evaluated by its creator. It is not possible to get simple objective feedback data. One has to rely on gut intuition and, dare I say it, create art.

But if one embraces the idea of doing away with the "fun" core, Bioshock can be taken beyond being a Dear Esther clone and go much further. The game already contains much of this in rudimentary form, and it just a matter of making these seeds blossom. Here are some quick suggestions:

  • Adding more involvement from Elizabeth. Let the player choose what space to be explored and then let Elizabeth act out there. She can be a sort of extended interactive force. Early trailers had Elizabeth playing with masks for instance.
  • Why not take more advantage of the tears. Let the exploration of tears be a main pull throughout the game. Since we are visiting worlds that are slightly similar to the one we are in, there are all sort of thought provoking things to add here. Again early trailers already showed some of this. 
  • While we are at it, why not use tears instead of the audio logs. It would make a lot more sense.
  • Add more direct interaction with the people and explore the themes through that. For instance, the player could find food but not enough to go around, if you give it to a kid his friends might jump on him and fight over it, etc.
I do not want to sit on a high horse here and proclaim how I would have saved Bioshock Infinite or something like that. The above are just simple ideas on top of my head. I am just trying to show the avenues that open up when we let go of that core loop and focus on narrative delivery. The above is not that hard to do; probably a lot easier than it was to do the combat code and assets. It is just that it requires a new kind of thinking. As early trailers show, the idea was already there but something, probably the urge to make combat work, led away from it.

In Closing
In one way it felt weird and annoying to play Bioshock Infinite. There was a constant bombardment of things that I found obviously wrong. Despite this the game was given perfect scores all over, the many imperfections swept under the rug. But then I saw the articles that followed, discussing aspects of a game I have never seen in the mainstream before. This makes me hopeful that we are onto something here. I am unsure if any larger studios will change, but I think the game has opened eyes of many. This might also be where all those high grades are coming from; the sight of this enormous potential; the thought of what videogames could be. That is at least my sincere hope.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Thoughts of The Walking Dead (ep1)

I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead recently and few stuff popped up that I thought was worth discussing. For those of you who do not know what The Walking Dead is, it is a horror adventure game based upon a comic book (which is now also tv-series) featuring Heavy Rain inspired gameplay. It is developed by Tell Tale (makers of the Sam and Max reboot, etc) and is released on an episodic basis. I was unsure if Tell Tale could deliver a game with this kind of atmosphere, but having played I have to say that it is quite successful. The first episode is not a master piece by any means, but contain a few things worth bringing up.

The comic-book inspired art direction combined with so-so animations does not look all that inviting and immersive. But when you play the game, it works very well and does the job. This even though the drama of the game is mostly about close-up dialog and relationships. I think this is a very important lesson about not having to have photo realistic graphics even though the game is meant to focus on human emotions. I have a hard time saying that Heavy Rain, which as a lot more gloss on its visual, managed to elicit any more emotions from me. However, watching trailers, Heavy Rain seems a lot better in this aspect and I thought Walking Dead looked downright horrible at times. But in-game it turned out not be really matter. This is also lesson in taking care of how you present the game in trailers and such, and make sure that the feelings you get from actually playing the game comes across.

Just like in Heavy Rain, a big feature is to make hard decisions throughout the game. You must choose who to save, whether to lie or not, etc. Most of these are made using timed dialog choices, where you only have a short time to decide what to do. On paper I think it sounds okay, but I just do not like how it feels when actually playing. There is just something that bothers me in knowing that all of these choices are prefabricated and that I the choice I did not make might have been better. And it does not really matter that the choices do not affect the game mechanically (eg like in Mass Effect where bad choice might mean less gain), there is just something holding me back from playing along with it.
I think a big problem is that it is way too obvious that you are actually making a choice. Supporting this hypothesis is that the game by default gives a pop-up hint of the consequences of a choice (eg that a character trust you less), and removing this makes it a lot better (but still not good enough). A few choices are made in a sort of "Virtua Cop"-like manner where you have to point a cross-hair over a target and then choose an action. It is not always clear that these are actual choices, in part because it is much more analog (not just choosing from a list of options) and partly because it is less clear that you can only can choose a ONE of the presented alternatives. These sequences did not bother me at all as much as the dialog options.

Pixel hunting
While the game does a lot to remove annoying adventure game features and make a smoother experience, it also falls back upon some annoying aspects of the genre. The most obvious is that of pixel hunting. There are only really two major adventure-game like puzzles in the game and both of these has the player searching for one or several objects, non-obviously located, in the environment. The worst of these is a remote control that is hidden in  drawer which is not accessible until you have done certain unrelated actions. This caused me to wander aimlessly in the scene for far too long.
I think it is really important to try and minimize this sort of things as it makes you go about exploring the scenes in a very unnatural way. Best is if the player can sort a puzzle out without having to search every nook and cranny for items.

Once you get caught up wandering without any real goal, like I mentioned above, you start doing the same things over and over. This is when you start noticing the slim output of lines that characters have. When asked the same question, they just repeat the same line they gave before. This is especially jarring when it amounts to longer exchange between the protagonist and a supporting character. Repeating canned responses like this really breaks the sense of immersion for me. I just simply cannot role-play when I am subjected to this sort of repetition.
I think the game should have removed hot-spots, given leading answers from characters (especially the protagonist), etc. Anything to push me in the direction and to keep up the make-belief that it is real characters inhabiting the virtual world. Now they just come of as cardboard signs the moment you start wandering off the intended path.

End Notes

I'd say that The Walking Dead is worth playing and being just over 2 hours of gameplay in the first episode it just not that much wasted time in case you end up hating it. While the game did not blow me away, I was pleasantly surprised and am intrigued to see how the next episode will turn out.

If anyone else has played the game, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following.:

- What did you think of the graphics? Was the discrepancy between trailer and in-game also large?
- What did you like the choices? Did it feel like you could roleplay or was it hard to put as side that there was a better choice?
- How did you feel about the repeated lines? Not bothering at all, or a nail in eye each time they were encounter?

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Thoughts on Lone Survivor

I just a finished Lone Survivor and because there is so much interesting stuff going on in it, I thought it was worth to write a blog post about it. At first glance Lone Survivor might look like some kind of 2D Silent Hill ripoff*, but there is a lot more to it than what is perceived at first sight.
In summary, Lone Survivor is basically about surviving in a world where most people been turned into monsters. You play as a guy that have been holed up alone in an apartment for quite some time and who is no longer sure what is real and what is not. It is viewed from a 2D side-scrolling perspective with pixel the size of fists, forcing you to imagine what most objects really look like. The story and atmosphere is very Lynchian in tone and filled all kinds of wonderful strangeness. Most of the gameplay is about conserving various resources, exploring the environment (with a map straight out of Silent Hill) and shooting / avoiding bad guys. I thought the first half of the game was really good, but later on it becomes a bit repetitive and fails to be as engaging as it was starting out. The game is truly a diamond in the rough though and implements some truly innovative features that are well worth discussing.

One large world
A striking feature of the game is that you can always go back to the room you started (and most other places you visit). In fact it is vital for your survival in the game. You need to go back to save the game, cook food,  check radio messages, etc. This creates a constant need to come back to your home base and it helps build up a solid sense of place. Also, many locations have characters and objects that reward you when revisited, adding to the feel of a persistent and real world.
This is not something new for videogames (many rpgs and some adventure games feature similar mechanics), but I cannot name a single horror game that use it. By allowing the protagonist to always have his own place to go back to, it increase the survival aspect of the game immensely. The simple act of forcing you to cook your food at home greatly enhances this feeling, and is so much more immersive eating what you find on the spot. Mechanics like that also make the environment seem more real and objects like stove pop out from the background to become something with a purpose.

There is a bad side to the open world design though, and that is backtracking. I have covered this subject earlier, and Lone Survivor brings out some new aspects to problem. The intial reaction to backtracking is that it is an annoyance to the player, but on some further consideration it is clear that is quite important. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, having the player revisit areas makes the game's world feel much more alive. Therefore, backtracking in Lone Survivor is a crucial element, and not something that one should simply try and minimize. However, while the backtracking helps build the world of the game, it backfires very easily. Traversing the same section of the map easily becomes repetitive, and you as a player quickly try and find ways to get it over with faster. When you get into this mind set, you are pulled out of the world, thus counteracting the building of presence it should be doing in the first place!
For instance, Lone Survivor feature a system to travel instantly back and forth between the apartment and last place you visited by looking into a mirror. This is a neat way of fixing quick traversal as it works with the story of the game, keeping the player's sense of presence. However, once the need arise to start going back and forth a lot, you stop roleplaying along with the mirror gazing, and it decays into an abstract tool for accessing abstract mechanics of the game such as saving. The same happens when trying to sneak past an enemy multiple times or even just walking the same path over and over. The travels become an monotonous chore and the feeling of immersion fades.
So how can this be fixed? First of all, a solution is not to try and remove the backtracking. As mentioned earlier, this is a crucial part of the experience. What should be focused on instead is to make the backtracking more varied and make sure the player does not feel inclined to (or is discouraged from) doing it too many times in a row. The experience should be designed in such a way that even though the player is going back a familiar path, the act of traveling should be in itself engaging, and not just a means to an end to use some kind of mechanic. This does not mean that it must be fun, it can actually be boring, but just that it is presented in such a manner that the player sees the journey as an important aspect of the experience. This is not an easy thing to accomplish especially in an open world design, where the designer has much less control over the flow of the game. But if considered from the start I do not see any problem with achieving it, and to have other mechanics work with it. Which brings me to next topic.

Combat is a quite a big part in Lone Survivor and comes with a bunch of problems. I think the main issue is that it overexposures you to the monsters of the game. Because forcing the player to deal with enemy encounter is such a big part of the game, one very quickly becomes used to the look of the creatures. This is quite a shame, because the ambiguous pixel graphics are quite good at depicting them in a moody and disturbing way. But after staring at a monster for the tenth time in a row most of the effect is lost. I think the encounters should have been briefer and more sparse.
A problem that Lone Survivor does avoid is that of combat detracting from the focus of the experience. Normally in horror games, having combat means that the player looks forward to monster encounters, since fighting them is so gratifying. Not so here. You only have a single gun as a weapon and shooting is quite clumsy, but simplistic and mechanically stable enough for it to be easily used as intended. It is not something that you have very fun doing though and mostly you do it simply because it is the easiest way of bypassing a threat (which works great with the story).
There are more problems to the combat though, and all are connected to the backtracking. First off, the game features a standard "die and retry" death mechanic that I do not think fits very well. Whenever you die, you almost always have to go back the exact same path that you did before and repeat the same sequence of actions. This essentially requires the player to do even more (non-engaging) backtracking, something that is already lessening immersion for the player. Given the strange story and gameplay based on resource management, I think death could have been implemented in numerous other ways without resorting to the standard trial and error way. For instance the player restart from the scene of death, but lose precious resources, gain some kind of injury or just be transported back to bed with any progress intact.
Having to sneak past enemies is also part of the game's combat mechanic, and at first it works quite well. However, because of the backtracking it soon becomes necessary to sneak past the enemy over and over again. This repetition not only makes the whole gameplay boring, it also pulls the player out of the immersive atmosphere and sneaking becomes an abstract mechanistic obstacle. A big part of the game is to choose whether to use lethal force or not, but choosing the stealth option is far less appealing, not only because it is quickly becomes a chore, but because it pulls you out of the experience.
In Lone Survivor combat is quite important for both story and gameplay reasons, so I do not think simply removing it would be an option. Instead, I think that having more dynamic enemy encounters could make most problems go away. This way the player does not always have to use repeat a section of stealth when backtracking. Monster exposure could also be better controlled this way. By keeping track of how the player is doing, the game could spawn enemies as needed.

Dynamic systems
What was I liked the best of about Lone Survivor was the dynamic nature of the game. The player consantly needs to keep track of health/hunger, sanity, ammunition along with a few other things. These are not just abstract meters the player need to keep in balance, but things that affect how the game plays out. For instance, the game triggers some scenes not based on where the player is located, but on how the current stats are. So for instance, running out of ammunition has a special scene associated with it. The protagonist also constantly comments on his current state in various ways which I thought really helped in building atmosphere.
Mot having strictly laid out events makes Lone Survivor feels so much more alive. I only wish that the game would have gone full out with it. The path the player needs to take to the game is still quite static, and have little dynamic elements to it. Because the story is so strange and fragmented the game could easily have had a random order of the important scenes. Instead of forcing a strict order on puzzles, items and major events, these could have depended on how the way the player played the game. This could also solve some backtracking problems and make sure the player found certain things in a specific order no matter how they chose to go. Solutions to puzzles could also depend on what the player currently had available. This kind of of design does not have to require any sophisticated algorithms either, but could use simple means and still be very much designed (as opposed to completely random).
Having a world that shapes according to the world is something I think can be very useful for story focused games. While Lone Survivor does not fully implement something like this, the element that it does have is a good indicator of what could be done.

Importance of text
Another thing I really liked in game was the great usage of text. In our age of crisp graphics and high quality voice overs, I think good old text is much underused. Because of the low fidelity graphics in Lone Survivor, writing plays a crucial part in giving feedback to the player. That does not mean that text does all of the work though, rather it is complemented by both sound and graphics, forming a nice synthesis. Here are some examples:

  • When using the radio, a brief sound sample of radio static is heard as the text of the transmission is displayed. This simple sound effect really sets the mood for how the text should be read and greatly adds to the experience. Another great thing about using text in these instances is that it handles repetition much better. Reading the same text a few times is not nearly as repetitive as hearing the same voice-over repeated. 
  • It is through text that most of the feelings of the protagonist are shown. Sometimes this is accompanied by audio/visuals, but mostly it is just presented as pure text. This is yet another great application for text, and while it can be a bit annoying to have to press a button for it to go away, overall it really helps to make the character's mood come across. Also, like with the radio message, repetition is a lot less problematic what a voice-over would be.
  • One point int game, the player is standing on balcony with nothing more than a house front seen in the background. But if you interact at a certain spot, the protagonist describes what he sees looking out over the city. I thought this worked nicely and really fitted with the protagonists situation of being locked inside an apartment complex. I actually think having had some image shown of the cityscape would have been a lot less effective, but when you have a lot of resources at your disposal  it is hard to forget that less might sometimes be more.
This is just a few samples of the great usage of text in Lone survivor. Of course it is far from the only game  to do this, but I think it is a fine example of its potential.
Text is much easier to autogenerate and to transform in various ways, lending it to dynamic systems a lot better than voices. It also leaves more to the imagination and can work great when combined with sound and graphics. It is important not to forget about and consider having it as an integral part of the game. As seen in Lone Survivor much of the text based stuff works because so integrated into the experience.

Multiple endings
The last thing I want to discuss, is the multiple endings of Lone Survivor. Not the actual story content of the endings, but of how the overall structure is designed. Basically, the player gets one of three endings based on how you have performed during the game. In doing so, it takes a lot of different variables into account (which are actually shown at the end of the game). So the game collects very personal data from you, and yet there are only three (not very personal) prefabricated endings to be seen.
When finishing a game with multiple endings I always get a feeling of having been cheated. A game with a single ending, even if it is not that good, almost always feel better than a game where I know there are more endings to be seen. Suddenly the game sets up a sort of competitive goal that I was not asking for: "see if you can find all endings" or "now try and get the proper ending" and I get the feeling that I am missing out on the full experience or that what I had was not the proper one.
I think that a better way of doing it would have been to have a dynamic final sequence tailored based upon the choices that you have. This would have made the ending much more personal and it would not be possible to simply look it up on YouTube. But that is just in theory of course, it is hard to say how it would work in practice.
Heavy rain does similar thing to do this, and have a certain number of smaller clips that are chosen based upon certain options during the play-through. I did not find this very satisfying either, and the problem here is that it is very easy to look up each of the individual clips. So to avoid that, the final scenes must be quite dynamic and details based on how the game was played.
Actually, I think the best choice is to not have an ending sequence at all and have the game play all the way to the credits. It is actually a bit strange that having played a game to the very end, we are rewarded with a non-interactive cut-scene. Pretty much every story based game works like this. But if the interaction continued all to the end, I think you could have a lot of differences and it would leave one feeling a lot less cheated.

A final note on this: In Amnesia we tried to have multiple endings, with the idea that each ending should fit the playing style of the player. So a player that played very aggressively would get a that kind of ending and so on. However we only collected data for very few (two or so actually) events, making any guess on the player style of play close to random. In the end, the endings (or the final sequence for that manner) were not received very well. Even though having multiple endings often sounds good in theory, I do not think we will be used it again, because it has a such a high risk of backfiring.

End notes
Lone Survivor is in no way a perfect game, but it is filled with lots of great and original ideas. If you are the slightest interested in horror games you should really give it a go. It is easily one of the most original and fresh horror games I have played for a couple of years.

*The designer actually did make a so called demake of SH2 called "Soundless Mountain II"

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Thoughts on Heavy Rain

It is very easy to talk bad about Heavy Rain. One can say it is just an interactive movie where you press buttons at certain key moments, in rare cases changing the outcome of the story. One can talk about the hole and cliche filled story and the weakly developed characters*. One can talk about this and other negative aspects of the game and I would fully agree. But if one only focuses on these areas, there is plenty of really interesting aspects that are missed.

Despite all these flaws I really enjoyed playing Heavy Rain. Sure, the quick-time-events (QTE:s) really got me worked up on more than one occasion and a lot of other issues bugged me, but on the whole it was quite an engaging experience. There are some truly tense and disturbing moments in the game that work great. For example the scene at the mall, while lame in many ways, managed to capture the protagonists sense of panic and that in an environment and setup I have never seen in a game before. The game also features great graphics, nice music and not too shabby acting (for most of the time anyway, and once you get used to the uncanny valley feel). The game also lets you be in situations that I have never seen outside of Interactive Fiction.

What really made the game interesting though was not the things that I liked, but the things that are slightly broke. Because of the way that QTE:s work, being a quite fragile system in terms of immersion, it sort of exposes your own usually hidden thought processes as you play the game. Also, the game's filmic nature and focus on a branching narrative makes it a virtual smorgasbord of game design theory to try out. This is what truly makes Heavy Rain worth playing.

Immersion as an essence
By far, the most important realization I got when playing Heavy Rain is how interaction is not mainly about giving the player interesting choices. When playing the game I never felt the need to make choices on the basis of seeing what would happen, instead I simply wanted the characters to act in certain ways in order to confirm to my expectations of how I thought they would (and should) be acting. What I think happens is that as we interact in a videogame, there is feedback loop between us sending input to the game and us getting information back from the game (in the form of visuals, audio, etc), which builds the basis of us feeling present inside the game's virtual world. The better this loop works, the more we feel as a part of the experience.

Heavy Rain is an excellent example of this process at work. When there is flow in the controls (which is usually in the scenes giving you direct character control, such as the early mall sequence), there is a very satisfying feeling of being one with the character. Then suddenly some weird QTE pops up and you either fail at completing it, or it simply does not give the result you expected, and once again you are pulled out of your sense of presence. The game is littered with moments like this, pulling you in and the throwing you back out. When Heavy Rain manages to sustain the belief of you having agency over the character, that is when the game is at it best. These are the occasions when there is a very strong loop of interaction going on and you are the most present inside the game's world. When this loop is broken, it does not matter what kind of interesting choices you might have at your disposal. The game immediately becomes less engaging the moment the loop of interaction breaks down.

In this light of thinking, QTE events make perfect sense. It is simply a rudimentary system for trying and sustain a feedback loop during various types of scenes. It is not about setting up a competition for the player, it is just a very blunt and unreliable system to sustain a sense of presence. I really doubt that QTE:s is the way to do narrative art in videogames, but it does gives us invaluable information on how to proceed.

What all this seem to indicate is that a videogame that wants to tell a story, should not use interaction to deliver a multitude of choice, but instead to reinforce the feedback loop of immersion. This might entail having choice, but the choices in themselves are not what is of the most importance, giving a very sharp focus on how to design the mechanics. It may actually be that the very future of making artful games with focus on narrative is to focus on this interactive loop of immersion. There is a lot more to discuss on this subjects and there are other things that also points in this direction. I am hoping to devout an entire post on that subject soon, so consider this a taste of things to come.

A final note: This "interaction as a means to create immersion" does not imply that the future of videogames are incredibly linear interactive cinema -far from it. In many cases a non-linear and open game world is essential in order to support the feedback loop.

The importance of determinism
In most games you have a pretty strong sense of what the protagonist will do when a button is pressed. Not so in Heavy Rain. Apart from direct movement and a few repeatable actions (like be able to shout your son's name in the mall scene), most of the time icons just pop up with vague hints on what the input will achieve. Sometimes you will learn what action might happen (such as that an up-arrow at a railing will mean that you will lean against it), but this takes a bit time and requires that a similar action has already been carried out.

In many cases this has a drastic reduction on the sense of presence. For one, it makes you unable for you to form plans. Simply by surveying an environment you cannot determine a course of actions (even if you know all trigger spots), and during action sequences it gets even worse as QTE:s may up at any moment in pretty much unguessable form. Making up plans is one of the basic corner stones of human intelligence, and possible the reason we developed a conscioussness, so not having the option of doing this is a hard blow against the sense of agency. Another reason it reduces immersion is that your character might not act in the way you intended. Before picking an action you almost always makes some kind of assessment of what will happen, but it is quite likely that this will be dead wrong. Thus the character your are supposed to feel a connection to, ends up performing an action that you did not intend. Of course, it is very hard to feel as a part oft he game's world when this happen.

This system stands in stark contrast with how Limbo works, where you are pretty much always certain of exactly what will happen. I think this is very much connection in the level of immersion Limbo manages to have throughout (unless you get stuck in trial and error of course), and how Heavy Rain stumbles through the entire experience. One should not be too hard on Heavy Rain though as the space of interactions that are possible to perform throughout the game by far outnumber those in Limbo. The real challenge for the future is to coming closer to multitude of actions in Heavy Rain, but still having the determinism of Limbo.

The understanding between Player and Videogame
Another big problem in Heavy Rain, which is related to the point above, is that the game sometime seem to work against you. It might seem obvious that this is a dealbreaker in terms of immersion and I have already discussed the problem of camera control in Dead Space Extraction. The issue can be a bit more subtle though and Heavy Rain serves as great example of this. For instance, in one scene I had made a plan of actions: to first bandage an unconscious person and then to poke around in his stuff. There really was nothing hindering me from doing so but instead the game removed my ability to interact directly after caring for the person. The game interpreted me wanting to help the guy as I also did not want to poke around, thinking that they two were mutually exclusive actions. Of course I thought otherwise and considered it no problem at all to do some poking afterward.

There are plenty of situations like this and it makes it quite clear that you should never move ahead on a bigger outcome from a choice without being certain that this is also what the player expects. I also see this as a problem of having major choices the player in a game that lack a high level simulation (like Fallout for example). Just the simple action of walking out a door can have many different meanings to a player, and one needs to be careful and make sure that most players have same idea of what it means. Once you throw branching paths into the pot, it gets a lot more complicated and clashes between player and game is much more likely to happen.

Emotional Simulation
An interesting aspect of Heavy Rain that I have not seen (at least not this directly) in any other game using QTE:s (or normal mechanics for that matter) is to trick the player into feeling certain emotions. The way it works in the game is that the player is forced to hold down a lot of buttons at the same time, while often also moving the stick around. This creates an uncomfortable and demanding way to hold the controller in, which is meant to simulate the way the onscreen character feels. While it might sound a little dodgy, it works quite well in many cases, especially in a scene containing self-mutilation.

The research behind this kind of response is actually very well established and designer Chris Pruett has hypothesized that the effect is probably a reason why many unforgiving horror games turn out to be extra scary (a design decision that comes with other problems though). The way it works is that we humans often do not know why we are feeling a certain way and unconsciously project it onto something else. For instance one experiment had people thinking that arousal due to their fear of heights was due physical attraction instead.

All is not good with this design in Heavy Rain though. Because the inputs you perform are not fluent (as it is prompted on a situational basis) and non-deterministic (as explained above) you are mostly very conscious of what you are doing with the controller. If the controls where more transparent (like in Limbo) you would be less conscious of your input, and any uncomfortable placement of the hand is much more likely to be projected into whatever the protagonist is doing. I think this can be very potent stuff if handled properly and let the player get immersed in experiences that would be hard to simulate in any other way.

Trial and error
Heavy Rain boasts that it does not have any game over screen, but it still manages to have is massive amounts of trial-and-error. This time the forceful repetition of events does not only occur in death threatening situations though. In Heavy Rain it often happens during extremely mundane actions like brushing your teeth and taking a shower. It is an extremely good example why this sort of design is so immersion destroying. From believing that you are playing an actual living character, the sudden requirement to repeat an event pulls you out from the experience directly. It is so obvious that you go from trying to become present in a virtual world to just trying and overcome a very mechanical task.

I think the biggest problem is that Heavy Rain is very sensitive in how you complete the QTE sequences. Let go of a button for a micro seconds and it results in an instant failure. When the game gets rid of so many other stigmas of old game design, it is sad to see it stuck in this one. I think the way it should have done it is to become a little bit more relaxed and to allow some more failures. Instead being competitive-like and very strict in the actions, it should instead check if the player tried enough to do something. As long as the players are playing along, I see no reason for punishing them. The game should have tried to keep the illusion of an interactive-feedback loop alive for as long as possible, instead of simply breaking it at the slightest incorrect input.

Some misc points
Now for some shorter stuff that I found interesting:
  • When done right, the direct and free control method is by far the more immersive. However it also puts a lot of pressure on the character reacting in a proper way. Quite often, the character I was controlling ended up acting like a moron, walking into walls and the like, even if I really tried hard to control him properly. The constrained events do not suffer this problem, and have the characters act much more lifelike, but at the same time they do not have the same level of interaction required for deep sense of presence.
  • Heavy Rain is at its best when simulating tightly space and time-wise bounded scenes. At these points it was much easier to give me a sense of having agency and to let me become one with the moment. The scenes self-mutilation, pushing through a crowd, escape from bench in cellar, etc are all great examples of this. Judging from what seemed to have worked best in Amnesia, I think a lot can be gained by taking this design further.
  • The game is a great test bed for a game that has decisions with big ramifications, such as the death of main characters. My own conclusion from Heavy Rain is that all of these choices are probably unneeded and did not gain me much except the sense of missing out on the story. Interestingly, Heavy Rain feels quite different in this regard from a game like Fallout (with the, as mentioned, more higher level narrative simulation).
  • Achievements (trophies on the ps3) really suck in story-centric game. Having gone through a scene and then getting a sort of grade, really removes the ability to make up your own mind of what just took place. It is quite similar to the "understanding between player and game" problem, as achievements has a high risk of going against the player's intentions (and does not really help gain anything).

End notes
As I think this post shows there are many reasons why Heavy Rain is a really interesting game to play. It does a lot of things that other videogames do not even dare to consider, and while it kind of fails on a lot of it, just attempting it is an important step on the way. If only more mainstream games were like this.

Also, after playing through Heavy Rain I have come to wish that there were more games like it. By that I do not mean more games with QTE:s (which I really hated much of the time) but games that allows the player to always progress and focus on a rich narrative experience. In most other games I either have to endure annoying puzzles or have to become an accomplish in a genocide. Given the high scores the game has gotten (from press and the public) I do not think I am alone in this. Please do not see this as an urge for people to copy Heavy Rain though, but instead to use the game it as a step towards something that truly makes use of the medium.

*Emily short has a really good essay on the story of Heavy Rain. Check it here.