So, a while ago I wrote a few words about atmosphere in video games. During that piece, I used Saw as an example of a bad game made playable by its creepy, unsettling atmosphere, which in turn led a few people to surmise that the game itself is actually good. Because I’m all about the people, I thought I’d take some time to clarify why it isn’t.
Following on from my previous post about this subject, I thought it might be useful to take a look at some examples of video game tutorials which are considered to be effective and try to figure out whether or not they actually are.
Because I’m lazy, I did a single YouTube search and just chose the first video that came up. So yeah, there are probably better examples out there which would facilitate more interesting analysis, but whatever. I’m a busy man.
Once upon a time, there was always a little booklet nestled inside the packaging of a video game. It was called an instruction manual, and you could usually judge the complexity of a game by how thick it was. Once upon a time, the first thing I did when I bought any new game was read that thing cover to cover, sometimes more than once. Often it would have lots of interesting flavour text about the game’s world and its characters, alongside all the usual stuff about control schemes and mechanics. Once upon a time, these things were really important.
“Once upon a time” refers to relatively recent years – within the last decade, certainly. There’s probably a generation of gamers who don’t remember manuals at all, but there are many more who remember them as a fundamental component of a game’s whole experience. Instruction manuals weren’t just for giving the player necessary information; the best were stuffed with all kinds of ancillary content, from artwork and maps to pages full of interesting storytelling.
Contemporary gaming has rendered these things pretty much obsolete. I can’t remember the last time I even looked at one. Very few releases these days include them at all. Nintendo 3DS games, for example, have digital manuals installed on the software itself. You can have a quick look if you need to, but you probably won’t.
A lot of video game purists have a real problem with cutscenes, despite the fact that they have been a fundamental part of the medium’s storytelling in one guise or another pretty much as long as it has existed. The most popular reason for this seems to be that leaving the interactive world and entering the cinematic one is sacrificing the integrity of the video game. Gameplay must remain king, or at least so it would seem.
I don’t personally subscribe to this belief. I think cutscenes are a valuable component of interactive fiction. One reason is that a pre-rendered sequence is a great way to dump exposition or otherwise flesh out a story without running the risk of players interrupting or wandering off to do their own thing. Another reason is that they provide a concentrated space within which designers and animators can emphasise character gestures and movement which isn’t always possible during gameplay. There are plenty of other reasons too. What it basically boils down to is that cutscenes are useful in a number of ways which are going to remain useful until the video game develops its language enough to take over.
I do, however, have certain issues with cutscenes, namely that the vast majority of them are terrible. That’s what this post is about, essentially. I don’t imagine any video game designers have enough spare time that they’re going to be wasting it reading anything that I have to say, but I also figure if we can whine and complain about it loudly enough then someone, somewhere is going to have to take some notice. To that end, let’s take a brief moment to establish some of the things we’re going to be shouting out.
It’s all too easy to criticise Alpha Protocol for its mechanical shortcomings, loose characterisation and unfulfilling combat. Indeed I have, multiple times, during the hours that I spent with it. This is not a genre-defining role-playing game, a revolutionary shooter or a masterclass of stealth gameplay. It’s a far cry from all of those things. Yet, it utterly compels me, often in a way which very few video games ever have in the past.
My version of international super spy Michael Thorton is a sneaky, tech-savvy lurker who finds solace in the shadows and the dull thud of silenced weaponry. He’s a thinker, more suited to finding alternate, more intelligent solutions to problems which a noisy assault could just as easily solve. The customisation options Obsidian provide not only allow this kind of approach, but present me with the tools I need to complement such a style of play. All this is irrelevant, however. How I progress through the shooting galleries has no real impact, nor is it the most fulfilling element of Alpha Protocol. I appreciate the freedom I’m given, but I don’t really and truly care.
[This was a piece I wrote maybe three years ago now. It was my first published piece for Pixels or Death, back when I was the News Editor over there. Even though the main focal point here is something which has largely become irrelevant – that is, motion controls – I still feel like a lot of the points about difficulty and the medium’s lack of an appropriate entry point for newcomers are still valid. So, here’s the whole thing. I did some general edits, but the gist is pretty much identical. Do take this with a pinch of salt because it’s a bit out-of-date in certain respects and the tone is one I don’t tend to use these days, but nevertheless it was fun to write and I think there’s some merit to it yet.]
Motion controls. Let’s face it; they’re pretty shit, right?
The answer to that question is a resounding “yes”, and anyone who disagrees with me should be hung by their thumbs and beaten with a Wiimote until their eyeballs switch places.
I’m not talking about those games for fat people, either – if Wii Fit offers you a perfectly-tailored workout program, that’s fine, but that’s not a game is it? It’s just your insecurities digitized and plastered all over the TV for your entire family and social circle to point fingers at while giggling at your Body Mass Index.
The unfortunate reality is that the video game industry needs motion controls. Or, more appropriately, it needs the impressionable casual-gaming types that motion controls attract. Those guys and girls we’re laughing at, jumping around in front of their television screens playing tennis with a poorly-rendered, swollen-headed midget – those are the next wave of core gamers. There’s a revolution coming, people. We need to prepare for it.
Hi there. Welcome back. Last time, we talked about the two broadest components of linear-narrative video games, and why they’re important in crafting a compelling experience. Today, we’re going to talk about some actual games – which is much less scholarly but hopefully slightly more fun. We’ll see.
Note: I’m not going to comprehensively analyse each game. It’d take too long and I’d end up repeating myself far more than I’d like. Instead I’ll try and hone in on one or two things specifically that each does really well.
Also note: I mentioned this in the last post, but I wrote the bulk of this a few years ago and as such some of these games (and other points of reference) may seem a little out of date. Try not to worry about it too much. Wherever possible I’ll suggest more modern examples, and I’m sure you good folks will offer some that I neglect.
Without further ado: