Thursday, January 24, 2008

TECHNOLOGY- Complex Videogames

I just finished Half-Life II on the PS3 and had a few thoughts. I realize that the game has been out for a couple of years but this is more about my impressions, not a review.

First Person Shooters used to be the only place you had the character’s POV but that’s long gone. With the advent of ubiquitous 3D there isn’t a single type of game that hasn’t adopted a first person or over the shoulder aspect. Half Life is a Doom-type first person shooter, but is far more varied than most with the platforming, puzzle, and vehicle driving aspects that have become standard in FPSs. The graphics are extraordinary, easily competing with Bioshock which was released almost two years later. The environments are varied- indoors and outdoors, Dystopian city landscapes (with a couple of excellent rooftop areas), underground (mines, sewers, partially flooded tunnels), a gothic village (Ravenholm), beaches, and even a truss arch bridge platforming level that will induce vertigo in the strongest stomach. The vehicles consist of a long set of airboat levels and a shorter dune buggy ride interspersed with the more typical small arms fighting and throwing switches. The puzzles are predominantly of the stacking boxes to reach something type, and the similar tedious areas where you use the gravity gun to build a roman road across some dangerous surface (sand or radioactive water mostly). Likewise the platforming elements are rather simple (such as running along Father Gregori’s elevated pathways in Ravenholm) and used to break up the monotony of the virtually non-stop skirmishes.

None of this is the problem with Half Life. The play mechanics are solid. The objectives are reasonable. the environments are interesting and varied. The problem for me is one of focus. I’ve been playing FPS games since Doom. There was a time when an advanced game engine or better graphics or new weapons were enough for a game where the whole point was pretending to kill a lot of stuff because, well, killin’ was what they needed. If this is what you want in a game, then Half Life is top of the heap. In fact, in the Orange Box configuration it’s probably the best deal ever in a console FPS.

But what if you want more than that? I keep seeing demographics that indicate the average gamer is in their late 20s or even early 30s now. Is it still enough to simply run down hallways and blow up NCPs with nifty weapons? I’m afraid that growth of the videogame market is hitting a plateau. And I’m afraid it’s because of repetitiveness and superficiality. Half Life 2 does a good job of setting the stage, but then nothing interesting really happens in the world they’ve worked so hard to build. The game winds up being about the levels and the story winds up being about the setting.

Not all videogames are like this. Bioshock, for instance, tried to tie story and location together to give the player the feeling that they were involved in something bigger than whoopin’ the bad guys. Halo (before it degenerated into an excuse for multiplayer deathmatches) had enough plot that it might have made a decent science fiction short story. In fact, most games make some sort of swipe at trying to involve the player in a narrative of some sort. Even racing games sometimes try to give the NPC drivers personality. But the games themselves are about the games not about being a vehicle for storytelling.

But what if we put the story first? Oh, it’s been tried. You might say ZORK was an attempt. There was a myriad of point-and-click PC games that were story based in the wake of MYST. There were even the abysmal interactive movies on the Sega CD and others. But what games lack is real dialogue and characterization that would carry the narrative. In fact, most of these degenerated into ZORK with better graphics. The technology wasn’t right for real immersion and most games wound up being about the quest or the mystery and that involved walking around and finding a bunch of objects and killing stuff.

Make games more like novels where the player is the protagonist. I hesitate to say movies or TV because so much of those media are caught in the same sort of trap that games are. How many TV shows are procedurals? Cop or doctor shows? Boringly similar? How about games set in exotic locales with interesting characters and surprising plot twists where killing someone has the same moral gravitas that it does in real life? How about a game set in Ancient Rome where you have to decide whether to run for the Senate while negotiating the social hierarchy? Where making the wrong enemy can help or thwart you? How about a game based on Larry Niven’s Ringworld that starts you off at your 200th birthday party and winds up with you trying to get home from beyond the end of known space in the company of a small group of aliens on the largest artifact ever discovered? How about…well, you name it. Videogames have acquired the technology to be a lot more than games. They can be complex experiences told in real time and first person perspective. We all know this is where interactive entertainment is eventually going to go. So why are the gaming companies so caught up in the tired military and fantasy genres? Why is the main purpose of the game to have me jump up on something or shoot someone?

Mass Effect seems to be a big step in the right direction. I haven’ t played very far in but the way the game is laid out gives it the potential to have a real story. Alas, for those of us tired of being in the military in every game, it hasn’t been able to forsake that major cliche. Still, the graphics are good enough for a true immersive quality, the plot attempts complexity, and the idea of having you direct the gist of the conversation is a good idea. Hopefully it will be successful enough that other companies will start with story first and build the game around it, rather than vice versa.

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