Tagged: gameplay

Epistory Video Review

If you’ve been following for a while, you may have already seen my first and second articles on the Early Access version of Epistory, an open-world typing game by Fishing Cactus. Well, now that the game is out, and now that my computer is capable of reliably recording gameplay, I thought I’d try a video review.

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Fear in Five Nights at Freddy’s

I’ve always felt that less is more when it comes to horror. In films or in fiction, a monster is always scariest when it’s not around: or you think it’s not around. The moment it pops out at you, you know where it is, and in many ways that makes it a lot less frightening.

This is even more true in games. It’s always seemed to me that the strongest section of any game in the Resident Evil franchise is the opening, even though the most hideous monsters tend to pop up towards the end. The reason for this is simple: it’s far scarier to inch your way through a dark room knowing there might be something inside than it is to rush through a place that’s already swarming with zombies. Typically there’s a trade-off in terms of gameplay because more zombies mean more action, but for pure scare-power nothing quite matches up to that tense first hour or so.

Screenshot from 2016-03-14 14:30:21

This is not the case with Five Nights at Freddy’s which, if anything, gets scarier as it goes on. Personally, I loaded it up the first time around just because I was curious. At this point, I’m not sure I’ll ever finish the thing. Continue reading

Videogame Realism and Open(ish) Worlds

Ages ago–long before I started aiming for a game-related piece a week–I wrote an article about the Metro series: a first person horror game set in a mutant-filled Russian wasteland. The series goes to great lengths to make itself immersive and realistic, but in doing so highlights some of the more implausible elements that other games slip in unnoticed. In that article, I made the case that, for example, experiencing the game from the perspective of a character who gets dramatically shoved around during cutscenes kind of draws attention to how odd it is that you can stand perfectly still and reload your weapon while a pack of mutants tries to chew your face off. In games where there’s an obvious heads-up display and a chunk of the gameplay involves explicitly managing stats, it can actually be a lot easier to ignore how unrealistically your character behaves.

Recently, I got playing a game that works as a really handy comparison to Metro just because the nuts and bolts of it are so incredibly similar: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl.

Screenshot from 2016-01-22 19:41:58

You can tell it’s post-apocalyptic because your mouse cursor has a radiation symbol glued to it.

Both games are set in a cartoonishly Russian (or Ukranian) disaster zone, both see you battling scavengers and mutants from a first person perspective, and both aim for a degree of realism. However, where Metro funnels you through totally linear series of missions, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. makes a big deal about letting you wander around freely completing various quests (or not). The vast majority of these quests aren’t even assigned by anyone in particular: random bandits carry notes about weapons they’ve stashed away or valuables they had to abandon while fleeing the military. “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.,” by the way, stands for “Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers:” an acronym so feeble that from this point on I’m not even going to dignify it with full stops.

Screenshot from 2016-01-22 19:52:31

Pew! Pew!

STALKER‘s gameplay in general feels considerably less “real” than that Metro, and not just because of the decade-old graphics. Far more effort has gone into giving you multiple paths to choose from than it has making any one of those paths feel particularly plausible. However, in some ways this is an advantage: because the game focuses more on the tactical decisions you make as a player (choosing one gun over another based on the situation at hand) rather than what situation you’re in as a character (calmly switching weapons while monsters swarm all over you) it doesn’t draw quite so much attention to the occasions when what’s happening on screen would make no sense in reality.

Someone (and I really wish I could remember who) once made the case that although Grand Theft Auto feels unrealistic because so many buildings have doors that don’t open, Mario doesn’t suffer from the same problem. That’s kind of the case here: Metro, which strives for on-screen realism, often draws attention to the sort of unrealistic elements that STALKER simply glosses over.

STALKER sees you playing as the nameless “Marked One,” who–presumably to accommodate the wider range of story options available to the player–isn’t anywhere near as solid a character as Artyom from Metro. As the Marked One, you’re totally free to ignore the main storyline and focus on finding bandits’ lost backpacks. As Artyom, that kind of thing would seriously clash with the character’s motives and backstory. The Marked One is a handy device to let you do whatever, but has about as much depth as a jacuzzi and none of the bubbles. Near the start of the game, there’s a wounded man begging for a medpack. If you don’t have one (or just don’t want to hand it over), your only dialogue option is “See you!”

Screenshot from 2016-01-22 19:59:34

I know this is probably just a generic “end conversation” option, but in this context it’s so out of place that it’s hard not to laugh at it. I can’t imagine this conversation actually happening any more than I can imagine a conversation in which one person says “Help me, I’m dying,” and the other person says “BYEZIES!”

When Metro feels unreal, it’s because the game fails to present a plausible sequence of events on screen. When STALKER feels unreal, it’s because the game fails to present a reasonable range of options. The dialogue box you see above is already a step away from reality: the spoken words are presented as text and there’s a limited range of responses. It’s easy enough to accept that this totally unrealistic screen represents a more realistic exchange of words. The problem is that the words themselves don’t even belong here.

I’ve noticed a similar problem with some of the quests. STALKER takes the brave step of putting a time limit on some missions, requiring you to find items or beat baddies within a certain number of in-game hours or days. This helps give the impression that you’re a guy doing a job (the client needs the item before Tuesday) rather than a player accumulating quests (I’ll get around to this after I beat the next boss). However, though this opens up the realistic possibility that you’ll fail a mission simply because you didn’t encounter the appropriate item/enemy in that time, it also opens up the possibility that you’ll trigger a timed quest long before you can possibly complete it.

The worst example of this I found sees you killing a bandit leader on behalf of one particular faction, then being unable to claim the reward because “you don’t have business with this faction” (read: you haven’t yet started the relevant quest). If it weren’t possible to actually fail that quest because of the time limit, you’d chalk this up as one to come back to after the next boss. However, since that’s not an option, it just draws attention to the fact that there’s a “right” or “intended” way to play through the game, and that straying away from it is liable to make certain missions impossible to finish. In the same way that Metro sometimes ends up feeling fake because it’s otherwise trying to be realistic, STALKER sometimes ends up feeling closed off because it’s otherwise trying to be so open.

Epistory – Chapter Two Review

Given that Chapter Two of Epistory came out while I was writing the review of Chapter One, I had been hoping to get this second review done sooner. Part of that is down to things being busy at Christmas, part is down to my job, and part is down to my job being busy at Christmas.

2016-01-05_00007

Also I got my character stranded on a tiny beach.

Yeah. I played through Chapter One again as recommended (because there’s no guarantee that saves from the earlier version of Epistory will still work 100% correctly since the update), and managed to break the game pretty much the moment I started Chapter 2. That held me up a bit. Being an Early Access title, this kind of thing is to be expected, and I hope my experience helps the developers iron out the kinks. Continue reading

Flash Fiction Month 2014

Every now and then, when the stars are right, an event rises from the unfathomable depths, glistening with unholy glory. That event is Flash Fiction Month: a month-long challenge for which participants write one piece of flash fiction every single day for the whole of July. I’ve done it twice before, and the results were OCR is Not the Only Font and Red Herring respectively. If you’ve read and enjoyed (any of) either of those, or if you’d just like to jump in and start following my progress this year, I invite you to follow me either here, on Twitter, or on deviantART (where the challenge itself originates).

Also, if you’re a writer yourself, I highly recommend giving the challenge a go. It may be short notice, but a big part of the beauty of Flash Fiction Month is that (unlike National Novel Writing Month), it’s not helpful, practical nor even possible to plan ahead! You just jump right in and see where each day takes you.

Also, Spoiler Alert, the first game you’ll ever uncomplete is now available on Steam for the kingly sum of £4.99, and until the 7th of July it’s only £3.99! Go get it here, or find out more in this blog post.

Spoiler Alert!

Spoiler Alert is now available on Steam: find it here!

Contrary to what that title suggests, this post does not, in fact, contain spoilers. It’s about Spoiler Alert: a game by independent developer, Megafuzz. It’s had the honour of being awarded “Most Promising Game in Development” by Indie Prize Amsterdam 2014, as well as nominated for “Best Desktop Game” and “Most Innovative Game.” Why? Because, to quote the tagline, Spoiler Alert is the very first game you will eveuncomplete!

Backwards

It's also the first game to feature my name in the credits!

It’s also the first game to feature my name in the credits!

“Additional Story Input” actually involved more playtesting than writing, but it was an amazing project to get involved with, and definitely an interesting premise. Playing the game back to front, you have to place coins in the level and jump on crushed enemies to resurrect them. Fallen spikes rise to the ceiling as you approach (backwards, duh), and you must avoid balls of plasma that newly un-exploded baddies in robo-suits are sucking back into their guns. And did I mention that you’re playing a chilli pepper in a crusader helmet? Because that’s kind of important.Mr. Deathbunny

Naturally there are bosses, complete with end-of-battle fighting talk! The final boss, Mr. Deathbunny, is probably my main contribution to the game. At one point he would attack with rainbow beams and love grenades, but now mostly serves to illustrate the backwards game mechanics. Be thankful you don’t actually have to fight him any more: he was a terrifying opponent, as his truly horiffic appearance will probably suggest.

The game as it stands now–due to be released on June 30th–has come a long way, and the removal of the Deathbunny fight is just the beginning (and if you get the desktop version on Steam, you’ll be able to compare it to the original version from Game Jam). Not only is the whole experience significantly more polished, and not only does it include an unlockable speedrun mode (and bonus level), there’s a level editor complete with hilarious item descriptions:

Level EditorPictured above, a level in which Chilli Pepper Knight pursues a morbidly obese undead garden gnome that originally would have rolled around attempting to crush him. If you’re familiar with my short fiction, you may be surprised to learn that this was not, in fact, one of my contributions.

Patronising Completion ScreenThe level editor gives you a huge range of customisation options–from changing the backdrops and music to the little end of level completion message–covering pretty much everything you find in the main game. And as much fun as that main game is, I suspect that the user-generated levels may end up being even better. A lot of what makes Spoiler Alert interesting to play from start to finish…er…finish to start is that it’s exactly like playing a short, Mario-style platformer backwards. That means that, say, you won’t generally pick up two different powerups in one level, but in a one-off, user-generated level free from a wider story, that could be a neat thing to do. Incedentally, the powerups themselves are another neat nod to the backwards nature of the game: you don’t collect them from within the levels, you gain them by resurrecting a version of yourself that died while wielding one. That is to say, if you see a chilli pepper corpse lying on some spikes wearing a dragon helmet, you throw yourself onto it and can then run backwards away from the spikes, unbreathing fire as you go.

Yeah…a lot of this makes more sense if you can actually see it happening, so I’ll just leave this here for you:

But even the trailer doesn’t quite do the whole thing justice. Little things, whether it’s all the rain in the level falling upwards or the way you have to drop onto a bouncy mushroom to get down from spaces you couldn’t have reached by jumping, all add to the feeling that you really are uncompleting the game, and that’s not something I’ve ever seen before. If it’s something you’d like to try, grab the game on Steam on the 30th right freakin’ now, or wait around until the mobile version’s out. Since it’s all played with just one button (okay, sometimes it’s with two), I can see this being quite a good pocket timewaster.

Also, the story’s amazing. I’d tell you about it, but you know…spoilers. 😉

E.T. Graveyard Discovered near Roswell

The year is 1983. The place? A stretch of desert near Roswell. A convoy of trucks makes its way through a ring of private security, dumps thousands of boxes of small electronic devices, then turns back the way it came. In the dusty mirror, the last driver to leave catches a glimpse of a bulldozer ploughing over the pit of boxes. The site was later sealed with concrete. What lay beneath would remain hidden for thirty years, not resurfacing until April 26th, 2014…

It sounds like something from a science fiction film. And in fact, that’s not too far off. Many of the mysterious boxes were in fact copies of videogame developer Atari’s notorious (in some circles) 1982 flop, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, based on the beloved Spielberg film. Widely considered the worst game ever commercially released, millions of cartridges were manufactured, but most were never sold and, of those that were, a significant proportion were returned for a refund.

The game’s commercial failure is said to have contributed to the decline of Atari—prompting this burial of unsold games and hardware—and even a slump in the U.S. videogame industry as a whole. However, the sheer poor quality of the E.T. videogame has earned it fame (or at least infamy) unmatched by any other title resting in that landfill, excavated just this week.

If you would like to experience the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial videogame first-hand—and that’s a big “if”—you can play it online, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

“Ludonarrative Dissonance” and Other Videogame Quirks

Have you ever noticed how stories in games don’t always sit well with what you actually do in them? How you can revive your spiky-haired buddies time and time again with unicorn tears right up until one of them gets bumped off in a cutscene, at which point they’re gone for good? How that mysterious virus has turned the entire city’s population into zombies, but you can get bitten hundreds of times and suffer no ill effects? How your magic sword can cleave boulders in twain (according to the description), but for some reason you still have to round up Farmer Busywork’s sheep so he’ll open a waist-high wooden gate for you? That’s ludonarrative dissonance. Or, to put it a less hilarious-sounding way, that’s when story and gameplay don’t work well together.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll probably know I’m pretty keen on games. Particularly video games. I’ve even had a go at producing a game myself, though as a writer I tend to focus on story over gameplay. And that’s what’s got me thinking. That, and Metro: Last Light.

Metro: Last Light, if you haven’t heard of it, is a sequel to 2010’s Metro 2033, which in turn is based on Dmitri Glukhovski’s novel by the same name. It’s a post-apocalyptic Survival Horror in which you travel through the decaying tunnels of the Moscow Metro, and occasionally the even more decaying surface. The gameplay is notable because it uses a first person perspective with no heads-up display. There’s no health bar, no compass and (usually) no ammo counter. All the necessary information is presented either inside the head of the player character, Artyom–a pounding heartbeat if you become seriously injured, laboured breathing as your gasmask’s filter begins to clog–or in the world itself: you can see the stack of bullets gradually disappearing into your rifle as you fire, and cracks in your visor indicate that it is damaged and poisonous air from outside is beginning to seep in. The hardest difficulty level in 2033 and a downloadable expansion for Last Light add further realism, removing the crosshair from the centre of the screen and generally increasing the threat posed by enemy fire and slavering mutants.

Compared with the vast majority of first person games, Metro is extremely immersive. In addition to the overall lack of direct “here is how many medpacks you have” type information presented on-screen, the game takes pains to remind you that you are an individual human being moving through a real and deadly world, rather than some tank-like camera-bot maneouvering through an arbitrary series of similar-looking corridors. Any splashes of grime or blood on your mask obscure your view and must be wiped away with a button-press. Cutscenes frequently see your view change and tilt as Artyom looks around or is knocked over by some sudden event. And yet, somehow, all these realistic little touches also serve to highlight the ways in which the situation is, in many respects, completely unbelievable.

It’s made clear time and again that Artyom is not an invincible action hero. The people of the Metro, despite being somewhat desensitised to its horrors, still dread the bandits and hordes of mutants lurking in the darkness, and the player’s character is no exception. This is particularly clear in the–for want of a better world–haunted patches of the world, where shadowy figures appear, whispers are heard and, occasionally, electric lights stop working, forcing you to navigate by the light of your cigarette lighter. And yet, he’s curiously unaffected by the sight of some glowing-eyed horror suddenly lurching into that three-foot pool of light. You can shoot as accurately at a charging, pig-faced mutant as you can a tin bullseye at a shooting range. Not only that, if you are caught off-guard, you can calmly reload or switch weapons while the pesky tunnel-beast claws at your face. You the player might be freaking out on your sofa, but you the character get on with it just as quickly as you would in a brigtly-lit room with a great big “Reloading for Dummies” poster on the wall in front of you.

And when you think even further about what’s actually going on in the game, it just gets more and more impossible. To begin with, you have a huge choice of weapons and all of these can be upgraded in some way or another, meaning that none of them are guaranteed to work quite the same way as any of the others. Compounding the problem, quite a few have been made, post-apocalypse, in the Metro tunnels. Somehow, Artyom is deadly accurate with literally all of them and never has to fumble around trying to work out how to take off the safety or eject an empty magazine. You can chalk this up as an acceptable break from reality, since spending twenty minutes in an empty tunnel quietly working out how to use the thing would almost certainly not improve the game, but acceptable or not, it’s a break, and once you’ve noticed it, it’s impossible to un-notice.

It’s also worth considering that Artyom’s uncanny ability to just pick up and use any gun he stumbles across has knock-on effects. The myriad of designs–some pre-apocalypse, some cobbled together in the tunnels–mean that even though several will share one sort of ammunition (pistol rounds, rifle rounds, shotgun shells, etc.) the way these are actually fed into the weapon may be (and usually are) enormously different. In order to swap his double-barreled shotgun for an automatic one, Artyom would have to sit down and load every shell he has into the appropriate magazine: otherwise, next time he wanted to use it, he’d have an empty shotgun, an empty magazine and a big bag of loose shells. Again, that would make for a seriously dull game, but it leads me into quite possibly the biggest knock-on issue…

You can fill magazines with bullets instantaneously. There’s a definite pattern in Metro‘s gameplay, and indeed in virtually any game in which you have to reload anything. You don’t want to get caught without any bullets in your gun, so you reload at pretty much every opportunity. Just finished shooting? Reload. About to open a door? Reload. Don’t like the look of that suspiciously dark/bright/symmetrical room up ahead? Reload. Not sure you reloaded last time you decided to? Hit the button anyway, just in case. The issue with this is that, in almost every case, the magazine you take out of the weapon isn’t actually empty. That means that either you’re left with a spare (but not full) magazine, or you sit down and refill it with individual bullets. The reason you don’t have to do this in Metro is, yet again, that it’s a chore, games shouldn’t involve chores, and in fact the entire concept is so tedious that I’m just going to leave a link to this page for anyone who wants a more detailed explanation.

So there are good reasons why, in terms of gameplay, it’s often best not to strive for absolute realism. However, in the case of Metro the visually immersive nature of the game–the condensation on the gasmask, the lack of a heads-up display–and the comparative vulnerability of the character make some of these breaks from reality seem unusual: the story/setting suggests one thing, the gameplay something else. It is strange to play as a character who lives in a chaotic, crumbling world and yet know how to use every new bit of equipment you stumble across. It is strange to play as a character who must scavenge for every scrap of ammunition he can find, and yet doesn’t have to worry about the practical problem of how to manage it. The result is a game that suggests you are playing a living, breathing, feeling character, but ultimately still plonks you down into the curiously invisible shoes of a camera with a bullet-hose mounted on the bottom-right corner.

I’d be interested in seeing a game that at least acknowledged the day-to-day difficulties that even Artyom ignores. Granted, it wouldn’t be a good move for some bullet-spraying Medal of Duty fragfest, but for a Survival Horror game, I can imagine it boosting both the realism and the difficulty. You might not have to be completely overwhelmed by the first monster that got hold of you, but your ability to reload could be significantly hampered. You might not have to wait five minutes while your character rearranges the bullets in his or her backpack, but you might have to think twice about whether it’s really a good idea to reload while you still have a handful in the magazine. You might not have to face so many enemies, but those you did would present more of a challenge. Metro does a fantastic job of really letting you see through the eyes of its protagonist. I only wish he were human.