Sunday, 31 March 2013

Bioshock Infinite. Irrational Games. Story

Bioshock Infinite could well have captured lightning in a bottle, so far as storytelling in games goes. From the ominous opening scene, capturing an atmosphere reminiscent of classic-era Stephen King, you know you are in for a treat, and from the moment you get the first glimpse of Columbia, you are well and truly hooked.

Ken Levine and Drew Holmes, responsible for the bulk of the story, have set a narrative benchmark that every game developer must surpass. Many will fail.

The world of Columbia (no doubt influenced, and not just in name, by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893), is beautifully realised. Columbia is not a dead city like Bioshock 1 & 2’s Rapture, but a living, breathing city in the clouds, full of civilians indulging their every whim, as that ominous undercurrent slowly begins to surface, and when it does, prepare to be challenged on every level of your conscience.

For any story to work, it must acknowledge and address the facts of its chosen era, for better or for worse, and this is no more obvious than Bioshock Infinite’s handling of racism. Many storytellers ignore it; others confront it in a self-proving way that is equally laughable as it is offensive, but in Columbia, it just is. Make no mistake, it will disturb you - that is the emotional impact of a story that respects its inspiration.

I have never been a fan of the silent FPS protagonist; they always come across as ignorant and antisocial. Thankfully Bioshock Infinite’s hero, ex-Pinkerton agent-cum-alcoholic gambler Booker DeWitt, is very vocal about his feelings, and this allows a real connection to the character. Accompanying the player is Elizabeth, the Rapunzel-in-a-tower that is the motivation for Booker’s presence in Columbia. Elizabeth is a charming young lady, as well as a genuine asset to gameplay - (A helpful AI partner, another first that the team at Irrational Games should be proud of). According to Ken Levine, Elizabeth evolved from a naive childlike character with a rapidly annoying needy personality in early builds of the game. It takes a lot to take something back to the drawing board after investing so much time into it, but Elizabeth is proof that sometimes you need to let go and start over.

The real beauty of Bioshock Infinite’s story is that every decision present in the final game seems natural, nothing feels contrived. The world of Columbia is so believable and, just like Rapture, so representative of the ideologies of their respective era’s, that you never question the feasibility of the technology behind it. In fact, it encourages you to go and explore the facts and influences behind the setting, making you realise that the floating utopia of Columbia is more grounded in reality that you think.

Furthermore, the story understands its purpose. Like every game, the story should support the gameplay, not suffocate it, and Infinite pull this off perfectly. Exposition is not intrusive, meaning the player never feels like their interaction is significantly interrupted.

That is the lightning bolt that surely puts both Bioshock Infinite and its creator, Ken Levine, up there with the greatest.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Resident Evil 6. Capcom. User Interface

The user interface for Resident Evil 6 is such a shambolic mess; you can’t help but think it was a deliberate sabotage. The item selection/weapon swapping system, assigned to the d-pad, is so confusing and counter-intuitive that even after playing through 80% of the game, I still cannot efficiently swap between weapons in the middle of a heated set piece, which usually consists of accidently selecting a first aid spray, or perhaps a remote bomb, repeatedly, until I again decide that the best strategy is to retreat so I have time to cumbersomely navigate to my item of choice.

The ‘live’ item selection was introduced in Resident Evil 5 to accommodate the newly introduced co-op play, but it was still fairly intuitive, all items were visible at once, and placing items in certain slots would hotkey them to their respective d-pad position. Accessing the inventory without the need to pause gameplay, as was required for all previous instalments, seems to be a natural evolution catering to the impatient, frantic world we live in. However, I can’t help but think the pinnacle of item management was Resident Evil 4’s attaché case. For me it wasn’t just a necessity of item storage, it was a fun mini game all in itself. The feeling of satisfaction I got from ensuring my items were arranged neatly and consistently made me wonder if it was a secret ploy to infect the world with OCD.

Another feature noticeable by its absence in RE6 is the lack of a weapon upgrade system. Instead we are left with skill sets – spending XP on various perks that can be assigned to one of three slots, changing various attributes that can tailor your preferred play style. After completing one campaign, you then have access to 8 different skill sets, allowing you to mix and match your skills in use during gameplay. However, swapping skills in-game requires navigating to the skills menu and locating your chosen skill set, all while gameplay continues running in the background.

This brings me to the core problem I find with RE6’s HUD – I have to learn, very carefully, the layout of my items and skill sets if I ever wish to use them with any level of rapid efficiency. There are many reasons why a game can go wrong, but in my eyes one of the most unforgivable mistakes is a bad user interface, there really is no excuse. I think too much time was spent worrying about the visual aspect, and it does look nice, if a little too Dead Space, but at what cost? One of the worst user interface designs in recent memory? I mean, come on Capcom, you guys influenced most horror games of the last 20 years, where has your confidence gone to influence a generation?

One more problem is the on-screen button prompts for set-pieces. They are not clear in their intention; I know what buttons you want me to press, yes, but timing, sequence? Do I press and hold a button or do I tap it once? Perhaps I should I be spamming the button? This is no more prominent than ‘climbing’ sequences. The first time I encountered one, the button prompts appeared for alternate presses of the triggers. I followed my intuition, based on instinct and how other games did it, to no avail. I tried various timings, again with no success. It got so frustrating that I began to repeat techniques I had already tried, until eventually I checked the internet. (I never check the internet to help me complete tough games, yet here I am checking how to press the buttons!!)

So what did Resident Evil 6 get right with its user interface? Well, as mentioned above, it looks fine. I liked the hotkey assignment of a quick heal. Unfortunately, I think that’s about it. For Resident Evil 7, please fix everything, and bring back the shop so I can upgrade my weapons the correct way.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Tomb Raider. Crystal Dynamics. Story.

Crystal Dynamics put a lot of focus on the story, and the emotional journey we are supposed to experience, following Lara Croft’s rite of passage. I am always dubious of games that are so heavily story driven, and usually for good reason.

The general story arc of the Tomb Raider reboot is well paced, even if there are a few too many cut-scenes breaking gameplay in the first hour or so. Rhianna Pratchett was brought on board to scribe the reimagined origin of Lara; however, I struggle to see what exactly was brought to the table. The characterisations are typically clichéd, and all archetypes are present and correct. The dialogue is very amateurish, embarrassingly fan fiction in nature. This is evident from the opening monologue, and a personal highlight is the following exchange between Lara and her ‘mentor’ Conrad Roth (name courtesy of the videogame-name-o-matic generator):

You can do it, Lara. After all, you’re a Croft.

I don’t think I’m that kind of Croft.

Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet.

I’ve not heard it yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before I hear “It’s just a flesh wound”.

The voice actors are fine, and do the best with the script they have been given. Camilla Luddington, the voice of Lara Croft, has a particularly mesmerising voice, yet somehow, through no fault of her own, it doesnt quite fit the character.

Now, I always take gameplay over storyline, and I am willing to give story a chance, but as soon as it starts falling apart, I start skipping cut-scenes. A prime moment of when the story falls apart is Lara’s first human kill (I won’t go into details, there are no spoilers, what I am about to say was discussed during the pre-release hype). Lara’s first human kill was supposed to be emotionally draining, both for Lara and us, the so-called protective observer. However, with minutes of taking someones life, Lara doesn’t even bat an eyelid as she goes on a gung-ho trigger-happy killing spree, ploughing through a few hundred ‘human beings’ for the rest of the game. (For a lone standout example of the pinnacle of drawing emotion from gamers, I highly recommend playing through ‘Journey’, developed by ‘thatgamecompany’. A game which has no real characters of note, and absolutely zero dialogue, yet managed to tap into every hope, fear, and love and hate lying in your subconscious).

If a developer puts so much focus into the story of their game, there is absolutely no excuse for not pumping more of their budget into the best writer willing to sign up. Much of the games industry is so desperate to be Hollywood, it’s about time they started signing up Hollywood screenwriters. Until then, story-driven games will never get the respect they crave.

Do you agree? Disagree? Please join in by commenting below.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Welcome to VideoGamePM

Hi everyone, welcome to VideoGamePM. My name is Robbie and I have worked in the games industry for the last 10 years, in both QA and Design.

The idea for this blog came from the post mortem analysis that many developers carry out on their latest title, which allows them to learn from their mistakes and highlight the good decisions made during development, which they can hopefully implement moving forward.

The motivation for this blog comes from the fact that I can see the games industry slowly solidifying into a contorted, uninspiring, unstable mass, ready to crumble at any second, and I don't like what I see. The excitement of a new release is becoming rare, and a game living up to its hype or legacy is even rarer. It shouldn't be this way, but more importantly, it doesn't have to be this way.

A studio's internal post mortem analysis can help to an extent, but many times developers are in denial of their own shortcomings, or snow-blind to the facts because of the many inhuman hours they put into their game. There are numerous resources on the internet for talking about what you like and dislike about a game, but I hope VideoGamePM will become a central resource for everyone - for gamers to make informed choices through to developers making informed design decisions. VideoGamePM is not about reviews, its about thoughtful analysis of the individual features and factors of games and the industry.

Of course I'm not egotistical enough to think that my thoughts alone will influence a generation of gamers and developers, and that is where you come in. I want this blog to be the voice of everyone who cares about their games, so please get involved. (That includes you too, developers). Every contribution is important to the success of VideoGamePM. Let everyone know what you like and don't like about your latest purchase, or equally what you think of your all-time favourite game. Every game ever released is open for discussion here.

Together we can influence the future of games, and help them evolve.