Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The New Video Game Commandments

Do you know the worst thing about old video games? It isn’t the graphics, or the story, or even digging out a dusty PS1, but the way the games are played. Take Rock Band 1 as an example. The graphics hold up brilliantly, the gameplay is essentially timeless and of the series it has one of the best setlists. The problem is you need to unlock the songs in quickplay, hyperspeed isn’t anywhere and playing in a band, even locally, involves the evil profile/leader rubbish that ruins the experience. Mercifully today this problem has been rectified but it emphasises a video game problem; that you could write the greatest script, create fantastic graphics and dole out for all the celebrities in the world but if you don’t get the nuts and bolts interface bits done properly the quality will be hurt. Here I shall discuss the essentials in an open letter to game developers everywhere, get these bits right and even the worst game will shine.
1. Thou shalt save properly
I bloody despise Fable. It’s not because of the simple gameplay or repetition; in many ways for the target audience it is Fables biggest virtue, but an experience I had. 49/50 hidden keys in I was tasked with becoming fat. I bought meat to eat, and later to lose weight I bought carrots. Little did I know this would remove the steaks, preventing me from getting fat. Realising my mistake I exited to the dashboard to prevent me losing a small fortune unnecessarily, but I did this while the game was autosaving. I turned on the game to find everything I had done, in excess of 20 hours, gone. To make matters worse I had bought DLC that could only be accessed in later game stages. To this day Peter Molyneux still owes me £6.40
This anecdote explains two things; firstly saving is bloody important and secondly always save more than once. Therefore my first suggestion is alternate autosaves or feel my wrath when they go wrong.
Saving is a tricky ordeal however. Checkpoints ensure regular savepoints but present problems. When in the wrong place they can mean the player must watch a cutscene over and over or redo an annoying, mundane task repeatedly. This is the fine line between difficulty and controller flinging annoyance. My second recommendation then is know your checkpoints.
CoD is normally fantastic for this, nowadays however, but back in CoD2 it saved me in an infinite death circle. If you’re too liberal though you can undermine the difficulty, take the Prince of Persia reboot, which checkpointed once a second and ultimately ruined that game. So what is a good balance? Well the answer has been with us for a long time; good ol’ quicksave. This is an elegant solution because it gives the player the ability to custom pick bits to save. Max Payne will testify letting me constantly restart that room beside the open windows with loads of enemies was great fun. Leading me onto . . .
2. Thou shalt let me restart where and when I want
What the fuck Red Faction: Armageddon? Seriously? I cannot pick a level to replay after the story is over? What is this 1995? Good sections need to be reserved so I can enjoy them again. San Andreas had this problem too. That epic cross terrain chase with OJ Loc? Hope you saved before it or tough luck, that was a onetime thing. Rockstar have learnt their lesson and more developers need too.
Better yet take a leaf out of the latest Alone In The Darks book. For all that games faults it sure got the interface spot on. It played out kinda like a DVD menu, you could skip forward or go to an individual checkpoint within a story if you wanted. You don’t have to go as far, but this stuff is fantastic game design, it was a real shame about the rest of the game
3. Thou shalt let me choose
Congratulations 2K Boston, Bioshock was a master class on player interactions within a game world, amongst other things. Genuinely tricky moral decisions, the way our actions set up the plot, seemless integration of narrative with gameplay. Bravo. And Bioware, I mean where to begin, you’ve made countless great stories. Just one thing. Why did you feel the need to complete and utterly fuck all that up with stupid goddamn achievements? I mean Bioware could argue they made you maximise mileage but “Save all Little Sisters”? If you aren’t going to let me choose properly then why let me choose.
Decisionaly neutral achievements. Final
4. Thou shalt understand motivation
You may think then I am against achievements in videogames, however that big number on my gamercard testifies differently. I don’t see them as a badge of honour though, I see them like developer commentary, a little “hey, try doing this”. Achievements are responsible for me playing new games, accessing features I’d automatically ignore and checking out brilliant new ways of playing. It changes the objective from “reach the credits” to “get the maximum possible score” which is good for everyone. I think you should signpost them a little better. Everyone loves the ticker tracker like in GoW2, now in many more, but how about putting the roadmap in the game?
Let me give you an example, The Orange Box. When it wanted you to score two points with the basketball and Dog, or shoot every grub, or save every home. How about a little box came up telling you to press start to learn what challenge is available. If you are after them this is great and if you aren’t, no problem at all. All round fantastic game Banjo Kazooie kind of did this, on level loading screens it would cleverly wink and nudge “I hear BBQ-ing a cow in the volcano is a real achievement”
That’s another thing, be clever and be creative with these achievements. Portal 2 made me laugh with “This Is The Point Where He Kills You”, one more fantastic signpost to the hilarious secret plot. And who didn’t love kidnapping a girl and putting her on the train tracks in RDR? Rule 32: Enjoy the little things
Achievements do one thing, ladies and gentleman, motivate. Utilised effectively they can raise even a poor game out of the dumps. You should aim to make me enjoy as much of the game as possible, but to a limit. Another tip, 95% is enough. The point of making me shoot those birds in GTAIV was that I explored every inch of the fantastic Liberty City, so what does it matter if I missed one. I couldn’t find one/couldn’t remember where it is. Achievements are rewards, not punishments. This does kinda lead me back to the internal guide thing though, save me some time and tell me roughly where they are on a map. I could still do the treasure hunt but it would be much less annoying. Get me to do the first 100 by myself, meaning I actually look out for them naturally instead of avoiding them till I get the guide out, then point out the rest so I don’t get mad. Great solution. While we are on Rockstar
5. Thou shalt understand the limitations of animations
Played poker in RDR? It’s a lot like normal poker only placing the cards takes 4 times as long as shuffling. And walking with the Euphoria engine means being permanently drunk on a unicycle. Euphoria is still bloody amazing, but this isn’t necessary. I get it, I really do, your games are steeped in realism and you don’t want to break the illusion. The thing is this is purposely not reality, it is a fantasy world with similar elements. It’s called the suspension of disbelief and within an hour of a videogame it kicks in, you don’t ask why guns just appear in your hands or why you can carry either a thousand weapons or only two. It doesn’t matter because we are absorbed in the game. Faltering like this though makes the player mad, thus taking them out of the illusion and breaking the very thing you attempt to maintain. Stop it, please. New Vegas let you play cards, they just hovered seamlessly and that is an instantly more elegant, not to mention cheaper and easier solution.
Animations can be great too. How about the wavey floating guns in the Darkness? I don’t know, maybe that has been patented, but that kind of way you invisibly interact with the world around you can really enhance the experience, even if it did make the online play look weird as hell.
An absence of animation can be just as bad. Take Fallout, there’s this one bit where Dr. Li begs for her life, the voice actor does a stellar job but the model just stands rigidly still. I get you can’t animate every bit, well unless you’re slave driving Team Bondi, but a key emotional point was undermined pointlessly.
Finally; camera angles, effects and filters. Final Fantasy has done this forever and it’s much cheaper, just manage this and you pull more out of those robotic character models than all the facial scanning in the business. Conclusion, use animations where appropriate.
6. If it’s broke, fix it
They’re called patches, it is unacceptable for an achievement to be unobtainable and it will certainly lose atleast some custom. But why stop there.
So much Kudos to Epic with Gears 2. I think me and that studio are on roughly the same wave length. They shipped the game with a broken multiplayer. They shouldn’t have, but evidently they did. Over downloads though they top to bottom reworked the onlines fault until they had a fantastic system in place. It should have been like that out of the door but the fact they cared enough to fix this is good news.
Can you think of anymore? This is a great discussion if you want to join in too, I know I’ll sometime end up doing a follow-up to this.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

For A Few Dollars More

Do you know what Metallicas walk on music is? It’s not a classic metal song or any sought of anthem, it’s a piece from a film score. The lights dim, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly plays and “Ecstacy of Gold” by Enrico Morecombe plays. And do you know why this is such a good fit? Because the spaghetti westerns are manly, cool films steeped in myth and power. It doesn’t hurt that the song kicks ass. If you don’t recognise the name, you have heard it, along with all the other songs, because the Spaghetti westerns have forced their way into the collective pop culture, even if you haven’t seen them you’ll know the characters, setting and tone from elsewhere.
Inarguably the best of the Spaghetti westerns, so called because of the Italian directors and other European ties, are the “Dollars” trilogy. And of the “Dollars” trilogy it is “For A Few Dollars More” that is my favourite. “For A Few Dollars” is fantastic but just so damn straightforward while “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” is a beautiful bloated mess. Here though, the mix is spot on.
Clint Eastwood plays his famous “A man with no name character”, even if in this film he does have a name. None the less, he seems to have no backstory, no purpose, no anything, just a poncho, a gun and a grimace. Clint is a constant across all the films and manages to be effortlessly cool, but it is Lee Van Cleff who brings this film to life. He plays the good guy on a vendetta and while being unbelievably cool.  It is the play off between the two that is the best bit of the picture, the first act sees each character play a formidable game of one-up-manship with increasingly fun results.
This chemistry is catalysed by Sergio Leone, one of my personal favourite directors. He imbues the characters with cool flairs, like Eastwood flapping his poncho or Van Cleff having a rifle butt on his pistol. All round he draws personality and chic from every frame; the opening credits are pop art smears of action. This film shows a confident and capable director having great fun, the establishing shots are long and beautiful juxtaposed by super-super-close ups. The visual flair he brings to his film is one of a kind; if you want evidence to this just take the climactic stand-off. The back stories, personalities and a emotions of the three involved are laid out, ramping out the drama. The score becomes vital to the plot, as Enrico plays a haunting, mecurial vapour of a tune slowly. An American would ramp it up with something overblown, but Sergio knew in a film so bold the only way to shine the most important seen would be a delicate shot.
This film is packed with iconic scenes in much the way “The Godfather”, incidentally a screenplay written with Sergio in mind, is. Similarly every shot further contributes to the overall plot; a characterisation here, a foreshadowing there, but for all the arty stuff this film is as entertaining a picture as anyone is ever going to see. It isn’t a frantic thrill ride, it takes it sweet time, because, hell, it can, but when guns aren’t being fired it still packs a punch and when guns are being fired it is perfect.
Iconic, that’s the other word for this film. Y’know where else you’ve heard Enrico Morecambe? It’s Top Gear, whenever they reel out a “mythical” sports car, another manly thing’ the music evokes cool, timelessness and appearances. This film is art and entertainment, and if you like either then it will blow you away.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Death Note

I’m not a manga fan myself, as of writing I’ve only finished one series and the rest has left me decidedly cold. You owe it to yourself to check out Death Note, a gripping cat and mouse game of wits between the two smartest men/children in the world.
The story follows Light, a genius Japanese kid who is gifted a notebook by a bored Grim Reaper that allows him to kill anyone. It is shrouded in a set of rules and restrictions that lay the framework for the chesslike game Light plays with his nemesis, another genius called “L”. Light uses his power to systematically murder anyone who has committed a crime while L attempts to track them down.
The first most interesting thing about the book are the characters, Japan is usually awful with fleshing characters out properly but the cast is given distinct motivations, personalities and arches, even if they are decidedly on the quirky side. Light himself is a fantastic creation, he encompass both a sympathetic protagonist and a damn sly cat, in much the same way Don Draper does in “Mad Men”. The way he takes impossible problems and effortlessly triumphs in the most genius way possible is a trait the two men share, and a comparison to Don Draper is one hell of a ringing endorsement.
Nothing I have ever seen, read or heard has managed as impressive a job as keeping constant tension over such a long period. The stakes rise as the duo trade increasingly fiendish actions to trip up the other guy. Because from day one the rules have been laid out the developments never feel cheating but incredibly clever and the way you must guess and second guess characters actions is fantastic fun.
Many thrillers twist and turn, it is a staple of the genre, but few twist to such a ridiculous degree as Death Note does, and even fewer pull off even single twists half as good as Death Note manages too. I recommend the books instead of the cartoon because you take it more at your own pace, you’ll definitely instantly want to reread certain scenes time and again. For all its cleverness Death Note is an entertaining series and the language barriers/far outness of the plot should not put you off, this is great stuff regardless of where it comes from.

Sunday, 14 August 2011


Forget what you’ve heard, this film isn’t scary, I’m not trying to sound like a macho man either; this film contains no gore or violence, doesn’t include any shock scares and really doesn’t set about trying to scare you. Much more it works as a thriller, as against the clock the protagonists try to unearth the story behind a cursed videotape, of which they are afflicted. It doesn’t seem necessary to dwell on the plot too much, seeing as the basics are now pop culture staples in much the same way as the Shining is. It reminded me a lot of The X-Files, the way slowly clues or hints would crop up and they track it down. Also the leads, intelligent journalist Reiko and her ex and have the same kind of chemistry, not exactly sexual tension or love, but something close.
I guess why people confuse this film with a horror is the overwhelmingly oppressive and heavy feel of the film. You get the sincere feel from the outset that you’re watching dead men walking, feebly fighting the inevitable. The acting to the settings to the cinematography are bleak, grey and dark. The score is amazing, this is a deathly quiet film that is gently punctuated by mundane noises.
I’ve long thought this film might be a commentary on Japanese life, you’re cooped up with no future and only small fleeting pleasures. You must work very hard before you die merely to kick off life for your children, who have to go through the same routine. This sounds a lot to me like a critique of the Chebol business model and the ending, which I won’t spoil, seems to reinforce the notion that life is not just your own.
There is only one way to watch this film, in silence, with no disruptions, alone. The atmosphere buffers you down and the result is amazing. I recommend watching this version before the American remake as here the plot is a mystery instead of a vehicle for scares. Both are very good in my opinion, but nothing quite matches the sinister, reflective nature of this film. Scare, no, but this film will creep the daylights out of you.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Exit Through The Gift Shop

I fear this film has been sold incorrectly. Terms like documentary, satire and “Oscar nominated” are battered about this film, when in reality it is much more comedy drama than anything else. This film took me by surprise and is one of the freshest, genuinely witty comedies I’ve seen in years.
The film begins following Thierry Guetta, an eccentric, obsessive compulsive Frenchman who films everything. He quietly follows various “street artists” and his indoctrination into this underground circle is an entertaining little flick all by itself. Thierry is comic perfection, bumbling about pretending to be real deep when really he is much more of a mad man than a genius. The various, throwaway facts the film lays onto him are brilliant, for example he purchases poorly sewn clothes from Eastern Europe, imports them into America and sells them as designer.
This rather foreshadows the amazing second act. Under the recommendation from “Banksy”, the mysterious artist who directs the film, Thierry sets about “making his own art”. It starts innocently enough, but soon he is holding a pompous art event with the worst knock offs of street art imaginable. The joy of this film is watching an utter buffoon completely destroy the art industry. In one scene a “customer” phones up looking for an “original” from the exhibition, without even looking at any of his non-existent work. Lazily Guetta has someone else photoshop another crude picture, print it fresh and sell it for thousands. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fake, I’m fairly certain Guetta himself is a fictional role, but it certainly looks like the “exhibition” was a genuine success purely from a con. Even if this film absolutely bombs, I’m sure the stunts alone have made Banksy absolutely minted.
This is to art what Spinal Tap was to rock, only much, much better. There may be less “turn it up to 11” worthy dialogue but the long list of hijinks and the likely hood that too much of this is true than there really should be makes it better than some daft Stonehenge skit.
This is on Channel 4 tonight if you’re interested, and if you think it sounds too pretentious, trust me, it’s not.