Sunday, January 3, 2010

Games I played this holiday season

I spent two weeks sitting around playing games, because it was time to do that. Or, possibly, not yet time... because Bioshock 2 is February, Heavy Rain (from the Fahrenheit guy) is February, that Inferno game is February, God of War 3 is March, Prince of Persia the Movie the Game is May... Yes, I know, those are mostly the brand-name cranking for the year, and I am Part Of The Problem. There are other games that I'm looking forward to.

The point is, it's WinterStuffFair, and what is there out on the shelves that looks cool? Assassin's Creed 2, and a Silent Hill Wii game that they swear isn't another pointless sequel, but a (pointless?) remake.

I didn't play any of those. Instead, I played the original Assassin's Creed, and took breaks in Machinarium.

See, I hate jumping in on the middle of a series. So I figured I should buy Assassin's Creed on discount, try it, and then maybe go on to AC2 if I liked the original. Big mistake. ...But not the mistake you're imagining.

I read all the reviews that said that AC2 was better than AC1. I expected a somewhat clunky game. And it was clunky. I got through the intro (nifty! Exploring game!), got into the first assassination mission... and thought, oh hell, they've promised me nine of these. And I can already see that they're all going to be identical. Fine, fine, I'll finish one and see if it's sufficiently entertaining to keep going.

I then spent a week and a half confronting the paradox of AC, which is this: I like story games. I like running around and climbing games. I like games where you complete lots of little fiddly exploring goals. AC allows you to enjoy any one of these things. If you are completist about the the exploring, it takes so long to advance the plot that the story-brain says "BORING". If you rush through the missions to reach the next bit of plot, you're skipping half the exploring, and the completist brain says "NOT PLAYING OPTIMALLY". If you climb lots of buildings, you discover that they're all identical (aside from the lookout points, and even those run out of variations halfway through) and you're not achieving anything useful.

So, there are many ways to play AC, and all of them are irritating.

I played as the completist. I got through the nine missions. I enjoyed the scenery. I appreciated the tiny, tiny slivers of plot that emerged from the past-world/present-world interplay. I became curious as to how the present-world situation would play out. (Really, that was my only motivation for the endless slog of city-cranking.)

I then got to the boss fight, which reaches the apex of the running, climbing, exploring, stealthing, hiding game... by putting you in a tiny flat arena with some broadsword-toting goon and his army of goonspawn. Winner is the last grunt standing.

I tried this boss fight about eight times, and actually laid metal on the goon twice. After the eighth ignominious death (tenth? who knows) I realized that my reward for winning this fight was to see the end of the plot -- and my reward for not winning it was an excuse to avoid AC2. Which sounded awfully tempting. So, I stood up, made a rancidly biological suggestion to AC and all its spawn, and turned off my Playstation.

You are now going to tell me that AC2 is a much better game and I should play it. You are wrong, and I will tell you why.

My rule is "if I can't finish the game, don't start the sequel". This is a carefully-constructed position, and it's not about the game's strengths, or the possible strengths of the sequel. It's about weaknesses.

Game series generally get harder over time, if the difficulty changes at all. This is because each game is designed for the fans of the previous game. Sometimes the developers keep it roughly even, to the benefit of newcomers; sometimes they go all-out, piling on new mechanics and challenges until the remaining three players suffer aneurysms and die. If I can't finish AC, it's a good bet that I can't finish AC2 either.

AC2 may be improved in any number of ways, but I don't know whether the designers understand what I enjoyed about the first game. In fact, the way the first game was put together implies that they don't understand what I enjoyed about it. So it's a good bet that they'll amp up the parts I didn't like more than the parts I did like.

And finally, of course, they have my money for the first game. I'm not going to return it and get my money back (I'll do that if the game outright doesn't run, but not for disappointment). But I can wallet-vote by not buying the next game. And I will.

Of course these are all statistical arguments, and I could theoretically go do research about what AC2 is really like. For example, I could read my friend psu's comments on AC and on AC2... oh, dear, that's not very encouraging, is it.

Did I mention the bit where, if I did try to go back and finish the boss fight, I would have to start at the beginning of the level and re-slaughter the four waves of prefatory goons before I got to the goon-arena? Because the game doesn't understand how checkpoints should work? Yeah, seriously.

Well, then, I shall talk about Machinarium, which will probably take up a lot less blog-space, because I enjoyed it greatly and recommend it to everybody.

Machinarium is an example of the "point and click" adventure game -- a label which is too absurd at the literal level even for me, and I write "interactive fiction". But it's the term people seem to be using. We're talking about a two-D third-person adventure game with an inventory... and no dialogue, which neatly avoids the worst design traps that the third-person-adventure genre has traditionally fallen into.

One is tempted to compare Machinarium to Samorost, an earlier Flash game by the same designer -- one of the earliest Flash adventure hits, in fact. It's dialogueless and cute, all right, but don't wrap the comparison too tightly. Samorost was a peculiarly freeform affair, in which you had to click on anything and everything, observe the results, and then figure out the state diagram of the scene. (Okay, most people wouldn't say "state diagram", but that's what it was.) The little protagonist figure was just one of many game elements that would react interestingly when prodded. It gave the sense that you were playing the environment, or the narrator, or God, rather than the protagonist per se. Whimsical, and with a constant sense of discovery, but also rather random.

Machinarium takes a much more traditional view for a third-person adventure: clicking on something means that you, the little robot figure, will do something to it. (Furthermore, you have to walk up to the target first, so that it's within the reach of your little robot arms.) (There's a second dimension, where you can stretch yourself -- see, I'm saying "you" -- stretch yourself taller or shorter to reach high or low things. A wash, interaction-wise, as far as I'm concerned -- it pays for itself but could have been left out.)

Anyhow. It's still true that you, the robot, do interesting and surprising things when you, the player, click on objects. But this is deftly handled; it give the sense of discovery without the frustration or confusion. Portable objects are always picked up. Puzzles may be manipulated in the obvious way, or played with in a demonstrative manner. You may discard an object after using it, but since this is automatic, you infer that it's no longer needed and let it go.

Furthermore, while many story events occur "automatically" -- that is, of the robot's choice rather than the player's -- the designer never mixes these up with puzzle events. You always know the goal for the puzzle you're facing, and your interaction choices pertain to that goal. When you solve the puzzle and the plot moves on, the outcome may be surprising; but you didn't need to telepathically deduce that that outcome was your goal. Which is to say: the game is both revelatory and playable.

(I finished without looking at any hints. Although I spent quite a bit of time near-stuck -- wandering around clicking at random, and trying inventory items at random, before I figured out the next bit. Maybe a hair more stuckness than I like with my adventures. I'm not going to raise it to the level of a complaint. If you're curious, the jam points were mostly either failing to notice a small object on the screen, or failing to notice that a mechanism remained active after the first use.)

The final point that must be mentioned is the music, which is absolutely delightful -- it would make the game even if the game were sub-par. It's a folky acoustic-electronic mix; the tracks vary between scenes and also follow the music-related story elements. (Which include one repeat-the-melody puzzle, I confess, but also several puzzles which put the music in the game world.) I've been listening to the soundtrack as I write. Yum.

And finally, tonight, I fired up Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I played for half an hour and stopped... because nothing creepy was happening and I was creeping myself out trying to anticipate when it would. This will be a game to take in small doses, I can tell.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Chris (Jan 9, 2010 at 9:57 PM):

You've probably already figured this out, but the new Silent Hill isn't a remake, it's more of a new story that uses your knowledge of the first game to screw with you (in my estimation, anyway). I liked it a lot, though it had its flaws.

btw, a much belated thank-you for your original review of SH1 that turned me onto the series.

Andrew Plotkin (Jan 9, 2010 at 11:30 PM):

I've haven't gotten far in -- I'm on the second "dark world" scene. I must say, I find the normal world much more satisfying as a game experience. The "solve a maze while sprinting and forced to restart every once in a while" already feels like a tedious interruption that may send me looking for a walkthrough.

namekuseijin (Jan 20, 2010 at 10:25 PM):

Amusing. You just don't look like a guy who would enjoy God of War. Neither do I, but alas, it was my best gaming experience from next generation along with Ico and Shadow of Colossus. Must've been the music, greek mythology, vengeance theme and the flawless presentation overall. Behind all that, just an average button masher... looking forward for 3 ^^;

Andrew Plotkin (Jan 20, 2010 at 10:56 PM):

I rate the Prince of Persia series over God of War, just because I enjoy dexterity more than walloping as a theme. And Sands of Time was a brilliant piece of writing-and-design, which the GoW series has never even tried to achieve.

But it's a genre I enjoy.

I'm currently walloping my way through Darksiders, which -- as Penny Arcade noted -- is a really polished ripoff of God of War of Zelda of Persia Reaver...

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