As I watch Geralt of Rivea get a haircut in The Witcher 3, I can’t help but think of the hype that surrounded his hair before the game came out. The graphics card manufacturer Nvidia made a big deal about their new “HairWorks” tech and how it gave long hair a more realistic look and bounce. As I walk out of the barbershop with a clean chin and short hair, I can’t help but think, “Well, so much for that.” AMD tried to create similar hype for their TressFX hair tech in Tomb Raider, and the result was hair that hovered a few inches over her shoulders and blew in her face with every minor twitch.
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In a recent post, I mentioned that I did an informal survey of app artwork currently available for public consumption. One of the first ones that I found was an app called Poetics by the New York-based artist Seth Carnes. Carnes published the first version of the app on the Apple App Store in 2007.
Carnes took time to speak with me via email recently. As I learned, Poetics continues to evolve. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation.
I stopped playing the The Witcher 3 a while ago, and every week I tell myself that I’ll get back to it. Yet, every week I put it off for other games or other forms of entertainment. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, and this post isn’t about the difficulty of going back to old games, but about why I still want to go back. This same thing happened to me with Dragon Age: Inquisition. I stopped playing just after the end of Act 1, but when I stopped, I didn’t tell myself I’d go back to it. I didn’t want to go back, and I still don’t.
So I started playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain with very little knowledge of the franchise as a whole. Yes, I know the series is known for off-the-wall plotting and general Kojima madness, but I never expected to go from a hospital bed to shooting a flaming unicorn in the face within an hour. This is new territory for me, so I hope you believe me when I say that The Phantom Pain has the best video game tutorial ever made.
Making a game tutorial is not easy. To account for all player experiences, a tutorial must contain basic information needed to play. For this reason, many tutorials are trite and redundant. The most exciting feature in some tutorials is relearning where reload is mapped to a controller. If you have played a lot of shooters, then most game tutorials are a slog.
On top of tutorial boredom, getting new players acquainted with the latest entry into a series may require the creation of some arbitrary plot contrivance to justify the lesson. How many shooters, in a desperate attempt to remain in-universe with their story, have placed our protagonists in mock boot camps with some hard ass military instructor. An even worse alternative is tossing players into some alternate reality battle room, forcing you to accomplish specific maneuvers before letting you roam free in the “real” story. And this is to say nothing of the often inane voice overs to catch you up to “the story so far.”
The prologue to The Phantom Pain laughs at these trite attempts to comfortably acclimate players. The game isn’t here to shepherd you gently into the world of Metal Gear. It wants to see you struggle, but safely. It’s like a parent tossing a child into the deep end of a pool, but not before subtly putting on those arm floaties. You’re drowning here, but not really.
As the opening credits begin, you awaken in a hospital room. Before long, a doctor tells you (Big Boss) that some dangerous people are after you and that you’ll need reconstructive surgery, at which point the game dumps you into a robust character creation menu. Fiddle and tweak all you want, none of it matters (at least not yet). As soon as your surgery is about to begin, all hell breaks loose. The idea of character customization goes right out the window. You thought the game was one way, but it’s not. You’ve been tricked, but not maliciously. The only power that you have here is the power that the developers give you, and they will dole it out at the moment of their choosing.
An early lesson in crouching.
All of the basic mechanics from this point on are delivered in discrete contextual moments, bound up in a chaotic and unpredictable series of disastrous events, a lot of them cut scenes. Crawling, a necessary skill in the Metal Gear series to elude guards, is at first just the result of playing a sick and nearly crippled protagonist. Dragging yourself along the floor is a humiliating act, moments before becoming an expression of power and subtlety.
The Phantom Pain also deftly uses a mysterious bandaged ally, called Ishmael, during the lengthy tutorial to show possible behaviors in the game before prompting you to do the same. As you hobble forward, your ally tactically takes cover, scouting ahead for enemy movement. He warns you of potential threats, training you to do the same. In one scene, Ishmael slams your arm socket back into place telling you “next time, do it yourself.” It’s an almost parental lesson in a way. This is a safe space to learn these lessons, but as evidenced by the severity of the situation, you must learn these lessons quickly. Soon you will be on your own.
All of this tutorial is still taking place within a crazy backdrop of warfare, complete with a flaming devil incarnate, a murderous telekinetic child, and the slaughter of innocent people. The mundanity of learning basic movement and gunplay is overshadowed by a giant whale covered in flames appearing out of nowhere to eat a helicopter. The prologue is a tease, a splash of insanity to set the right tone. It knows tutorials are often drab affairs, so it takes you by the hand while leading you into one of the craziest introductions that I have ever seen. It give you just enough of a sense of control in the game, while still making you feel weak in the face of chaos.
I shot a fiery unicorn in the face with a shotgun. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m ready for more.
Rumors of the death of the point-and-click adventure game were, of course, greatly exaggerated. It isn’t impossible to see how one could draw the conclusion a decade ago that this form of gaming, present since almost the inception of the medium, seemed to have been finally drawing its last breath. And, indeed, the point-and-click adventure game is, for the most part, no longer the sort of game that breaks sales records, and it isn’t likely to be so again. The days of the classic LucasArts and Sierra games selling as well as or better than other genres are probably over. But that doesn’t mean the genre is dead.
Certainly, the more recent evolution of this genre largely spurred on by Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead have not been entirely unsuccessful. The addition of mechanisms that allow for more choices in these games, like conversation wheels and other ways of promoting more branching narrative paths, expand on the more traditional exploration and puzzle-based mechanics associated with the genre. Additionally, though, the genre has continued to exist apart from that success story and that newer approach to the genre, regardless of these efforts to “modernize” it.