Lately I’ve been playing a few mediocre games. While they have control issues and bad checkpointing and other flaws, these poor design choices aren’t unbearable in and of themselves. They hamper the experience but don’t destroy it. Rather, it’s when these poor design choices interfere with my progress through the game that it becomes so frustrating that I want to quit.
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Last year’s ultraviolent action flick Gamer (2009) is many things, most of them not well-executed, but a few of them are at least interesting to talk about. This is not, however, a review of the film. Instead, it’s a launching point to discuss an idea which lingers in a tiny, oft forgotten corner of the player’s brain: that anxiety that what we are doing to characters on a screen is more than unfair, it’s tantamount to torture.
On a larger scale, Gamer is the latest in a series of films challenging the empathetic disconnect between audience and spectacle. In each of these movies (Running Man, Network, The Truman Show, to name a few), we’re assumedly taught to appreciate that there is a real person on the other side of the screen and that our cynical appetite for entertainment becomes tantamount to sadism the moment that we cease to recognize the characters’ personhood. That’s the idea anyway. Gamer‘s dissonance within this trope of films occurs because the scenario that it proposes is more ludicrous than even the most outlandish of these reality show movie premises: game avatars are not real. They won’t be real. There is no practical, logistical way that games like the ones featured in this film will ever exist. Gamer‘s central idea is so absurd that the prototypical moral message of this subtrope of films is not only absent, it left the building before you even got there.
I tend to think of any game starring Lara Croft as being a game that is almost exclusively about voyeurism. The Tomb Raider series is about watching: watching Lara, watching the world that she traverses.
I spend most Croft-centered games in relative repose, evaluating rooms to figure out what goes where, which switches do what, and how to make the jumps correctly.
Thus, I was extremely surprised (and actually quite disappointed) when I loaded up Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and discovered that I was playing a top down, third person shooter/platformer. This wasn’t what I expected a Lara Croft adventure to be.
Starbreeze’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay is one of the most competently organized and coherent games ever made. While nothing particularly dramatic or life changing will happen while playing, like Star Wars: Republic Commando it sticks with the basics and hits all the right notes. There are numerous things that the average action game screws up that Butcher Bay gets right. The setting makes sense with the way that the levels are setup. The game effectively makes you feel like you’re in prison through small details and interactions. While I don’t expect Butcher Bay to radically change the way that people think about games, I think it solidly establishes the bare minimum of what a “good” plot driven game is supposed to do.
The plot is divided into three coherent segments that are matched with proper variation in design to mirror what’s going on. Each segment is basically the same conceptually but varies in length. Riddick is placed in a low security portion of the prison where he talks with prisoners and sneaks around. After mucking about for a bit, you eventually establish a way to escape. The game then switches from stealth and dialogue to action as you tear the place apart while making your exit. Something goes wrong, you get caught, and you get dumped in another part of the prison. It holds together thematically because despite the fact that you will meet dozens of characters there is still only one overarching goal: escape from Butcher Bay. This leaves room for the dialogue to establish character instead of constantly explaining why this person is bad or why the player should care. All missions and side-missions build towards escaping, so you don’t have to worry about what the player is thinking. As Mitch Krpata puts it, “You always understand what your character is doing, and why. Riddick has to accomplish fetch missions, but they’re not burdened with a bunch of useless filler” (“The Chronic-what-cles of Riddick”, Insult Swordfighting, 29 April 2009).
We have been focusing on discussions of individual games for a number of weeks. This week we decided to consider some broader interests in games once again. In this case, we decided to talk about how character customization effects our experience of a game world.
As a result, our discussion considers how initial character creation as well as ways of modifying characters, like buying clothing in a game world, affects our sense of the characters that we inhabit when we play games.