Pixilated Fear and Dread
You have to understand that my boyfriend and I have a weird sense of humor. It's probably a defense mechanism, because it tends to come out most often when we're upset or watching a horror film or something like that. So about halfway through the first episode of 1213, we decide to take a lot of amusement from the fact that when you hold down the space bar, the character begins to scamper across the room. "Hippity-hoppity! Hippity-hoppity," my boyfriend says, in a faux British accent. He holds down the up key to make the character jump in place. "Hooray for me," he yells.
In the next room, a corpse comes to life, and we both jump.
If you're old school, you'll occasionally find yourself feverishly arguing the point that graphics are one of the least important aspects of gaming. Yes, we'll concede that it's nice to have pretty pictures to look at, but guys like me who grew up playing Atari know that you can make an addictive game using overly large pixels, and that all the polygons in the world can't save a game that just isn't fun to play.
1213 marks Ben Croshaw's latest effort to prove the old schoolers right. Programming in Adventure Game Studio, he uses sprite graphics, which would have looked dated in the late '90s, but he manages to sustain an atmosphere of fear and dread.
In a lot of respects, the odds are against 1213. We are so used to Resident Evil 4 and God of War style graphics that it seems almost like fear has to be delivered in the form of detailed grotesquery. Even the storyline from the outset seems to be something that we, as a society, have moved past: you wake up in a cell... with no memory. Now here's a gun, get shootin'.
Where Croshaw takes that story, however, is in a pretty surprising direction; and as I've said, the atmosphere is masterful. Everything seems in the right spot. Music blares at the right moment and is silent at others. A heart in the upper-left corner, representing your life, keeps thumping incessantly and speeds up as you take damage. Entire sections of the game where you're shooting enemies alternate with extended rooms where there is absolutely nothing but empty corridors. It's a lesson taught by Silent Hill that Croshaw has learned well: any fool can make a zombie jump out of a window and jolt the player. A properly done solitary walk, however, will make the player know that something's going to happen; increasing the tension will increase the shock at the end.
1213 does have some major flaws, and most of them are the result of programming. AGS is used, as the name suggests, generally for programming point-and-click adventure games. 1213 plays similarly to the original Prince of Persia --a side-scroller where one jumps up and climbs ledges and leaps over holes. Due to the fact that the engine is being stretched, glitches aren't uncommon: one basically has to be standing over a specific pixel to jump or pick up an item correctly, and hit detection is slightly off. It's particularly glaring in the boss fights, which in my opinion give too many hit points to the bosses. The character is not a good shot and misses most of the time; you've got to find the proper pixel to jump up a ledge, get up there as quickly as the game will allow, and fire off as many shots as possible, and even then you'll miss a lot. Dodging enemy attacks is too slippery to be done with much precision. There are a lot of instances of "death by engine" in these fights. The game is, certainly, beatable, however. Any flaws are directly related to the flaws in the engine.
Given that the game is one man's labor of love and is a free download, I wonder if we can't just forgive any glitches it has. Is this a dangerous attitude to take? The question genuinely troubles me. I'm ambivalent as to whether or not to be nurturing or critical of the game's weaknesses. Should we be harsh and demand better, or should we be understanding of the limitations?
I'm inclined to take the latter view. What is the purpose of a game? To me it's to entertain, to kill some time, to make me think, to present an experience, and 1213 without a doubt does all of those things. I can think of several commercially available games which did few or none of those things, and were fatally flawed. (Bone: Out From Boneville, I'm looking at you!)
I'm reminded, incidentally, of a column I wrote a couple of years ago in which I criticized several of the more tedious minigames in RPGs. I received several somewhat nasty e-mails in response, many of which suggested that since I'm not a game designer/programmer I don't have the right to opine about what does and does not work in a game. One in particular took offense at my criticism of the hard work that went into programming said minigames. It's an incident which has stuck by me since when looking at games, and I've come to the decision that a video game ought, at the end of the day, to provide an enjoyable experience. In my opinion, I believe that flaws can be forgiven if I enjoyed the overall experience. And while all the hard work in the world might have gone into Final Fantasy X's Blitzball, the end result was pure tedium. While the rough edges of 1213 make the experience more difficult rather than more challenging, they never stopped me from wanting to play on. And really, that's the goal of any good game designer: to make sure that, until the credits roll, the player doesn't stop playing.
17 March 2006