The first survival horror first-person shooter (FPS) on the Nintendo DS, Dementium: The Ward serves as a stand-out title of innovation in minimalist game design. The progress of console games, particularly first-person shooters, has always been a strictly artistic movement. Make the graphics better, make the interaction better, and make the A.I. better or you won’t be able to compete. Yet what happens when you make a game on a distinctly limited platform like the DS? You can’t possibly compete with the likes of Bioshock or even Doom 3 in any of the typical ways games do. With such intense expectations already present in a genre, what elements do developers choose to scale back and which ones do they keep?
The idea of breaking up an FPS with only minor variations in décor or creatures may seem strange by today’s standards, but this was a prevalent tactic in older shooters like Doom. For example, in one part of Doom II there is a twenty-minute shootout with hordes of demons as you try to get to a switch that will beat the level. After the epic fight, the stairs lower and you just walk up to a button and press it. The game flashes a paragraph that you just saved all humanity and you’re on to the next level. The ridiculous nature of the fight was what broke the monotony of the game, not any kind of graphical or verbal announcement.
I’m not claiming to miss those days, but it is a bit misguided to believe you absolutely need new graphics to communicate meaning to a player. The world of Dementium takes a cue from this concept and applies it to the space limitations of the DS. The game takes place entirely in a hospital. Although the levels rapidly become repetitive (it’s hospitals all the way down!), a familiarity develops as you progress through the chapters that makes the design start to feel more like a real building rather than a game level. That’s not necessarily a justification for everything looking the same, but the designers work with the space limitations of the DS by at least making the repetition logical. The levels are based on the puzzles or bosses that disrupt each chapter, which break up the running and gunning that constitutes most of the game.
Yet even old-school design methods don’t quite explain the curious choices they made with the gameplay. There’s no saving, and if you die you go back to the beginning of the level. All weapons are picked up at particular moments (think Resident Evil) and only health and ammo are available for collection. Guns can only carry minute quantities of ammo and there is no stockpiling: 24 bullets are the max for the pistol, 16 for the shotgun, etc. Weirdest of all, the monsters re-spawn. If you want to backtrack to pick up health or ammo that you missed earlier, the zombies you just shot through will be waiting for you. Developer Renegade Kid basically took the game concept of Contra and hooked it into a survival horror FPS. The result is…interesting. You rarely bother to backtrack like you would in other FPS titles because there is little to gain. The damn monsters just come back and you’re going to use up the ammo you would’ve recovered anyways. Like Contra, dying at the boss or in mid-level means a punitive return to the start of the level. The result is that you push onward, whether you’re in peak condition or not, and frantically look into doors for more health and ammo rather than just backtrack. It also keeps the player on a linear track and enables moments of scarce ammo that are usually lacking in most horror FPS titles like Doom 3 or F.E.A.R. Although those titles certainly have their scary moments, the stress of slowly running out of ammo and health is a terror that only Bioshock and System Shock 2 seemed to have mastered until now.
It may be going out on a limb, but those
numbers are probably a hint.
This interesting game concept is not without its faults. Quite frankly, it gets to be a pain in the ass to have to restart at the beginning of every level after death. I respect punitive measures in games because as Maddox once aptly noted, “Save points are for pussies”. Still, the designers could at least have included a half-way marker. This becomes particularly notable when fighting bosses, since they all involve trial & error as you figure out the trick to beating them. The reason FPS shooters let players save at any time is because unlike a 2-D title, the challenge is not in managing the massive number of enemies on the screen. The challenge is strategically handling each fight. It is here that the merger between FPS and Contra breaks down a bit, because knowing where a creature is hiding quickly devolves the gameplay. That is to say, the line between being surprised by a zombie and memorizing where the zombie is hiding is not only thin, it’s quickly crossed if I’m playing the level for the fourth time.
Many reviews have already mentioned it but this bears repeating: the sound is fantastic. The game’s effects are 3-D (they dictate where things are in proximity to you) and it’s a crime to not play with headphones. From the childlike cries of the worms to the skin-crawling screamers, everything in here is perfect. There is an element of thought here that far surpasses the huge budgets of other games, because you can tell the designers had to sit down in the recording studio and make every sound count. The music is also very good, with a lilting piano tune that reminds one of Twin Peaks and is consistent throughout the game. Two small complaints: the boss battle theme is atrocious and for some reason when zombies smash through doors it doesn’t make a crashing noise. This problem isn’t helped by the monster design of the game either. It isn’t that I have a problem with the chest maws, flying heads, or mutant giants. It’s that it has all been done before. With a title that is exploding with creativity in so many areas, it would’ve been refreshing if they had compensated for the fact that there are only 8 types of monsters in the game by inventing some new concepts.
Forget getting killed by them…just being one of
these zombies looks painful.
The plot of the game is simple, told sparsely, and yet still quite good. The idea of using such a bare amount of resources to tell a story is not particularly new, and the five or so cut-scenes in the game do so with a refreshing grace. It’s a throwback to the days of Doom and the paragraph of exposition about the forces of Hell marching down on you, re-applied with the beauty of carefully chosen cutscenes and in-game notes. It all leads to an ending that both makes sense and yet left me wondering about what the entire game had been trying to tell me from the start. I don’t think it gives too much away to say that Terry Gilliam would probably be fond of this title.
Yet what are the ultimate artistic merits of taking a genre that is reliant on big budgets, huge gorgeous levels, and epic cut scenes and creating something in which the players do without all that? This is nothing new to the art world; from Picasso’s cubism to countless other examples, some of the best works of art are able to create emotion from work in a familiar medium without the standard conventions. Ernest Hemingway once claimed that the best story he ever wrote was one sentence long. The sentence was, “For sale: Baby shoes, never used.” There’s a stunning grace and tragedy in those six words that countless thousand page novels do not come close to. Dementium is similar to that “story” in some ways as an attempt at a one sentence (that is, one type of level) FPS. The innovative game design, sound, and story all lead to one resounding judgment: its developers have succeeded.