Monday, May 30, 2011

PC Gaming Journal - Resident Evil 5 (Part 2)

Welcome to the long-delayed second part of this long-delayed journal entry. Before going on I'd like to refine the last point I made about level design in the previous part. I realized that I made it seem as though RE5’s major level design flaw was simply in being linear. That’s not precisely what I intended. It is my firm belief that, like cholesterol, linearity can come in good or bad flavors. Linear design isn’t enough to make a game bad. In fact, I think the best games have always been linear. An open, sandbox approach to design offers its own advantages, but when a linear level is designed well it allows the developers a control over narrative that non-linear levels do not. An obvious example is Half-Life and its stellar sequel. These two games are very controlled but offer a fluid experience that doesn’t feel confined. I also mentioned Dead Space previously, and that is another example of a good kind of linearity. DS doesn’t demonstrate the same measure of design mastery as HL but it still uses its levels not as simply a track for the player to ride on. That’s the mistake that RE5 makes.

A tight, constricted design works well in survival horror. The problem with RE5 is that it doesn’t take advantage of that. The levels in the game are basically one long corridor with changing wallpaper, and they don’t offer a challenge in terms of combat or exploration. That’s why I said the focus seemed to be the graphics – because this design allows the game to run very smoothly, but doesn’t seem to have any effect on the gameplay. Again I have to take DS as an example, because the tight design there is often broken by large areas which have no gravity, suddenly changing how you play the game. You spend the majority of the time looking in four directions to detect enemies, and suddenly you have to start looking above and below you as well. That adds not only a level of atmospheric tension, but also an intriguing gameplay mechanic. This spark of innovation is sorely lacking in RE5. Ultimately, if a level set in a mine plays exactly the same way as one set in a city, clearly some not enough effort was put in them.

The level design and story are the most basic elements that go wrong here. If either one of them was acceptable it would overshadow the other’s faults. Unfortunately they’re not alone in this bouquet of inadequacy. If a boring story and lackluster levels weren’t enough, actually playing through them is a hassle at best and infuriating at worst. Controls in survival horror should be clumsy, I believe. Moving and fighting shouldn’t be as easy and precise as it is in a shooter; this is what embodies the survival aspect of the genre. Struggling is the whole point. However, RE5’s controls somehow manage to fall just beyond reasonably challenging. Moving and fighting aren’t that bad, if I’m honest. They feel just a bit too rigid but overall they work.

The most rage-inducing part of the gameplay are the QTE sections. I’ve discussed these on several occasions and how much I despise them. A QTE is the developer compromising. The developer is saying he doesn’t want to or can’t make the game exciting by letting me play so he’ll give me a cinematic which gives me an illusion of control by having me press an elaborate ‘play’ button sequence. Actually, the reason I am so against these sections is because of their abundance. It seems more and more that this is what stands for good gameplay. And it’s not. The very existence of QTEs is counter-intuitive. They’re supposed to show you something exciting and let you feel like you’re a part of it. But if I actually want to play the game and pass the QTE section, I don’t really look at what’s on screen as I’m just paying attention to what key to pres next. If I do want to look at the pretty pictures I don’t pay attention to the keys and then I die and have to do it again. In short, I’ve never experienced a QTE section that I enjoyed or that I felt was well implemented. RE5 is no exception. Every boss fight, every so-called ‘epic’ moment in the game has some ridiculous section where I’m supposed to tap a key furiously for the movie to go on. The worst part of it is that it was painfully obvious that this is where the money went; to these dazzling action scenes which I can’t even enjoy if I actually want to play.

In addition to that, the inventory system is simply awful. First there’s the tedium of having to constantly shuffle the contents of my bag, just so items can be easily accessed, then there’s the trouble of swapping items with my partner if we need to. This is simply a bother most of the time, but trying to make a swap in the middle of a fight is suicide. Just trying to find what you need and click it or move it takes too long and is incredibly unintuitive. Doing it in a fight just doesn’t work; it feels like trying to solve a Sudoku while running an obstacle course. Where the obstacles are zombies. The inventory being limited is an important staple of the genre, and the fact that you need to split the loot between you and your partner is a nice touch. But organizing the equipment shouldn’t be this wearisome.

Despite all these faults, the game manages to provide genuine thrills through its most intriguing facet; the possibility to play it in co-op mode. In fact, the gameplay is entirely built around the interaction between you and your partner - advancement depends on your working together. This is a feature I’m happy to see becoming more and more popular in gaming. People are finally realizing that multiplayer doesn't have to be limited to competitive virtual murdering of others, but rather co-operative virtual murdering of virtual others. This type of gaming has existed for a while in gaming but only fairly recently has it really started to gain momentum as a primary development focus for games. I think the reason this is picking up with other game types is probably due to how mainstream games are becoming nowadays. So now we're seeing co-op modes in games such as Call of Duty and games made entirely for co-op such as the excellent Left 4 Dead. The latest example is Portal 2, which has a completely separate story for its co-op mode.

This element of RE5 is certainly enjoyable and original and can even be great fun. It does distance the game even further from being a hardcore survival horror game, though, as playing with another person always dampens the mood of the game. But since it already isn’t very scary to begin with playing with someone else only makes it better. The real problem is when you want to play without another human and you're left with the AI, which is frankly absolutely terrible. It's a problem not simply because the game is less fun to play that way, but again you see an idea here that wasn't thought through. It’s as if the designers were thinking either that people wouldn't want to play with the AI or simply that they shouldn't.

As exciting as co-op play is, playing alone should never disappear as an option for gamers. This medium is different from novels or movies in terms of experience, but some things are similar. You don't want to be dependent on anyone else for your enjoyment. You don't want to read a book with someone else who tells you when to turn a page, or watch a movie with someone else holding the remote. As such, a co-op options is a wonderful addition to the story experience, but it should be just that; an option, not the only way to properly experience the game. With a human partner RE5 can be great fun. You solve environmental puzzles together and help each other out in trouble. Having to depend on your partner is a good mechanic, but it’s a mechanic that should be moderated when the partner is an AI. For example, when your partner dies you get a ‘game over’ and restart from a checkpoint. As you can imagine, that happens a lot. The AI constantly runs into groups of zombies or just doesn’t fire at enemies coming right at it. So most of the game is a challenge just because I have to run around after Sheva and save her, or I lose. It would’ve been easier for them and much more fun for the player if they’d just removed the AI partner for someone who preferred to play alone. Or maybe it could simply respawn when it dies. That would make the game easier perhaps but blissfully less annoying.

The most crucial thing I can say of these problems is that they are all a result of misguided design. It wasn’t because of a rushed release or financial difficulties. This is what the developers considered to be a game worthy of release. There is a cause to the all-round mediocrity of the game, and it is called 'consolization'. Now, if you're an avid gamer that statement either provoked an indignant grunt of agreement, or a sigh topped with an eye-roll.

Both of these reactions are legitimate. On one hand, we cannot deny the simple fact that console gaming is effecting gaming in general. The popularity of consoles and the ease with which they can be used means that developers will cater to their strengths more. That's why we get games that give you more of a cinematic experience than an interactive one, and that aim at simpler control schemes. The most recent (and horrendous) example of this I can think of is Dragon Age 2. Regardless of that game being good or not, it is a testament to how much developers are willing to change a game to be more marketable on consoles. One of DA’s strongest pitches was its return to old-school RPGs in terms of style and gameplay. It was the first game in years that Bioware seemingly made especially for its PC fans. Therefore the outrage at the sequel is understandable. Again, it doesn’t matter if the second game isn’t really bad; it’s more that it represents a well-loved company backing down on its promises in favor of console sales. And the game is, without a doubt, more console-oriented than its predecessor.

On the other hand, one might say that as a crowd PC gamers have become spoiled brats. I’ve read some comments on Crysis 2 forums that made me grunt at how absurdly nit-picky they were. FOV, mouse smoothness, anti-aliasing… in all honestly, I do think that to some people these aspects genuinely matter a lot – competitive gamers or the tech-savvy. But the assumption that all PC gamers are hardcore is wildly off base. I don’t really care about that stuff. Well, perhaps I care only in principle – as a PC gamer I want us to get the attention we deserve, but tweaking the games graphics or mouse smoothness doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the game. I just want it to run properly. I think many PC gamers ultimately enjoy the game even if it doesn’t have all the configuration options the PC can take advantage of.

There are obvious pitfalls to consoles being the popular kids on the block these days but it’s really not the end of the world. I think that co-op play becoming such a big focus right now is thanks to the consoles. While the idea of gaming as social is not new to those who’ve been at it for a while, I believe it’s definitely an opinion that has become more widespread because of consoles. So console influence isn’t automatically bad.

However, RE5’s situation is a result of a console-design mentality gone terribly wrong. This game represents exactly what PC gamers fear when games are designed for consoles. It’s a game with too many cut scenes, it is poorly designed for use with a keyboard and mouse, its level design is dull and its gameplay is repetitive. To be precise, this isn’t the fault of consoles in and of themselves; rather it is how people believe games should be designed for them. I’m sure this ethos works out for developers; otherwise they wouldn’t be making so many games this way. I don’t know many avid console gamers – maybe for most of them the fun really is to be had in sitting back and watching mesmerizing scenes while randomly clicking buttons. But I doubt it.

People who play on PC and on console enjoy games differently. Not just in terms of tweaking or modding but in the simple terms of what they like in a game. But even a console game shouldn’t strive to be more cinematic than interactive. This isn’t a dire problem, however. Not every game is a best-seller and even those that are don’t need to be revolutionary. Even in films, for every Citizen Kane there's at least one Solomon Kane. More than one, usually. But we do need to take note of games such as RE5 to learn from their mistakes and hopefully improve the way games are made.

In the next journal entry I'll be looking at the Brothers in Arms games and the changes they underwent as FPS focus shifted from the PC to the consoles. The three BiA games provide a very interesting and tangible demonstration of that shift, as playing them all consecutively revealed to me.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

PC Gaming Journal - Resident Evil 5 (Part 1)


Each entry in this series will examine a game and its different aspects - such as design choices, looks and mechanics - and through them discuss the current trends and opinions in the gaming world and the directions it is (or could be) taking.

The first game I'll be going over in the series is Resident Evil 5.

At first it was just a random pick out of a few games I was playing at the time, but as I got through it I realized it was actually a very important game to cover. This game is a shining example of a design ethos which I believe is not good for gaming in general. Practically everything about it, from the interface to the controls to the story, is flawed. That's not to say that this specific game is all that bad - I even enjoyed it somewhat - but the way it seems to compile a lot of awful design decisions makes it ideal to explore in-depth.

Actually, there is one part of the game which is pretty fault-free, and that's the graphics. It's not breathtaking but it looks shiny and slick. But, for now, let's look at the game's story.

The game's protagonist is Chris Redfield, accompanied by Sheva Somethingorother as they attempt to chase down some terrorists who are using the zombifying virus to their own evil ends. 'Course, things go out of control fairly quickly and a far worse villain emerges from behind the curtains. The evil, black curtains.

The first fault? Yeah, it's the story. I think the air of childish silliness to the whole thing is typical of the series, and of many other games as well. I mean, just because it's violent and has some overly-sexual women doesn't make it adult. It's a cliche of several motifs put together all with the purpose of giving vague context to shooting things in their hot-spots. It's not interesting but it's also not so different from the majority of games out there.

You'd think that with Africa being the setting we'd get some subversive anti-imperialist comments or some issues with racism but nah... it's just black zombies. That's why I find it pretty funny that the game sparked such debate upon release. There are ingredients for something controversial but ultimately it's a very innocent and meaningless affair. And even if there is some underlying socially-relevant theme to it all, it's likely on the same intellectual level as an average Pokemon episode. My guess is that Africa was the chosen as the location for the game because of films such as Blood Diamond and the like which popularized the setting.

That's not a bad thing per se. Games don't need to have deeper meaning or themes and presently most of them indeed don't have any. I do wish, however, that games started utilizing the tools of their medium, even if it's just for escapism. The most important aspect of the story in survival horror is the atmosphere. Dead Space had a better plot than Resi 5, but the reason I truly remember it is for the fear it managed to emulate in me and the sense of barely surviving the horrors on the Ishimura. Resi 5's more childish approach to character removes a lot of the fear of the game, regardless of how gory it can get.

The problem is that the game tries to set atmosphere through its numerous cinematics rather than the actual gameplay. There's barely a 10-minute length of game that doesn't have a cut-scene interrupting it. Cut-scenes can be nice rewards for a hard level or something to set a mood - but here they're used to pretty much tell the story. That's exactly what I mean when I say they don't utilize the medium. The plot in a game doesn't have to be spelled out to the player. It can be part of the fabric of the world they play in; hints in the world itself. Done right (like in Portal 2, for example), and the story can be told from actually playing rather than watching a movie disguised as a game.

The atmosphere and story problems extend to the level design. That's not just how everything looks, but how the player can function in this world. In terms of random-creepy-things-lying-about, such as dead goats and human cadavers, the game has plenty. But there's something about the way the levels are formed which is just boring. This is hard to explain because Dead Space, for instance, isn't so different. Levels being constricted is necessary for survival horror. You can't have too much freedom to move. You need to feel suffocated. You need to want to get out of whatever place you're stuck in. So maybe the problem with Resi 5 is just the setting; maybe it's because it's sunlight most of the time and whenever something big with a chainsaw rushes towards me I can see where it's coming from. Maybe they just picked the wrong kind of backdrop.

But I'd like to delve deeper than that. I keep choosing Dead Space as an alternative because it's the most recent survival horror game I've played and I think it does the same things better. So, sure, both games have constricted level designs, but if you look at Dead Space, the game constantly puts you in front of something overwhelming. Just looking into space and the emptiness that threatens to overtake you, or a hint of something running in the corner of your eye. And in most cases you have to double back throughout a level... the place feels like a spaceship you need to navigate through. The story is told better through the level, and it is rich in atmosphere. Resident Evil 5 does have the required constricted level design, but where Dead Space comprises of a straight line which branches off into several interconnected straight lines, Resi 5 is just one line.

The game, probably because of engine limitations, doesn't let you see a lot, either. What you do see looks great, but your view is often blocked by crates, or trains, or buildings. When you get some breathing room, there's nothing to see... they don't use the space to make you fear or feel anything. The places are just places. So it's not just the setting that doesn't work for the genre. They could have worked fear into it. A zombie is just as frightening in the day as it is at night (just watch Walking Dead if you don't believe me). It seems that in terms of level design more focus was given to how shiny things looked and how smoothly it played than making the game evoke any actual emotions through its levels.

This journal entry will be continued in Part 2!

The opening 30 seconds of Dead Space 2

First goddamn minute of the game and there's...that's right! A QTE!
Brilliantly, the indicator that's supposed to indicate which key I'm supposed to press is helpfully off screen. So to pass this section I had to replay this part twice - and this is, again, in the first minute of playing - and manage to catch a glimpse of that indicator to know which key to press repeatedly to make Isaac not worthless. All this In the first. fucking. minute.