Thursday, August 30, 2007

Shooting Fish in Hell

I've been anti-first person shooter for years. My opinion is turning around, and it's thanks to something else I've denounced for a while: graphics. Well, not just because of graphics, but technology in general.

My first point in this argument is that I love Doom. Love, love, love Doom. So it's not that I don't like the first person shooter genre. I also played Quake. Also played Unreal, Half-Life, Marathon, Medal of Honor, Halo, and Hexen. Couldn't stand any of them (though to be fair it's cause I could never run Half-Life well enough to really play it, so that's not fair). What became frustrating was the way everyone talked about Halo as if it was the greatest thing to happen to video games since...well Doom. I've never thought Halo could hold a candle to Doom. Is that an actual phrase? Hold a candle?

Three games that have recently come out have turned me somewhat. Gears of War, Battlefield 2142, and Bioshock. And you know what, let's throw Metroid Prime in there, though I'm not going to talk about it. I'm sure there are more that are worthy of note, but these are the ones that have started affecting my point of view.

Doom was not the first of it's type, but was nearly, and was definitely the first to do it's type well. Doom has an appeal that I think is really the basic motivation for all first person shooters. Shooting things. I know, I know, that sounds obvious and a little too simplistic. But honestly, that's saying something. For all it's flash graphics and bullcrap, Halo is basically just tracking and shooting moving targets. There's an element of strategy to it, but seriously, I've never seen a game of Halo that was really much more than point and shoot gameplay. It's not like an RTS where you have an actual strategy. Doom's levels were complicated, varied, colorful, expansive, and highly interactive. Many elevations, many, many enemies, lots of variation of enemy difficulty. It had the basic elements of lots of games of its time. It had simple gameplay mechanics applied to complicated game environments and with no story whatsoever. The atmosphere was palpable though.

Future games in the genre basically did exactly what Doom did, but started putting emphasis on weapons, enemy designs, graphics, realistic physics engines, and all sorts of things that really affected gameplay very little. WHO CARES IF HE FALLS REALISTICALLY?! Once he's dead, you can't shoot him anymore AND THAT'S ALL YOU DO IN THE GAME! A lot of money and energy have been put into technology without the fruits of those labors affecting the gaming experience very much.

Explaining what it is about shooting things that's exciting is hard for me to do. It has something to do with power, something to do with destruction, something to do with mechanical telekinesis. All I can really say is that I think shooting things is fun in and of itself. The fun in shooting moving things is in the challenge. Tracking, hunting, aiming, shooting. Combine that with sports mentalities and you have Halo and Unreal. Combine it with WWI backgrounds and you have Medal of Honor. It's still just pointing and shooting at moving objects, combined with avoiding getting shot (which usually consists of nothing more complicated than running away from things shooting at you). Games have made the attempt at "innovation" in the genre by making the guns' discharges more tangible, enhancing the sense of reality with better AI, and impressing us with nifty explosions and lighting. These things alone do not necessarily enhance immersion, and certainly have next to nothing to do with gameplay (save perhaps the AI).

But this may not really be the fault of the newer games. Halo and Unreal are really impressive for the ground the break in terms of gaming technologies. One of the reasons I think I like Doom so much is exactly because it has crappy graphics. Monsters are iconic, knowable, easily recognizable. Levels are geometric, simple, easily memorable. Games with better graphics tend to be more realistic, but in doing so become less easy to relate to, less easy to become immersed in. Characters may sacrifice individuality for realism (the first Quake's monsters were hard to tell apart sometimes). Levels may become visually impressive, but unplayably repetitive or uninterestingly simple. I always felt like, when playing Unreal, there was no point to being on a server with so many people when only a few could fit in a room at a time, and in open spaces where lots of people could be there was basically nothing but a large platform. I longed for the days when I was avoiding dozens of monsters. I wondered why there were so many people playing when I only ever saw one or two at a time.

The first game to make a big step in the right direction for FPS games was, for me, Half-Life, which tried to make a realistic looking, complicated, story driven game. It's still aim, shoot, run, but the story elements make the immersion actually meaningful and necessary. Story elements follow action continuously and a convoluted plot drives discovery. With Half-Life my problem was the environments were just realistic enough for me to demand them to be more so, but just unrealistic enough for me to be constantly reminded that I'm in a game. Gears of War and Bioshock are the first FPSs that really, really makes me feel like I'm in someone else's shoes, using the tv as a window.

The realism of the first person perspective has hurt the genre's immersive power, counter intuitive as that may seem. It's the one perspective that we actually have a frame of reference for. Game designers can make us believe things more easily when they are clearly unrealistic. We have no frame of reference for a pixelated environment, for overhead views of troops, for third person polygons. We can believe that it all works together because all we know about the world is what's on the screen. When games try to become realistic, especially from the first person perspective, the believability breaks down. We know what the real world looks like for first person perspective, and any deviation is immediately noticeable. Gears of war was able to be incredibly immersive by being not only exceptionally realistic, but simultaneously stylized aaaaand, not really a first person shooter. While it in essence is still just that, the fact that the game doesn't make you distrust what's on the screen makes it much easier to be drawn in.

Bioshock and Half-Life 2 have also been able to make a game believable, partly also by being stylized, but also by being incredibly well rendered and lit. Physics aside, objects in these games have real weight. Now they're not the first to do it. Doom 3 was pretty damn amazing. But Bioshock's environments in particular are colorful, engaging, complicated and continually believable by virtue of its amazing textures. Bioshock is the first FPS that has really drawn me in with graphics and atmosphere alone. In fact, when I take a step back, that's really what the game is. The action is relatively humdrum. But lighting and sounds are scary enough to make me uncomfortable, and the contents of rooms are detailed enough to insist that I explore every inch of the well rendered city.

Aside from graphical believability, finally there are some FPSs that are changing the formula. Gears of War is perhaps the first real step away from what Doom established. A new type of gameplay. Not aim, shoot, run. Granted it's not much different; it's cover, aim, shoot, reposition. But hey, I'll take what I can get. It changes the tempo of gameplay substantially and requires an entirely different mindset. The pinch of strategy that's added into Gears combined with the difference in environment interaction make for a breath of fresh air.

(By the way, if Splinter Cell is an amazing breakthrough in gameplay for the medium, let me know cause I never got into it.)

Battlefield 2142 is my first introduction to a massive multiplayer FPS that actually was immersive. It's environment, the number of people on a server, the variety of gameplay, and the gravity of some of the challenges in any given match make it feel like a real battle. Aside from the fact that dying is a frequent occurrence, it feels like you're actually in a war. I think the scale is really what does it. I applaud Halo for previous attempts, but the scale of Halo matches and no story just makes it feel like a game. Fancy graphics make it feel like an expensive game. Battlefield 2142 actually feels worthy of the graphics that it boasts, even without a story. The game's scale allows for strategy on an immense level. Makeshift military rank, massive numbers, real-time speech, and specialization of units makes this game really feel like a community with a purpose. This feels like a war simulation, not a shooting gallery or a football game.

FPSs I think have tremendous potential. I think they have a ton of ways to exploit our forced perspectives exactly because the point of view is so near and dear to us. While other game genres have continually experimented with ways of interactive with a particular style of gameplay, FPSs have pretty much stayed in the shallow end. Now that the technology that the genre relies on is finally becoming standard, that may change. Games like Portal make developers look like they're finally starting to take their water wings off and look toward the diving board.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Having and Eating: Immersion and Customizaiton

The internet is one of the best things that's ever happened to us. Don't try to deny it. We all love it for different reasons. For my part, it's the ability react to what you consume. I think that may be the most fascinating thing about electronic culture. We can all contribute, and everything we consume can be manipulated in some small way to make it our own. Part of our identity online.

This is a big reason why I love and have faith (gah! faith! get it off me!) in the video game medium. Interactive art is something that's been part of post-modernity for a long time and it's a/the fundamental principle of video games. It's a toss up between what's more important to me in gaming, the interaction or the narration. All I can really say is I've never found a perfect balance. As I've said before, I think the two facets are part of a tipping scale: the more interaction, the less narration.

This is a blog about Magic: the Gathering. It is, not really, but sort of a plug. But you know what, for a long time I've felt that there was something about Magic and gaming that went hand in hand perfectly. I'd meet gamers who'd turn their noses at Magic and say to myself "Either you never learned to play Magic, or you don't really like gaming." It took me being bribed with free cards, but now I've finally given some to why I feel that.

Magic: the Gathering makes an interesting bridge between interaction, in the form of customization, and narration, in the form of established goals and game structure. It's really very similar to real time strategy games like Starcraft and Civilization. You have an established repertoire of game resources (units in RTSs, cards in Magic) and each one has an established use. After that, the way the game goes is up to you. In RTSs this comes in the form of organization, build up, how you use your units, what sort of player you want to be. Are you going to turtle, like a puss, or rush, like a dick. Magic is the same way. In both games and Magic there's an element of preliminary planning and an element of on-the-fly interpretation. I think this may be one of the reasons that people get turned off to Magic. The preparation is pretty lengthy, and spontaneity is more limited once the games starts. But herein lies my excitement for Magic. It's tremendously complicated with enough different avenues to allow just the construction of decks to be exciting. Thousands of cards and complicated rules make for a lot of creative leeway.

I remember sitting in class in high school and thinking about better ways to use the Zergling's burrow ability better, but there was no way to try until the game started. And even then it was a crap shoot because anything could happen once the game started. With Magic I can take my time planning, refining, experimenting. Then, during the game, it's my planning and my luck versus my opponent's. For this reason, I think Magic is great for anyone who actually likes Myst invading their daily chores, but would really like solving the puzzle to mean more than being able to solve the puzzle.

There's another trade off to be had between customization and immersion. I think the hierarchy goes thusly: video games -> Magic the Gathering -> Dungeons and Dragons. The relation is how much you have to fight the knowledge that you're sitting in a room being a nerd in order to enjoy the fantasy you're trying to live. The point of all of these really is to pretend you're something you're not. To fantasize.

Video games, with their noises and colors and moment to moment concentration really lets you forget that you're sitting on a couch pushing buttons. The biggest enemy to a good game of Magic, for me, is silence. Nothing makes it harder to maintain my fantasy of being a badass spellcaster than the awkward, silent stare of an empty apartment broken only by my own reluctant voice saying "I cast Magic Missile Pyroblast". If there's one thing I like about Magic these days, it's the attempt to make the artwork more realistic and more situational. A good remedy for self-consciousness in Magic is a creature who's artwork is not only unarguably fun to look at, but helps put you in escapist role of a murderous wizard. Engaging flavor text (oh yea...flavor text) also serves to cement the cards in some tangible world. I've always loved the Weatherlight series for attempting an actual story with it's cards' texts and images.

On the one hand, it requires more effort to become immersed than simply looking at graphics. On the other, the fantasy becomes very personal. It's your deck that you built. In gaming you are almost always forced into the role of someone else. In Magic you have a lot of freedom to engage the fantasy world on your own terms.

And although one might feel a little bad sitting in a room playing a card game, there's definitely something nice about knowing who your opponent is rather than suspecting the trash talking prick who sniped you doesn't have his Adam's apple yet.

I suppose I should talk a little about the specific expansion that I'm being bribed with. As this is a core set there's not a lot to say about the set itself. The artwork gets better and better, which again is basically all the immersion aspect of it, so better art means better immersion. It's really interesting to see the cards that make it in and the ones that don't. There's a culture to Magic that core sets represent. Card popularity and usefulness (not to mention neutrality) are reflected in each new core set. I remember when Serra Angel was removed, I think from 6th. I don't know how long it's been back for, but it feels like the game is complete again. Cards that have served you well or inspired a deck theme become beloved characters in an amorphous story and it's always nice to see who's popular in the fantastical battlefield.

I don't know why it seems strange to become attached to cardboard and totally acceptable to fall in love with pixels. As far as I'm concerned they're both doorways into creativity and escape. I'd generally encourage anyone who plays video games passionately to take a swing at Magic. All the major themes of fantasy lore are in it. The qualities of elvishness and orcishness, the life giving power of nature, the corruptive side effects of evil-derived power. But more than in almost any fantasy interpretation, this one lets you take a look at all the powers in fantasy and really do whatever you're inspired to do as long as you can afford the cards. I'm really not sure why there's never been anything close to a successful magic/video game hybrid, and I'm not even going to touch it. I think it's still a great idea. But what I'll say is this. We want to live somewhere else sometimes. We want to be powerful. And when it comes to being part of another world, there's something about complete customizable freedom that not even MMORPG characters can match.