Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Drug Against War?

I've been writing about Columbine, on and off, for almost a decade now, more than a third of my total lifespan. It's consistently depressing, but strangely compelling as a topic. I finished an article on Bully a while back, a text in which it's difficult to avoid comparisons to Columbine if only in terms of the pre-release controversy (the text itself has a lot more to do with Lord of the Flies than any "factual" youth violence narratives), and in the interest of expanding on that, it seemed high time to take a look at the (briefly) infamous Super Columbine Massacre RPG. I haven't finished it, and in fact seem to have developed a rather pronounced mental block against playing it that can't be explained purely in terms of my utter addiction to HoMM5. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that it's rather not what I was expecting.

As the game opens, you (and your avatar, Eric Harris) run through the morning of April 20, 1999, moving through contemporary pop-culture references (Doom! Luvox! KMFDM! ...Marilyn Manson?) and hitting the occasional flashback. While I haven't checked into the specifics, the game appears to be built from a kit derived from Final Fantasy IV, or II for the yabanjin among us, and the engine goes a long way towards contextualizing the gameplay. I have to wonder if maybe the game has nothing to do with Columbine at all, and only uses the sensational real-world shooting as a device to parody the tropes of Final Fantasy and JRPGs in general. The long, trauma=drama cut-scenes, the emo whining, the easy, pointless battles...

...which brings us to the actual shooting. The battles are set up like in an RPG, a genre we don't think of as violent despite the fact that most RPGs produce body counts pure action games couldn't match. What other genre actually encourages players to wander aimlessly and kill everything they come across for hours and hours with no overt narrative motivation for doing so? That the "fights" against the unarmed students and teachers are so easy is, perhaps, part of the point, and I found myself habitually trying to maximize efficiency with the weapons and "armor" for the two characters, minimizing the expenditure of ammunition (which here functions as MP generally does in RPGs) and health items. In killing my way to character level 12--counting the two flashbacks that gave three levels to one kid each--I killed far more people than the actual Harris and Klebold. Having sufficiently explored the map (since I wasn't really planning on playing this thing more than once), I headed back to the point in the library where I'd earlier received the suicide prompt, and my two characters shot themselves.

I rather expected this to be the end of the game, but after a long and maudlin memorial sequence, a quotation from Dante's Inferno came up, and I found myself controlling Klebold in Hell. Now armed with only a pistol, he walked around long enough to be attacked by former humans and former human sergeants before an imp--yes, the furry, spikey, fireball-happy kind--killed him.

I'm not sure there's another strategy to be used here. It seems unlikely I can avoid that many of them. And building to level 12 wasn't nearly enough for this kind of fight. So the best I can guess is that I'm going to need to grind like hell during the actual, historical rampage shooting portion of the game so I'll be adequately prepared for the fighting I'm going to have to do in hell.

For me, the fact that it prompted me to write that last sentence is the most remarkable thing about the game. If I get nothing else out of the game, that's a sort of accomplishment in and of itself.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Guns, Germs, and Steel: Ethics and Genre Shift

I was a big graphic adventure fan back in the day, and it never fails to bother me when I read that the genre is dead. It is more or less dead, of course, at least in its undiluted form, but then, graphic adventures are so filmic that much videogame theory practically defines them out of the category of "games." But this post isn't about graphic adventures, so much as their immediate descendant, the "survival horror" genre.

Inaugurated by Resident Evil, or Alone in the Dark if you're like that, survival horror basically jury-rigged some very basic action mechanics into the graphic adventure, a genre stressing narrativity (in the sense of both storyline as well as evocative architecture and aesthetics), observation, and basic logic. Assuming we take Resident Evil as the starting point, and I feel we would have good reason to do so--it's a choice between Milla Jovovich and Tara Reid, after all--we see a fairly simplistic graphic adventure combined with a pretty crappy action game. The puzzles are mostly pure item-swapping, and the action...well, you point and fire until it the bad guys hit the ground. The Director's Cut (and the sequels) go one further by actually aiming the gun for you, eliminating the time-consuming "point" part of the process. So what made the game compelling? In "Hands-On Horror," Tanya Krzywinska suggests that horror-themed games (including but not limited to survival horror) derive their appeal from the tension between control and lack of control, and that this binary between free will and determinism, active gameplay and cut-scene, manifests at narrative and ludic levels. It's a wonderful idea, with implications far beyond the specific genre/milieu on which she was writing, but this post isn't about that either.

Rather, this is about what players are called upon to do in Resident Evil. The puzzles are simple, relying more on having the right item than any real thought process. The combat is simple, relying more on having enough ammunition (and the right weapon) than any particular combat strategy. So where's the player's main role? What takes up the majority of their time and energy?
  1. The player must acquire items to open doors and generally move along.
  2. To acquire items, the player must search rooms.
  3. To search rooms, the player must either avoid or kill zombies (and other assorted baddies).
  4. To kill zombies, one must fire bullets, gradually exhausting their supply.
  5. To acquire new bullets, the player must search rooms. See step 3.
So, in short, the "trick" to Resident Evil is primarily ammo conservation: making your shots count, and knowing when to run and when to fight. There's enough ammo in the game even in the initial release to take out pretty much everything in the mansion, but knowing where the ammo is comes down to being able to having successfully cleared the right rooms. In small rooms without much likelihood of ambient ammunition (which would be a great name for a rock band), it might be more efficient to simply run through it, avoiding the monsters, especially if your ammo supply is low and might be higher in the near future. Don't get trigger happy, don't get sloppy, and kill only what you need to. These directives comprise the ethics of Resident Evil, the lessons the designers intend you to learn, the things you have to do to play effectively and "in character." (It's possible that the sequels, with their post-game ratings, encourage more bloodlust, but I'm focusing on the first one for now.)

Onimusha, upon its release, was described not inaccurately as Resident Evil with swords. It's not a trivial distinction; if the protagonist's main weapon is a sword, ammo conservation goes out the window as a play mechanic. So, the ethics change from "pick your shots" to "kill everything you see." Kills reward the player with more than short-term safety in Onimusha, providing health, magic, weapon upgrades, and...keys. The most important items in Resident Evil, the ones that most directly allow you to progress the story and win the game, are sometimes earned in Onimusha not by judicious study of the environment, but from the simple acquisition of kills. At a narrative level, it's worth noting that the bad guys in Onimusha are conscious, evil beings rather than animals and braindead victims of a pharmaceutical accident. The argument for leaving a demon alive and going about your day is weaker than a similar argument would be for a zombie who used to be a lab tech. The Resident Evil hybrid of action and graphic adventure is tweaked in favor of action.

Devil May Cry continues the demon theme, as well as the "kill everything that moves" ethic, but adds a new element: style. One of the determinants of how many red orbs the player receives, and therefore how quickly and effectively the player can upgrade their character, is their ability to rack up style ratings against their numerous and creepy opponents. These style ratings necessitate keeping a constant stream of damage going for as long as possible, and thus discourages powerful, disjointed hit-and-run tactics in favor of fluid, aesthetically pleasing sword combos and juggling--the kind of thing we used to see in fighting games, back when fighting games mattered. The ethics in Onimusha demand that you kill things, but only Devil May Cry requires you to look cool while you're doing it. The puzzles are even simpler than in Onimusha, and the combat is much more frequent and requires more thought. The "action with a touch of graphic adventure" formula of Onimusha now becomes a straight out action game, with elements of fighting games starting to trickle in.

God of War, though born of a different developer, further articulates the nascent fighting game elements of Devil May Cry. The style rating is replaced with a more traditional (and precise) combo system, and the easy blocking and rolling allows skilled players to string together ridiculously long combos to rack up red orbs for (wait for it) weapon and skill upgrades. Moreover, God of War actually brings back the "fatality" concept from Mortal Kombat, giving most enemies a specific, cinematic death, accessed by button/analog combinations irrelevant to normal gameplay, that allows players either to maximize red orb earnings or refill health or magic. It's perhaps not coincidental that among God of War's imitators was Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, a spinoff that reenacts the Mortal Kombat II storyline in a way that actually makes some narrative sense.

So, in these titles, we see a genre shift from graphic adventure through hack-and-slash action to a new adventure/fighting game hybrid, accomplished through minor shifts in gameplay ethics.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ideology link

I posted a brief bit about Terry Eagleton's Ideology: An Introduction and what it can tell us about game design over at the Valuable Games blog. Link goes here.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The damnable time-suck of HoMM5

I haven't posted to this thing in a while, but fortunately, nobody's actually reading yet. (With apologies to the exceptions. Hi, mom!) I've been slogging through an article about Heroes of Might and Magic V (HoMM5) and the war in Iraq, and for a fairly short article, it's taking a while to get done.

The problem with writing such an article is that it requires you to play HoMM5, which is both ferociously addictive and dangerously time-consuming. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Stephen Johnson wrote of the struggle-reward cycle that underlies most videogames, but turn-based strategy literalizes that principle into "press 'end turn' button for terror; wait ten seconds for joy." Since the actual article won't see print here for a while (and hopefully never), here are some loose thoughts that have come up along the way about the principles encoded into the fictional and simulated world, bearing in mind that "fictional" and "simulated" are not actually dependent on one another.

1. Hierarchy. This isn't a war for the common folk. One tier 7 troop will make more difference on the battlefield than a hundred tier 1 troops, and the hero--the field general who faces no direct danger and has a largely symbolic diegetic role--is often more important than all the troops under his command.

2. Tribalism. Troop morale is determined by a variety of factors, some intuitive and some, um, not. Among the most prevalent, and in practice the most important, is an internalized taboo against, for lack of a better term, race-mixing. Factions differ on the level of species as well as culture, but since here in the really real world we have no language to deal with the problem of multiple sentient, humanoid species, we tend to use the word "race." It's a problematic term--I suspect that humans and zombies have far more convincing reasons to despise each other than, say, Sunni and Shi'a--but there it is. Troop morale drops if they're placed under the command of a hero whose race/species differs from their own, or if the troops contain warriors from more than one faction. Should both happen, should a stack of demon troops find themselves serving in an otherwise all-elf army under the command of an elven hero, the morale penalty often renders that stack basically inoperative. So, if you're going into a tough battle, be careful about social liberalism. In the single-player campaign, two of the five main characters are narratively outsiders to their faction, are but treated (and coded) and being natives. One's a hero, one's definitively not, but it's interesting that they're so prominent, given the ludic rules on mixing.

3. Militarism. Every aspect of gameplay is geared toward the war effort. It's hard to imagine how it could be otherwise, given the genre. But it's interesting that the towns from which the player builds armies and researches technologies (a loaded term in this case) are narratively identified as actual towns, with, presumably, non-combatant citizens. (Otherwise, who's doing all this work? Can the two heroes who visit in a given week really keep that tavern in business by themselves?) We never see them, and don't know who they are or what they look like. Presumably their labor produces the gold the town offers up each day, but the only time we see mention of taxes is in the Haven faction's "peasant" unit bio, and they somehow manage to pay taxes while on the road, far away from their fields.

4. Multiple, mutually exclusive perspectives. Most strategy games let you play as more than one side, with the moral equivalence this often suggests and the strategic equivalence the genre demands. Generally, this amounts to having several different campaigns, each centered on the experience of one faction. HoMM5 has six campaigns (out of the box), that can only be played in order. Unlike in, say, Command & Conquer, in which the two campaigns loosely overlap, the six campaigns play out chronologically in a consistent universe, the result being that you're constantly being forced to deal with the consequences of problems you caused for yourself while playing as another faction. It takes some of the verve out of the big victories when you realize that, one cut-scene later, it will retroactively have been a big defeat, which is one kind of identity confusion videogames do very well.