I just finished Singularity a couple of days ago, and although it was an entertaining enough shooter in a mindless way, it ended up leaving me more or less pissed off. Why? Well, here we have this idea of the Cold War era Soviet Union coming up with time travel and the player being dropped in middle of that, having to traipse back and forth in time and to manipulate the temporal states of object around him. So, how did they use this idea?
There’s a research base, and there’s an explosion, and all the people have turned into mutants and monsters, and then there’s a bad guy with a facial scar and a glass eye. And then you shoot the mutants. Oh, and you have a gravity gun, never say a word and have an inexplicable plucky female sidekick with all the personality surgically removed.
Fucking seriously? Was that the most interesting way to use that idea? Okay, the game does a couple of nifty scenes with the time travel and the ending is surprisingly interesting, but nevertheless, those were just stick on decals on a really fucking used car.
First, a little bit of bitching, but if you want to get to the ideas, skip to the end.
BEEN THERE, SEEN THAT, GOT THE ACHIEVEMENTS
Having worked as a gaming journalist for the last ten years and gaming a lot on my free time, I guess I’ve just got an overdose of what the current AAA-list gaming has to offer. I guess it’s just about reaching that critical mass where the seams in the games start to show very easily. After half an hour of gaming, its’ usually very easy to see what the game will be like, all the way to the end. Also, the gameplay starts to run together. How many first or over the shoulder third person shooters does the world actually need?
And let’s face it, most of the game storylines are crap. I’ve heard plenty of stories about game creators having had to dumb the games down to appeal to the distributor, who’s worried that the stupidest fucking fratboy maybe won’t get what’s going on in the game or be entertained by the story, and they are easy to believe. The games still don’t do subtle very well, or not at all. Not to mention believable or down to earth characters. Or drama. I also bitched about the childishness of general game plots and storytelling in here, of which I think Singularity is a good example.
INDUSTRY VS INDIE
This week I realized that I’m getting my real gaming kicks and wow-moments increasingly from indie stuff instead of big league games. The AAA-list games which I’m enjoyed during the last year or so are Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins. I detailed my love affair with Heavy Rain in here, so no more of that. The appeal of Alan Wake for me were the believable, human characters, the fact that the game didn’t explain everything away and the ending that was pure class. Batman: Arkham Asylum… well, when dealing with guys who wear their briefs outside of their trousers and dress as bats, it’s a tad bit weird to talk about believable characterization – but nevertheless, that’s what the game had. Combined with excellent pacing, playability and atmosphere was what made this game appealing for me. Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins – again with the good characterization and especially in Mass Effect 2 and the DLCs some rather chilling twists. ME2 managed to offer some surprisingly nuanced storytelling, but I’ve got to say that DAO had the most generic modern gritty fantasy setting possible. Assassin’s Creed II was fun enough – the main character was likable and I really liked that instead of being tepid X-files crap, the conspiracy was true Illuminatus-surrealism.
In indie side I was totally blown away by three games: Flower, Limbo and Today I Die. Flower might sound like painfully arty crap, but there is a game in there, with really excellent emergent storytelling. Just thinking about it makes me feel sort of melancholy. Limbo was probably the scariest game I’ve played in years. The graphical style and the storyline meshed perfectly together and again, great emergent storytelling and not explaining things away. Today I Die is a small browser based game that ends up being a truly great emotional mindfuck.
This stuff is interesting. This stays to haunt me and when I start a game, I never know what to expect – unlike in vast majority of big league games.
Outside of those I’ve really got a kick out of the latest season of Sam & Max – compared to the previous seasons it’s taken a turn for darker, weirder and more irreverent, which was just the thing I hoped it would do. On the mod front, Korsakovia is a good example of horror done right. No over-elaborate monsters or reliance of blood, guts and violence – just making the world surreal, disturbing and anxiety inducing. Currently I’m playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I love so far. Survival horror with no weapons and a bad thing of some sort chasing you – you can’t fight, you can only try to outwit it or hide.
GAMES I’D LIKE TO SEE
So, here’s three gaming ideas which I’d like to see – or to make, if someone could send me a good team, dev tools, a few million euros and an address to a distributor that’s willing to take risks. Two of these ideas are sort of dark and topical, the third one something I really can’t understand hasn’t been done yet.
The common theme with the first two is drama. No action adventure, or action horror, or action thriller… but maybe action drama. Believable settings, believable characters, the player shoots maybe one person in the game. The third idea is lighter in tone, but the idea is to break the goddam first/third person action stranglehold that seems to encompass 90% of plot based games nowadays, and get the player to see something else apart from the back of his characters’ head or a wobbling gun.
1) Medal of Honor of Duty: Refugee Camp
I’ve been entertaining myself over the autumn flu by thinking about game ideas, and in a strike of synchronicity today’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper touched on one of them in this article about the new Medal of Honor game: “Who would make a war game from the point of view of a civilian? A gunship hovering silently over the rooftops will open fire. There are only fractions of a second to take cover.”
The player is a young kid at a warzone, let’s say somewhere in Africa or maybe the Bosnian war – or if that’s not politically correct enough, make up a low key sci-fi setting or preferably a pretend country. On one side there are American troops, on the other local warlords or whatever fits the setting. The mission: try and get food and medication for your family, try and survive the bombings, rocket attacks, death squads and ethnic cleansings, while trying to keep your family safe too. How many of you are alive and unmolested when the war and the game ends? No weapons, unless the player fucks up and ends up being forcefully drafted as a child soldier, and probably blown away in the first fifteen minutes of combat. You can stone tanks or lone soldiers – after which the army plows down your house or the rebels rape and kill your family. Lots of sneaking, running away, stealing stuff, hiding, and seeing your friends and family die of direct violence, hunger or disease.
No-one can say there is no action in here or that game like this would be dull. The chance to do here: exciting action that’s not just shooting bad guys, great characterization for the other civilians, soldiers etc., a plotline that’s not about mutants or aliens invading something, scenes that are truly disturbing and thought provoking – and hopefully making people think a fucking second what’s it like when the building under the Apache targeting reticule is your home.
2) Requiem for a Reindeerspotting
Two young uneducated dudes get the perfect idea: let’s make money by selling hard drugs – and you can see where this is going. The storyline never really gets off the corner scale drug trade and the massive empire of the guys is a few blocks. How to deal with the rivals without getting too much attention, what to do when the cops find your stash and you owe a money to the higher ups, what to do when your pal starts using himself, starts skimming the package and gets an habit of going off the grid for days at a time. What to do if you yourself get addicted or arrested? Why not make this Heavy Rain style, with several main characters who can have very different outcomes in the story.
This one needs good deep characterization and a down to earth storyline, which can still be pretty fucking exciting and action packed. At the same time it can be a Wire-esque story that doesn’t try to preach, trots out great and entertaining characters and situations, and at the same time tells how “glamorous” the drug trade really is.
Oh, what the hell is Reindeerspotting? It’s a very good documentary about some Finnish junkies, check the trailer below.
3) The Heist
You have seen The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven – and I can’t understand why haven’t these been turned into games. The only game I know where you have to plan and execute a robbery is Commodore 64 / Amstrad game They Stole a Million, which is a fucking excellent idea for a game. Why has this not been remade is beyond me.
There are several targets in the game, let’s say a mansion, a bank, an art gallery and a casino. In the first phase the player cases the joint with an accomplice, in the second phase he hires the most suitable professionals to do the job. During the actual execution the player is in the command center directing the crew, maybe with the option to jump in himself if things go really pear shaped. The game can be spruced up by mixing in different eras, like starting from the 30’s with very basic gear and ending up with 2020 with near future scifi stuff.
This is a chance to combine action and planning with using your brain. Nobody should get killed and the ideal robbery is done so that nobody notices it has happened until the next morning. Surprising guard shift changes, a boss who’s stayed in the work late to bone his secretary, alarms that weren’t in the blueprints, all these bring extra excitement for the player and a need to think on his feet. Deep characteration or the plotline in here is not that important as in the previous examples, but this is the kind of gameplay that would break the FPS/TPS stranglehold and bring something that’s at least remotely new to the current games.
I’d like to see the previous games done by someone, but frankly – I can only see real possibilities for the Heist idea. Why? Because the general public are fucking retards, and especially the bigger distributors are still scared of publishing something that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator and which might upset an average motherfucker who has never actually played a videogame. Making a game costs from a few millions to a hundred million dollars with all the marketing and assorted expenses, so it’s understandable that the business side of the equation wants to get their money back.
I’m not holding high hopes for the big league games doing much of anything groundbreaking in the coming years. Oh, I’m sure I’ll be getting interesting enough action romps with some gems that have slipped through the cracks, but for now I’m keeping my eye on the indie side of things.
Then again, the Civilian in the Warzone is an idea that could be done as a mod for an existing game, and something that might net the makers some funding from the government, the minister of culture or even some international relief or peace organizations.