Thursday, 30 October 2008

Hocking's Masterpiece

I went to bed last night thinking about the ending of Far Cry 2. My response, entirely subjective, was a mix of dismay and real, genuine sadness. The feeling was comparable to the one I get at the very conclusion of the Harry Potter series – a kind of melancholy sadness at having to say goodbye to this mind-blowing world, compounded by the tragic events of the closing pages. Similarly, I know there are many people who don’t like the Harry Potter series, or the ending, and can’t help but think that some people will react similarly to Far Cry 2. The ending is imperfect. It’s flawed. But for those few of us who now care about this game, it’s also deeply emotional.

I can forgive the flaws of the ending, however, and now rate it as one of my all time favourite videogame conclusions ever. Partly it's because it is going to be somewhat unpopular, and I don’t want it written off or forgotten. But in it’s depths I can see the glimmer of the potential that it was trying to achieve. Hocking’s Masterpiece.

Far Cry 2 is about the individual; death; nihilism. The contentious design decisions, even the whole game, only starts to make sense when viewed through this lens. Like a David Lean epic from the golden era of cinema it deals with many concepts and issues all viewed through the prism of a central concern. Doctor Zhivago’s conceit was viewing the Russian revolution through the personal story of one man. Similarly Lawrence of Arabia also possessed the same focus on viewing history as it orbited around an individual. Far Cry 2 is about you and death. Of course every single person you meet wants to kill you. Of course you spend about as much time fighting the environment as other persons. Of course you are clinging to the barest scrap of health and well-being; Even the malaria is trying to kill you.

Some people will probably want to throw around that clichéd phrase “You’re a survivor” and the sentiment that goes with it, but the truth is, you’re not. Take from that what you will, but Far Cry 2 reminds at every possible opportunity that life is fatal. No one gets out of this place alive. It makes for what I believe to be truly the first game that goes beyond, or outright rejects, the mental switch-off performed by pathological mass-murderers and videogame players. That
switch you flick in your brain when playing a shooter - the small part up the back that empathises with your victims, and which is incompatible with what most games narcissistically tell us – that you should survive, you deserve it, you’re the hero. Here instead, nihilism is the name of the game.

As the man you have been trying to kill says, “No one is going to die today that didn’t have it coming.” Far Cry 2 screams that we all have it coming.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

A brief photo-journey through Far Cry 2's Africa

Or view it on flickr here.

EDIT: I have since rearranged my flickr profile and as such, it has broken. Here's the closest to the original set of images.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

War stories from Mosate Soleo

Update: I've noticed so may people have hit this blog post by googling 'Sefapane Nitrous Bug' or 'Sefapane Truck Bug', so here's a hint to getting your truck inside the garage: approach from the North. That is all.

** AVAST! Far Cry 2 spoilers ahoy! **

Far Cry 2 is all about the little details. I overheard a conversation between two militia men.

“Do you want to scrape some cash together and go to that bar, Mike’s?”

“No, we can’t. That place is off limits now – only expats allowed in there.”

It’s these short, humanizing vignettes that add some of the bite to your actions. I think, that I've missed out on many of the even more gut-wrenching reactions though, because I've been super careful with my saves and loads and always opted for the most ‘successful’ path. Justin Keverne alludes to some of the extreme situations the game can present you with in with his recent post ‘Mercenary Behaviour’. I similarly had my first rescue buddy lying on the ground dying at one stage, but the game bugged up and wouldn't let me use one of my many, many syretes. Instead of treating it as an accidental part of the narrative, I caved and loaded. On reflection, I wish I had stuck with the former.

Later in the 2nd act I had the only doctor in the village, and hence provider of my precious malaria pills, disappear and refuse to return even after the fighting had well and truly stopped (which I am somewhat confident was also a bug). I just continued on with my condition, expecting him to return at some future date, however it ended up messing with a mission.

I had been getting warnings about my deteriorating health for about an hour. The commander of the ULL in the south, whatsisname, had asked me to take out a truck loaded up with nitrous oxide bottles, depriving their enemies the ADR, of the gas - precious for its use in surgery. “Less surgery means less survivors”, he told me. Sounds like the potential for a good time, and they paid in stones too. That scratched my Pavlovian itch for reward, so I was content to oblige.

My newest fellow merc buddy, Marty, had a better idea. Hijack the truck and take it to Sefapane in the North-West. There, he would meet me and we’d blow it up in the middle of town, putting a dent in the operations of both the ADR and the ULL. Two birds with one stone. I pulled the flatbed truck into the garage which promptly sealed shut behind me, just in time for me to see Marty appear. He instructed me to open a gas bottle in the back of the truck, while he exposed a wire in a circuit box on the wall. Before I had a chance, another Malaria attack made its presence felt and having had no pills for a long, long time I succumbed to its embrace. I woke up in the hospital, effectively sealing me out of the room Marty and my current mission were both locked in. Again, I reloaded.

The second time, I knew I had to be quicker. I had to be faster so I could get in and out before my attack came on and incapacitated me. I got in, got out, blew it up and was helping Marty fight off the stragglers when, predictably, my Malaria kicked in and I passed out. I really should have stuck with it this time and treated it as part of the story, I mean, talk about a compelling unintended narrativee consequence, but Marty was now missing because I hadn’t fought off the stragglers and my awful habit of meta-gaming refused to let me ‘waste’ the game asset that was Marty. Again I caved and tried it differently.

Now, with the mission safely in my rearview mirror, my rescue buddy won't stop commenting on how amazing it is that Marty & I escaped from that last adventure unscathed every time I see her. “I feel you’re a dependable asset”, she tells me. I feel ashamed, and move on.

Monday, 27 October 2008

SLRC turns 1

Wow. If I someone would have told me, back in October 07 when I started, that this blog was going to make it to one year old and get my name into the top 10-or so results on Google for my name... I probably would have said... "was it worth the effort"?

Of course it was, and with the one year mark in mind, let me thank everyone and anyone who has ever read anything I have written here, and especially thank anyone who has been interested in any of my ideas enough to leave a comment.

Fable 2, Storytelling and Simulation Fever

I am confused about Fable 2. Actually, I take that back; I’m in equal measures annoyed and entertained by Fable 2.

Don’t get me wrong, I like it, just not in the way I like, say, Halo or Oblivion. A few things about the game irked me, right from the get-go and I had a really hard time figuring out exactly why. I think partly it’s to do with it’s own indecision about what narrative voice it wants to use, or better put, whether it wants to use one at all. When you start or continue a game of Fable 2, a voiceover narrator says “And so our story begins…” My own initial reaction was something along the lines of, ‘Okay so I’m to treat this game like I’m being told a story, I can do that’. That lasted for about as long as the introductory cut-scene, for after that it completely diverts from that aim. The narrator literally becomes a character in the story, which I felt really ruined that sense of being told a story. The narrator is no longer talking to me, but to my character now. What the heck?

The second thing that I think is a bit of an unnecessary ‘throwback’ in Fable 2 is the world itself. Game locations feel disconnected from one another and it takes multiple hours to walk from Bowerstone Lake to the city of Bowerstone. This is alright I suppose, but makes me wonder what happened to my hero in the intervening time. Surely he can’t just walk for 16 hours and have nothing at all happen worth seeing or doing – he’s a flipping hero for goodness sake, at the very least trouble is supposed to find him! In the rest of the world, I can barely go two seconds without something happening and I refuse to believe there are sections of the world of Albion where nothing happens. Alternatively, if it does, why don’t I know about it? No bandit attacks? No random balverines? Why doesn’t everybody just move to these obviously much safer places in the world and just never leave!

Further confusing the sense of a consistent world is the fact that some locations that would appear to be separated by the barest minimum distance (‘old town bowerstone’ being a one hour walk from ‘market bowerstone’ despite the fact that it’s the same city) insist on including some measure of the passage of time between them. This gripe is somewhat answered by the fact that time passes so ridiculously quickly in the game (I have no idea why somebody thought 5 minutes to the day was a sensible time ratio), but that in itself also rather annoys me. What is the point of making the day pass so quickly, especially when one can at any point choose to skip anywhere between 6 hours and 7 days at a time anyway?

I guess a lot of this seems like just rather sloppy design to me. The easy answer for both these problems seems to me to be the inclusion of some form of overland map (think any Black Isle D&D game ever) to show the players travel and include the possibility for random encounters. Yes, I do see the irony in me telling a game designer how to improve their game, but sometimes an outside perspective is just what the doctor ordered.

As you can probably tell (and longtime readers will probably have picked up long ago) consistency within a game’s simulation logic (if that’s an appropriate name for it) is one of my desires for all games, and a big deal for me. Ian Bogost coined the term “simulation fever” for a player’s subjective responses to ‘the omissions and inclusions of a…system.’[1] He also says that ‘objective simulation is a myth because games cannot help but carry the baggage of ideology.’[2] So I guess what I’m articulating here is my own brand of simulation fever, which Fable 2 causes in me.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a fickle creature and I’ll like whatever I like thankyouverymuch. I know that in my time I’ve probably overlooked things that would be glaring deal-breakers for others in games and other media, so c'est la vie. If someone has a way of viewing these problems I have with Fable 2 I’d love to hear them – they might help me enjoy the game more, after all.

[1] Ian Bogost, Unit Operations, p.132

[2] Ibid., p.135

Friday, 24 October 2008

Far Cry 2: Wrongs and Rights

**SPOILER ALERT: These are mostly gameplay-related spoilers, but if you are trying to steer clear of anything and everything to do with the game before it comes out then perhaps you should stop reading now.**

Like just about every videogame in history, Far Cry 2 does some things well, and some things not so well. Lets get the wrong things out of the way first.

Okay, so FC2 has some of the same ‘open world’ problems shared by GTA, Oblivion and STALKER. While browsing an internet forum, I encountered a great and humorous way to sum it up (colourful language warning!). User ‘cpd’ said:

think gta but apartheid africa. plus fucking malaria FUCK OFF FUCKING PILLS

oh and the fact that EVERY c*** wants to shoot you. EVERY SINGLE JEEP will immediately swerve into your path to shoot the living fuck out of you. get out, kill them, repair jeep, drive 100m up the road, repeat.

So it can be kind of repetitive, and frustratingly so – but I’m kind of okay with some of that. I recognize a lot of people probably won’t be, but it kind of ties into the sense of space and physicality that I'll mention later on. I am, however, a guy who has played and nearly completed Oblivion with mods to disable fast-traveling (i.e. played the whole game on horse or foot), so maybe that rules me out. FC2 is at least as large as Oblivion, so getting around can at points become a large part of the game. While there are plenty of cars and utes lying around, the problem comes with transitions to fighting – you either have to get out of your car which takes precious time, or swap to a turret if you vehicle has one leaving you stationary and exposed. Perhaps this issue will be solved later on with the addition of someone riding shotgun, I will admit to only being about 8% of the way through (after nearly 6 hours I might add).

And the good!

The ‘buddy system’ is awesome. Specifically, the fact that if you die and you have a live buddy rested and waiting, they will immediately rush to your side, in a bid to save your life. They’ll pick you up, shoot most of the nearby enemies for you, and give you some breathing room to patch yourself up. It really does solve one of the biggest and most fundamental problems with player death – lets face it, reloading from a save game isn’t exactly all that fun. So it makes sense to do away with it if you can. John Walker from Rock, Paper, Shotgun (who I quoted in my last blog post) wrote back in September about the issue. He said,

I want a high profile, big budget, mainstream action game in which the player character is invincible. I believe that the next truly great game will be the one that does this.[1]

Far Cry 2 doesn’t make you invincible, but the number of times I have accidentally ‘died’ and have just begun to reach for the quick-load button only to fall into the arms or my buddy’s saving embrace, are many.

The other thing that Far Cry 2 does extremely well (and this is the one that I think everyone will or should be talking about soon) is give you a sense of embodiment within the world. As Steven Gaynor (Fullbright) pointed out over Twitter, ‘An FPS that visualizes your hand turning doorknobs? I think I'm in love.’[2] The comparison I couldn’t help but keep making was to Bioshock which often took control of the player and their hands to perform actions, usually in its on-the-rails cutscenes. In Far Cry 2, your hands are always doing this something and they really feel (to me at least) like they are my hands. Add to this the fact that when you need to you can see your body and legs (mostly in other on-rails sections) and you can start to see the building blocks of a really interesting system for representing the player in a virtual world.

In Far Cry 2 you never change to third person, ever – and this is a really good thing! Unfold your map and you will hold in your hands a map of the African country you're stranded in, represented as just another thing in your hands. Like a gun, but for information and orientation. When driving you can open up the map and hold it in one hand, and the net effect is similar to what you would do if performing a similar action in the real world. Your eyes flit back and forth between map and windscreen, balancing path finding with map-reading. No game has ever done that to me before. Also, getting in and out of a vehicle takes time, and while I decried it earlier as being frustrating in combat, it actually further adds to a sense of embodiment. It feels like I am a real human being with a body that takes a real amount of time to move, not some super ninja that flits around at the slightest twitch of a mouse.

In conclusion, it's too early to tell if Far Cry 2 is the ‘game changer’ that I hoped it would be in my previous post. However, even if it's not, it’s certainly another great step in the right direction, in this author’s humble opinion.

Post Script: Jim Rossignol, lover of all games open and exploratory, has posted his own initial thoughts on the game on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. He's pretty much spot on with everything except the Alt+Tab thing - mine works fine.



Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Why I'm so fracking excited about Far Cry 2

“I think Far Cry 2 is going to be amazing…” John Walker, RPS Wireless Show, Ep.2

I also think Far Cry 2 is going to be amazing, and it’s partly because of what the guys at RPS have said about it, and partly because of what the Creative Director, Clint Hocking has said. In an interview for Edge Magazine, he used a literary comparison to explain its difference from the original Far Cry.

The original Far Cry is The Island Of Dr Moreau, a story of a mad scientist that has unlocked the inner savagery in man and created literal monsters,” says Far Cry 2’s creative director Clint Hocking. “But at the same time HG Wells was writing Moreau, Joseph Conrad was writing Heart Of Darkness, which actually has very similar themes. It’s about someone in the jungle that has discovered and is leveraging man’s inner madness, and become a metaphorical rather than literal monster. This is Far Cry 2.

The focus on the “inner madness” is an area that I am only too happy to explore. Could Far Cry 2 become the Apocalypse Now of our gaming generation? Kieron Gillen, in the same RPS Podcast as the earlier quote from Walker, explained why he thought that it was going to be a “game changer” of a game. In terms of the open world nature of the game and how the story is told, Gillen said

…the sort of narrative structure is basically you choose who you want to be from a list…and then all the other characters become NPC’s in the story…the structure generates via programming…and that’s really clever. That absolutely how we should be trying to do narratives in games instead of just the ridiculous cut-scene approach…of… your metal gear solid 4 approach, which is ludicrous. That this is absolutely embracing the form and wouldn’t be possible in any other form, [is] really interesting and novel.

If there’s one phrase that can get me instantly interested in a topic about videogames it’s “embracing the form”. To any developer who is interested in creating a game that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium, I instantly say “Yes! Lets!” and want to give them all my money. Gillen seemed to think that Far Cry 2 had the potential to change the way we perceive games, even what games are possible of, saying

Far Cry…kinda sounds like… well you can’t really go back after this. …The idea that suddenly an entire generation of gamers will be injected with something which changes how they think a shooter could work is exciting, cause that hasn’t happened since Half-Life. …Wouldn’t it be amazing if, this Christmas everything changed? The idea that the sort of things people expect form the genre changed? It hasn’t changed since 1998.

I also find that notion to be terribly exciting. However, there is always the potential that it will be ignored, missed by the game developing community at large, and generally passed over. John Walker questioned Gillen’s belief, saying

I’d love to think that were true, but unfortunately, that when PoP came out I said ‘Oh my goodness, no platform game can ever be the same again because of this game’ and yet not one single platform game has done it right at all – I mean, Braid? …Tomb Raider games…still don’t have rewinding time in them and there’s no reason not to. I mean, there’s enough mysticism and magic going on. ‘Oh yeah, but they’d be stealing that idea directly from Prince of Persia’ well what was PoP? *laughs* A direct steal from Tomb Raider. Loads of these brilliant redefining games just seem to get ignored for years, which is really frustrating.

Gillen, in response, suggests that, perhaps in this case, Prince of Persia was largely passed over because it “wasn’t the number 1 game in the industry. Whereas Half-Life was.” He says,

I think Far Cry 2 is going to be huge. If it’s huge, people rip it off more. Especially if it’s in a genre which is popular, which a shooter is.”

Early reviews are in. The verdict, so far, is quite good. Tom Chick:

The objective of Far Cry 2 as a game is to get out of the way and let you experience the game world. And there is no other game world quite like this one: haunting, spectacular, meditative, explosive, violent, and serene, all at once, and all in a mere shooter.

I for one, can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

October Round Table: Playing Halo with my Mother

'It’s a Family Affair': This month’s Round Table invites you to explore your earliest memories of playing games with your family.

How does one shoehorn family and videogames into the same sentence? In my case it’s to say that the two never were in the same sentence. As a pre-adolescent, and then as a teenager, videogames were an escape from the bullying I received while at school, and – for my parents – a welcome method of keeping me occupied for a while at home. I will admit that, as a child, I was one that demanded a lot of attention from parents and caregivers, and it was probably a happy day when they were able to sit me down with SimTower and not have to worry about keeping me occupied for an hour.

When I reached an age old enough to have my own computer (around 14 if memory serves) I began to spend entire Saturdays locked away in my bedroom playing games like the original Half-Life, Black & White, Baldur’s Gate and anything else I could pirate from friends. So it really wasn’t until last year that the phrases “my parents” and “videogames” ever really started to go together in any sentence that wasn’t an admonishment about spending so much time on my computer.

When my mother noticed how much fun my brother and I had when playing cooperatively in the Halo series of games (and how much of our focus it took away from useful and productive things like chores, eating, etc.) she declared that, it looked like fun and that one day you’ll have to show me how to play Halo. And so my brother and I introduced mum to the Halo games.

Yes, she was pretty bad at first, but she made good progress, and the fact that we played cooperatively meant it was an easy learning curve for her. The thing it made me realise, however, was just how much accumulated skill we as gamers now possess – more specifically, the ability to rapidly adapt to new control schemes and button mappings. When my brother and I played The Orange Box on Xbox 360, we perhaps took 15 minutes to become reasonably competent at the Valve variant of console shooter controls, whereas my mother with her near complete lack of previous gamepad experience still has trouble moving and looking at the same time after a number of hours playing.

So I learnt a lot from playing with family – there is such an amazing level of knowledge that we gamers take for granted. When we complain about ‘arbitrary’ control schemes, I now take a minute and think about how, well really, all control schemes are largely arbitrary to you also happen to have a similar shared gaming background. I mean, why does shoot always have to be under the right index finger? Just because that’s what we use that when shooting a physical gun? Okay, that’s a bad example because maybe there is something to be said for some button mappings, but jump as A? That’s also reasonably standard, and there is no correspondence between using your legs and pressing A with your thumb.

Thinking back to it now, when I first played Half-Life all those years ago, I had no-one to tell me about the WASD control scheme. Imagine if, instead of looking into the control mapping and thinking oh, that’s interesting, I think I’ll try that, I instead said, oh stuff that – arrow keys for me k thnx. I’d probably be horrible at modern PC shooters (in b4 “you’re already horrible at PC shooters”).

This issue of accumulated, similar experience among gamers is one that’s cropped up a fair bit in the last couple of days – Both Matt Gallant at the Quixotic Engineer and Dan Purvis at Graffiti Gamer have addressed the question of whether the ‘enthusiast’ or ‘hardcore’ gamers and press have different interests and experience to your more ‘average’ gamer (if there is such a person). I think I’m definitely on the affirmative side of the issue in question, as playing with my mother has shown me exactly how big that gap can be.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Thesis is complete!

And thus ends another chapter of my life; that of being an undergraduate student. I printed, bound and submitted my thesis last Friday and I have been Walking on a Dream since.

I plan to turn the more compelling parts of it into a blog series, either here or elsewhere, and elaborate a bit on my findings. I'll also make it publicly available at the same time, which should be around mid-November when I get it back from being marked. In the intervening time, you can read the abstract of my Thesis:


Unlike traditional artistic endeavours such as literature, painting or sculpture, videogames and their creation, according to Janet Murray, are still in an incunabular period. Various efforts have been made to view videogames in light of other media such as film and narrative while few have yet to address, specifically, ways in which videogames present unique opportunities for expression. This thesis draws upon a number of authors to identify areas unique to videogames, and examines the implications for the employment of music within them. After examining the case for videogame uniqueness, the thesis looks to the current musical paradigm within videogames and, finding it somewhat lacking, offers a critique of the paradigm. A number of games that do, however, break from tradition and utilise music in exceptional ways are then discussed and their potential for adoption in future games is assessed. The final component of the thesis is an investigation into the use of music within the Xbox videogame Halo 2 (2004) through discussion with the composer, Martin O’Donnell, and an analysis of the music and sound of the game. In the process I discover that the game uses music in a way similar to the dominant paradigm, while also exhibiting a musicality within the in-game sound effects and level ambience. The result is a ‘soundscape’ style approach well suited to attaining both the emotive power of linear compositions as well as a closer relationship between music and visuals, seemingly a ‘best of both worlds’ videogame musical approach.