Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Whining about Games

So I've never been that heavy a computer game player, and slanted more towards TBS (Turn-Based Strategy) and other slow, contemplative games (Myst) than towards FPS (First-Person Shooters). Which was a bonus with my usual less-than-wonderful hardware.

Okay, sure, I liked me some Doom (yes, indeed, the original John Carmack game) and I stumbled upon the oddly addictive Martial Arts Bunny Massacre game Lugaru. (The sequel to which, Overgrowth, has been in development hell longer than Duke Nukem Forever.)

But I kept my ear to the news, especially around the replica props makers, and a little game called Portal seemed like it would be just a lot of fun to play. Until the day I realized I actually owned a computer recent enough to run a modern game, and signed up for some Steam. And in the Orange Box with Portal was a copy of Half-Life2.

Yes, I got the Half-Life bug. And besides offering good game play, it has an incredibly well-integrated story (the guys and gals over at Spoiler Warning do a good job of describing how the design gets around a lot of the usual design pitfalls). More than once (when I had a lot more time to read) I'd pick up an SF or Fantasy trilogy in the middle, and even when the book wasn't that good I'd be intrigued enough with questions about how they got to where they were in the second book, and how the author might have set up the story, that I'd seek out the first book in the trilogy.

The first part of the Half-Life story is an old (practically Doom-level graphics) PC game. However. However. There is a group of volunteer developers that took the extensive modding tools for Half-Life 2 made available to the community, and made a port of the entire game (with much enhanced graphics, design, game play, voice acting -- you name it).

All I had to do is install a game mod designed for a PC game. Which meant, first, running the PC game. And that meant Wine.

Wine is a lovely little (with a massive support community) bit of open-everything freeware. Wine (with a GNU-like tongue-in-cheek) stands for "Wine Is Not an Emulator." 

Some people argue with that. As I see it, though, an emulator basically acts like a chip. You run an actual Windows install in a shell, the emulator intercepts the commands down at a machine-code level and translates the opcodes into something your current hardware can handle. In the case of Bootcamp and similar, your hardware will already run Windows natively; Bootcamp basically operates as an overall supervisor, instructing the hardware whether to listen to the Windows OS or the Mac OS from moment to moment.

Wine, on the other hand, handles the program calls from the software you would be running IN Windows. And then it does what Windows would have wanted to do (bugs and all -- part of the necessary process is to reproduce all the weird flawed ways various versions of the OS respond to the program calls made by software attempting to run under it, because many are the pieces of software that were written specifically to make use of those strange and often ad-hoc behaviors.)

Which gives Wine tremendous flexibility. It can pretend from moment to moment to be different flavors of Windows, with different attached hardware. And it also makes it fast -- fast enough to play a modern game.

I was astounded by just how good Black Mesa looked, and how well it played (a glitch or two notwithstanding -- but even a modern supported and well-patched game running native on the PC will glitch sometimes. Such is life in the modern world.)

So when Steam alerted me to one of their rolling $1.75 sales, I took them up on it. 

I've had no particular interest in the Tomb Raider games. Tried a demo of one a while back and was put off by the graphic drowning animation that triggered every time you failed to read the designer's mind and swim towards some badly-rendered spot that looked pretty much like every other badly-rendered spot.

But for two bucks...

Tomb Raider: Underworld was a surprising amount of fun. It took a little creative re-mapping, but I completed the game using just the laptop's native track pad. There were essentially no major crashes or glitches (although I did have to roll back some of the graphics to get smooth game play.)

The scenery is gorgeous. One quibble is that while the designers worked well with light and shadow, and made good use of stamps to break up the textures, there are no overall shaping and toning to the surfaces. This is something you pick up in art classes and in theater painting; the final technique over the texturing and the painted-in shadows and other details, is a spattering or glaze that shapes the overall focus towards the stage, and helps separate the large masses from each other.

Underworld lacks this overall shaping, so the large masses of buildings tend to blend into a single highly-detailed but oddly homogenous mass of architecture.

The puzzles are simplistic, though at least very few of them require you to do something that breaks intuition and the realism of the game world. So is the mythology, with the "relics" being particularly disappointing, as they just show up as a bland "relic found" instead of the detailed archeological artifacts of some of the other games in the series.

And combat is very different from the FPS model. The Tomb Raider series mostly uses auto-target. Underworld does include a manual aiming mode but it is too cumbersome for anything other than sniping. (And the ranges of the weapons largely preclude that). The most effective combat style seemed to be the Monty Python variation of strafing; circle the enemy at high speed while holding down the "Fire" button. The signature twin pistols have infinite ammo, and with auto-aim you don't even have to see the bad guys. Meanwhile, they lose tracking on you and even blunder into each other while trying to follow you around. It wins, but it is boring. You can break things up a little by throwing stick-bombs (especially nice on bad guys that like to clump together).

It also follows the Steven Seagal rule; often the best way to deal with a lone gun-wielding opponent is to run up to them while they are shooting at you and hit them in the face. There are a few of the usual exploding drums around, but the manual aiming system is cumbersome enough (and freezes you dead in your tracks while you are employing it) that it is hardly worth looking for them in all but rare cases.

All of this makes the game the equivalent of a summer action flick. Lots of colorful settings (most of them in the process of blowing up) and a few tight corners with adrenaline-pumping music framing them (the bit where you have to set the Mayan calendar then race your motorcycle around pit traps and into the just-closing entrance of the tomb is a good one).

And thinking about Lara Croft herself led me to wonder why no-one had written a cross-over fanfic with the Stargate universe. I mean, both of them feature "gods" who are really Ancient Astronauts, and both illustrate the Indiana Jones school of archaeology. And as much as he does the exact same thing, Daniel would be horrified by Lara's "smash the tomb and grab the artifact" methods. 

So of course I'm currently writing one. And reading up a ton while doing so, including a bunch of blogs by working archaeologists. And why is it that I don't get more of my electronics projects done, ahem?

Given that smooth performance, and another $1.75 sale, I decided to try the third reboot of the Tomb Raider universe; the much-discussed 2013 game.

It runs less well in Wine. There are some glitches, notably, a few textures that don't render at all (which acts the same on the otherwise gorgeous game worlds as seeing the back of a stage flat does in the set world). Worse, there's a couple of spots where text does not show, most annoyingly, in the saved scenes dialog. Meaning if the game crashes, I can't always find my way back to where I'd stopped, and often have to re-play from some previous spot.

Replay has always been a sticky spot for immersive realism. Playing games that allow going through a level twice always puts you in that weird compartmentalization mode; in one part of your mind, you are thinking and reacting as your game-world avatar. In another part, you are aware of what is coming up. And you end up -- if you are a role-player, like me -- coming up with all sorts of weird rationalization for why your avatar feels like suddenly throwing a grenade down an otherwise unremarkable hallway.

Tomb Raider 2013 takes this one step worse, with the properly-reviled QTE (Quick Time Events,) otherwise known as Death By Quicktime, otherwise known as (when manage to avoid triggering the death animation) "Press X to Not Die."

Immersion is already holding on with one hand when the label for the button you are supposed to press is suddenly drifting around on the screen. It falls to its death after the sixth or seventh time you try to hit a button at some arbitrary moment when a circle lights up or something -- you are quickly divorced from any feeling that your actions relate to the game world, or are in any way part of the simulated kinesthetics of your avatar, and are left entirely trying to mash a button on your computer at exactly the right moment to let the damned Quicktime Movie finally end and let you get back to playing the game.

Several in particular are so divorced from any connection with the normal game play they are un-involving from the first moment. In the river episode, you literally can not see the obstacles you are trying to avoid, and it becomes a matter of mashing the direction keys randomly, watching random things happen on the screen, until either the movie of Lara crawling ashore plays, or the damned animation of her choking to death with a metal rod rammed through her throat plays yet again. And, no, even after a dozen times, the visceral shock of the brutal death animations don't manage to fade to anything less than the blackest of black humor. Never have I more wanted to just run a damned cheat code and avoid this bit of unnecessary nastiness the designers had weighed down the game with.

I'll say again; it isn't so much that the death animations are graphic. It is that the piss-poor design of the game means you are forced to sit through them over and over again, with no action on your own really having any influence on them. This is like one of those rat tests where the poor rat is shocked randomly while it hunts in desperate frustration for the correct lever to pull. It doesn't make the stakes feel real (the presumed designer's intent); it just makes you pissed off at the game.

Separate from this is the missed opportunity. Game design has been dealing with this for a few decades now. Somehow, major titles are in a bind where they cost so much to make, they have to charge the consumer an amount that raises expectation of many hours of gameplay in return. If you were paying two bucks, you could probably live with a thirty-minute game (especially if it had replay value). For forty bucks, the purchaser expects ten hours or more. 

And the most tried and true method of delivering that much time in game play without boring the gamer (or driving the level designer to distraction) is combat. And a similar set of constraints -- the need to make combat actually risky, without it being a game-ender -- means a multiplicity of mooks and player avatars who act like bullet sponges. 

Portal is one of the games that breaks the mold. It plays like a First Person Shooter, but you don't really fight. You solve puzzles. And there's enough in that basic framework that thousands of hours of additional puzzle play have been created by, and played happily by, the community of players themselves.

The Tomb Raider games also concentrate gameplay on the platforming (as an aside, I normally hate platforming, I hate it in Half-Life, but I think I mostly hate it because many games don't support it well. Half-Life is a shooter, and the platforming puzzles that are thrown in for variety tend to be frustrating exercises in trying to predict the size of your invisible bounding box.)

The Tomb Raider games have developed a wide pallet of gameplay solutions, from the variety of methods and tools (grapple guns, the ice axe, different animations) to some very sensible use of small cues to help the player. "Press X to jump safely" is a hell of a lot less friendly to immersive play, then noticing that Lara is hesitating when you look up but is leaning with a hopeful look when you look left.

So the good ones in the series provide a nice balance of platforming and puzzles, with a few spots of combat for variety. However, the platforming is fixed. Unlike game AI's, there is no emergent behavior, no unique situations. Every time you play the game, the same platforms are in the same places. In the worst levels, there is also only one solution. And that breaks immersion in that you end up doing Donkey Kong on it; memorizing which jumps and traverses you need to do in which order, then mindlessly walking your way through those moves when the puzzle is presented.

Overly-scripted AI's of course fall into a similar trap.

On the good levels, there are multiple possible routes and things feel less like rote memorization and more like you are actually clambering around. A mistake the 2013 game makes, unfortunately; many of the routes are so relentless linear, and you are also forced to take them in one string at a run, you end up feeling more a manipulated puppet than an active player. Indeed; one of the great set-pieces, a relatively early ascent of a towering and exposed radio mast, becomes a heck of a lot less interesting once you realize you can go through the entire freaking climb by just holding down the "forward" direction button. And then letting go when the Quicktime movie plays for the climax and finale.

This is also a philosophical problem the game fell into; that it tried to be more cinematic than a game really should. To create the kinds of scenes they wanted, they had to script actions much more tightly than is usual, and they did a poorer job than some in hiding the railroading from the player.

But I was heading somewhere else here. There was existing potential in the series to make it more of a puzzle game, and make the puzzles more interesting.

Of course, all puzzle games suffer from the simple problem that once you've solved it, it devolves to memorization. And I really, really don't know how you could write a game that integrated the support documents of a Tomb Raider game with the in-game puzzles.

What I mean is this; in the framing animations of the earlier games in the series, you are presented with journal entries, conversations, short QuickTime movies that explain the MacGuffin and the why and where for the level of the moment. Someone told Lara, or Lara found in old documents, or even a bad guy was bragging during the climax of the previous level that a part of King Arthur's sword or whatever is hidden beneath an ancient Mayan ruin in Yucatan. So now you are at said ruin, looking at a bunch of Mayan glyphs and trying to figure out how to get the door open.

Essentially all of the actual puzzle solving comes down to matching patterns or jury-rigging half-broken ancient machinery. Which is to say, it is all in-game, and it makes no functional difference whether the parts are moss-encrusted stone carved with runes, or brightly-colored Tetris blocks.

Given that several of the games have made an effort towards incorporating decent archaeological data, there is an obvious space here for, at the least, for the secret to opening the sarcophagus being to re-arrange the parts of a cartouche to properly spell out Imhotep. Which is scrawled in your notes (most of the games have provided the high-tech equivalent of Indy's "Grail Diary" in the form of a PDA.)

The Myst games do this, where often the key is not looking for where the broken-off wheel went to, but instead remembering that a picture of a bird was associated with the sound of wind chimes.

I don't really know what this would look like, translated to archaeology. Whether it would be possible to actually reproduce some of the process of inspiration which is shown in fictional depictions of archaeology ("This is the cup of a carpenter"). And given the above caveats, tying large parts of the game's planned running time to the puzzles themselves severely limits replay, thus value.

But I'd like to see someone try.

The road not taken by Tomb Raider 2013 is a different one, and fully as interesting.

Lara Croft is in most of the series James Bond. She's trained and well-armed, supremely confident, and has a bunch of gadgets. The bulk of play is swinging from pillar to pole in blithe confidence in your own physical prowess, with small vacations in which you put down armed opposition with your own copious firepower.

In the first chapters of the 2013 game, you are alone without equipment in a hostile wilderness. And the game emphasizes -- and makes you believe -- that you have only nascent survival skills. It does an incredibly good job of walking you through struggling up a mountainside to find shelter, making a fire, tottering out injured and shivering in a desperate attempt to bring down small game with a home-made bow and arrow.

And it supports and celebrates your growing skills, letting you treasure the tiny pieces of essential survival gear that come into your hands; a rude axe at one moment, a piece of flint at another.

I say again, the mechanics are excellent here. Not unflawed; after the first few camp fires and animal kills the underlying game mechanic becomes too exposed. With the first, you share with Lara not quite knowing what to do, and having your survival hinge on it. After a bit that pales, and each hare in the brush becomes a handful of XP's and some salvage points you can cash in later for a better bow.

So the first mistake is maybe that the level of abstraction becomes too bare too quickly. The underlying mechanics are too simple; for instance, everything you salvage (with the exception of a small number of earmarked parts that may become new guns, and the hero items that appear with much less regularity) goes into a giant unmarked pool of "salvage points." Looked at with too much abstraction, the game appears to imply that with enough feathers and bones from enough dead crows, you can construct a working AK-47.

The abstraction fails to mask the underlying point system, and indeed only emphasizes that despite what the graphics might tell you, only the points matter. You might get a very nice graphic of a 12th-century jade trinket you found in a junk pile, but your eye is drawn more towards the big letters that say "3/5 artifacts found; collect them all to unlock so-and-so."

I was making a similar point in regards to the abstracted archaeology; where it doesn't matter if the notches you are lining up to open a door are in Norse Runes or Mayan Glyphs or composed of smiley faces in bright primary colors. I don't know if it would be playable if, instead of having "You have found 2/3 parts of Combat Rifle. Collect all parts to upgrade weapon," you got something more like, "You found the bolt of a 1938 Mosin-Nagant" -- and then you'd have to remember you already had the upper receiver and the broken stock of that same rifle, and now only needed to find an intact stock somewhere...

I mean, even if this was the primary presentation, it might be better. But wouldn't it be interesting for a game to force you to learn what the parts of a rifle were, or how to skin game, or the difference between hieroglyphs and cuneiform? As a survival game, the real mechanisms of shelter, making fire, the need to find berries or other variety to add to your diet, etc., could be given some treatment.

Or, given that the setting is implicitly an island covered with the wrecks of centuries, some more intriguing way of handling salvage, perhaps even one that allows the MacGyvering of unique solutions based on the salvage available. If nothing else, more specifics on each salvage or each forage would be interesting (it is the same problem of the excessive mookage in most games; the gameplay dictates hundreds of poorly-detailed mooks instead of smaller numbers of unique ones).

And I mean, really. Games have spent decades training us to recognize small arms and basic tactics, and have also trained us in the peculiar and non-realistic expectations forced by the reality of mechanics (as in, there will always be random boxes or bottles or something with a Red Cross on them lying around, which you need to run over or pick up in order to regain health points.)

There are games that have incorporated some of this learning in a form that doesn't punish either the player who has already learned, or the player who needs help. As a similar example, in the above, Lara might have passed a wrecked Soviet-era truck, and after finding the broken Mosin-Nagant if the player clicks on a "help" icon in the Lara's Journal pop-up, a Lara voice-over muses that the Nagant was standard issue with the Soviet Army for some years.

And, yes, many of the Tomb Raider games have included such hint mechanisms. Although they tend to be more towards, "That hanging bell looks very heavy." 

As an aside, I am on the fence about the "Survivor Vision" mechanism of the 2013 game. It feels natural, if slightly meta, to use; supposedly you are focusing your attention on just those elements of your environment that mean life or death, with enemies (or edible game) popping out of the otherwise detail-lush backgrounds. But there is nothing really to keep you from mashing the button over and over again, and going through large parts of the game on Bat-Radar; seeing only the enemies and traps and ignoring all that mere background detail.

(The game has the same focus problem most games have; although there is so much wonderful detail, almost none of it matters, and the bits that do matter are always marked in contrasting colors and formulaic shapes. So after a few hours of game play, you don't bother looking closely at the hand-made shrine of candles and bones and steer directly for the Crate O' Salvage Points.)

And this isn't even including the combats and the scripted events that force you to run through gorgeously detailed settings without taking the time to look around.

The argument is easy to make that making the survival game the center and bulk of Tomb Raider 2013 would make it not a Tomb Raider game. The easy counter-argument is that what they chose to do is also not a Tomb Raider game. There are only a handful of tombs, the puzzles are pedestrian and circumstantial (aka, an arrangement of random things that just happen to allow you to make a path, instead of an ancient stone combination lock), and they are completely optional. They have essentially no effect on the rest of the game.

Much has been said, and quite correctly, that the survivor game plays badly with the rest of the game. You inhabit an avatar early on who doesn't know how to fight and apologizes to a deer before gutting it -- and who has the shakes after she is forced to take a human life (in a scene made rather more infamous than perhaps it should have been.)

By the mid-point, you are carrying more weapons than a small platoon, and you are blithely setting men on fire with flaming arrows and watching them die screaming. And as much as you could defend that she is shell-shocked, and moved to a rather dark place by the terrible things she has witnessed up to that point, the voice acting and in-game cut-scenes haven't changed; she is still presenting the same innocence in them. This makes for a massive disconnect.

The character of the island also builds in stages, adding to itself so gradually there is never any moment where you clearly see the motorcycle ramp being set up next to the shark tank. But if you step back for only a second, disbelief releases from suspension like all those ridiculous Edo-era cliff-side villages you've found, crashing into a chasm of "I wouldn't believe this if I saw it in a Die Hard movie."

Add to that your own combat fatigue of too many seemingly narrow escapes (that upon the oft-necessary replay reveal themselves baldly as a tightly scripted railroad with a couple of arbitrary mashes of the "jump" key in the middle of them), and you stop buying the reality of the universe, or any of the presented reality of Lara. Instead you are Heavily Armed Future Mercenary #2013, only instead of artistically-dirtied powered armor as a hand-wave to your bullet sponge abilities, you have a low cut t-shirt and a texture job that consists mostly of dirt and blood.

It is impossible to reach the mid-point of the game without accepting that Lara is supernaturally strong and agile (and let's not even talk about her endurance, or her ability to heal in seconds from machine-gun fire). The game rubs your nose in this implausibility by only suddenly, after hours of game play in which people are dropping grenades at your feet and slashing you with pikes (plus the aforementioned machine gun fire), demanding you take time to deal with a hole you got in your side from a piece of rebar within the first few minutes of the game.  Which hasn't, until this moment, stopped you from jumping from ledge to ledge like a monkey on caffeine.

And you've stopped bothering to think of yourself as lucky. Reality is, you've watched the death animations too many times already, and your survival is less luck or skill, and more a matter of simple fatiguing repetition -- get killed twenty times, and on the twenty-first you finally struggle through.

It isn't a bad game at this point. The fighting is interesting enough, and there are enough of the requisite environmental options to make you feel a little less like "Front rank, kneel, rear rank, fire" about weathering the attacks of waves after wave of mooks. 

It isn't a bad game, but it is a familiar game. And as of 2013, and with the material they already introduced, it could have been something a lot more interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment