Aiden Pearce is a Dick

Story is, to my immense joy, increasingly becoming one of the defining factors in quality video games. If a game wants to be considered great it must have a story that is, at worst, coherent and at best the foundation upon which the game is built. Heavy Rain, Spec Ops the Line, The Wolf Among Us, just a small selection of great games that have story at their core and are paving the way for games of the future. The best games are those that can strike the elusive balance between story and gameplay. Ubisoft’s latest blockbuster, Watchdogs, tries and fails to do this.

It is really a great shame that Ubisoft bothered to attempt to fashion a proper storyline for Watchdogs. This is a game with excellent mechanics, a plethora of content and fantastic quality of execution that would have sat nicely around a clichéd and ignorable nothing of a story. But great games need a story, and Ubisoft wanted to make a great game, so a story has been forced in where it doesn’t belong. Completing the campaign missions of Watchdogs was, for me, a slog and it is only on reflection that I can recognise the many things I enjoyed about playing the game. As I worked my way through Aiden Pearce’s tale of retribution and soul searching I increasingly hated the man under my control. He is selfish, immoral, cruel, reckless and, despite his many statements to the contrary, appears to feel no remorse for the chaos he causes. As Pearce a player will commit crimes from privacy invasion all the way to murder with Pearce reassuring himself of the necessity of these actions to further his mission for justice.The creators desperately want you to care about him too. The crux of Aiden’s moaning is that his niece was killed by an attacker who was sent to kill Aiden. The game bombards you with reminders of this, including areas on the map where you can trigger chunks of Aiden’s memory on the subject, and one “mission” where you are tasked with getting to the cemetery so Aiden can look sad and his sister can comfort him. It is all boring and pointless and it in no way makes you feel sorry for the protagonist as I believe is the intention. Fun as his hacking powers are to wield the fact remains that I hate Aiden Pearce, he is a dick and I have spent a lot of time with him (which perhaps says something about me).

He’s probably shooting some puppies…

The problem with the growth of story driven games was never better illustrated than here. Watchdogs is so close to being a good game, so close that I genuinely believe I could write a story that would better suit it. I’m not claiming that I can write an excellent video game script, on the contrary, my point is that I can’t, but Watchdogs doesn’t need one. Had Aiden Pearce been nothing more than a vigilante (a title that he is given in Watchdogs, regardless of the ratio of crimes stopped to crimes perpetrated), a man using his abilities to fight crime in a city where corruption prevents crime from being fought, Ubisoft would have had a really nice game on their hands. In fact, some of the best parts of Watchdogs are when you have no agenda other than fighting for justice. Having completed the story I find the game much more enjoyable as I can freely pursue the side missions without the gloomy shadow of Aiden’s background hanging over me.

There are also problems with the story that go beyond the writing. The way that aspects of the tale have been portrayed sometimes borders on the comical. At one point Aiden is blackmailing a gang member (yes blackmail is also on his moral fails list) and he ends a phone conversation with: “We’ll talk soon”, presumably to intimidate the target but then proceeds to immediately call him back which, to Aiden’s credit, at least suggests he’s never blackmailed anyone before.

Good

At the very end of the story (after some of the credits have rolled in fact) you are given a kill-or-let-live scenario. In other games I have played, such a scenario causes genuine questioning of what to do. Usually the target has done something bad but the player has been through some serious shit and is questioning their morals and the morals of the characters by the end. In Watchdogs, however,  I had no doubt what so ever that a real Aiden Pearce would redecorate the room with brains and not lose a wink of sleep over the extinguished life before him. I honestly think that any video game can be enhanced by a well written and well implemented story, but that doesn’t mean that one is necessary for a game to be good. At some point in Watchdog’s development a brave soul should have raised their hand and said that maybe a rewrite was needed, maybe the player doesn’t have to empathise with the protagonist, maybe he doesn’t need this weird hypocritical story. Sadly, what we have is a game with many excellent qualities that are overshadowed by an appalling story that I highly doubt anyone has found interesting or engaging. If nothing else, Watchdogs has shown us that, while a storyline can push a game to greatness it also has the capacity to pull it into mediocrity.

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Superhuman Vs Supernatural

After six long years, fans of the Hitman franchise have a new title to salivate over. Hitman Absolution is set for release in November and (despite a questionable marketing campaign) things are looking very good indeed. Assuming Hitman survives some bad PR, there is still, however, one more obstacle to overcome, a new challenger to the assassin throne. Dishonored will arrive in stores a month before the new instalment of Hitman, sporting many of the latter’s elements but with freshness in abundance. Which of these two is worthy of your pennies? The superhuman abilities of Agent 47 or the supernatural powers of Corvo Attano?

Hitman is one of my desert island games. It is a franchise that has consistently provided entertainment, but more than that it has struck a balance between linearity and open play that few other games have achieved. Hitman games are organised into levels, each level set in a relatively small and restricted environment with clear objectives that must be completed (one or more people have to die, bar one or two levels that advance the story where escape or survival are the aims); yet the player doesn’t feel restricted. From the moment you begin a level you are left to your own devices. The game offers you ways to complete your objectives and help along the way, but all of it is optional, you’re free to choose how to go about the task at hand. As a result, Hitman feels like a series of sandboxes, each new level supplying new toys and ways to play: you can be the ghost assassin or you can be the gun wielding maniac and still have multiple ways to complete the level. And unlike so many other franchises, Hitman has not overloaded us with unnecessary tie-in games or sub-par, rushed sequels. Six years have passed since the last game and this is only the 5th of 12 year old franchise; Hitman provides greatness in moderation, preventing the experience from becoming old.

All he ever wanted was a desk job

However, despite the delay between games, Hitman still has an uphill struggle against its own confines; all Hitman games after the original have had to try and maintain their identity while at the same time bringing something new to the party. Hitman games are restricted by having to include the things that made their predecessors successful, a burden that brand new games do not have to bear. Enter Dishonored. In this we once again take the role of an assassin, Corvo Atano, a man framed for the murder of the empress. After being given some magic powers by the Outsider, Corvo goes on a rampage of revenge, learning what really happened along the way. Much like Hitman, Dishonored is not set in an open world environment but it still encourages exploration by the player. Dishonored also promotes player creativity allowing you to complete missions in a variety of ways.

 

So far, so familiar both from Hitman and the likes of Deus Ex, but Dishonored also provides a completely new environment and a whole new style of gameplay with the inclusion of supernatural powers. Set in the fictional city of Dunwall, Dishonored has a distinctive steam punk style with clear influences from Victorian Britain and an arsenal of weaponry to match; no high-powered sniper rifles here. You do, however, have the ability to teleport short distances, to possess animals and people, to slow time and you can see through walls. Corvo’s abilities are upgradable and you can mould him into the kind of assassin you want to play. Like Hitman, missions have clear objectives but you don’t always have all the information you need to complete them to begin with, often having to eavesdrop or maybe just plain ask for it. Dishonored has taken many of Hitman’s aspects and added new layers with powers and more espionage all wrapped in a complete fantasy world rather than the individual locations of Hitman missions.

Does Dishonored surpass Hitman Absolution? That remains to be seen. In reality both games are likely to be worth a look. From Hitman we know mostly what to expect. Certain things have been tweaked such as being able to use 47’s instinct mode rather than the map of previous games. My main worry about these things is that the game may be a little easier than before. Agent 47 can now predict the movement paths of enemies where before it was a case of observation or guessing and in a play through of one of the levels we see little warnings pop up like “Visibly Armed”.

These are only little things but if too numerous, the challenge may be lost. Dishonored looks very good but maybe the array of powers and abilities will prove too complicated and like so many other games the player may discover that it’s easier to stab or shoot than to implement a more elaborate technique. Hitman might also have the edge on longevity, with the introduction of Contracts Mode, where players can create contracts by selecting up to three hits in any level and then challenge the community to complete them. In the end your decision will probably be based on scores from critics or whether they spell dishonoured correctly in the UK or how badly Himan’s marketing gets. Whatever you decide you will be getting a game with an emphasis on the player’s decisions and both titles look like game of the year contenders. All that is certain is Q4 2012 is looking good for games.

From Brain to Game

A recent article published online by Edge magazine raises an interesting prospect in gaming; the use of neuroscience in the research and development of games. The article focuses on the possible replacement of violence in games with something more acceptable that gives players the same thrill. While this is an interesting prospect the more general use of neuroscience in the gaming industry could be a real possibility for the future. In an earlier post I described gaming as being intrinsically linked to the advancement of technology but perhaps, in the future, gaming will be linked to advances in our understanding of the brain and what goes on in there when we enjoy a game.

You can probably name the types of games you like, give examples and even go so far as to break these games down into the aspects that you particularly enjoyed and those that you didn’t care for; but when pushed, can you articulate precisely what makes a game fun? This is the challenge for game developers the world over, to create a game that consumers will enjoy. It therefore seems logical that developing an understanding of such enjoyment could lead to the development of better video games. This is the prize that neuroscience can offer. And research into video gaming isn’t even that big a leap, games have already been used in neuroscience. Maguire et al. (2009), for example, used an adapted version of the game The Getaway to examine the brain activity of London taxi drivers as they navigated the virtual streets. This was a landmark paper in the study of human spatial navigation but it also demonstrates that games can be used in laboratory experiments, in fact, they are well suited to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies that require the subject to keep their head still. Neuroscience in gaming could allow developers to understand what has made successful games so popular, perhaps by taking components of these games (such as violence) and examining their effect on gamers’ brains. In terms of development, new game mechanic designs could be tested similarly and their probable success determined from comparisons with already established mechanics.

I would volunteer to be a test subject.

So why has neuroscience yet to be utilised by gaming? Part of it (possibly a big part) is the vast amount of money that would be required to undertake such a project, with no guarantee of return. Chris Stevens talking to Edge magazine claims that:

“The first game publisher which buys an MRI scanner will make its money back in publicity”

but those who can afford such equipment are already successful and may therefore lack the incentive to invest in such an ambitious venture. Proof of concept may also be required before investment is made and perhaps other industries such as advertising will need to adopt a neuroscience approach before the games industry dives in.

There are also ethical issues that need to be noted. An understanding of the brain could lead to its exploitation. In his book The Decisive Moment (a.k.a. How We Decide) Jonah Lehrer describes how mortgage lenders and credit card companies have exploited flaws in the human psyche to sell consumers products that they cannot afford. While there has been no direct use of neuroscience by these industries it is conceivable that such exploitation could be used in any industry with an understanding of the brain. Even if a games developer has no unethical intentions they could unwittingly make a game that is tailored so perfectly to enjoyment that it becomes addictive. Games that already exist have been shown to cause addiction in some people. Tapping into the reward and pleasure centres of the brain could be a slippery slope and perhaps games developers that utilise neuroscientific research will go too far before they realise their mistake. We are already surrounded by advertising that uses psychology to make a sale but perhaps using neuroscience will be taking that principle too far.

Addicted anyone?

The potential to develop better, more enjoyable and perhaps more socially acceptable games through neuroscience surely exists. It is only a matter of time before one non-scientific industry or another uses neuroscience and eventually I believe games will too. We must be careful though, there are dangers to using such knowledge that may not be realised until it’s too late. So much is still unknown about the brain that exploiting it too early may prove damaging. Neuroscience can be used in games but, only time will tell whether it should be used or not.

Zombies! A Love That Never Dies.

There’s an argument, a perfectly valid argument, that certain video games glorify war. Video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield where you actively participate in war and kill (virtual) humans, can be criticised by this argument but they are acclaimed by game critics and defended by those who enjoy them, which is a sizeable number of people. Personally, I find it difficult to play such games as I can’t find a strong argument against those who damn them. Can I really justify enjoying participating in a simulation of something that I would be opposed to in real life? It’s a modern moral dilemma. I have no qualms, however, about blowing the head off a zombie.

Already dead? A little more dead won’t hurt then…

Perhaps it is this destructive freedom that makes zombie games so appealing. We are absolved of responsibility when the enemy is the mindless killing undead. Zombies also present the challenge that gamers seek, essentially having the abilities of humans but with fewer weaknesses and self preservation instincts. And there is room for flexibility when it comes to developing zombie games. We all know the standard zombie model but games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Nation (both of which I recommend) have added variations and just look at the plethora of creatures spawned by the Resident Evil franchise. So while your basic zombie hoard offers a decent challenge, developers are free to add challenge by changing (mutating if you will) the enemies in the game. This is not true for games where humans are the enemy and there are greater restrictions to their abilities. Endless story possibilities exist in the zombie world and this in part contributes to the large number of these games that exist.

Holy zombies Batman!

A problem arises, however, when the zombie apocalypse gets over used. Innovation and challenge are craved by gamers and too much of the same results in a loss of interest. I love zombie games but I look at the games I own and see very few in my collection. This is because, while zombie games have been done to death (pardon the pun), they are not often done well enough to warrant me parting with cash. Technical issues aside, zombie games can often be repetitive (within themselves and in reference to other games) in gameplay, cliché in storyline and badly written. The announcement of a new zombie game is therefore often met with groans amongst gamers, and this can lead to the view that we’re fed up with this format all together. But that’s not true; one of the most anticipated games of 2013 is Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, a post apocalyptic game where at least some of the enemies are zombie-esque. The demand and love of such games is there but they have been done so badly in the past that excitement for The Last Of Us comes almost entirely from the reputation of the developer.

While there is room for flexibility in zombie games, there are a few things that help make it good. Survival against the odds is a theme that should be included but, more importantly, the player needs more objectives than “kill as many zombies as possible”. Killing zombies is fun but killing just for the sake of it gets old fast. I for one am very excited about The Last Of Us and I’m interested to see how ZombiU turns out too. Zombies don’t appear to be leaving the games industry any time soon and I cannot express how happy that makes me.

The plumber must die!

Of late, Nintendo have become an entirely predictable and frankly lazy company. Like a home owner standing over their failed DIY as water spews mercilessly into the kitchen, I blame the plumber. It’s true that not all of it is Mario’s fault, Link and Pikachu, among others, could also be held accountable, but as Nintendo’s poster boy, Mario should really know better.

They’re all the same!

In the late ’90s I had a Playstation and after that a Playstation 2 so it was with wonder and excitement that I purchased a Wii having heard tales of the joys offered by the N64 and the Gamecube. But I was to be disappointed. While I enjoyed Twilight Princess and had fun with Mario Galaxy, the console never seemed to progress and in the end I gave up waiting for something special and went crawling back to Sony. I feel like I have missed out on Nintendo’s prime years but Nintendo seem to be doing little to change their current form. Go to the Nintendo category on any games website and I guarantee that the new instalment of an established franchise will be under discussion. People will be commenting on how exciting it is, how new innovations are being used and how the systems are being pushed to their limits, all the while ignoring (or perhaps embracing) the fact that nothing has really changed. So while Sony can discuss new exclusives and franchises, Nintendo relies on the old guard, a small group of franchises that it knows will make money. And we reward them for this behaviour. Every year we flock to the shops to see what the little Italian has been up to now, so every year Nintendo see no reason to branch out into something new; it’s a viscous cycle.

At this point I realise that perhaps I’m being a bit of a hypocrite. Sequels, prequels and remakes are a staple of gaming across all platforms and, unlike films, game sequels often improve on their predecessors. I buy, enjoy and get excited about such games, from Civilization to Hitman. So maybe I’m being harsh on Nintendo. The difference, however,  is that no other platforms rely entirely on such franchises for their success; Sony and Microsoft have franchises but they could survive without them and they continue to welcome new ones.

Getting rid of Mario and chums is probably not the answer; after all, they make money and we still love them. A focus shift is what needs to happen. Nintendo have decided to avoid competing with other platforms in terms of graphics and online content by offering what they see as fun and innovative gaming; that’s all well and good but these things have to be used to better effect. By making a bigger deal about new games and third party creations Nintendo will attract more current gamers to their platform and they can continue to sweeten the deal with old franchises. Adopt this strategy Nintendo and maybe, just maybe I’ll take Mario off the dart board and consider your next console (probably the one after the Wii U).

Point and click: A love story

I know where I have to go, just down the ladder, but there’s a goat in the way and it’s mean. I surely have to find a distraction but I have scoured, and I mean scoured, the available locations and nothing have I found. I’ll check the online walkthrough, NO, be strong, you can do this. The bar, I only gave that a cursory scour, I’ll check there again. A towel; the game has let me pick up a towel; and I can use the towel to whip the goat, of course!

Point and click adventures make you stupid through desperation. They make you think that a toilet brush and a bouncy ball will go together to make something useful, they make you think that talking to the man a fifth time will make all the difference and they make you think that a towel can distract a goat. They are difficult, they are infuriating and I love them.

My love began with Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars, a game that I believe to be underrated. It is beautiful, it is well written and above all it completely engrossed me from start to finish. To this day it is one of the few games I have completed multiple times, not because the second or third play through was any different but just to experience the story again.

People, people! How do I beat the goat?

Nowadays games have moved on from the 2D majesty of Broken Swords 1 and 2 but something that still draws me to a game is a good storyline.

Heavy Rain is a fantastic game with some true innovation and an interesting and often complex story. If there is one criticism of the game, however, it’s that it trades gameplay for storytelling. Quick-time events are used a fair bit and often it feels like you’re reading one of those books with decision points, prompting you to “turn to page 39 to enter the cave”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Heavy Rain still stands as one of the finest games ever made (a list that Broken Sword should be on), but it highlights that games seem to have a choice between story and gameplay, a choice that is likely to see story lose out. Games can be hugely successful with rubbish, little or no story as long as they are fun to play, this will always be true. On the other hand, a cracking storyline doth not a good game make; so if a choice has to be made, story will fall to gameplay. But maybe it’s time to buck this trend.

Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a modern point and click adventure and it’s success suggests that gamers are becoming more interested in story. You control the character of Lee as he tries to survive and protect his companions thorough the zombie apocalypse. Choice making and conversation dominate the gameplay and good scripting and voice acting play out the plot based on the popular comics. Suffice to say I think it’s excellent, a well made immersing experience; but in my play through of the first episode I never did anything stupid. This may be a modern point and click, but it’s not a modern Broken Sword. Like so many other game types it seems that the challenge has been lost, to a degree, in this generation. Good games with good story lines are, however, being made and this is wonderful. Telltale games and Quantic Dream are at the forefront of this and I’m very excited to see what they do next.

Today the best games often get by on good gameplay and good writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I hope that story can start to become a bigger part of gaming and who knows, maybe soon I will once again be trying to move ill-tempered animals with hand drying equipment.