Monday, April 23, 2012

The Once and Future King's Quest

It would appear that Al Lowe is trying to Re-re-remake the original Leisure Suit Larry.  Yes, the number of times "Re" appears in the previous sentence is correct.  The original was a text only game called Softporn Adventure which was then given an upgrade with graphics and sound (and humor).  Then about four years later it was given another graphics and sound upgrade along with a change from text parser to point and click inputs.  So, now we're at it again.  Will it succeed?  Hard to say...Sierra and the adventure genre were once a dominate force in the PC gaming market.  They aren't now, but they could be again.

King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest and Quest for Glory are perhaps the most iconic, but there were so many more that had their charm; the historic pseudo-treatise Gold Rush!, the Disney adaptation Black Cauldron, the in media res Manhunter, the young gamer focused Mixed Up Mother Goose.  Even I, a huge Sierra fan, haven't played them all.  That said I believe Sierra's success is really based on four key principles of design.      

Brains over Brawn: This might sound trivial, but a hallmark of adventure games in general is experimentation and puzzle solving skills usually supersede hand/eye reflexes.  Only on rare occasions would Sierra break with this tradition in that players sometimes found themselves playing a mini-game or frantically typing in commands on their keyboard in an attempt to get their avatar to do what they need before death came (in a variety of forms).  This brings us to the next iconic element.

You Die, They Don't:  The number of ways you can die in any given Sierra adventure game is impressive.  In fact I would argue that this was a feature of these games since a number of these events were entertaining in their own right.  Conversely, your character rarely killed anyone else.  Even the Quest for Glory series had a fairly low body count compared to modern action games with most of the fights being avoidable either by escape or alternative puzzle solution.

Fairy Tale Logic:  A common criticism of old adventure games was the annoying tendency to have puzzles that were not solved through scientific methods.  I agree it was frustrating to find out that not doing something earlier in the game could make a later obstacle unsolvable.  Thus forcing the purchase of a hint guide (the original micro-transaction!).  However, someone well versed in Greek Classics, Arabian Nights or other myths and legends would probably be able to figure out a lot more than a science geek.  So, depending on your scholastic background YMMV.

Changing Mood, Same Theme:  This one is a bit intangible, but I'll try my best to clarify.  I'm not referring to the jarring transitions between games - Space Quest V to VI or King's Quest VII to VIII.  Rather what I'm getting at is the gamut of moods a single game explored.  To give you an example the Green Isles in King's Quest VI each have their own theme.  The Isle of Wonder feels very whimsical compared to the mysterious Isle of Mist, or foreboding Isle of the Beast.  Then there is the terrifying Land of the Dead visit juxtaposed against the Disney romance that makes up the central theme.  It's a hard point to nail down, but in some ways I think this particular aspect of Sierra games is what made them so memorable.

Now, you might be wondering why these aspects of game design matter.  Well, the truth is they're pretty much ignored.  In fact I'd go so far as to say the opposite of all of them are the dominate design philosophy at the moment.  Things go in cycles though and the pendulum inevitably swings back.  AGD Interactive has had some success with their free high quality remakes of Sierra titles and the aptly named Phoenix Online is making an all new King's Quest so there must be a demand for Sierra style games.  While I doubt Roberta Williams will play part in the future of video games her influence will remain as long as the games she made are remembered.  The king is dead!  Long live the king!!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Decimation is Coming

 BioWare, Square-Enix, Sega, ID Software, Ubisoft, Capcom, Pandemic, Rare, Konami, THQ, Team Ninja...All once great developers who have declined considerably this console generation. I'm sure they would blame their failings on the usual suspects; online piracy, used game sales, cost of development, etc. However, I think it really does come down to them not making good games. That may sound like an over-simplification, but hang in there I'll try to explain.

Taking about gamers in general, lets consider this; people who grew up playing Atari 2600 are now in their 30s, while people who started with NES are in their 20s. Gamers are getting older. Of course that doesn't mean gaming has to grow up (in fact I'd argue that a lot of people play games to remember what it was like being a kid again) rather I think it has to do with adults having less tolerance for needless complexity and design bullshit than children. When your young you have a lot of time, but very little money. When your an adult you have more disposable income, but less time to enjoy it. A lot of the game companies I mentioned in the beginning really fail to grasp this. They're still doing things the way they did a decade or more ago. Times have changed.

Looking to history it's easy to notice a pattern with the rise and fall of dynasties. Always the end of a line of Chinese Emperors or Egyptian Pharaohs were brought about by natural disasters. In the case of the gaming industry it economic recession, but for all intents and purposes the effect is the same. The big developers mentioned above chose to bunker down and stick to what they knew while companies such as From Software, CD Projekt RED and That Game Company chose to engage in a more flexible approach seizing opportunities where they found them. Unsurprisingly, in the dynamic world of electronic entertainment the latter not the former is the more successful. Sadly, most game companies are still staring at their feet fussing over sales from a purely business perspective. What they should be doing is looking to the horizon where new, exciting and highly profitable gaming experiences can be found.

I've seen this sort of thing happen before with Sierra Entertainment Inc. "Quest" titled adventure games are what brought them to the limelight, but the sequels kept coming and while graphics improved gameplay remained largely stagnant (and in some cases was downright reductive). So, eventually the company perished. The good news is in their final years they had what I like to think of as the "last hurrah!" with titles like Half-Life and Homeworld. Perhaps Capcom is doing the same with Dragon's Dogma? Only time will tell. What is certain though is some of the industry giants mentioned above will not be around much longer. Sad? Hmmm...not sure, but as a gamer I hope that they go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

Conspiracy Theory

Ahhh...Electronic Arts...while I wouldn't call them the worst company in America I think it's safe to say they are the most hated company on the internet right now. So bust out your tinfoil hat because I'm going to give you a link to some crazy stuff right here. Read it yet? Don't worry take your time this blog isn't going anywhere. Finished? Good. So..yeah...can you believe that EA might actually be paying people to go around to internet message boards and slander anyone that criticizes their products? That's some serious black ops stuff right there (no, not Call of Duty).

Is it true? Meh...probably not. It was originally posted on 4Chan after all. Then again just because something is posted on 4Chan doesn't automatically mean it's false. Regardless, people have plenty of other reasons to focus their ire on EA. Personally, I got sick of the company after seeing their ad campaign for Dead Space 2 and refused to buy anything from them again despite really liking the original Dead Space. That's just me though. Other note-worthies include online passes, on-disc paid DLC, retailer-exclusive pre-order incentives, expiring in-box codes, and the shutting down of servers for games that people still play, even ones that are sometimes less than a year old. Then you got Origin. A poor clone of Steam that feels like it was the brainchild of the worst kind of egotistic control freak. Not to mention the current CEO saying this about micro-transactions:

I think the most disturbing bit about all the EA hate going around right now is the reaction of "gaming journalists" toward the upset members of their readership. I won't mention any specific names since I really don't want to give these glorified corporate boot-lickers more publicity than they already have, but sufficed to say these guys undermine the industry with their unprofessional behavior far worse than the supposed destruction of art in gaming because of changes being made to the ending of Mass Effect 3. As it stands now Forbes (a business journal) is better at reporting on video games than all the websites dedicated to the hobby combined. There is something very wrong about that.

So, where do we go from here? I definitely think that voting with your wallet is a much more effective way to bring about change than voting on an internet poll. Especially considering how dismissive EA was of the fact that they "won" the golden poo. That said there's nothing wrong with people offering feedback on products they are dissatisfied with. Does that mean companies have to change their products? No, but don't be surprised if sales take a hit. Maybe EA could serve as an example to other video game companies. There's an old story about the ancient Chinese military genious Sun Tzu which comes not from the Art of War but rather the Records of the Grand Historian. The tale is as follows:

Before hiring Sun Tzu, the King of Wu tested Sun Tzu's skills by commanding him to train a harem of 180 concubines into soldiers. Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, appointing the two concubines most favored by the king as the company commanders. When Sun Tzu first ordered the concubines to face right, they giggled. In response, Sun Tzu said that the general, in this case himself, was responsible for ensuring that soldiers understood the commands given to them. Then, he reiterated the command, and again the concubines giggled. Sun Tzu then ordered the execution of the king's two favored concubines, to the king's protests. After both concubines were killed, new officers were chosen to replace them. Afterwards, both companies performed their maneuvers flawlessly.

Perhaps the "financial execution", via boycott, of EA and say Activision or Ubisoft would net similar results? Would such an action be justified or benefit the game industry as a whole? I can't say. That's for you, the reader, to deiced.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Last of its Genre

It's a very poorly kept secret that I'm a huge survival horror fan. I got hooked from early on with titles like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. I've also played a fair amount of the more obscure stuff too. Sadly, this particular kind of gaming as a whole has faded considerably in recent years, replacing the horror and terror that defines the genre with generic combat and cheap scares. So, excluding action oriented titles like Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space 2 what do we have in terms of new releases? Very little unfortunately. In fact the example that frequently comes up on message boards and podcasts to represent what is left of survival horror is the aptly named PC title Amnesia.

I think it's safe to to say the game industry as a whole has forgotten a lot of the key design elements of survival horror; isolation, vulnerability, limited resources, overwhelming opposition and foreboding atmosphere. Granted you don't need all these things to make a survival horror game, but the sad truth is a lot of franchises have abandoned most (if not all) of these details in lieu of guns and multiplayer. Firearms, particularly the military grade stuff, is the biggest offender and frankly unnecessary when you consider well received titles such as Fatal Frame use a camera instead.

Galerians too had an interesting system which required the player character to inject himself with chemicals in order to bring out his latent psychic powers. Then you have games like Clock Tower and Echo Night where the player has no weapons at all and must avoid confronting enemies for the most part.

Martian Gothic: Unification had an interesting take on the isolation aspect of survival horror. Instead of having some contrived excuse as to why the player is by themselves all the time. The three characters that the player controls are forced to separate due to contracting an alien virus which becomes lethal if allowed to cross pollinate with another infected. Hence the games tagline "Stay alone, stay alive." Then there is the esoteric Siren series which makes use of a second person perspective called "sight-jacking." Unsurprisingly, this ability comes in very handy when another friend or foe is nearby. Especially so when your forced to play a blind character.

The point of mentioning all this is to show that there were, and still are, ways to revitalize the genre. I've even suggested a few ideas in another post on this blog. As it stands now (ubiquitous zombies aside) the closest I've gotten to a survival horror experience this generation of consoles was by playing Dead Space on the hardest setting. Alas such an experience was only a nostalgic taste of what the genre used to offer. It seems that survival horror is perishing much the same as 4X games, non-portable TRPGs and adventure games. Don't abandon all hope though for as the famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft once quoted:

That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.