Character’s Freewill

As gamers, we never stop to really question why. Why are we mowing tons of enemies down? Why are we progressing left to right in a seemingly endless fashion? Why are we tapping rhythmically to floating notes?

More than the why, I question the what if. What if your character doesn’t want to proceed? What if your motivation for completion goes against the character’s will to survive? This is something that rarely gets touched on in games.

Murasaki Baby actually has a small segment that inspired this blog. The game is an indie platformer for the PS Vita that makes heavy use of the systems features (in that pretty much every feature is used). The basic mode of transportation to by grabbing your characters hand and yanking it to move forward.

The game follows some weird looking child on a search for her mother. Your bar of health is a single balloon that must never pop. Other than that, it’s basically solving simple puzzles that require touch, are time sensitive and sometimes make you tilt the whole system.

It’s a neato little game, but the part that struck me most was about mid-way through. The main character has been through some major stuff at this point and becomes scared to proceed. You have basically failed at your job keeping her safe, since she has had a few near death experiences.

Until you manipulate the world around her, your character will not move. Yanking her hand fails to produce any action. She simply stands her ground and refuses to listen. She doesn’t like what you’ve done so far and isn’t going to blindly obey anymore.

While Murasaki Baby never comes back to this, it got me thinking about how some characters may not actually believe in the gamer’s goal. Why would they want to senselessly murder hundreds of people? That makes them look like a sociopath.

I remember awhile back reading about how Dom Santiago from Gears of War was supposed to be the voice of the player. In the sequel, he was constantly shouting about how pointless the war was and how killing the Locust was fruitless.

While I don’t agree with the statement of him reflecting my views, it makes for an interesting idea. Dom in Gears of War 2 is ready to die. His wife is more than likely destroyed and he’s got nothing to return home to. While he may help the battle, once the war is finished, what will he fight for?

In that regard, the player controlling him and making him kill isn’t so much representing Dom coming to terms with his eventual mortality, but outside pressure making Dom react in a way he doesn’t want to. War is controlling his mind and he’s, basically, a cog in the gears of war (pun intended).

Grand Theft Auto IV also had a little of this, though the plot is far more convoluted. Niko Bellic wasn’t a heartless person. His past was dark and vicious, but he simply wanted a new chance and a new life.

The criminal underworld of Liberty City does not allow that for Niko. Since killing is his business (and business is good), Niko gets roped into a conflict without his consent. That his cousin is a big failure contributes a lot to Niko’s failure to live his “American Dream.”

At the same time, Niko isn’t really going against what he desires. The whole point of the plotline in GTAIV is that you cannot escape your past. Eventually, you will have to answer for the sins you commit, either in life or death. Niko falls back on a skill he knows because it is the easiest thing for him.

He also throws away his desires to reform himself when his family comes under fire. After time Roman is captured, Niko goes on a literal killing spree. He doesn’t gun down innocent bystanders (unless you make him), but he doesn’t pull punches on his “enemies.”

His kind of dichotomy makes Niko one of the most interesting protagonists in the Grand Theft Auto series. While Rockstar wrote the rest of the script without much thought, Niko was well fleshed out. He, ultimately, represents the idea I’m talking about.

An idea like this is mostly why games don’t try to focus on the inner humanity of a character. If you are forced to not do something, suddenly the game is becoming a scripted plot. Without player input, why even bother making a game?

Tomb Raider (2013) had a major problem with this. Lara Croft was traumatized by killing, but she eventually employs the same tactics her enemies do. That doesn’t make a lick of sense. She shows no remorse, either. She just happily plunges axes through her victim’s necks.

Spec Ops: The Line reveled in this. It made you, the player, want to try a different method. Your enemies don’t deserve the punishment that Cpt. Walker doles out on them. His mind breaks due to the trauma of war, so he feels every action is justified. It’s a reversal of what this blog is talking about.

For the most part, you won’t find many objecting protagonists. For a game to make the most sense, the main character must want the end result. Since a lot of action games focus on killing, trying to have a person abstain doesn’t make for an intriguing game.

Then again, I always play Deus Ex without killing anyone, so maybe I’m the weird guy?

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Forget Me Not

A funny thing occurred after I finished Remember Me recently; I didn’t like the game. I couldn’t come to terms with the sluggish combat and I was generally annoyed with how much exposition there was in the dialog. The game seemed to have it’s head thoroughly up it’s own ass (to quote Jim Sterling).

I was a little ticked off with seemingly having wasted my time. Even the conclusion to the game felt forced and out of left field, robbing me of a satisfactory closer. I took to the internet to see if people had any theories as to what happened and stumbled upon an interesting article.

On the website VenturedBeat, writer Leigh Harrison made the statement that, “Remember Me undermines it’s story to be a video game.” After skimming through his thoughts, I realized I felt the same way.

For starters, why is there a mad scientist type character that gets finished off half-way through the story? How come there are so many weird creatures that make no sense in a game that focuses on memory manipulation? Do people really mutate when they lose their minds?

I couldn’t get over these basic details. It didn’t help that most of the dialog was borderline satire, but delivered with such earnest feeling from the actors. To their credit, they aren’t bad, just the writing is. At one point, an enemy taunts you with some big bad wolf bullshit and your character responds with, “This red riding hood has a basket full of kickass.”

There isn’t a hint of irony with her yelling that, either. You’re just supposed to accept that she’s a woman who can kick ass in a man’s world. I don’t take an issue with Nilin being a woman, just that we still can’t have a game that doesn’t bring attention the character’s gender.

YOU GO GIRL!

Another villain, who is basically captain mcguffin, approaches a locker room and proclaims, “Hello beautiful ladies! Time for your cavity searches!” Why does he utter that? I know he’s supposed to be an utterly unlikable guy, but a line of dialog like that is basically written to make you hate him for disrespecting your character’s gender.

It doesn’t feel natural. It’s a cheap way to garner hatred without describing the guy further. That the game then shifts into a fight scenes makes less sense, too. Nilin proceeds to take out a locker room full of guards because you’re in a video game. We see her steal memories from a distance before, but I guess you just can’t now.

The ending boss is also something I take issue with. I figured finding your target and remixing his memory would be enough, but you are then shoved down a pathway to shut down the mega-computer that runs the game’s plot.

He asks you to shut him down and end his suffering. Upon reaching him, though, he suddenly wants to do battle. He then states, “If you do not kill me, I will destroy you.” You literally just asked me to kill you and now there is a battle? The hell?

Without me, this game is only 7 hours long! THAT CANNOT BE!

After seeing that article, I began to wonder about other games I’ve played that left me feeling empty. A lot of times, there seems to be basic plot structure getting thrown out the window to facilitate an action set-piece.

I noticed this a lot with Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. I had never pieced it together as being contrived for the sake of gameplay, but that suddenly makes sense. The final mission has the Ghost Squad stating they can’t be seen and must take caution, only for them to miss a shot for no reason, slide down a mountain and brandish their pistols for a running duel.

There was even a section far earlier in the game where the Ghosts retrieve a hostage and during transit, take out their pistols and slow-motion action scene their way out of the armed facility. Why not stealth your way out? How about using those automatics you packed?!

We have cloaking devices, but his is way more efficient!

As video games become a more “serious business”, it seems developers are finding more ways to up the ante in regards to cinema. Since action movies basically have fight scenes every 15-20 minutes, a game must have that as well.

I truly believe Remember Me would have made a stellar movie. It has certain narrative choices that are beyond pointless, but it’s insistence on delivering an action game environment reverses a lot of the good will it’s story sets up.

Not only that, but the game basically never allows you any choice. You are compliant with the script and only change your understanding when the story says you can. It basically rips control from you when it should be empowering.

I also don’t like how many references they make to the word “Remember.” Then again, I did say I didn’t like the game.

Portal Stories: Mel – Review

With Valve having seemingly given up game development, fans of their IP’s have been wondering what their next game will be. Instead of waiting, Prism Studios decided to craft an unofficial prequel to Portal 2 in the mean time. The quality of the level design may not always be top class, but Portal Stories: Mel ends up feeling like a full retail product, despite being a free mod.

While a lot of that credit has to go to the prior work Valve did with Portal 2, to even craft puzzles or a story close to as engaging as Valve’s work is a true testament of Prism’s skill. A lot of the ideas get borrowed from Portal 2, but the character of Virgil ends up feeling alive and cheery.

The exploration of Aperture’s past is also highly intriguing. While we got a lot more of an in-depth look at how the world of Portal comes to be in it’s sequel, we now understand a bit more of how Cave Johnson ended up running the company into the ground and what helped GlaDOS ressurect herself.

Of course, this is all non-canon, but the sheer quality of it all is very engaging. After finishing the game, I almost wish this were an official part of the Portal storyline. We may be removing a bit of the mystery behind GlaDOS and Cave Johnson, but at least it all remains interesting.

As for the puzzles, they start off strong and begin to get repetitive near the end. The last few chapters are some of the best designed in the entire mod, but they come too little, too late. The boss encounter is very reminiscent of the original Half-Life and even a few levels take some ideas from Black Mesa.

The soundtrack is also incredible. For a fan project, I’m surprised we got an entirely original score, but it fits the mood extremely well. I was always partial to the atmosphere sounds of the original Portal and I’d say that is the only place where I felt Portal 2 did not live up to it’s predecessor. I guess Prism thought so, too, as this score blows Portal 1’s out of the water.

The slight alterations to the Source engine since Portal 2’s release have yielded some better lighting and incredible looking water. Since PC’s are also a bit more adept, extra foliage is present in the “Overgrown” segment. It looks worse for wear than in Portal 2, which kind of screws around with the idea of this being a prequel.

If it weren’t for the middle section of the game, I’d say this is a homerun. Portal 2 had a strange reliance on ending most platforming/story segments with a half-open door that required you to portal out of. Portal Stories: Mel also does that quite a bit.

From the beginning of the middle until the intro of the finale, we also get treated to an incredible amount of block puzzles. The gels do make a return (and water gets utilized, which is nice), but a lot of the ideas are just more obtuse setups than what Portal 2 had.

I did have fun, but I can’t deny that the ideas stopped being creative and exciting after awhile. The last 2 chapters really were a standout as they feel completely different from the official Portal series.

Still, at the price of free, why aren’t you playing this? It’s an easy recommendation and is quite well made, too. I hope the team at Prism Studios can someday make an original project. I’m sure they’ll come up with something wholly awesome.

8/10