Model Game…

For all the game-developers’ talk about making a cinematic experience and creating breathing/living worlds, I think Heavy Rain looks most like a true-to-life *interactive* game experience.

It really makes me realize that huge, procedurally-generated worlds are a lot of fun to explore but they don’t necessarily mesh well with story. And while a lot of games create a more linear experience to stress the story, it can come across as detached; people skip through the cutscenes and button-mash through the dialogue to get to the next combat or exploration section. But with something Heavy Rain, you’re creating those cutscenes and dialogues, they’re based on your interactions. You’re driving them. You’re living them.

And all I can think right now is that for as much potential as their engine and game has, this could be the just the beginning. Fahrenheit, for example, sold less than a million copies. Heavy Rain, with a big push from Sony, could quadruple that. And that might be just enough to get other developers looking their way, to establish a new genre and imitators.

Last night while I was drifting to sleep my mind imagined a Heavy Rain-like experience translated to other games (I love video games; shut up!). That’s when I realized it just might be the perfect medium for the game that’s long been stuck in my head.

You see, Quantic Dream is all about the scene (just like movies, they focus on the parts that push the story). For example, I believe it was David Cage (the CEO @ Quantic) who said that he imagined a scene where the character would wake up, look at his girlfriend still in bed, hop in the shower, and then, as he prepared to leave for work, walk into the kitchen to find his girlfriend ready with a fresh pot of coffee. He said he loved the scene but he couldn’t imagine how to put that into a game, let alone make it work. But if you’ve played Fahrenheit, you know he did that and that it did work. And it drew you into the world and made you appreciate and care about the characters.

One of the scenes that’s always played in my head is for a medieval/fantasy heroic adventure game. I imagine a character trudging through the mountains during a winter snow storm. He hears a noise through the biting wind and looks up into the hazy hills and spots the silhouette of some beast perched on an outcrop. The beast leaps down and attacks our hero.

And?

If we’re talking most role-playing games, the hero either squishes it in three seconds – or we just witnessed the opening cutscene leading into a boss fight. The boss fight plays out exactly like the non-boss fight except it lasts much longer because the beast has more health. And the player, depending on how well he min/maxed his character’s build, suffers more damage.

In other words, no matter how cinematic of an experience we create leading into the encounter, most RPGs don’t handle an emotional story experience during game play. How can you fear a monster when you know its stats and your stats and that yours are off-the-charts better, and there’s no fun way for a developer to cheat that into a more fun moment? And besides, most people will have skipped the cutscene or ignored it, only barely aware that a combat is coming – because they’re focused on the upcoming loot.

I’m not trying to argue against those kinds of games. I play them. I love them. And what I’ve seen out of BioWare in regard to Dragon Age: Origins (boss monsters picking you up and throwing you in the midst of a seemingly-turn-based, strategic combat), though maybe just higher levels of polish on that strategic battlefield, makes me really want to play the game repeatedly. But there should be other kinds of games, too.

Sure, the combats in Heavy Rain are all contextual QTE (quick-time events), but they’re way more gripping and exciting, personal moments of immersion. It’s akin to going from a PS2 controller to a Wii controller. The line between immersion and playing a game is diminished. Instead of spamming X, you’re shaking the controller with both hands to match your character’s efforts to use both hands to shake off a choke hold.

Imagine my aforementioned winter scenario. As you travel to the next town through the snowy night, a few thoughts spin around your avatar. Hit the right button and you notice the beast stalking you. You force yourself to settle down and prepare for the coming fight. Or you miss the button and you don’t notice anything different, or you get misleading information which sets you more on edge and makes future actions more difficult. And even hitting the button at the right time is difficult because the cold wears on you, the night is long, you haven’t eaten, and the wind has numbed your soul (unless you ate recently, got good sleep, etc. – i.e. even mundane actions can have rewarding/damaging effects).

The monster drops down and you see a few arrows pop-up on the screen, giving you the option to dodge left or right – leading in to whether you’re stunned and pinned beneath the beast, or rolling to the side, sword drawn. Or maybe, if you’re especially skilled and prepared, you thrust your sword up to catch the beast and enter into the fight with a huge advantage. And that’s just the beginning because this rock-’em-sock-’em fight is going to last for a few minutes and have several breaks in the fighting, too, to build tension.

I’m telling you, you’ll never get a scene like that in Fable or Dragon Age or the Elder Scrolls or Alpha Protocol or even the Age of Decadence (all games I love or will soon love). But watch the walkthrough clips of Heavy Rain and you’ll see a movie-like, dramatic fight scene that you control. Tell me all that stuff with the choke holds, and the gun dropping to the ground and getting kicked just out of reach, and hitting the guy with the tools isn’t cool.

People balk at QTEs, but contextual QTEs, I think, are hands-down better than (or at least an awesome diversion/alternative to) an action RPG where you’re pressing X repeatedly and semi-snoozing through the experience. I’ll give you that they’re not for everyone but to think we have *one* game on the horizon (next two to three years minimum) that is employing them? Criminal. We need a few games out there copying off Quantic Dream and trying similar stuff. It will work. It will sell. It will be good.

I’m often lamenting that numbers ruin good adventure games. And I’ve mentioned that back in high school, in the D&D days, we did away with numbers entirely in order to focus in on a more compelling story. Knowing an orc is no challenge is no fun. But an orc that grabs you by the throat and squeezes is a lot more exciting. Modern RPGs dwell on the numbers obsessively, because they’re simulators, but the graphical fidelity is so high and the options so unlimited that we could hide the numbers in the background and make a real cinematic experience.

There’s so much more to Heavy Rain that I think would translate so well to other games, including the one in my head. I’ve already posted once before on how I’d steal a lot of their ideas to make my own Dexter game. So come on. Great games are literally waiting. The blue print has been laid out. Someone out there, make it happen! Or, as usual, hire me. I’ll do it! 🙂

Designing a Better RPG – Choice & Consequence

(today’s post: 482 words.)

(Time for another entry into the Designing a Better RPG series!)

I’m starting to think that my definition of “choice & consequence” is different from everyone else’s. Are my standards too high? When I see “C&C” (not the music factory) touted as a bullet point on a video game, I think it means that there will be “consequences” to my “choices”.

Not to pick on the Witcher, a good game I am definitely enjoying, but what I often find is that while there is choice – a lot of good, morally ambiguous choice (another rarity in gaming) – there is, unfortunately, little consequence. And the consequence we get is of little significance.

If I’ve made peace with Team A, I know that when I get to the next plot obstacle I’ll find Team B guarding it. But if I make peace with Team B? You guessed it. Team A plays the bad guys. That’s not really “C&C” in my mind. If the outcome is essentially the same, regardless of the decision I make, then you may as well not even give me a decision. Right?

Granted, I am not done with the Witcher. Not even close. Decisions I have already made could have drastic repercussions down the road. But this is how it seems so far. And I’m not expecting anything different in this respect down the road. (Though I am hopeful. I’ll update this if anything changes.)

“OK, Mr. Nitpicker,” I hear you saying. You’re telling me “it’s oh-so-easy to criticize,” so you “want to hear something constructive.” You “want some ideas.” You “want to know where C&C has worked.” First and foremost, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)! But that’s a game *built* around C&C. Haven’t played it? Want an example of C&C from the game? Don’t mind massive spoilers? Well, I’ll give you one major spoiler.

*major spoiler!* The opening scene of the game features you waking up at a crime scene and it’s pretty obvious you are the prime suspect. You have a few minutes to decide what to do. Do you clean up the blood? Hide the body? Wash up? Run out the back door? Return to your seat, casually pay your bill, and leave? There are so many ways to get through that scene. And then, later in the game, you play a detective who has to work with the evidence that *you the criminal* left behind. If you are one of those perfectionists who has to get everything just right, and you re-load one hundred times to make sure you had the perfectly-clean crime scene, you’re going to be cursing yourself later on. Brilliant! That’s C&C, at its best. *end major spoiler*

I’d love to see this kind of stuff more often in role-playing games. And I’d love to see it more thoughtfully implemented when it is used. But what do you think? Can it work? Have there been games to use it well? Other related thoughts? Fire ’em at me!

Dexter, the video game

(today’s post: 906 words)

Not much is known about the upcoming video game based on the Jeff Lindsay Dexter books other than that NJ’s Marc Ecko is working with Showtime on it and it’s assumed to be released for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 – though details have recently come out about the iPhone version being developed by a partner group, Icarus Studios. That game has you working as a blood-spatter expert using the information you gather on crime scenes to decide if it meets Harry’s code.

Sounds kind of lame.

But coupled with no details on the feature title it got me thinking about what I would do for a PS360 version of Dexter if I were in charge.

I decided that my first step would be to look to other games for inspiration. I wanted to see if there were any games out there that I could use as a template, or a starting point. I thought of stuff like Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto IV and nothing worked in my mind even remotely – until Fahrenheit popped into my head (a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy).

Fahrenheit is a game that started amazingly (and then fell off at the end but let’s ignore that), putting you in a bathroom with a dead body, blood everywhere, and no clue how you got there. Depending on where you moved, and when, different options might pop up. How you handled that situation determined a lot about the rest of the game.

I think that style of play is a good start for a game based on the Dexter property.

The next thing I decided was that we’d need to simplify the Dexter universe to its core components. I figured that Dexter is managing three elements in his life: his desire for murder; his friends/family; and his job with Miami Metro. That brought me right back to Fahrenheit. In that game, you had a meter that measured your sanity/insanity – based off decisions you made during the story. In this game, I’d use two meters – with one measuring Dexter’s bloodlust and the other people’s suspicions. The more involved in work and family, the less suspicious. The more involved in killing, the less the lust. Of course, if you break the code of Harry I’d have to make it much more difficult for you to keep appearances.

As for the game, I’d start you in your house and you could either use your laptop to do research on potential victims, do some killing, get stuff done for Miami Metro, or call Rita and the kids to set up pizza night. There’d be some element of freedom in what you wanted to do and when, which of your bars (murder/suspicion) you wanted to manage, but I’d probably want to keep things somewhat linear and directed to move the game more in a scene-to-scene fashion.

I like Fahrenheit’s conversation system and think that would work with Dexter well, too. In this game, you’d need to come up with the most natural-sounding, friendly conversation lines to keep people at bay (with a timer ticking away, so don’t take too long to respond) but you’d also have to figure out when to show a little depth and sincerity to keep people from thinking you’re too robotic. I like that Dexter has to juggle that in the show and I think it would work well in the game, so I’d definitely throw several social interactions at you.

From there, I’d weave a simple story through the game to give it pacing – something like Dexter’s Showtime season one – which also works well with what Fahrenheit offers. Maybe you decide you want to go pick up Rita for a date and the ITK races by and you decide to follow. How you respond would close or open other options throughout the game.

I haven’t decided what I’d want to happen if you went on a date or decided to go write up a blood-spatter report. Obviously, you have to keep it as a game and you don’t want to inundate with cutscenes that steal control from the player. So do those things come out like mini-games? Move through a conversation smoothly enough and you get to play the Rita sex-mini-game? Execute a flawless QTE and Dexter writes up a brilliant report? And what about those options? Would there be situations where you do a report on someone you killed and have to deal with discovered-evidence that you missed during the murder scene (kind of like Fahrenheit)? Would you regret that you weren’t thorough enough to find that evidence in the first place and think about how to cover it up next time you replay the game?

The more options and replay you add to a game, by nature the shorter it has to be. I’m all right with that. I’d rather Dexter to be a brilliant 8-10 hour game filled with all sorts of reasons why you’d want to re-play it repeatedly.

That’s my idea for a Dexter game. Again, I have no idea which direction the actual title will take but I think my idea is pretty good. Hey Marc Ecko, if you like my ideas you may feel free to take them. I just want a good game. And if there’s anyone else out there with, say, a Dexter IP and $10 million dollars to front me – I’ll get started on this today.