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October 11, 2006

Irregular Feature: Stuff I've Been Playing

Games Finished¹

Tomb Raider: Legend, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves

Games Played

Titan Quest (also bought), Evil Genius (demo), ElectroPlankton (also bought)

Games Bought

Okami, The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls

So, yeah, been a while. Sorry about that. I've got a few things coming down the pike, so keep an eye on this space for future posts.

It's actually been a busy month or two in which I managed to play a few games, primarily of the action-adventure stripe, broadly speaking.

I mentioned some months ago on the Evil Avatar podcast that I had been playing Tomb Raider: Legend; it definitely seemed like a very refined, polished, Lara experience. Comparing it to older games in the genre, I realized how much this genre refinement addresses simply making it easier and or prettier to do things that were annoying in the past.

The biggest gameplay improvement here is in lining up jumps; old-school games like Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine required you to perfectly line up your jumps and ladder-climbing, which was irritating at best. The latest incarnation of Tomb Raider allows a free-form jumping experience that goes further and adds more forgiveness to badly placed jumps. In other words, if you miss the jump but are close, Lara will grab on and give you the opportunity to recover by pressing the Y button. This is a nice addition -- turning the annoyance of death and replay into an opportunity for agency -- but I'd love to see it go further. Lara is quick-thinking and agile; giving players the opportunity to stay alive in a variety of ways as long as they keep doing something, that's what I'm after. Make death a thing of the past, as long as the player does something appropriate -- whether that's throwing out a hand to catch a niche, or shooting the grapple hook above the ledge she's seeking to grab. My hope is that this would turn what is a false agency that merely eliminates an annoyance into a potentially meaningful choice -- perhaps missing and grappling gives you an angle on an enemy that would have been impossible otherwise, or causes the AI to peer over the ledge, allowing Lara's lovely legs to sweep up, encircle his neck and snap it.

Another refinement came in the form of inventory management. In the older games, managing inventory for things like health packs and weaponry was flawed -- it involved pausing the game to pop up an interface, and navigating this interface to find the thing you wanted, and then applying it, a sequence of three or four button presses². In TR:L, this is whittled away to a single button press on the D-pad, and there's no management -- Lara can hold three of them, and use them at any time, picking up more as she goes along. Less distracting, no need to interrupt play or the rhythm of a fire-fight, it's a win all around. If games today are shorter, but leave out some of this useless fiddling, that's a big win in my book.

I know that the idea of going back and finishing a sub-par game from years ago probably seems a little nuts. In this case, I was talking with one of the original designers via IM³, when I said that I wouldn't mind playing another similar game in the near future, if I could think of one. I joked that maybe I should go back and finish his game (I had never played any of the levels he designed, which occur late in the game), and over the next couple of days I did.

It was a bit of a perilous experience. The game's technology had aged quite poorly4, which was unsurprising, considering that the technology was pretty poor when it debuted. The art was quite below today's standards, but this didn't bother me a bit; comparing it to current games was meaningless, and even thinking about what it might have looked like compared with other games of its time was pretty pointless. The art more or less faded into the background. Certain macro-design issues were difficult to comprehend -- the inability to turn Indy around quickly (another thing that later games have improved on); a poison mechanic which wouldn't go away over time; the inability to move Indy while he was delivering such cinematic, mission-critical lines as "I don't think that will work". On the macro level, the design could have been significantly improved; the combat, in particular, had aged extremely poorly.

What stood out in the last few levels I hadn't played was the level design, in particular Mëroë and the Aetherium. Mëroë was everything I could possibly want in archaelogical exploration: labyrinthine tunnels that wound beneath the surface of the sand, connecting in "real" but still surprising ways. Though there was some combat, it was limited and really only a bit of a spice to what was mostly about puzzles and exploring; in essence, it was very similar to the movies in this way. The interior of the Infernal Machine was great in this way too -- not lots of combat, but interesting puzzles and good exploration that all tied together really nicely.

And then, there was the Aetherium, the final level, which did something few games manage to do well -- to take a 3D experience and make it do strange things, in this case, by bending "reality" to create passageways where passageways should not have been, due to intersecting other geometry in an Escher-like way. This is something I've always expected more in games, particularly in certain licenses, especially superheroes and anime. Combat in comic books and cartoons doesn't obey physical laws -- it obeys dramatic ones. When enemies or heroes are knocked back, they are thrown through what looks like a really big space -- even if it's only a 20' by 20' room -- without showing lots of detail of the room other than color and a lot of motion lines. I've seen this a lot lately on Teen Titans, which I watch with my sons -- there's a constant playfulness with reality, some of which is to show the emotional state of the characters, and a lot of which is to dramatize the combat to make it feel, well, "super". I'd love to see more of that in action games.

I see a little bit of that in the Sly Cooper series. Like the Ratchet and Clank folks, they've ignored animation advice to "not stretch bones", and as a result, they end up with characters whose animations better emphasize the characters themselves. Sly, of course, stretches longer when he jumps, but I think there's also some stretching going on in Murray when he bounces, and of course, Bentley's turtle nature virtually requires stretched necks and arms at times.

It's a pity that I came away from the last in this series feeling that they had made refinements that didn't meet my needs. In the first two, bottles were placed throughout the environment, which encouraged exploration -- those were removed here. Exploration in platformers is often good, because it gives you an opportunity to improve navigatoin skills you'll need throughout the game -- in Sly's case, this is his jumping and cane use, but it might just as well be Psychonauts' use of the acrobatic skills of Raz. There's also a 'cool factor' of being able to use these skills to get to places in a level you might never expect, such as the top of a very high tower. With the variety of new characters and skills available, I would have loved to have kept this element, if only to have exploration-based ways of improving my skills with these new characters.

The further refinement to take the place of these were 'challenges'; accessible from the main menu, you could return to certain sections of the game and repeat them, often to beat a time or a specific scoring metric (taking very little damage, for example). Unfortunately, these were essentially removed from the normal play of the game, and didn't encourage things I enjoyed. I played several of them, but only enough to know that I won't be going back now that I've completed the main storyline.

So, I guess in the end you need to be very careful where you refine. Refinement that eliminates annoyance or enhances agency? Good. Refinement that eliminates features which encourage exploration and skill-building, bad.

Well, now that I've posted again for the first time in a while, I hope to have a few more posts5 in the near future -- it's not for lack of thoughts, just prioritization of time, and now Okami and Zelda are beckoning... Cheers.



¹This irregular feature is completely stolen from the Believer column of a similar name by Nick Hornsby; I may even do a "Stuff I've Been Reading" column. We'll see. (back)
²Another implementation, which was visually cleaner than Indy's but no less distracting, was the inventory management of Metal Gear Solid.(back)
³Tim Longo, who was designer or director on each of my own three shipped games, is now at Crystal Dynamics, new home of Tomb Raider; I was giving him my thoughts on the game and the genre. (back)
4In particular, there was an assert which would trigger frequently; eventually, I realized that this was due to how much faster PCs are these days than when this was released, when a 233 MHz machine was pretty beefy. As it turns out, (back)
5Including one that discusses some elements from Castlevania... (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at October 11, 2006 08:34 PM

Comments

hi Brett, finally a post in your blog. i've waited with ansiety :-). wellcome back!

Posted by: Rui at October 15, 2006 06:37 PM

Yeah, sorry about that. Thanks for the warm welcome :)

Posted by: Brett Douville at October 16, 2006 12:46 PM

Indeed, good to see your thoughts again. As another short-on-time blogger, all I can say is: Take all the breaks you want, but always come back.

Posted by: Reed at October 25, 2006 11:56 PM