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August 08, 2009

First Impressions

One of the things I find important to any first person shooter, and perhaps any linear game¹, is the "introduction" -- how you are introduced to a new enemy, new weapon, new environment, anything. I came by this importance working with Nathan Martz, now the lead programmer at Double Fine, on Star Wars Republic Commando. As our enemy AI programmer, he really drove forward the idea that each introduction of a new enemy should be interesting and should say something about the character in question -- its tactics or its personality. In SWRC, that became important to how we introduced everything, from your squadmates to your weapons to your enemies, and it has become one of the lenses I examine games through.

So, recently I played Gears of War and in this area there were a few things I felt they might have worked better. The game is very successful in the running, gunning, and cover areas, but less consistent in how it introduces its enemies. Here are a few rules that came to mind while playing.

  • Personality is key. The Berserker was a good example of this, a blind, raging character who bursts through walls. Unfortunately, the introduction of the Boomer was far less successful -- two Boomers walking down a corridor who... step on a rat. It just doesn't fit with the character -- their in-game behavior is far better. While I understand that this was meant as an attempt at levity, it was completely out of place with the tone of the rest of the game, involving slapstick rather than the over-the-top macho gallows humor prevalent throughout.
  • The player has to see it. The first time I ran across the Corpser, one of my squadmates pointed him out and made some remark. Problem was, I was looking the other way, and as of this writing I still don't know what I missed. This can be a real danger in in-game introductions, where you have no control over the player's current attention. In Republic Commando, all of our introductions were in-game, so we did our best to put them in spots where it would be hard to miss them. An ameliorating factor in the case of the Corpser was that there were several introductions, building tension, which gave me multiple opportunities to see it. Many of the introductions in Gears are done through cutscenes, which avoids this issue entirely, but takes you out of the first-person perspective.
  • Give clues as to gameplay. The Gears "Berserker" is a good example of this; we're told that we can destroy him if we can get him into the outdoors. However, we're in a sealed-off room. Lo and behold, this critter is superstrong and will run at any noise...
  • Introduce the enemy in an appropriate location. If you're always going to fight a critter in a tight hallway, don't introduce him in a wide-open cavern. The Wretches were a good example of this done well -- they spew out of a hole in the ceiling in a tight hallway, which is a space which works well for them.
  • The first impression can't be far from the payoff. With the Corpser, there were several opportunities to see what was coming, and a lot of tension built up... that was squandered as the critter disappeared until the very end of the next act, several hours of gameplay away, which for me was as much as a few days. As a counterexample, the Reavers are shown in an introductory video and immediately pay off by attacking the train you're riding in.
  • Make the meaning clear. It must be clear to the player what they are seeing. In the case of General Raam, I had no idea who this guy was, and he ended up being the final boss. He appeared briefly and shot some random soldier, and then disappeared until the end of the next act, depriving that final encounter of the emotional impact it might have held.

Hmmm... I seem to be getting a bit Bullet-Pointish these days, I'll have to watch out for that. No idea what I'll be talking about next, but you can meet me back here in a week or so.

¹This is not to say that I don't believe this can be managed to some degree in open-world games as well, though it's a more significant techological and artistic challenge. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at August 8, 2009 10:31 AM