Monday, March 29, 2010

Bully: Initial Impressions

As some of you may know, Heavy Rain impacted on me heavily, resulting in a fortnight or so where I only played Forza Motorsport 3 as I just wasn’t interested in nor ready for a game with a narrative of any kind. In some ways, this is still the case, so I think I was right to choose Bully -- also known as Canis Canem Edit -- as my next game. While it does have a narrative of some sort, it’s mostly irrelevant to the overall experience of playing as an aggressive, rebellious child who loves nothing more than a little -- sorry, a lot of -- mischief.

And that’s perfect, as I enjoy some mayhem in my gaming from time to time too. What Rockstar’s school-based game brings to the table is a form of shenanigans that you wouldn’t normally find in most videogames, and centers the absurd antics around a theme that pretty much everyone is familiar with: school, and the various cliques, situations and frivolities that come with it.

Reflecting back on my own real life schooling, I realise that despite some unfortunate factors, the majority of it was rather fun, and Bully reflects that experience through the antics that you can experiment with during play. Want to scare a group of students by setting off some fire crackers behind them? You can do it. Want to watch others kick someone because you planted a “kick me” sign on their back? You can do it. Want to hit some people with pelts fired from your slingshot? Yep, you can do that too. But despite the instantaneous fun such activities can provide, these moments haven’t stood out to me in the way I was expecting. Sure, they’re fun, and it’s great being able to think about what I can do next to have a bit of a laugh, but they are also mostly predictable, too, and as a result I feel like they will get old quickly.

Something that has already gotten old, quickly, is the style of gameplay that Bully immerses itself in. Within moments of playing it, I realised that, mechanically, this was a last generation game. That’s not to say it’s bad -- quite the contrary actually -- but you could tell, despite playing it on the 360 (yes, I realise it was a port), that it was a reinterpretation of the old Grand Theft Auto formula, where fun and insanity are emphasised and where careful maturity and realism need not apply. In fact, it feels so much like GTA III and company that you could almost get away with calling it a re-skin, and while going with such a popular formula is not a bad thing, I can’t help but think about all the potential the game could have, or would have, were it to have its own identity -- so to speak.

This also applies to a more broad thought I’ve had while playing the game, in relation to Grand Theft Auto IV and the way its two downloadable episodes changed up the original game just enough to provide a fresh, unique perspective on a familiar place. I can’t help but imagine -- and I’m sure I’m not the only one to do so -- what a ‘Bully’ episode set in Liberty City would be like, the city’s size and methods of transport drastically changing due to the difference in being a child versus the adults we’re more familiar with.

In fact, I’d like to explore this idea a little more, so expect a few more posts on Bully in the near future. In the meantime, my time with Bully so far leaves me thinking about what could have been rather than what is -- I’ll let you decide whether that’s a positive or negative impression, though.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Origami Collection: Mundane Magic

[There are mild spoilers in this post]

As I mentioned briefly in my Heavy Hitter post, the description of what you do in Heavy Rain sounds boring. Just how can the act of shaving or picking up some mail be fun in a videogame?

As I also mentioned in that post, Heavy Rain isn’t fun. When said like that, it sounds like a negative criticism that suggests that no one should play it, as it doesn’t entertain and is boring. Well, let me clarify right now: Heavy Rain isn’t fun, but it isn’t supposed to be either. Instead, it’s supposed to be a dramatic experience that is interactive, allowing us to experiment with four playable characters and the situations they find themselves in, which, by virtue of the fact that they are human, also includes the mundane.

A good portion of the moments in Heavy Rain are slow, relaxed affairs where the character you are controlling isn’t doing anything of particular importance. An example of such a scene is what Ethan Mars -- the father character I’ve already spoken about -- does after picking his son Shaun up from school and goes back home. In this particular moment, it’s possible to sit and watch TV with Shaun, go upstairs and listen to music, get Shaun a snack or dinner, or go out into the backyard to shoot some hoops. There’s a vague goal of looking after Shaun to follow, which can include feeding him as outlined above, ensuring he does his homework, and getting him to bed at a reasonable hour. None of these tasks are mandatory, they are merely suggestions to help make the scene flow at a reasonably decent pace -- it’s still up to the player to decide whether he does those things, or ignores them entirely. Whatever happens, Shaun will eventually fall asleep and putting him to bed is where the scene ends.

There are many more small but intriguing tasks you can do within that scene and all of them are optional at the player’s discretion, but they are there to alter the aforementioned scene in neat little ways to ensure that each player’s experience is slightly different. When you think about it, they don’t mean anything and, arguably, neither does the scene, but then they don’t need to mean anything and they aren’t supposed to. The only important things to be observed from this particular scene is the distant relationship that has developed between Ethan and his son, and the fact that Ethan and his wife have seemingly separated – both as a result of the unfortunate death of Jason, Shaun’s older brother. Ultimately, all this scene represents for Heavy Rain’s experience is some small but key character development.

Every single menial task within this scene that the player chooses to do, develops our understanding and connection to these characters. Trying to talk to Shaun shows us just how distant he really is, while trying to inspire him to work on his homework is met with reluctance as he would much rather watch TV. Heading upstairs as Ethan, we can put some music on to play in the background and then go into his office. In here, it’s possible for Ethan to turn on a TV and watch a family home video featuring Shaun, Jason and Ethan’s wife. Watching this video reminds Ethan of what happened to Jason, and we’re able to watch as he reflects on this and gets upset – as a father should and would. Heading outside to shoot some basketball hoops has nothing to do with character development (for this particular scene -- I’ll explain why it does in fact aid character development further on), but it’s arguably effective anyway due to the constantly falling rain and the muddy terrain that it causes. Just the aesthetic value of this particular task highlights the depressing mood and atmosphere that is already gained from Shaun’s distance, and the quiet, upsetting moment of reflection that Ethan goes through from watching the video.

What I’ve described above is just one scene in Heavy Rain. There are plenty of others, some relatively quiet like I’ve already described, and some that contain a little more action or at the very least, intensity. Regardless of their pace, the way in which the player interacts with them is what defines them, and is definitely where Heavy Rain’s magic lies.

While going to the toilet might not mean anything for the development of the story, or a particular character’s role within that, it does still mean something for the player’s development in Heavy Rain. The tasks they choose to perform within any given scene define their reaction to it, and in turn the overall experience they will have. As far as my own experience is concerned, I approached the mundane tasks in the game based on what I thought was right within the context of the scene at the time. Using the scene I’ve described above as my example again, I chose to loosely follow the schedule that Ethan had written down on a whiteboard in the kitchen so that I could also spend time doing other tasks. For example, since Ethan had just arrived home I thought it was necessary to check his mail to see what might be there. I also thought it was necessary to get Ethan a drink, and also go to the toilet. These tasks felt natural within the scene as well as the environment -- Ethan’s home -- and thus I was compelled to perform these tasks despite the fact I didn’t have to. That’s the beauty of these mundane tasks; they are completely optional but may compel us to do them anyway, either because our curiosity has been piqued or because they feel right within the context of both the scene and, indeed, the game. I don’t choose to go to the toilet because it’s there or because I can, I do it because I want to and it feels like the right thing to do. More so if the scenes prior were filled with action and it wasn’t possible to do such a simple yet necessary act of nature.

Ultimately, the effectiveness and therefore strength of these scenes depends on what the player chooses to do within them, and as such their enjoyment will depend on how they interpret a scene’s intended experience and then how they react to it. The various menial tasks that can be performed may sound boring when they are described, but when you actually play the game, you realize why they exist and what they can potentially mean for both the development of the game’s story, and the player’s. And besides, shooting hoops isn’t so boring after all.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Quality And Quantity

One of Nintendo's oldest slogans that was used during the Nintendo 64 era was "Quality not quantity." -- a phrase brought out whenever the company was criticised for its lack of third party support (as, let's not forget, the original PlayStation was capturing the attention of gamers all over the world and managed to have some massive games that went on to become classic franchises, such as Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo) or when asked about the length of time between their big games. For whatever reason, their consistent use of that term ingrained it in my head, and there hasn't been any other game company slogan (aside from maybe "It's in the game" -- EA's old one) that has been as memorable as Nintendo's.

In hindsight, the slogan was both true and false: Nintendo's games back then were indeed full of quality, with the likes of Super Mario 64 and, of course, The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time smashing the competition and hammering home exactly why Nintendo were (and, arguably, still are) the masters of their craft. But on the other hand, the phrase was an excuse, too; a term to throw about as if its meaning was irrelevant, just to buy the company some breathing space after disappointed fans kept pestering them for new games to play. In a way, these fans had no choice but to constantly nag for new games, too -- the PlayStation truly was powering along at an unbelievable pace, delivering some truly excellent titles, expanding the userbase of potential gamers by appealing to untapped markets, and even converting the odd fanboy or three (thousand) to Sony's new baby. It was the era when videogame enthusiasts, the supposed hardcore, started to realise that to experience any game they might have wanted to, they needed to own all of the systems. This isn't to say that, for some, this wasn't already true back in the 8 and 16-bit days, but the arrival of the PlayStation was when it really started to become necessary: the console was, after all, where the good majority of third-party support was focused on, and the Final Fantasy series' switch from Nintendo to the PS was a massive bonus for Sony's machine.

Fast forward to today, though, and Nintendo's old slogan has become relevant again, but only if its paraphrased. As the title of this post suggests, that paraphrased version is 'Quality And Quantity', and I deem it that because of just how amazing the past 6 months, if not the past few years, have been for the videogame medium.

Since October last year, we've had so many incredible games come out that, just thinking about it now, I still can't believe it. The benchmark has been raised to an exponentially high level, with the likes of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Bayonetta, Assassin's Creed II, Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain leading the charge. Even the supposed average titles, such as Brutal Legend or The Saboteur, have been great, highlighting to me that the quality of the industry today is higher than it has ever been.

Looking at the games I mentioned above, the quality extends beyond sequels and underlines the quality of new IP that we've had in recent years. While the sequels might be the most notable, refining and improving upon their predecessors, the new franchises haven't been anything to sneeze at either. Whether it is the two games I mentioned above, both of which are still relatively new, or games from a few years back such as Mirror's Edge or Dead Space, the quality we've seen has been pretty damn amazing, and as the BioShock 2 and Mass Effect 2's of the world prove, these new IPs usually turn out to be remarkable and amazing franchises.

The thing that gets me the most though isn't the fact that the consistency of this medium has delivered time and time again recently, but that it isn't showing any signs of slowing down. The lineup of games due to release later this year -- spread out nicely, too, instead of all at once for the Christmas rush like we've seen in previous years -- as well as intriguing new technology like the Sony Wave and Microsoft's Natal, shows to me that 2010 will absolutely be gaming's best year to date, and when you consider that such a statement is made almost every year these days, that's nothing but a positive sign for a medium that continues to flourish, continues to evolve, and continues to mature into something that can absolutely sit alongside the likes of film, music and literature. I'm not sure about the rest of you but I'm extremely excited about the upcoming months and years for videogames, and I haven't even begun to talk about the push for 3D or whether there's a new generation of consoles incoming...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Origami Collection: Heavy Hitter

[Beware, there are Heavy Rain spoilers in this post.]

Reflecting upon my time with Heavy Rain has been interesting for many reasons, but mostly because of just how strongly the game's story affected me.

Part of the appeal with Heavy Rain is its attempt to tell a mature story, one made up of realistic situations and believable characters. It's not the first game to try this, with the likes of the Uncharted series and Grand Theft Auto IV -- among many others -- trying to push the storytelling potential of the videogame medium forward. Even Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in America), Quantic Dream's previous game, attempted this, all the way back in 2005. Telling a mature tale is nothing new to videogames then, but it is still quite rare -- the games industry's reliance on the notion that games are supposed to be fun arguably holding the medium back from reaching its full potential.

Well, Heavy Rain is not fun -- in fact, on paper, the way the game is played sounds incredibly boring -- but it sure is one hell of an experience. The game's story centers around the Origami Killer: a serial killer who kidnaps young children and drowns them five days later. Naturally, the identity of the Origami Killer is unknown, and it's up to the four playable characters to discover who it is before his latest victim, Shaun Mars -- son of Ethan Mars, one of the playable characters -- meets the same fate.

This is Ethan, for those who don't know.

Viewed as I described above, Heavy Rain's story sounds like nothing special and somewhat cliché but, thanks in part to the multiple choices you can make along the way, it is instead one hell of a ride -- an emotional roller coaster of intense ups and depressing downs, all of them eventually culminating into a game like no other.

Or at least, that's how it was for me.

You see, Heavy Rain's choices are more than just a selling point for the back of the game's box; they really do have the potential to define your experience, resulting in a product that polarizes its audience for the right reasons, as opposed to the wrong reasons.

The decisions I made in Heavy Rain truly defined my experience of it, making it more than just a story I participated in by making it my story. I genuinely felt guilty when the lives of some people were lost; I was genuinely shocked when the identity of the Origami Killer was revealed; and I was genuinely relieved when the intense, thrilling ride that is Heavy Rain reached its conclusion. The question of how far I would go for those I loved was meaningful because I did truly come to be enthralled by these characters. For example, at one point I was faced with a decision involving Ethan's finger: Do I chop it off in order to get another clue to Shaun's whereabouts or save Ethan the immense pain but risk the chance that I won't be able to save Shaun in time? To me, the decision was obvious: the inflicted pain upon Ethan's finger would be temporary, but losing his son? That's a permanent outcome that, frankly, is just not allowed, not after already losing Jason (his other son).

Jason? Jason?! JASON!!!

In another moment, Ethan is faced with the decision of whether to drink a vial of poison. If he does, the final clue for the location of Shaun's whereabouts is revealed, but Ethan only has one hour to find him before he dies from the poison. On the other hand, not drinking the poison saves Ethan's life but at the possible expense of Shaun's. This decision, while seemingly basic, was very hard to make and is the first decision in a videogame that I've come across which has literally stopped me in my tracks and made me think about it. I contemplated the possibilities of each outcome for a good thirty minutes or so, finally deciding to drink the poison because I felt that saving Shaun was the more important outcome.

It's not necessarily the content of the above decision that makes it meaningful or important to my experience, but rather how strong its impact was on me at the time I came across it. No other game, not even the more emotionally involving ones, have had the power to halt my progress and make me ponder what I'm dealing with. That's not to say that no other games can achieve such an outcome -- I've heard reports from plenty of people about moments in various games where they've had to stop playing and think about a situation -- it's just, no others have done it to me. Finally, after years of playing games, one has come along and has clearly meant so much to me that it was able to get under my skin and make me think about the consequences.

The end result of such an effective game, in terms of affecting not only my thoughts and my emotions but my reactions to those, is absolutely no desire to play through the game again anytime soon. When put like that, it sounds like I don't care for the alternate endings available or the multiple variants to each situation, and in some respects that's true, but what I actually mean by it is that because Heavy Rain's story, my story, was so incredibly compelling and powerful, I have no reason to play it again. I'm left feeling satisfied with my experience, content with the way my story played out, and absolutely astounded by how amazing the final product turned out to be, after all those years of anticipation.

I realise that not everyone had satisfying conclusions to their stories, or were dissatisfied with how some things panned out, but as far as I'm concerned Heavy Rain's story was a success, not necessarily for what it attempts to do or who it attempts to involve, but because of how it took me for a ride I'll never forget. If that's not something worth waiting for, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Origami Collection: Overview

Quantic Dream's latest game, Heavy Rain, is one that I have been anticipating ever since its announcement. Initially, my anticipation stemmed from a loyalty to the French developer after being so enthralled by their previous game, Fahrenheit, but as more information was revealed my interest shifted towards just what Heavy Rain could mean for the videogame medium.*

Here was a game that, like Fahrenheit before it, was attempting to tell a mature story in a medium that is still fascinated with fantasy worlds and space marines. It was a game that wasn't going to consist of magic powers, wanton destruction or a kill count made up of thousands, and whose focus was firmly in reality as opposed to the supernatural (ala Fahrenheit). In the current gaming climate, regardless of other supposed attempts at maturity, this focus was fresh and it was for this reason that I couldn't wait to play Heavy Rain.

Well, I have now played it and I've come away from the experience absolutely amazed by how Heavy Rain has affected me. Upon finishing it three days ago, I was left with a multitude of thoughts and feelings, and trying to get a handle on those in order to write about the game here has been harder than any other game I've written about so far. To say that Heavy Rain has left its mark on me would be an understatement, and in a series of posts I'm calling The Origami Collection I will describe my feelings towards it, as well as what I believe Heavy Rain means for the videogame medium going forward. It starts with my next post, in which I'll discuss how the game's story -- my story -- affected me and why. I do hope you'll join me.

*Incidentally, I will also be covering Fahrenheit here on the blog in the near future as I recently played it in preparation for Heavy Rain.