Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Night Forza: Tunnel Vision

In my last post I referenced an approach to driving around a race circuit that I labeled as “Tunnel Vision”, suggesting that it appears when a driver’s concentration is at its highest, usually in relation to an attempt to be as precise around the race track as possible -- so in other words, all the time.

So what is Tunnel Vision?

Tunnel Vision is the term I use to describe when concentration and focus is so high that only what is in front of a driver at the time matters, and only the crucial details -- an opponent’s car; the approach to an upcoming corner; whether there’s any debris on the track; stuff like that -- matter. It’s when the objects in the background and sidelines become a blur, and when the edges of the track or its walls are the only important things that surround a driver and his or her car. Like a tunnel on civilian roads, the view and momentum is funneled forward: there’s no turning right or left as that’s when mistakes or collisions can be made, and going backwards is against the rules of the road or, indeed, the race track. When concentration is at its peak and focus is strong, the track or even minutiae parts of it, such as the racing line, becomes like a tunnel: attention is on what is ahead and what’s on the sides or behind doesn’t matter.

Interestingly, this Tunnel Vision phenomenon doesn’t just apply to the edges of a circuit or, in the case of a street circuit, the walls that line the course. Upon hearing my description for Tunnel Vision, it would be easy to associate and assume that it is the edges of a track I’m talking about. This is true to some degree, but as I’ve already alluded to above, things within those edges can form and be a part of one’s Tunnel Vision. The first obvious one is the racing line: the general and quickest line through each of the track’s corners and the most commonly used, by all drivers, route throughout a course on any given lap. Venture off this line and a multitude of things can arise or affect your race, maybe even both. The level of grip might not be as strong, meaning you become slower as your tyres work harder; leftover rubber from tyres -- commonly known as “marbles” -- can adorn the edges of a racing line and make the handling of your vehicle more slippery; or your approach to a corner may be more difficult because you’re not lined up to take it as fast as possible and thus, your general lap speed slows down as you do to accommodate. It’s logical then to try and stay on this line as much as possible in order to maintain consistency in pace per lap, as well as to ensure that, in a race, opponents have a harder time overtaking you. I’ll talk about overtaking, especially as it relates to racing games, in a future post.

Tunnel Vision: You're doing it wrong.

But sometimes, Tunnel Vision can go beyond the edges of a race track or its racing line. It can narrow or widen at will, based on what’s ahead at the time and how a driver responds to it. For example: when trying to line up a pass on an opponent, the edges of a driver’s Tunnel Vision can alter based on what that rival is doing. If they choose to stick to the racing line heading into a corner, then suddenly the Tunnel Vision can widen beyond the racing line as a passing opportunity up the inside arises. Instead of being single file on the racing line, the track becomes wider as the cars go side-by-side, maybe to the edges of the track, maybe to some point in-between that’s suitable enough to make the move and nothing more. Of course, that doesn’t always mean the pass is going to be successful but alas, I digress.

How does this relate to racing games and in particular, Forza 3? Well just as these games simulate the various mentalities that can arise effectively, they also simulate Tunnel Vision. As I suggested in my previous post, if my attention is not fully dedicated to the racing line, the clock, or both, then I’m not at the peak of my potential ability as a driver and I’m allowing distractions, such as the paraphernalia that adorns the background and sidelines of the circuit, to set in and affect my chances in achieving my goal. It is a small aspect of racing but one that is absolutely crucial to my -- and presumably everyone else’s -- success. Get it wrong and the desired result -- winning, pole position, etc. -- is a lot more complicated to achieve, but get it right and the result is, well, perfection.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Just A Heads Up

I didn't want to make this small post as I'd much prefer it if things were going to plan, but realistically and unfortunately, they are not.

The computer I use to work on this blog has some problems and while right now things are okay, I can't trust it to be reliable at the moment. It has a booting problem and this week it has been freezing which has been forcing the need for reboots and thus, it not booting. Somehow we've managed to bypass this problem and get it working again but I can't guarantee how long that will last, so that's why I'm telling you guys, my readers, about it.

Basically, if this blog and indeed my online presence in general goes quiet suddenly, it's because of these computer problems. It's my only point of access to the Internet and therefore Raptured Reality, so if I lose that then the blog goes quiet whether I want it to or not.

I think you'll agree that overall -- despite some quieter months earlier in the year -- I've managed to pick up my consistency here, getting posts out as I've wanted and even needed to as I continue to offer my opinions and thoughts about our commonly shared interest: videogames. I've improved so much that I have actually managed to form a schedule, of sorts, for what I write, so I'm sure you can understand my hesitation with this potential unintended downtime and indeed disappointment should it occur.

Hopefully I'm just worrying over nothing and all can resume as normal going forward, especially with E3 around the corner. If things do go on as they should, then all this post is doing is embarrassing me, but even so I'd rather keep you in the loop than to have silence overtake the blog and as a result, for you to perhaps stop reading. My intention is to continue with my schedule as I would do normally so expect posts to keep on coming, but if they don't, you now know why.

And on a short side note, now is as good a time as any to reiterate: thanks to each and every one of you for taking the time to read my blog. I appreciate it immensely and without you people, my motivation to convey my thoughts and feelings would be a lot less than it is now. So again, thanks, it means a lot to me.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Friday Night Forza: Driver Mentalities

In terms of simulation the physics of the driving models in racing games like Forza Motorsport or Race Pro are usually what receives the attention critically, and for good reason too; If the physics and dynamics of racing a car quickly around a race track do not feel right -- regardless of whether it’s a controller or steering wheel being used -- then the illusion is broken and the experience becomes less enjoyable. Or worse, dull. Get it right, however, and it can be an exhilarating, fulfilling experience that is probably as close to real life racing as one can get in a virtual sense. But just because handling is the main focus that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other aspects of racing that are being simulated simultaneously.

Driving a race car consistently, precisely and most importantly, quickly, is an incredibly complex and involving task. Not only do drivers in real life need to manage the physical side -- acceleration, braking, gear changing and, of course, steering* -- they also have to manage racing mentally, and it’s here where racing sims do a pretty remarkable job of capturing the mental processes a driver has to go through not just throughout a race but in preparation for one as well.

Most real life race weekends follow a schedule that allows for drivers to learn the track; test various car setups that suit not only the track but its conditions as well (sunny, overcast, rainy, etc.); secure their position on the starting grid; and then, eventually, the race. The thought process in the approach to each session -- practice, qualifying or the race -- differs based on the performance of the car, the goals the driver or team may have, and the experience with how the track may or may not change over the course of the weekend. In practice for example, the mindset is relatively relaxed and it’s here where experimentation with setup, different racing lines and when to be on the track versus being in the pits can be used to potentially improve the prospects for the overall weekend. In qualifying, the mindset shifts to one lap dashes (usually involving three laps: the out/warm up lap, the actual lap where a decent time is hopefully set, and the in lap on the way back to the pits) where concentration, focus and absolute precision is necessary to set and achieve the best lap time. Arguably, it’s here where the track really does become like a tunnel, the driver’s vision not focused on anything else except what’s in front at the time. I’ll explain this “tunnel vision” phenomenon in a little more detail in my next post. Lastly we have the actual race, where the mindset once again shifts and all eyes point towards a victory. Concentration isn’t necessarily focused on precision -- though it helps -- with the location of competitor vehicles being important, and avoiding any collisions is crucial.

Something that both surprised and impressed me while playing Forza Motorsport 3 is just how amazingly realistic it is in recreating the various mindsets a driver has. Of course, to speed up the process and not alienate the more impatient audience of gamers out there, the way race events are presented in these games is significantly different to the way a normal race weekend pans out, but this is mostly irrelevant. Instead of practice sessions or qualifying, racing games have testing (for the tuners out there) and time trial modes, not to mention quick races or free runs. It’s in these modes that the varying mental approaches appear, and in reality it doesn’t matter what a mode or session is called because the end result is going to be the same thing.

I’m a fairly passionate person about time trial modes, as I enjoy the challenge in being as precise and perfect as I possibly can. As far as Forza 3 is concerned, I have a goal in mind to be in the top 200 people around the world for each specific time trial event, and, if possible, the various hot lap leaderboards as well. It’s a big ask but based on my experience with Forza 2, it’s entirely possible and I’ve already got a few decent times down. When I’m on the track pushing to be as perfect as I can be, my mind is focused entirely on precision, and getting the best out of the track and car I’m in. My focus is literally that of the tunnel vision I’ve already alluded to, and the side and background detail of a track -- including the walls if it’s a street circuit -- is ignored without even realising it. It’s just me, the racing line, and the clock, and if anything else enters into my concentration span then I’m not at the peak of my potential ability. This is a big contrast to how I approach a race, where, as in all racing games, all I care about is winning -- both for the progression throughout a game and because that is the ultimate position. Failure to win means restarting or retrying a race until that victory is secured, and anything else is just trivial distraction until that is achieved. This changes again when it comes to approaching, say, an online race against real people (as opposed to AI); the desire to win remains as strong as ever but the variables are different, so the approach needs to be. Racing against the AI cars is serviceable but mostly predictable: assuming how they will react as I make a pass or block my line into a corner results in relatively easy outcomes with very few surprises. Racing real people, on the other hand, is unpredictable: the lines that they take, how deep (or early) they will brake into a corner or whether they will try to ram you as you make a pass are just some of the unknown factors against real people. This unpredictability can make online racing really exciting, but also has more potential for collisions, unfair competitors and less of a chance to actually win. The differences in the various approaches I take depending on what I do in the game is remarkable, and extremely similar to how a real race driver would adapt to the conditions they may have to face.

Exit Strategy

At any given time on the track, a driver’s thought process can be focused on a multitude of things depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Ranging from how they took the previous corner to whether they are close enough to an opponent’s car to make a pass, decisions are constantly being made based on what is being presented at the time. It’s no different in a racing simulation game.

I may not realise it while playing, but I too am making decision after decision as I make my way around a track, and as you’d expect, the choices I make will either help or hinder the outcome of my race. For example, exiting the final corner of America’s famous race track Laguna Seca can present many different situations to deal with. As I exit, I could be thinking about my throttle application because I may have gone wide (off the racing line); started to accelerate too early (thus inducing wheel spin); or because I’m trying to get the best exit possible. This latter point can be for two reasons: to end a fast lap as precisely and as quickly as I possibly can, in order to obtain a decent lap time, or, to get the best run down the short straight as I can in order to hopefully make a pass heading into turn one. This second situation gives yet more possibilities: am I close enough to my opponent’s car to slipstream him? What about close enough to brake later than him into the first corner? Or do I need to patiently bide my time, because I’m not close enough, and wait for another opportunity to pass? While thinking about these potential scenarios and what to do with them, I also have to be mindful of what my opponents are doing, too. They could be aggressive and therefore hard to pass; they might not see me alongside them heading towards the corner and so when they turn into it like normal, they cause a collision; or they could be slow -- either because they had a poor exit from the corner or because there’s something wrong with their car -- meaning I have to be careful not to ram into the back of them because I’m going faster.

These are just some of the potential situations that can occur leaving the final corner of Laguna Seca. There are plenty more, and that increases exponentially once you consider the rest of the corners -- including the famous Corkscrew -- that make up the Californian track. And that was just one example! The mental prowess required to not only race quickly but competitively and precisely is amazing, and now that I have noticed it I am impressed by just how well racing simulation games manage to replicate that complexity yet still maintain the fun factor videogames are usually known for. The intriguing thing though is that despite all of this, motorsport is mostly a reactionary sport which relies on reflex and quick thinking as opposed to careful consideration and planning. You can strategise for a race as much as you want but at the end of the day, once you’re out on the track and the light has gone green, it’s just you, your opponents, and the path to victory -- it’s up to you to deal with whatever comes your way, and it will always be the drivers who are best at doing this that will come out on top.

*A lot of people assume motorsport is just a hand-based sport but it is as much a foot skill as it is a hand skill.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lifestyles In Liberty City

It’s no coincidence that I have been playing Grand Theft Auto IV -- specifically The Ballad Of Gay Tony, but that’s beside the point -- directly after playing Bully. Not only was I craving a return to a game space whose atmosphere and attention to detail is astounding, I revisited Liberty City with a specific goal in mind: to think about what I see, hear or do in Liberty City within the context of what it would be like as a young student; as Jimmy Hopkins.

The town of Bullworth is quaint yet smart, its more compact and concise feel really working within the frame that Rockstar’s juvenile game requires; it allows for a nice, gradual exploration as Jimmy progresses as a character, and its overall size -- once each section of Bully's city is unlocked -- feels right, the game’s main modes of transport all working within the context of the city’s boundaries and indeed the game’s theme.

By contrast, Liberty City is absolutely huge. A real living, breathing metropolis with urban areas, suburbs, an industrial complex, highways and tunnels, it sits on the complete opposite side of the spectrum when compared to Bullworth, and would be completely overwhelming to a young adolescent such as Jimmy. As it stands in GTA IV, moving about in this massive and dense city involves the use of vehicles -- cars, bikes, boats and helicopters -- as well as public transport systems and, as of Gay Tony, parachutes. Traversing in Liberty City via a bicycle, skateboard or, god forbid, on foot seems like an absurd idea, the length of time just to get to another of the city’s islands longer than it would take to get from one side of the city to the other by car. But, those are the methods of transport that Jimmy Hopkins is used to and while at first it might seem daunting, overwhelming or even scary, getting around Liberty City using those methods would reveal a whole other side to the place, yielding not just another perspective or frame of lens to view it in -- as GTA IV’s downloadable expansions did -- but a completely different experience.

Just another day at Bullworth Academy

Think about it. What would Liberty City be like on foot? What about a skateboard? A bicycle? It would be completely different, wouldn’t it? Now imagine what the city would be like if its impeccable design accommodated such transportation, and used it as proficiently as it does the mass of vehicles we’re already used to. It has the potential to be really exciting doesn’t it? Just on method of transport alone, the idea of having a younger, slower but substantially different existence in Liberty City brings to mind a multitude of different possibilities, each being unique in their own right but combining to enhance the overall Grand Theft Auto IV experience in the same way that not only its additional downloadable content does, but the various activities and mini-games that can be enjoyed too. Whether it’s a short distraction or an intentional change of pace and play, getting around via these options would be quite enjoyable but beyond that, it would also provide a completely different perspective on the city, an enticing prospect whose potential for interesting possibilities has already been demonstrated not once, but twice through the game’s episodes.

Obviously, such a perspective wouldn’t just be delivered by different transport options -- GTA IV’s main characters can already walk around the city if a player so chooses, and were they in the game, they would also be able to ride a bike or skate.

Firefly Island in Grand Theft Auto IV

Bully’s attempt to tell a tale of a student who is constantly getting into trouble, is constantly seeking popularity and ultimately, like all students, just wants to have fun is quite unique in the videogame medium. It’s stereotyping, parody on culture and youthful violence wouldn’t be out of place in Liberty City, nor would the events that take place during the game. For those who haven’t played it, Bully’s story basically deals with Jimmy Hopkins gradually earning the respect and leadership of each of the cliques that school culture is associated with -- jocks, nerds, greasers, etc. -- as well as eventually putting an end to a rival student who, like Jimmy, wants to rule the school: Bullworth Academy. Were this narrative to take place in Liberty City, it could occur as is no problem: nothing would be out of place in terms of GTA IV’s context; its satire and social issues would fit right in with the disjointed humour GTA IV already revels in; and as suggested above, it would provide yet another perspective on a city filled with different lifestyles. But were it to feature in GTA IV, I have no doubt that Rockstar would change and enhance it to not only better accommodate what Liberty City already contains, but to also take advantage of the city’s size, varying cultures and different neighborhoods. Instead of faction wars within one school, there could be campus rivalries too: sport teams that regularly compete against each other, both on-field and off; school plays that fight over spectacle, drama and perhaps even for a chance to perform in front of the entire city; and of course, a motivation for your school and for you as the player* to perform in the classroom and achieve those high grades, eventually leading to a reputation as Liberty City’s best school. School excursions could be a reoccurring feature, with trips to Happiness Island to see the Statue of Happiness or to Hove Beach to visit Firefly Island for go-karting, bowling and a ride on its amusement rides just some of the neat destinations that could be visited, the result being, once again, another perspective on already familiar locations. Even Liberty City’s many houses -- most of which are filler when you think about it -- could be given meaning with this new ‘version’ of the GTA IV experience, with each student having their own house in the game. Not only would it give each of the students more meaning, or ensure that they’re not aimlessly wandering around as Liberty City’s older population tend to do, it would also allow for some interesting gameplay opportunities too. Perhaps a couple of gender specific boarding schools could exist, their pupils -- just beginning to go through puberty -- eager to interact and experiment with the opposite sex. Get involved with someone from another school and you wouldn’t just be betraying your loyalty to your own school, you’d have to be discreet and utilise the city’s public transport to go and see your new-found partner. Maybe you could even have multiple relationships on the go, much like GTA IV’s older characters and indeed Bully too -- but if you do then be careful, you wouldn’t want them to find out about each other and spark even further rivalry between not only themselves, but their schools too.

As you can see, playing as an adolescent teenager in Liberty City would certainly provide a different kind of entertainment to that of which we’re already used to, but even further than that, it would change up the pace, gameplay possibilities and perspective in remarkable ways. What I’ve described above are just some of the things that came to mind when thinking about what it’d be like; I haven’t even begun to think about what it could mean for things like GTA IV’s radio stations, TV networks, internet, restaurants, landmarks and, to bring things full circle, its criminal population. As the master of detail and atmosphere when it comes to telling us a particular tale and perspective, the possibilities Rockstar could implement with a Bully-styled take on Liberty City are exciting to think about and utterly enticing from a gameplay standpoint, but as it didn’t happen and they seem to have moved on from the episodes and have shifted their attention towards the inevitable sequels -- perhaps just for GTA, perhaps for both games -- all I can do in the meantime is speculate and hope that such potential for interesting ideas is met in the future. Whether it ever is remains to be seen, but even if it’s not, there’s no harm in dreaming about it, is there?

Now, I wonder what a skateboard specific episode (think EA’s Skate series) in Liberty City would be like…

*Incidentally, I’ll have more on Bully’s classes and indeed the subjects they involve in my next installment of my Learning Through Interaction series soon, so stay tuned for that.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Preview Power: Alan Wake

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

In just a few days Alan Wake will finally come out. After years of waiting for it to not just be released but to be revealed in more detail, it would be safe to say that anticipation -- my anticipation -- is running pretty high right now. Here is a game that I’ve been interested in ever since it was announced, with the few pieces of information known about the game before E3’s (re)reveal last year piquing my curiosity and suggesting to me that it was worth keeping an eye on. So before I savour the moment next week, just why is the game on my radar?

So far this generation there hasn’t been that many games focused on scaring players. Despite the odd exception, Survival Horror doesn’t really seem relevant anymore or a priority for the various developers out there. I won’t say too much because I plan to elaborate in an upcoming post, but Alan Wake seems like a game that will scare me, and that alone is enough to put it on my radar. From what I’ve heard, it’s not just cheap scares ala early Resident Evil titles; the game really seems to emphasise the eerie, its light and dark mechanics adding to the isolation and hesitation that such an atmospheric experience should deliver. I don’t expect a thrill ride nor do I expect a game where what you don’t see is scarier than what you do; I just want a game that puts me on the edge of my seat, gets my heart pounding and draws me in through my uncertainty with what I will come across next.

Another reason I’m anticipating the game is due to its more realistic approach to story-telling. Yes it is a bit cliché, the idea of an author’s stories coming true nothing we haven’t seen before, but in the context of videogames where the fantastical is apparently more important than anything else, its emphasis on a more believable setting with characters who seem like they might be easy to relate with is enticing to me. Strangely enough, I actually kind of view the game in a similar light to that of Heavy Rain -- I was looking forward to that for a similar reason, its attempt to tell a mature tale with engaging characters eventually delivering an experience I’ve already covered elsewhere -- so it will be interesting to see if Remedy can deliver on my expectations like Quantic Dream did.

Lastly and what probably won’t surprise anyone anymore, I am also eager to see how it uses its space. The changes between a linear and open-world and then seemingly back again for the final product has been intriguing to me, and I’m interested to see how it has finally turned out. The town of Bright Falls also seems interesting, its idyllic, picturesque environments something I’m eager to explore. From what I’ve heard from a few people who have already played the game, its structure sounds not unlike BioShock’s Rapture: a linear experience that still contains a nice amount of exploration -- and considering how much I love that franchise, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that if the vibe I’ve picked up on is correct.

All in all, Alan Wake has been on my radar for as long as it has been in development, so it goes without saying that the day I get to finally put it into my Xbox 360 will be an exciting day indeed. Can’t wait.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friday Night Forza: Overview

I love Forza Motorsport 3. The latest in a franchise I’ve played since inception, the game is the culmination of years of dedicated and hard work by developers Turn 10 to create not just a product capable of going up against (and, in some people’s eyes, beating) well-established rival Gran Turismo, but also one that explains, enhances and allows players to experience car and Motorsport culture and the passion that is born from it. From a pure videogame point of view, it wasn’t hyperbole when the word definitive was thrown around by both Turn 10 and Microsoft in the lead up to its release: Forza 3 doesn’t just iterate on its previous versions, it takes everything they learned from the previous two games -- but particularly Forza 2 -- and delivers the package that, in hindsight, some might say the original game on the Xbox should have been. Whether it’s racing on the track, tuning or painting, every aspect of Forza 3 isn’t just a polished piece of work that could be in their own separate games; they also exist as a significant factor in creating the Forza Motorsport experience. If LittleBigPlanet has "Play, Create and Share", then Forza’s racing, tuning and painting combine to form a community whose strength doesn’t just rival that of Sony’s effervescent and utterly charming franchise, it eclipses it. Why? Because a love of cars can be shared by all sorts of people, and car culture is global.

As you can see, I love Forza Motorsport 3 but more than that, I love the franchise and the genre that it exists in. As a Motorsport enthusiast in the real world, Forza allows me to drive real cars on race tracks in a realistic manner, enhancing an enjoyment of a sport I already love as well as fostering my passion for it by providing an understanding of what it’s like to not just drive cars, but to do it at speed and as precisely as possible. At the end of the day it may just be a simulation, and I may use the controller the majority of the time, but regardless of its input systems and approach to racing games and racing in real life, Forza clues me into a lot more than I think some people -- who aren’t necessarily in my position -- may realise. Basically, the depth Forza has as a game and franchise -- and let me be clear right now, Gran Turismo shares this complexity -- alone is astounding, but when you consider its ability to provide insight into racing in real life as well, well that is nothing short of exceptional. That’s why it is my equivalent to the annual iterations sport games receive; it’s why Forza 3 is my RPG where statistics are pored over, main quests and individual quests are undertaken, leveling up and character progression occurs and ultimately a narrative is told; and it’s my first-person shooter, where I don’t just get to test out my skills, I also must practice my precision, my aim, my reactions, and decide the best time to fire out of every corner. Winning a race is the equivalent to a team winning an intense, competitive multiplayer match, whilst achieving a perfect lap time is my very own version of a headshot.

So, with that in mind I welcome you to my weekly (yes, you read that right: weekly) column about Forza 3, in which I’ll cover everything from personal opinions on the game to analysis of the game’s tracks, modes, and just the game in general. I cannot emphasise enough just how many different areas I could explore with this game and so, as a demonstration of my love and respect for it, writing about all of these things will allow me to describe to you not just why I feel the game is amazing, but the intricacies of both it and the culture it resides in. Videogame elements or real life racing techniques -- it can all be covered in this series. I might even be able to record some footage of the game too in order to demonstrate the points I make or to show you what I might be referring to, so while I admit this series will be an experimentation of sorts, it will also be a varied bunch of subjects that I hope -- even if you have no interest in cars, racing games or Motorsport -- will interest you. And if, by chance, I run out of things to say about Forza Motorsport 3, then I can use this column to discuss the racing game genre -- or franchises within it -- instead, so there should be no reason for this regular addition to the blog to run out of content.

It begins next Friday with a look at driving mentality whilst on the racetrack, a subject that doesn’t just apply to racing in the game but also racing in reality. Hope to see you then.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Origami Collection: Downpour

What do you think of when you consider the omnipresent weather of Heavy Rain? You probably think about how effective it was in conveying a particular atmosphere, one that enhanced the somber but not necessarily depressing mood that permeates each scene. Or maybe you dreaded it because it was so effective in setting the game’s tone. Perhaps you also consider the way it affects the game’s narrative, but if you do I wouldn’t be surprised if it was left as an after-thought: an interesting addition but not as integral to the experience as the game’s atmosphere. On the other hand, I could be completely wrong. What I do know is that personally, the narrative implications Heavy Rain’s weather had, resonated with me.

It is no secret that I enjoy rain and would like to see weather explored more in videogames, but never did I expect such an inclusion to feature as prominently as it did in Heavy Rain. The very idea of using weather as a narrative tool and focus seems odd to me: something that no one would bother to try in a videogame because of the unpredictability that comes from Mother Nature, and the limitations in using her force that seem to become apparent when thinking about it. Just how can rain, snow or even fire be used to communicate and control a given story? Aside from presenting a certain mood or tone, how can it affect the emotional impact of a story or exist as a motivational mechanism for the characters involved?

Heavy Rain answers those questions and does so superbly. More than just an extremely strong tool for the game’s atmosphere, the rain in Heavy Rain exists as one of the primary motivations for the game’s plot: The Origami Killer’s victims are stored in a storm water drain and failure to find the location of this -- by performing outrageous tasks set out by the killer in order to find clues -- results in the victim drowning from too much rain. This puts pressure on the tasks at hand, thereby enhancing the intensity of some of the game’s scenes and making you relate to Ethan’s plight as he does all that he can to find his son. This alone is enough to demonstrate a really interesting use of weather in a videogame, but more than that, the narrative implications the rain provides also affects the emotional response the player has to the story. The rain falling outside in each scene isn’t just there to provide a mood and atmosphere, it’s there to remind you, indirectly, that you don’t have much time to accomplish your goal of rescuing Ethan’s son. Periodically the characters will reference the rain as a more direct reminder, but most of the time it is the player recognizing its strong presence in each scene and reacting to it: by either feeling the pressure that is intended by the developers or by remembering its significance. It’s here that the game is breaking its boundaries and communicating to the player. Instead of just involving the characters and events of the game, the ubiquitous rain draws you into the experience and involves you in it, putting you on the same level of importance as both the plot and the characters that drive it. And it’s this last point that is most important: Heavy Rain is a character-driven story first and foremost -- much in the same way that Uncharted 2 is -- but it’s not always in the sense that most people associate with such a description. The game is about certain characters and what they find themselves dealing with, but it’s also about your character: how you react to them, their situations, motivations, and then what you think it all means. If done right, this should lead to an overall experience that doesn’t just provide a compelling adventure with characters whose journey seems important, but also an experience that gets under your skin, makes you think and ultimately changes you for the better. Whether Heavy Rain achieved this or not is subjective and entirely up to you. It’s pretty clear from the varying opinions out there that the game polarized a lot of people, but I think it would be fair to say that whether people enjoyed the experience or not, they believe that it had to happen. The weather in the game may have been overlooked when compared to the other, arguably more important, aspects of it (such as its maturity, or the mundane nature of its interactivity), but it too played a crucial role in delivering the game’s final experience and for that I thought I should give it some recognition.

The mere fact I can focus on a subject like the game’s rain demonstrates overall just how many different components and aspects make up an intended experience in modern videogames. It might not be a significant part of Heavy Rain when compared to some of the other subjects I’ve covered, and I’m confident that if other developers use Heavy Rain as inspiration for their own games the role the weather played will mostly go unnoticed, but even so I thought it was an effective part of the game and therefore worth covering. My only hope now is that weather in general continues to be experimented with as we move forward. Heavy Rain proves it doesn’t have to just be about atmosphere anymore, so let’s see what else can be done with Mother Nature’s beauty and force -- I have a feeling there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Preview Power: Mafia II

[Part of a series of smaller posts that I'll be doing about various upcoming games. I don't jump on board the hype train too often, but when I do I like to think that there's a pretty significant reason for why, and in this series I will attempt to explain my anticipation for each game.]

There are four reasons why I'm eager to get my hands on Mafia II: its strong emphasis on realism; its theme; the time period in which it takes place; and its use of space.

I was unable to play the original Mafia and wasn't even aware of it until just a few years ago, but as I heard more about it I realised that it sounded like a game I would enjoy, so when 2K Games announced its sequel I decided that I needed to try this franchise.

First of all, hearing about the original's emphasis on realism was an exciting prospect to consider, and now that I get to experience it in its sequel I'm rather excited to see how it is implemented. Having the police chase you for speeding or running a red light is something I'm not used to, the indiscretions in GTA and other games of its ilk going by largely ignored in favour of the more violent crimes. Knowing that I need to be more careful with my actions doesn't just change up a familiar formula, it also drastically changes my approach to playing, and it's the results that stem from this key difference that I'm eager to explore. I'm also interested to see where else this emphasis on realism is enforced in the game, but as I am unaware of how it worked in the original I'm left to speculate, meaning that I will just be making assumptions until I can finally play the game.

Thematically, the game might not be anything new, with Mafia movies and videogames as familiar to us as aliens and dragons, but even so, Mafia II appears to be attempting to tell a mature tale and knowing this leaves me with a hope that the game will be a cross-between what Rockstar tried with Grand Theft Auto IV, and the maturity Starbreeze demonstrated with their Mafia tale in The Darkness. Whether it succeeds on this remains to be seen, but if I'm right and 2K Czech manages to pull it off, I expect the final result will be something special indeed.

Besides, it's set in the 1940s, which piques my interest for two reasons. First of all, the aesthetics such a setting will provide is unlike anything we have seen in videogames, and that excites me. Screenshots confirm that its appearance is distinct and unique, and I look forward to spending time in that world. Which brings me to my final reason for anticipating the game, its space. I'm really intrigued by what sort of interactive entertainment this 1940s setting will provide, with the design of the city, the buildings and cars that permeate it, and how things like physics and weight (of the cars especially) will feel like in an older time period a particular area of interest for me. The fact that a day/night cycle and weather will also be in the game is just the icing on the already seemingly awesome cake.

Overall, Mafia II looks set to provide me with a game space that is as detailed and immersive as Liberty City, Rapture or The Wastelands of Fallout 3, and if I'm right about that then to be able to spend time in an environment set in such a time period, with a more realistic approach to its mechanics and dynamics is an incredibly enticing and exciting prospect for me. Hopefully Mafia II delivers on the expectations I've created for it, but even it doesn't, so long as they nail the city and its atmosphere, I suspect I will thoroughly enjoy it later this year.