Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Red Dead Ruminations: Life In The West

Red Dead Redemption is a fantastic game. It was last year when it was first released, it continues to be now and, in a decade or so when people look back at important videogames (again, since we all love doing it so much), Red Dead Redemption will stand out as a significant and crucial release. The reasons for this are many and have been detailed plenty of times elsewhere, particularly last year when it was the focus of everyone’s conversation, but it is still worth pointing out anyway because games like this don’t come along very often, and deserve all the attention that they can get. That is why, over a year since it released, I’m still going ahead with my own series of posts about the game -- simply put, it inspires a lot of thoughts and discussion, and I’m certainly not excluded from that fact.

So, what do I think about the game? Well, as I’ve said twice now, it was my introduction to the Western genre, so it was especially interesting playing the game with that in mind, discovering and learning about the core qualities of that particular genre. Perhaps even more fascinating, however, was how I came to realise that Red Dead Redemption is an even better take on the old Wild West because it doesn’t specifically focus on the genre’s tropes or quirks, and instead treats them as mere details in a much larger, broader experience. Beyond that, my fascination with game spaces saw another intriguing game to consider, given how incredible RDR’s environment is -- both in scope, and in detail. Of course, being a Rockstar game the atmosphere and sense of place in Red Dead Redemption isn’t surprising, but it’s still very interesting to think about because, I feel, the game stepped it up another level again -- even over Grand Theft Auto IV, in some respects. Finally, I was interested in the game because it seemed like Rockstar were intending to continue their more mature approach to their storytelling, first seen in Liberty City and GTA IV. While some characters are questionable, for the most part it really came across as if Rockstar were trying to pioneer, yet again, with Red Dead’s narrative, and the end result of that is remarkable, depending on the context. I will address the game’s characters, general plot and my connections to both in future posts but, for now, let’s talk about my introduction to the genre, and the game’s interesting use of its environment.

Why hello, Mr. Marston

Entering into a game (or any entertainment product, really) that adheres to a specific experience with no idea of what to expect is, somewhat, surreal. Red Dead Redemption’s general adoption of Rockstar’s open world template, however, ensured that there were enough features in the game that were familiar to me whilst I learned about all of the elements that were foreign: I knew about their emphasis on atmosphere and a sense of place in an expansive environment; I knew how the game ‘felt’ due to its similarities to Grand Theft Auto; and I was also quite familiar with the game’s structure of cut-scenes, objectives, and then rewards. This allowed my attention to be firmly focused on everything that was new (to me), meaning that I was able to get engrossed a lot quicker than I initially expected to. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how the Western status of the game took a back seat to the rest of the experience -- it is a videogame based in a Western setting, not necessarily a Western itself.

This was surprising to me because, before release, I was totally expecting the videogame version of a Western. That was how (I thought) the game was advertised throughout its hype campaign and the various previews and interviews, and that was what I wanted because, as I keep on repeating, I was new to the genre and wanted to use the game to see whether I liked it or not. And it did answer that question, too -- I did get to see what a Western entailed, and I did get to understand what my own personal stance on such a specific experience would ultimately be, but I acquired that insight indirectly as I engaged the whole adventure and not just certain aspects of it. On the surface, the tropes and incidental details that you’d expect from a Western -- duels, train robberies, cowboys saying “giddy-up”, etc. -- are present and accounted for but these traditional elements of the genre simply aren’t thrown in your face in Red Dead Redemption. Instead, they exist in the background: just like sheriffs and ranches do, like cacti and wolves, and, indeed, like the desolate landscape itself. They aren’t included in the game to ensure its authenticity to the genre or to inform its players that, yes, Red Dead Redemption is a Western; they’re merely details in a world full of them, and they give this world weight through their beautiful, delicate, coherency. Recognising that fact -- that RDR is a game with a Western setting, rather than one that is a Western -- took some time and didn’t occur until well after I had finished the game. But once I did acknowledge this subtle distinction, I realised that it enriches the experience in the same way that the little things do for other titles.

Attention to detail is one of Red Dead Redemption’s most significant qualities, but I think it would be fair to say that most people wouldn’t think about what it does or doesn’t do with the genre as one of the areas in which the game carefully creates its overall experience. I would argue, however, that this is why the game is so remarkable to begin with: it took a genre from another medium, adopted the essence of it for a new one, and masterfully turned it into something that wasn’t just unique, it was only possible as a videogame.

On The Lone Prairie

Not too long ago I wrote a post expressing my disdain with the notion that, eventually, Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto IV would be forgotten in favour of more impressive environments, perhaps even from another GTA. As technology and graphical fidelity continue to progress -- among other things -- I can see a future in which Liberty City is no longer considered a technical achievement or a sense of wonder, indirectly allowing for it to become a memory much in the same way that, say, the entirety of San Andreas has -- a particularly fond memory, undoubtedly, but a memory nonetheless.

Well, unsurprisingly, I feel the same way about Red Dead Redemption’s magnificent depiction of the Wild West. Like Liberty City, I believe that the game’s environment is one of the best examples we have yet of a world that feels like it truly exists; only this time the game’s particular setting ensures that we’re revisiting a bygone era, rather than a modern metropolis. The sense of place, life and, of course, atmosphere in Red Dead Redemption is unparalleled, and somewhat conveniently exists as the demonstration of what the opposite of Liberty City could and should be. Instead of the urban jungle we have an expansive piece of land which teams with wildlife, sporadic hints of civilization, and which features a surprising amount of variety. I will address that last one in a future post but the point is that there is simply nothing like Red Dead Redemption’s landscape, and the fact that it is so incredibly detailed and full of unexpected surprises is not only a testament to Rockstar’s prowess with creating these virtual worlds in which we get to inhabit, but to their ability to showcase some of this generation’s most significant technical achievements, too. Few other developers can pull off such a large environment that is full with things to see and do, and fewer still can also provide a place in which key, personal moments can occur for each and every player.

But it’s not about how impressive or special it can be; rather, it’s about how in the not too distant future I get the impression that, yet again, Red Dead Redemption’s landscape is going to be forgotten in favour of something else that is bigger, better, and certainly more beautiful. Right now that sounds absurd but we’re talking about a videogame, too -- the medium progresses at an insane rate and, as we’ve seen time and time again, it only takes a couple of years before a game is completely outclassed by something newer. Just look at the differences between The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for an example of what I am talking about: both games are amazing at the time of their release, but the inevitable iteration and technical advancements of the medium ensure that, eventually, they’re seen as less impressive and even, at times, ugly. As we reach and surpass the uncanny valley and photo-realism that problem becomes less significant but, right now, it’s still an issue and because of this I fear that, like Liberty City, Red Dead’s world will become nothing more than a memory for the majority of people because there simply won’t be any reason to visit it anymore. There will be better and, while I can’t wait to see what that might actually be myself, I also dread it because I personally believe that these environments that we already have now -- today, in the current generation -- should be cherished and even celebrated -- if not for their impressive coherency, than certainly because of all the resources, hard work and effort that went into making them.

Ultimately this disdain I feel for the (potential) future of these game spaces is a personal thing that I have developed alongside my passion for virtual spaces as a whole, and while important it doesn’t necessarily reflect how I feel about the future. I’m eagerly awaiting what might appear on the horizon, and already have some idea of what that future entails with games like BioShock Infinite taking us to places that, once again, we cannot go in reality. The future is very bright when it comes to virtual worlds, but I’m not going to jump up and celebrate their arrival if, as a consequence, what we already have now is left behind and forgotten. That’s not the kind of approach I want to take with a medium I hold so dear, and that’s why I’m a little more reluctant to proceed than the majority of gamers out there.

That’s some of my initial observations about Red Dead Redemption. A review, if you will, of some of the things that stood out to me upon the game’s completion. Naturally, being a Rockstar game means there is plenty more to talk about, and what I’ve covered above is only scratching the surface. In my next post I will discuss the opening moments of the game, and how they effectively set up the overall experience whether we realise it or not -- where better to start covering such a large game than the beginning?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Red Dead Ruminations: Overview

I wasn’t supposed to play Red Dead Redemption.

That’s the feeling I have after finishing it a few months ago, and after many instances where I almost gave up on playing the game because of circumstances (mostly beyond my control) that tried to ruin my experience with it. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the game -- quite the opposite, actually -- but, for whatever reason, various things tried to get in the way of what should have otherwise been an awesome time. Anyway, I’m past that somewhat bizarre mish-mash of extremely positive moments and strange, negative situations, so now it is time to actually talk about my time with Rockstar’s Western epic.

In my preview of the game I mentioned the fact that before Red Dead Redemption, I hadn’t experienced anything in or related to the Western genre, and that I was using the game as my first foray into this unfamiliar territory. Sure, I had heard plenty over the years about the genre and had a fair idea of what made a Western a Western, but it was still interesting to head into the game with no preconceptions about what to expect or how I should be feeling. Not only that, I wasn’t sure whether I would actually like the genre, so I looked forward to using the game to satisfy my personal curiosity.

Now that I have played it, I have a fair bit to say and this series will cover everything that came to mind during my time with the game. While originally I was playing it when everyone else was, I stopped after just a short time due to an unfortunate spoiler that essentially rendered the game, particularly its story, meaningless and irrelevant (one of the aforementioned instances that nearly ruined my enjoyment of the overall experience). The spoiler was so strong that it turned me off the game and it has only been recently, months after release that I was finally able to return to it.

It has been incredibly interesting experiencing my very first Western. There have been some great moments and some unfortunate ones, some things that have captured my attention and others that I found utterly boring. All in all I recognise Red Dead Redemption for the great game that it is and firmly believe that it deserves all the praise and respect it continues to receive, but it isn’t perfect (what game is?) either, and I’ll discuss both my positive and negative responses to the game over the next few posts. I hope you’ll enjoy what I have to say about something that was so new to me.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Metroid Marathon: The Beauty Of Bosses (MP1)

[Part of a series of posts in which I discuss my favourite videogame franchise: Metroid. Today, some of Metroid Prime's bosses and how they are designed to teach players through intensity and strategy.]

The boss battles contained in each Metroid game are one of the franchise’s staples, their challenging but not impossible design sitting as some of the highlights of each installment. Metroid Prime’s bosses are no different and follow the tradition of offering some intensity to the isolated adventures of Samus Aran, not to mention ensuring that the skills learned prior to each battle and the abilities obtained throughout the game are utilized in an effective manner.

Combining organic creatures already native to Tallon IV and those created or influenced by the strong presence of the Space Pirates and their operations, the boss battles in Metroid Prime contrast nicely with the otherwise lonely journey of the game to create its diversity whilst simultaneously also appearing to enhance the game’s narrative, themes and overall outcome. Ranging from mutated (not to mention enlarged) creatures such as the Parasite Queen found on the space frigate Orpheon, to the giant, lumbering beast that is the Omega Space Pirate, each battle and each foe offers something new and distinct from what has been seen previously whilst also continuing the trend of more difficult and menacing foes as the player (and thus, Samus) progresses. What this means overall is three different things: first, the chance to test and master the skills that have been formed over the course of the game; second, moments to look forward to after long sessions of exploration and loneliness; and lastly, a change of pace (and intensity) after slow, gradual progress and enemies that pose little to no problems. It’s about challenge and strategy but not at the expense of progress or the other key elements that make up a Metroid experience, namely the exploration and discovery.

Interesting, too, is the way in which these battles take place -- and, perhaps more importantly, why. Right from the very beginning of the game, as players gently ease themselves into the 3D, foreign feel of a Metroid title viewed from Samus’ own eyes rather than from a side-on perspective, a boss battle exists, designed to teach a skill that will become key later on in the game: that of strafing from left to right (or vice versa) to avoid enemy fire. The battle is simple in that there’s hardly any strategy to defeating the Parasite Queen, with quick, rapid blasts or powered up singular shots from Samus’ beam cannon making quick work of the easy opponent. In fact, the only challenge the battle poses is from a spinning force field that protects the queen, but it has enough holes in it that it’s not a problem -- if there’s no gap, you don’t shoot, simple.
Samus staring Flaahgra down in the first major boss battle of Metroid Prime.
Contrast that with Flaahgra -- the mutated plant boss found in the Chozo Ruins and the source of the poisoned water that posed a small problem in traversing the remnants of a lost civilization -- who does offer a challenge and requires some strategy in order to attack. Not only is strafing important in avoiding Flaahgra’s acid attacks, confidence with locking onto the solar panels that is providing sustenance to the enlarged plant is key to efficient success as, later on in the battle, Flaahgra can knock them back down with one of its many stems. The goal of the fight is to knock the solar panels away so the sun’s rays are no longer providing energy to the plant boss, causing it to collapse with exhaustion and its tentacles to retract, allowing Samus to quickly morph into a ball so she can slip through the tunnels that were previously blocked and let off a morph ball bomb in the mechanical slot -- a technique learned prior to the battle not long after the ability was acquired -- in order to deal damage. Rinse and repeat the process -- a staple of Nintendo’s library of games and certainly not exclusive to the Metroid series -- and before long Flaahgra is down, alleviating the problems of a contaminated area by allowing the water supply of the Chozo Ruins to become clean and pure once more.

Future bosses provide even more complexity and challenge, the Omega Pirate and Metroid Prime itself standing out as the game’s most difficult boss fights, but regardless of whether it’s at the start of the game or at its end, the bosses in Metroid Prime serve a purpose in teaching, using (abilities) and changing (the game's pacing), even if only for a short period of time. They’re fun distractions more than anything else, but the lessons learned in fighting these monsters go on to serve the rest of the game, and in doing so only enhances the experience rather than hinders it. It’s a shame other games can’t get this process right more often, not to mention as elegantly as Metroid Prime does.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Metroid Marathon: The Little Things (MP1)

[Part of a series of posts in which I discuss my favourite videogame franchise: Metroid. Today, a look at the incidental details in Metroid Prime that are so easy to overlook, but enrich the experience when noticed.

If three big moments characterized Metroid Prime’s transition from 2D to 3D for me personally, then it is the little things that form the game’s unique personality, give it its atmosphere and constantly surprises almost wherever you turn. It’s the little things that, when combined as a whole, give Metroid Prime a level of detail that few other games can achieve, and when separated provide a subtle, if even unnoticed, addition to the game’s immersion.

Attention to detail isn’t new in videogames, however, the effort some developers put into their games to create an experience that is unlike any other often being the key contributing factor as to whether the overall product -- the end result of a carefully considered vision or idea -- is successful or not. Games like the Uncharted series, Grand Theft Auto IV and BioShock all take care to include the little details, minor additions that will cooperate and assist major ones in forming a particular point of view, understanding or atmosphere, each enhancing the overall experience rather than detracting from it.

A Sap Sac hanging on the side of a wall.

But Metroid Prime’s attention to detail is, I would argue, a lot more subtle than the aforementioned games -- and it’s worth pointing out that they’re all current generation games, too -- using existing features of the game’s world to enhance the immersion. Rain droplets fall onto Samus Aran’s visor if she looks up towards the sky, whilst other drops splash and bead on her infamous beam cannon. Flamethrowers in the Magmoor Caverns area of Tallon IV -- initially something to be avoided -- can be frozen once the Ice Beam has been acquired, progress beyond them now achievable with relative and quick ease. The electricity of Samus’ Wave Beam pulsates whilst the Ice Beam leaves a tiny, cold fog as she moves her beam cannon around. Juice from a Sap Sac drips once it has exploded, whilst acid from a mindless creature’s attack splashes on Samus’ visor upon impact. Fish gently swim amongst the water, quickly scurrying as Samus draws near; a reflection of Samus Aran’s eyes and face can be seen as a burst of light emanates from a nearby explosion; steam clogs up her visor and limits visibility for a brief period of time. When submerged underwater -- particularly before the acquisition of the Gravity Suit -- movements become slow and subdued, with a pleasing sense of weight and a floaty feel making for a nice contrast to the usually quick, agile movements enjoyed on land; the morph ball’s bomb jump ability also shares a similar feeling of weight and casual buoyancy, bobbing up slowly rather than bouncing immediately as on land. Continuing the underwater theme, it actually feels like you truly are submerged when traversing its many depths, the cold, blue and translucent water stretching out beautifully while the aforementioned movement and the game’s clever use of sound enhances the feeling and ensures its effectiveness. Few other games can achieve this submerged feeling -- BioShock 2 is one of the only other examples that comes to mind -- keeping the immersion high and the game’s unique attention to detail amazing.

Fish scurrying about as Samus approaches.

Enemies also receive this level of attention, with a variety of ways to kill them coming to mind. The environment plays a part, a carefully placed shot on a nearby Sap Sac instantly killing something upon its explosion, whilst an idle defense turret can explode on impact from a missile or be disabled by a few shots of the Wave Beam, collapsing it in confusion. The Space Pirates aren’t immune either, their weaves and dodges of one beam quickly turned around as you freeze them, their bodies crumbling to pieces upon another concussive shot. Even boss battles contain subtle ways in which to attack, allowing for strategies that might not be immediately obvious.

The little things may not be unique to Metroid Prime nor might they be instantly apparent, but they all combine to enhance the game overall and assist with immersion, leaving a tiny but acknowledging smile on the face of those who notice them, and indirectly improving the experience of those who don’t.