Coffin Hop Day 7: Five Great Horror Video Games #coffinhop

Welcome once again Coffin Hoppers! Thankfully Hurricane Sandy neither washed away nor blew us away (heh), and we still have power, so I’m back and ready to go for the last few days. I have a couple of fun posts left in me, and want to share them with you.

I mentioned a few days ago that, after writing, music is one of my great passions. Video games come a close second, though it took me years to figure out just why. The medium offers something that so few other artistic experiences afford: agency on the part of the viewer. True, sometimes that agency can be an illusion, but even then it draws the viewer/player deeper into the work itself. Games are still trying to find their identity as a medium, but there have been some sterling examples of where it could go in the future. This post is dedicated to those horror games that have found a voice.

I’m aware that some of you may not be gamers out there, so I’m going to be approaching this post from that angle, rather than solely appealing to the hardened gamers amongst us (you know who you are). I’d love to hear the viewpoints of core gamers, though: have I missed a great horror game that I should be experiencing? Please, let me know!

First, for core gamers, Amnesia and System Shock 2 just missed this list. Maybe next time. Now, my top five scary games:

5. Limbo (PC, Xbox 360, PS3). At first blush, Limbo does not seem like a scary game, and is certainly not in the same vein as the games below. It’s a 2D puzzle platformer, for starters – for you non-gamers, this means that you need to perform both well-timed jumps and must figure out certain environmental clues to avoid death and progress to the next section of the game.

Sometimes you just need to run like hell from a giant spider.

Limbo is an indie game, which means that it doesn’t have the cash or the horsepower to go toe-to-toe with the major releases below. It still manages to make this list by making up for its technical deficiencies with a charm and atmosphere that is difficult to surpass. The game also manages to tell a story without a bit of dialogue, spoken or written. As the story progresses, you learn that this is a dead boy on the very edge of hell, chasing after his sister, who may or may not be dead herself. The environment also tells of subplots, such as a place where the children have turned upon one another. The whole thing is a very spooky affair, and well worth your time and frustration with solving the puzzles. Continue reading

Lazy Saturday: Dragon Age 2

I had expected to have this entry ready last Saturday, but I knew that it would take a little more time and care to give the subject the proper attention that it deserved, and as I carried out the last blitz toward our vacation to New York, it became apparent that I just wasn’t going to be able to give it the time that it deserved. It’s just as well, since I’ve also been replaying Dragon Age Origins and have a few more things to say about its story vice the story of Dragon Age 2.

Click here to re-read the Dragon Age entry but, to get new readers up-to-speed, Dragon Age Origins was a fantasy role-playing game that came along in 2009. With a sprawling, epic story, it represented a  throwback to the 1990s style of crafting a role-playing video game. Last time out, I said that it was a commercial flop, and a commenter pointed out that the game was actually an objective commercial success. Good point. From the standpoint of the gaming industry, it should have been a success: it sold more than 3 million copies, which is a fair hit, though not an unqualified success like some other modern games (the biggest game ever, Modern Warfare 2, sold 7 million in a single day upon release).

The biggest problem with Origins was the long cycle of development and creeping production costs, which ensured that Bioware (and parent company parent company Electronic Arts, who purchased Bioware in 2007 for $860 million) lost money on the  venture. That’s very important when we talk about Dragon Age 2 because a lot of the reasons that the company cited for missing sales expectations were tied to the “archaic” game play, slower pace, and more methodical story and quests. Somewhere in there, either Bioware or Electronic Arts  decided that Dragon Age 2 would be the opposite of this.  I mean, don’t just take my word for it, watch this video:

As you see, you push a button and something happens. It’s the button-awesome connection. This was a pretty controversial decision; without even seeing the game, some fans were critical of the transition from a more traditional, strategic role-playing approach to something that resembles a brawler. If you’re not familiar with the brawler genre, they were popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s and were 99% about walking to the right and pushing buttons to beat up people. Double Dragon is probably the most  famous example of that genre:

Dragon Age 2 could have worked as a brawler – and sometimes it even does. But this blog is not about game play conventions, it’s about writing. To expand upon my previous explanation of the story of Dragon Age Origins, I’ve come to realize that the original game was about betrayal, especially in the name of something that is “for the greater good”. Sure, there are a lot of other sub-plots that explore themes like identity and loyalty, but that was the overarching theme. Ask me right off the bat, though, and I couldn’t tell you what Dragon Age 2’s theme was supposed to be. A rise to power, perhaps? The dangers of fanaticism? The plot places you in the role of a refugee, Hawke a defined character who contrasts against the many characters you could possibly portray in Origins. Hawke ends up a refugee in a city far from home after almost everything he held dear was destroyed as part of the events of Origins.

Over the course of several years spread over three acts, you build Hawke up as an  important person within the city. In doing so, you uncover several plots to overthrow the power in the city, as well as a simmering conflict between the mages and the Templars who control them. This storyline seems to pose the question of what it is to have exceptional power and whether that exceptional power is inherently evil or uncontrollable. This may have been intended as the prime storyline, but it only becomes important in the last act, highlighting one of the many problems with pacing. Still, some aspects of that storyline were interesting and had  potential. Unfortunately, it all comes across as something of a mess. Again, don’t take my word for it. Look at this plot on Wikipedia that reflects the problem with defining what unifies this story (some minor spoilers):

Set in the mythical world of Thedas, Dragon Age II tells the story of Hawke,[2] who fled the nation of Ferelden during the events of Dragon Age: Origins and traveled across the Waking Sea to the Free Marches and the city of Kirkwall as a refugee. Within the span of a decade, Hawke would rise in power and influence to become the legendary “Champion of Kirkwall”, and the center of events that change the course of Thedas forever. The game focuses on Hawke’s rise to power and is framed through flashbacks by one of Hawke’s old companions, Varric, who relates the Champion’s “true story” to Cassandra Pentaghast, a Seeker of Thedas’ religious Chantry. Hawke’s companion characters are Fenris (an elf and former slave in the Tevinter Imperium), Merrill (a Dalish elf rejected by her clan), Isabela (a pirate captain stranded in Kirkwall after her ship crashed), Anders (a former Grey Warden and apostate), Aveline Vallen (a Fereldan refugee who becomes a guard), Varric Tethras (a dwarf who maintains a spy network in Kirkwall) Sebastian Vael (a former prince of Starkhaven brought up in Kirkwall’s Chantry), and either Carver (Hawke’s brother) or Bethany (Hawke’s sister).

I’m not saying that none of the story arcs are interesting, but I had two major problems. One is, of course, the overall arc and the mess that it represents, and the other was that  none of the characters are likable or relatable at all – they’re all stereotypes of one type or another (see above, the shy schoolgirl! The pirate hooker!).

As I said, the pacing is also a huge problem. Up front, the story is very exciting and everything seems to have a purpose, leading somewhere. I loved the damn thing during the first ten hours, but by the time I hit the third act and everything fell apart, I was sitting there asking, “What just happened?”

Assigning blame is tough. Some may lie with Bioware. They tried to put out a sequel to the original game in something like a year and a half when a typical game development cycle, especially for something of this size, is anywhere from two to three years. They also rebuilt from the ground up, so there are a lot of unfinished things in the game and a lot of repeated usage of assets. I don’t want to call the whole thing lazy, because they probably did the best they could with the time they were given. At the very least, however, the whole thing comes off as un-creative. I suspect, however, that a lot of blame lies with Electronic Arts. It would not be the first time that the company pushed a team to get a game out the door as fast as possible in an attempt to recoup some of the development costs of the original game.

Whoever was responsible for the decision, it was a failure. Dragon Age II, to date, has sold 1.56 million copies in just around seven months of release. Could it ultimately match Origins? Possibly, but it’s very unlikely, given the poor word-of-mouth surrounding the game. It’s funny. I was ready to use this as a platform to launch into some of the problems of the video game industry at the moment, but players pleasantly surprised me.

In the end, I just can’t recommend Dragon Age 2, unless you can find it for a very cheap price and are willing to suffer some of the ridiculous things that happen later in the plot. Still, I think the story of its creation is important to writers, as it’s the classic tale of external market pressures shaping a story, as well as what happens when you run out of time  to give a work one more editing pass  and produce something that doesn’t really satisfy you.

So while we can show funny videos of bewildered game designers, we can also be a bit sympathetic with their plight in trying to get something like this out the door so quickly, especially when being pushed by marketing. That’s probably relatable for every writer, on some level, and something that we all fear.


Lazy Saturday: Dragon Age

Welcome to the second edition of Lazy Saturday. As planned, this week we’re going to focus on Bioware‘s Dragon Age, released in 2009. For those who aren’t familiar with the history Bioware, they started out creating Dungeons and Dragons based role-playing games (RPGs) for the PC back in the 1990s. Their games Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 are rightly regarded as classics, as they represent the best of the genre up to that point, both in terms of game play and storytelling. They quickly developed a reputation for deep games with great stories.

Let’s take a break here and explain what a role-playing game means in the terms of a videogame, for those who aren’t familiar. To an outsider, it could appear that role playing is what you do in any videogame, as you take on the role of the character. Fair argument, but role-playing games are marked by some standard conventions, just as literary genres in fiction can blend and cross over, but the conventions define the genre. In an RPG, typically, you perform tasks – some mindless killing, some navigating labyrinthine conversations – to earn experience.  This experience helps your character grow. Some games do this better than others; some have implemented systems wherein a character only levels up in certain aspects if they practice that particular skill.

Take Morrowind by Bethesda Softworks.  You can choose to level up via points but they can also affect things such as their acrobatics by jumping regularly or become better at the sword by using it at more exclusively in combat. Typically in computer RPGs, however, the player distributes the numbers once he or she has leveled up.  I’ve been a fan of a certain brand of RPG for some time simply because it was one of the few genres to consistently offer a story, not that many early RPGs offered great stories; they just had some story to speak of.  Someday I may talk about the stories in those early RPGs, but back to Bioware for now.

The company’s real turning point came when they took on the Star Wars license and created the 2003 game Knights of the Old Republic. Knights of the Old Republic has aged not so gracefully, but it introduced a lot of new concepts to videogames that were exciting at the time, such as a morality system that afforded the player to choose whether they wanted to follow the light side or the dark side, with unique storytelling options for both. Unfortunately, where the limitations became inherent when you tried to play somewhere down the middle – the story became muddled and confusing and you missed out on a lot of perks. The choices were also very artificial, with most being a choice between Space Hitler and Space Pollyanna.

Still, the concept was fairly fresh and hadn’t really been attempted on this scale, especially in having player choices impact the story line.  Branching dialogue and storytelling wasn’t new to videogames (though it is one of the potential strengths of the medium), but this was a novel implementation at the time.

From this point, the company took those concepts and sharpened them, evovling them into the highly regarded sci-fi series Mass Effect, which has an intriguing sci-fi story that’s captivated me (for the most part), but it’s something we’ll focus on in the future as I have some quibbles with that series as well.

An early screenshot.

Back story out of the way, let’s look at this week’s game. Dragon Age was first announced in 2004 and went through an agonizingly long development cycle, taking likely much longer than its public development time of five years, given that it had spent some time in development before that initial announcement. It looked exciting, appearing to be a throwback to the Baldur’s Gate style of game play and storytelling, something that has completely fallen out of fashion since the  early 2000s.

Classic RPG gamers were excited to see that you were able to follow some of the same options and paths presented in the original Baldur’s Gate; it seemed to be a spiritual sequel, and looked to be a renaissance of classic PC RPGs. Anticipating seemed to be high.

So Dragon Age: Origins finally released on November 3rd, 2009, to a great deal of fanfare.  Apparently, however, it was a commercial flop. Why? Well, because there’s a reason that the dynamics used in Baldur’s Gate have fallen out of favor.  Most gamers prefer a more immediate, visceral experience, and Origins failed to deliver such an experience. For you non-gamers, imagine that flashy action films are the real moneymakers, and the films that take the more methodical story-telling approach the niche. Think Conan versus Game of Thrones.

All the more unfortunate is that the game’s story line was interesting, featuring an extensively realized world. The concept behind the game was that the player would pick one of a group of characters differentiated by race and class position within society, then play through the origin story for that character, a sort of prologue before being unleashed upon the full story arc.  These back stories and origins shaped the evolution of the tale and the game as the player progressed through the story.

Bioware refers to that main plot as a “dark epic fantasy” tale. In short, an ancient organization known as the Gray Wardens are devoted to wiping out demons, which have become something of a legend within the game’s world. As the game opens, signs are showing up that the race of demons are rising to the surface world once again, and the Wardens must confront these demons. Betrayed by a prospective ruler who believes he’s doing the right thing (and is one of the finest examples of a truly human villain in videogame storytelling that I’ve ever seen), the order is almost wiped out. Two or three members of the order remain, their task to wipe out the remaining hoard and settle the issue of this prospective ruler’s betrayal.

The player is one of those characters, and dictates the rest of the story via his or her approach to gathering the party that’s necessary to wipe these demons out as well as his or her choices in handling the subplots and side-missions that arise throughout the story.

It’s an interesting tale, but not entirely original. I chose this game not for the story itself but for the way that Bioware presented the variations upon the tale that a player can discover; it’s actually quite clever. The storytellers used elaborate branching methods wherein the  choices branch the player off into different story angles, exploring previously unseen options while leaving some angles unexplored for subsequent play-throughs.  Commercial failure or not, the game was very well-done from a plotting perspective and held on to my attention, driving me to play straight through it in something like a week, then going on to subsequent replays because no two playthroughs tell quite the same story.

Of course, there are also inherent limitations to this storytelling approach. Characters can’t refer to the player character by name, and the main character has to be mute as a result of the hundreds of hours of dialogue that would have to be recorded for each choice that the player makes. Overall, though, I think the strengths of the approach far outweigh the limitations. The market, however, disagreed.

Shortly after the release, Bioware announced that they were going to create a follow up, Dragon Age 2, and that it would be ready the following year. Given the delay in creating the first Dragon Age, you can see why this announcement was met with some skepticism.  How could they possibly create a branching story that rivaled the one in the original Dragon Age in such a short amount of time? Oh and what were these gameplay changes that they were talking about ?  Well, we’ll talk about that next week and see why the Dragon Age 2 experience became a debacle to rival the movie Heaven’s Gate.

Oh, as a side-note, the whole thing has a handful of novels, but I can’t comment on the quality. I might read them one day. I haven’t decided.

Lazy Saturday: Bioshock

Welcome to Lazy Saturday. I decided to start handling some Saturday entries for awhile. I’ve written a blog in one form or another since 2005, and weekend content has been an eternal struggle. I choose to relax on the weekend, unwind, and unplug. I also know there’s not as much traffic on the weekend, so that encourages some of my laziness. No more (I hope, heh)! I’d like to keep myself sharp. I tossed ideas around, and at last decided to take something that had been on the back-burner for awhile: I’m going to take a look at storytelling in video games, both the good and the bad, and examine them a bit.

Now, as a caveat, upfront, video game writing is drastically different than just about any medium that I can dredge from my mind. I recently read a post that compared writing in video games to creating a score for a film, in that the writer is often handed existing set pieces, situations, and characters, and the writer must take those disparate elements and weave some sort of coherent narrative. There are some exceptions (and today’s game is one of those), but considering that approach, it’s a miracle that any sort of captivating storytelling occurs in video games. But it happens, believe it or not! I’d like to examine some of the successful and not-so-successful examples here.

This week we’ll take a look at an easy one: Bioshock by Irrational Games. When I described this game to a friend, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around how it would work as a game, but it’s really quite clever. This is, of course, an example of the reverse of the process I described above. The game itself was developed in concert with the story. The concept:

In 1960, a follower of Ayn Rand’s philosophies, tired of living amongst the rest of us slobs and “parasites”, took the initiative to build a city beneath the ocean, Rapture, as “a laissez-faire utopia for society’s cultural and scientific elite to avoid the oppression of government and religion” (Thanks Wikipedia). In Rapture, objectivist ideas are  pursued to their extremes, which we’ll explore later in this post.

The protagonist (you), however, has no idea of this back story going in. The protagonist is simply a man on a trans-Atlantic flight who ends up stranded when his plane crashes in the middle of the Atlantic, near a bizarre stone obelisk. Desperate to survive, you climb the stairs of the obelisk and enter, only to discover this:

You also discover an elevator. At this point, what other choice do you have? You take it downward, and as you descend into the ocean, a propaganda film plays, shown below:

This is just brilliant writing. You’re presented with an intriguing scenario (and note the story starts in media res, which I’ve actually noticed is not very common in video games). The scenario grows, and as the sense of mystery continues to build, certain questions are answered, offering instant payoff and setting up even more questions. Soon you learn that Ryan’s experiment failed, and much of the game is spent discovering just why that happened and fighting for your life as you attempt to escape, led on by a mysterious helper character.

Now, I don’t want to spoil too much, but we also have a silent protagonist, a fairly overdone trope in video games. This game takes that trope and makes the silence mean something. The ongoing discoveries of what happened in Rapture as well as the nature of this mysterious helper character and Andrew Ryan make the silence mean something. It all leads up to a revelation wherein the silence and seeming obedience that you’ve displayed up to this point – doing things because you thought they were leading to escape (another video game trope that gets turned on its head) – are all in service to a larger plot point.

As you progress through the different sections of the city, which has become a demented madhouse, you learn just how things have gone wrong, peeling back the layers of the collapse of Rapture. You get a glimpse at how the Objectivist drive for the ideal human being led to the idea of plastic surgery that could never quite be satisfied with “good enough” and ended up driving its patients over the edge. We see how the drive to create a superhuman succeeded, strangely enough, but that race of superhumans was insane and part of what brought down the entire structure.

Another contributing factor to Rapture’s demise is Ryan’s hubris. He assumed that he was the sole guiding light, the one with the most drive to run everything and oversee everyone, but pretty soon a competitor arose, a strong-headed capitalist who was willing to cut corners even more than Ryan and began to challenge Ryan’s supremacy. I can’t talk too much more about that whole angle of the story without giving away major spoilers, but all of these events dovetail nicely with the plot point about the silent protagonist.

Irrational also works hard to immerse you in the world. Everything, even down to the tired “crate” concept, is in service to the story and the vision of the story. Even the normally very artificial means of revealing back story via notes that have been left behind take on new significance and fit well into the game’s theme and its time frame. I found myself emotionally engaged in a way that I rarely do when it comes to a game’s story.

One of the most engaging mysteries of the game is the question of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies. Little Sisters are little girls who have been genetically modified to harvest the “juice” (called Adam) that creates and amplifies super-humans from the dead bodies of super-humans, passing them on the living members of that tribe. In typical Objectivist fashion, however, these little girls are fair game for those who would take the Adam from the little girls. Enter Big Daddies, who have been created specifically to protect these little girls. That’s one of the most compelling concepts of the story and explores how this dystopian concept would effect the family structure and the treatment of its most vulnerable members.

It’s very focused and a driven experience, with the story unfolding nicely along its points. I tend to favor games with open structure specifically because of the weakness of storytelling in most video games, but I was quite happy to be driven from Point A to Point B in this game. The linear narrative style also makes a lot more sense once you understand the nature of the protagonist.

If you haven’t played the game and think you might enjoy a first-person shooter with a plot, it’s definitely worth a chance – it’s very cheap now and available on PC, XBOX 360, and Playstation 3.

Irrational is working on a follow-up to the game, Bioshock Infinite, for which I’m quite excited. Irrational has stated the Bioshock name is meant as a franchise that explores philosophical ideas as applied to interactive media, and as such, this new game will explore a new concept in a new paradigm: a city in the air built on the myth of American Exceptionalism. It looks fantastic so far, and will probably end up here at some point.

There is also a Bioshock 2, which was not created by the same studio. It was a serviceable sequel, with slightly less worthy writing (not counting the add-on Minerva’s Den, which approaches the quality of the first game), but I found it enjoyable and still play through it from time to time.