Thursday, October 27, 2011

Over-The-Shoulder

I’ve been playing Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned recently. It’s the latest in a series of third-person action games inspired by Resident Evil 4 that my Gamefly account has been dishing up.
            I do like these games, though I think some definitely do it better than others. Dead Space 2 was a wonderful blockbuster “popcorn” game, very story driven but none the worse for it. On the other hand, Alan Wake’s gameplay was a tiresome chore, and the story’s ham-fisted references to Stephen King and Twin Peaks were much the same.
            One of the debates in the world of video games has been about how to properly implement story, or whether or not to do so at all. I think there’s certainly a good way to do it, as long as you accept the limitations. That’s what these aforementioned games specialize in – limitations.
They’re all based on Shinji Mikami’s “over-the-shoulder” system presented in RE: 4, which freezes the player in place while enemies slowly (or not so slowly) stalk toward them, claws outstretched. This is a great mechanic for horror games or action games because it builds suspense, an emotion you want to express in those genres.
Gears of War presented a mutated version of the same mechanic, injecting more FPS-style action. However, the game took control of your character more than an FPS would have, with A-triggered dives for cover and Mortal Kombat-style brutalities.
These mechanics are about presenting smooth action pacing and flashy visuals – attributes you typically look for in cinema. And AAA games, having been adopting more cinematic styles for a while now, are adapting these game mechanics in stride. Halo: Reach had more mini-quicktime events than previous games, offering GoW-style brutalities. Those brief moments where the game takes control away from you are where they cram in all the game’s presentation and character. It’s a clever dash of Hollywood Movie Magic.
So game designers have finally found ways to corner players into serving themselves their own cinematic experiences. In SotD, I’m constantly backed against a wall having to press B and push demons back, much like in Left for Dead. When I do this the camera zooms out a little bit and shows me what my character is doing: bonking a zombie on the noggin.
That’s all well and good but what about this debate? Some developers and players have been bemoaning the rise of cinematic elements in video games for a while now, though it’s obvious that they sell. Just ask Batman Arkham Asylum. Or RE: 4. Or Gears of War.
I think we already know what the worst-case scenario looks like. It’s called Metal Gear Solid. I’m not saying they’re bad games, but they are the best examples of games where play is crowded out by story. I also touched on this issue when I talked about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. The style/substance ratio was just off.
There are games that can do it right though: Dead Space 2 brought a lot of characterization to Isaac Clark (Gunner Wright) and Ellie Langford (Sonita Henry) with impressive voice acting and visual technology. Additionally, they got the pacing right, deciding not to repeat the first game’s slow reveal; Dead Space 2 is an action game. It’s also short, not pretending to be anything more than a deadly romp through the Dead Space universe. Grand Theft Auto 4, Gears of War, and to an extent Mass Effect 2 also got it right in their own ways.
The key to making these games correctly is to admit what they are – cinema/video game hybrids – and Direct/Design accordingly. Gameplay elements need to complement the mood and story of the game. Shadows of the Damned is doing this well so far. Executive Director Goichi Suda (AKA Suda51) labels the game a “Suda Joint,” making reference to film director Spike Lee’s tendency to labels his movies “Spike Lee Joint”s.
Suda51’s cinema aspirations are obvious enough throughout the game. Dialogue is flowing constantly, and the camera is always cutting away to objectives, enemies, and cut scenes. The style – undoubtably Japanese, extremely raunchy – injects itself as often as possible, through obstacles (strange goat heads that emit light), enemies (a variety of demons) and the main character’s Swiss Army Ex Machina, Johnson (a floating skull that turns into weapons, a motorcycle, and a variety of other things). Everything talks. It’s like Pee-Wee’s playhouse mixed with Tenacious D.
           As to where that leaves us in the debate, I’m not sure. I need to play the game more. In general, these games are Triple A or sub-Triple A titles (Triple B?), so I don’t think this style of game is likely to be adopted by the indie community, which is more happy programming procedural worlds and rivers made of voxels. Which is fine. We can have both.

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