Thursday, 24 February, 2011

I started playing Prototype today. It’s a game where you’re a freaky, super-powered mutant dude who can change your arms into giant blades and run straight up the side of buildings and kind of fly and somehow consume and then become other people. Suffice to say you’re a pretty intense guy. And you always wear a hoodie for that reason.

They also do that thing where you start the game “at the end” with all your amazing powers (knife arms, giant metal fists, etc.) and experience the carnage that ensues before flash-backing (new verb!) to just after you escaped from some facility and discovered you had these crazy powers for the first time. Assassin’s Creed did that particular trick, too – super-powers: now you got ‘em, now you don’t.

Except that particularly in Prototype (and also to a degree in Assassin’s Creed) you still had a shitload of special abilities even in your early state. From the beginning of the game you can do the “sprint directly up a building” thing. You can jump off a building and just land on the ground below (complete with cracking the pavement). You can throw cars at helicopters. So it’s not like you’re some 90 pound weakling that has to build up some muscle or anything.

And there’s the rub. Prototype is like a super-extreme version of something that always vaguely bugs me about narrative-oriented video games in which you’re the hero/special person. It’s just madness from the get-go. From the word go you’re throwing cars around, morphing into other people, and killing vast swatches of military personnel. Just like in Half-Life 2 you’re thrown pretty rapidly into beating the crap out of the Combine or in Assassin’s Creed you’re sprinting full tilt across the rooftops and stabbing people with your retractable shiv.

I think that this situation can be crystallised very well by thinking about walking. Where is all the walking (or orderly driving) in these games? Where are those times when you walk calmly down a city street or perhaps just walk because you’re in disguise and don’t want to attract attention to yourself? Nowhere is where. You can walk and kind of pretend that you’re blending in, but it’s not really part of the game. In Prototype even if you try to quietly walk down the street, and ordinary citizen, if you go anywhere near someone your avatar shoves them violently out of the way. But more to the point, walking serves no real purpose except that you go slower. The game doesn’t have a conception of walking or “normalcy” in it, it has no use for the pedestrian, quite literally.

For a while, particularly in situations when I was disguised as someone else, I did try to walk around, thinking it was more appropriate and fitting. But it’s basically a disadvantage. It’s a world of sprinting around – and the people around you think nothing of your sprinting. Military commander rocketing past a bunch of soldiers? “Hi, Sarge. Bye, Sarge.”

It seems to me that these games are missing out of a really lovely opportunity to offset our super-powers (whether we’re freaky mutants or just physicists who are unnaturally good with military weaponry) with normalcy. After all, that’s theoretically what makes those things interesting – the contrast to the¬†quotidian. It’s as though the designers figure we have sufficiently boring real lives that the contrast is to be drawn between what we can do in the game versus what we can do outside the game. But I don’t think that’s true, or at least not anymore. Now, I’d like to see games that present the contrast inside the world.

When my avatar in Prototype found his sister and they talked excitedly about all the freaky science shit that was going on and just how intense everything was, he warned her that she should stay inside and not go out. Because they might try to kill her (again). I thought to myself,

“Man, I’d really love to do a mission where I have to walk to the grocery store to get her food supplies, since she can’t go out…”

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One Response to “Prototypical.”

  1. gordon calleja Says:

    The obvious response to the walking question is: well going slow and not doing much aside from traversing space is boring. But I agree with you here. Perhaps a parallel can be made between games and fiction writing. For years I’ve had the same thing hammered into me by my writing mentor: put in more “padding” – slower sequences between the intense moments to give a break to the reader from all the excitement. It’s taken me a long time to figure out, but have recently discovered how powerful that can be – only it takes a certain art to delivering engaging slowness. Ultimately it’s the amateur writer who needs to pump the reader with exciting sequences full of action and/or drama in fear of losing their attention.

    But maybe a difference between games and reading is that games require more effort (ok, a different sort of effort). In the process of writing your eyes do the scanning and you can skip over padding bits (which I find myself doing when reading cause I m an impatient reader) or simply skim through them. With games you need to make the effort to figure out where you’re going, walk there and do so slowly. It might be more of a challenge to make that engaging, although as always I think it’s a matter of design.

    Another random parallel is fencing. If one attacks their opponent at full speed all the time, the only way they will beat them is if they’re far far better skilled than the opponent or the opponent simply gets overwhelmed. That doesn’t happen often. With is needed instead is to create waves of activity ranging from little interaction and aggression to bursts of action. That’s when the beauty of the mental side of the game really comes out and that’s when it’s easiest to enter into the flow state.

    Marrying the two is where action games could head: writing with interesting yet calm padding and action that needs to be measured to be effective.

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