Mar 12, 2013

Now You're Just Being Silly

I warn you: I just finished a game I really, really liked, and it made me think "Man, this is just how games used to be. Why can't games be like this again?"

That means: you're in for a rant.

The game in question in Driftmoon, and it brings to the CRPG genre something I've missed in it for quite some time - silliness. Driftmoon revels in silliness, it takes absolute delight in throwing the most offbeat situations, characters, locations and items at you, always keeping you guessing. An RPG in which you may trade your sword in because the flute you just picked up more damage. In which your companions include a panther who thinks she's leading the party, a talking skeleton and, well, a firefly. A game that sees you fighting giant slimy googly eyes, playing ice hockey vs a puppy and carrying a talking skull around with you.

Oh, but it is.

"Hang on a minute!" you had better be exclaiming right now or else I need to force you to play some classic games, "There was a talking skull in The Curse of Monkey Island, Planescape: Torment and Chrono Cross (thanks Paul)! That's not original at all!"

Exactly. Silliness in games is nothing new. The 90s was full of games that broke up the seriousness of their plots with absurd humour. Sadly, it's a trend that we seem to be encountering less and less in games. Play Baldur's Gate and you can hardly walk 20 paces without encountering something either subtly amusing or completely bonkers. The developers seemed to understand that a fantasy game full of dull lore needs something like this to break it up, to make it something players can relate to. Fantasy lore can be the dullest thing ever - talking about made up wars between made up people in a made up place is pretty much the most boring thing I can imagine. Put a bit of comedy in there to giggle about - it doesn't have to be much - and I'll remember it for days.

Even very serious games such as Deus Ex had their moments - I can quote strange lines from that game even to this day, despite having not played it for years. Yes, the game was very serious in places, with some very heavy themes, but it also showed a human side - a side I can instantly relate to.

Waking Mars' Amani has her intellectual side splendidly balanced by a cheeky sense of humour, which works well  to offset Liang's serious, contemplative nature. The AI fellow is annoying, of course.

When I play a Call of Duty or a Medal of Honor or a Battlefield game, I can't help but wonder at the realism of the soldiers in them. Surely actual soldiers make jokes with each other between the fighting? Sure, I realize that in a time of combat humour is likely to be the last thing on anybody's mind, but you can't tell me that a brigade of young men is not going to make jokes about bums and farting when they're on patrol. It doesn't have to be to the "Weak bluff, you prancing geisha!" level of Bulletstorm, but something, anything would be appreciated.

My favourite Rockstar games are, of course, GTA: Vice City, Bully and Red Dead Redemption. All of these have one thing in common - they don't take themselves too seriously. I'm not saying the storylines aren't serious - they absolutely are, especially in RDR - I'm saying that the characters within are gleefully insane. The games embrace their settings wholly, and the people you need to interact with paint a colourful portrait of the setting, whether it be schoolyard or wild west. Playing GTA4 and to some extent San Andreas left me disappointed with how seriously everything took itself - I don't give a damn about spending time with Roman any more than I care about what the hell Morrigan thinks every time I want to help someone in Dragon Age. The silliness in RDR, Bully and VC made for a world I could instantly relate to, laugh at and feel comfortable with. That's important.

Tyrian offsets the fast combat with hilarious data logs you can find scattered around the place to great effect.
Similarly, silliness gives a setting personality. Play Freelancer and every NPC you talk to is the same dull, formulaic data storage unit. Play Aquanox and you'll meet some of the most bizarre freaks you could imagine. Guess which game I prefer?

I'm not saying games need to plunge you headfirst into bizarro world. There's a definite point where it becomes impossible to take a game seriously because of how much nonsense it contains. On the other hand, there is also a point where a game stops being interesting when it becomes too melodramatic. Driftmoon, through all the nonsense it's so heavily laden with, still tells a compelling tale of betrayals, romance and doing the Right Thing. Beyond this, it's also filled with insane moments that I'll remember for far longer than any of the "epic battles" of deadpan RPGs. That's how games used to be. That's why I fell in love with games in the first place.

If there's any doubt left, consider Planescape: Torment. A thought provoking, deep and dark narrative that still has me moved and contemplative to this day. It also has a guy with a wooden head who runs into walls, a celibate succubus and allows you to convince a man that he doesn't exist so thoroughly that he literally stops existing.

Need I say more?

(buy Driftmoon)

Jan 21, 2013

Grass Roots - Strife (1996)

 In a blog dedicated to storytelling in games, it might seem odd to feature a first person shooter from 1996 - indeed, FPS games from this era could be seen as the opposite to the story rich adventure games of the era. While modern titles sometimes incorporate elements present in adventures - dialogue trees, non violence based gameplay, etc - the shooters of the mid 90s focused on speed, danger and the thrill of taking out fiendish enemies with a rocket launcher or chaingun. There were, however, some attempts at blending the two genres even back then, and Strife is a fine example of this.

Have no doubt, Strife is a shooter at heart (as my double grenade launcher demonstrates here)
1996 must have been a hard year to release a first person shooter as daring as Strife. While Ken Silverman's Build engine was already blowing the world away with the world famous Duke Nukem 3D and John Carmack was getting ready to change the entire world of games yet again with the release of Quake and id Tech 2 just around the corner, Rogue Entertainment released Strife, a game built with the already ancient id Tech 1 which had been kicking around since Doom and was definitely feeling a little dated. Indeed, even for a 1996 title Strife looks dated, and it's no surprise that it perhaps got a little lost in the excitement surrounding the two new engines on the scene.

What the game lacked in exciting new tech, though, it more than made up for in vision and boldness. Strife is not like its contemporaries - to my mind it's far advanced. Here you're given an actual plot, interactive conversations, memorable characters - heck, Strife has a town you can walk around and go shopping in. It's a little strange at first - after breaking your way out of confinement at the beginning of the game, you find yourself walking around a town, with no demons to kill, no aliens shooting at you, no ammunition lying around. In fact, if you attack the third person you meet, you'll probably be unable to finish the game.

Strife, unlike many shooters of the time, had interactive dialogue trees with many characters.
When you finally do get to shoot at people, there's more to it than simply finding the biggest gun and blasting away. Facilities are equipped with alarms, and firing your weapon near them will trigger, causing enemies to react in a hostile manner, and even seek you out. However, if you stick to your knife, or the poison bolts for your crossbow (the electric ones seem to trigger alarms, and are only effective against robot enemies anyway), then you can wander through many of the locations, walking past guards completely oblivious to your intent. In a lot of places you have to trigger an alarm eventually anyway, but it's very satisfying to silently, safely take out a large part of a facility's guards before setting the alarm off and cleaning up whatever guards remain.

It also presents your objectives in a more compelling manner than most games of the same time. Gone is the compulsion to find 3 different coloured keycards for each level, and in its place are actual characters who give you tasks in person, advancing the plot and fleshing out the story of the world as they do so. The game still has pickups for health, weapons, armor and other items, but you can also use the money you've earned to buy the items from shops.

Poison arrows like these make for quick, silent takedowns.
The game's writing itself, while not amazing, is still very pleasant. Your own backstory is briefly covered in the manual, although it's clear that what you will do is more important than anything you've done. You'll meet a cast of colourful characters - not a bad thing - on your journey, and many of them even feature voice acting for their dialogue. They'll lie to you, encourage you, confront you, assist you and sometimes you'll be given a choice of things to say and some of them will be wrong. This is fairly advanced stuff for the time, even if it's not always implemented perfectly. The story has some fantastic hooks, too - at one point you get to lay siege to a castle and it feels fantastic to charge in, surrounded by allies who are all fighting alongside with you and blast your way through the place. At one point I charged up to an enemy mech to attack it, only to see it take down 4 friendly soldiers with its flamethrower before I could get there. It's exactly how I want my battles to feel.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of Strife, though, is the world itself. A dystopian, post catastrophic world full of oppression, mystery and a glimmer of hope awaits your exploration here. The world is open - you can go back and visit locations at almost any time you wish, and are free to roam as you see fit once you've unlocked areas. The world also changes - after the aforementioned castle assault, the resistance you work for takes over the castle and uses it as their new base. Curious, I made my way over to their old base, expecting to find goodies left behind. Not only had they left this place, the lights were now off, the gear all moved out and the place was desolate save for some rats who followed me as I made my way around, amazed at this unnecessary but incredibly pleasant detail. It'd have been perfectly understandable if Rogue Entertainment had just moved the characters out and left everything else intact. But they didn't, and Strife is a far stronger experience with the addition of detail such as this.

Much of the story is told in cutscenes with stylishly drawn scenes reminiscent of graphic novels.
Throughout the game you're led along by Blackbird - a female who talks to you over the intercom and seems to be the only female in the game - as the introduction explains, oppression forces people to hide females deep underground for their protection. She acts as a sort of narrator, and to her character's credit makes for a surprisingly diverse and likable character. There are moments when she's a bit too cynical for my tastes, or when her wit ever so slightly misses the mark, but other than that it makes you realize how lonely other FPS games can be when they give you a gun and a dungeon and set you free with nobody to talk to. She's a fine addition to the game, and just as you get lost down another corridor she comes over the intercom saying "I swear these hallways all look the same".

Speaking of lonely, one thing Strife does something very right left me feeling very pleased - it doesn't separate neutral and hostile areas too distinctly. Modern shooters such as Far Cry 2 and Rage instantly break the immersion when you enter a neutral zone and suddenly can't shoot anybody, or enter a hostile zone and instantly there's nobody to talk to. The barrier here only enhances the artificiality of the experience, and Strife thankfully avoids this, with guards and alarms in the neutral areas and characters to talk to in enemy facilities. One of my favourite moments in the game was shooting on a guard in the town's tavern, only for the alarm to go off and a security shutter to close around the bar. Another was going up to a guard who was attacking me and being surprised by the fact that the game actually let me talk to him - even if his only words were "We're going to kill you!".

Strife has a decent selection of enemies - these guys might not be barons of hell, but they still pack a punch.
When people discuss the blending of FPS, RPG and Adventure that first gained major popularity with Deus Ex, the reference of inspiration is always to the System Shock series, and understandably so. Strife, however, seems to have been forgotten over the years. It may have been lost among a pair of genre-shaping giants, but Strife absolutely holds its own against them. When I look at the design innovation in Strife,  I feel it more impressive than the technological innovation that took the world by storm at the time. Here is a game that was and is bold, daring, unique and creative, a refreshing change in a time of forgettable samey clones. It may have been technologically inferior, but it was absolutely ahead of its time in terms of design. Playing Quake and Duke3D is still fun today, and the games hold up well. Playing Strife, however, not only feels fun but also feels innovative, relevant and, in many ways, far more current than the superstar shooters of 1996. This is a game that deserves to be remembered.

Jan 8, 2013

A Step Back in Time - Dune (Cryo, 1992)

I'd been having a break from adventure games for a few weeks. Sometimes I need to step away from the methodical, slow pace of such games and spend some time on something more reflex based, more immediately satisfying. After finishing my playthrough of Redneck Rampage the other day, however, I was definitely ready to take another look at adventure games. My choice was, of course, Cryo Interactive Entertainment's 1992 title Dune.

Dune somehow manages to reuse assets multiple times and still remain visually evocative
Normally I find myself quite suspicious of Cryo games - my experiences with their works in the past has often left me wanting of more from their games. Indeed, my time spent with various games by the developer has left me underwhelmed. 1992, however, was a fine year for games, and I am incredibly pleased to report that Dune - the company's very first title under the Cryo Interactive name - ranks as a highlight even among the splendid offerings on show for the period.

The art direction is moody, unique and perfectly atmospheric, with bold palettes and daring designs
Mention Dune in regards to video games and one undoubtedly thinks of Westwood's real time strategy title from the same year that paved the way for Command & Conquer - a real time strategy title whose influence is felt even in modern RTS games. This, however, is a rather different affair. It's still a strategy title - you must manage resource collection, troop training and deployment and such things - but it's also an adventure title as well. The concept seems a little odd at first, but I quickly grew familiar with it, and realized exactly how brilliant the formula is.

It's still a strategy game, but seamlessly blended with the wonderful adventure elements
The effect is almost like a strategy game with a playable story that takes place at the same time. Rather than the cutscene heavy style of games like the Command and Conquer series, the story unfolds at the same time as you're exploring and managing your resources. One minute you may be sending miners out to collect equipment, the next you may be looking for a new sietch to rally to your cause, the next you will be attending to a drama at the palace. It all unfolds in real time, with a delightful day/night cycle, a decent plot to uncover (albeit with some elements feeling a little hasty, such as the instant romance) and memorable characters.

Sand worms don't fail to impress when one finally encounters them
This can all become a little complex, but thankfully the game starts off quite simple, holding your hand through the introduction and explanation of the elements one by one, gradually giving you more options, abilities and problems to solve. It feels whole, a symbiotic pairing of story and gameplay which can be unfortunately rare in the medium. The sound and graphics are perfectly blended with these elements, and I am particularly impressed with the art design which is at once arrestingly immersive and yet uncompromising in its boldness.

Dialogue with characters is essential to moving forward in the game
Westwood's Dune 2 changed the world, establishing many hallmarks of the RTS game and is still an extremely relevant title over 20 years after its release. Cryo's Dune, however, explores a style which never really took off, which I think is a mighty shame. The blending of two wildly different genres has rarely been executed with as much style, sensibility and playability as Cryo managed to do here, and Dune manages to inspire long after its release. Definitely one to try.

Jan 7, 2013

Astroloco: Worst Contact

As soon as I played subAtomic I knew I had found developers with a flair and style that really appealed to me. Offbeat, clever and gleefully bonkers, their Ludum Dare stuff showed great promise of what was to come.

Mmmm, sweet AND sterile...

And then along came Astroloco: Worst Contact, a game that features a train capable of galactic travel, space pirates and lord only knows what else. It promises to be the same formula that made the team's earlier games so great, this time with a fuller length and silly voice acting. I know. I did the voice acting for one of the characters.

In any case, you can get the demo here and give it a whirl. I'll be saving my thoughts for the release of the full game, but if it's anything like their previous works, I am sure Hungry Planet Games will deliver some fine - if extremely silly - adventure gaming goodness.