Saturday, December 1, 2012

The difference between 'artsy' and 'fartsy' - four computer game examples

The four games i'm going to list are all fringe projects: small, relatively easy to play and available for a couple o' bucks in various online distribution systems. They share an attempt to distinguish themselves through artistic creativity as opposed to only copycatting big titles within the framework of a particular genre. The difference is in how well the elements mesh.

Remeber him? The pile of pixels formerly known as the prince of computer games? Them wuz da days, weren't them... when a man could rappel down a brick wall and swashbuckle his way to saving the damsel in distress using only three buttons and two dimensions. That pixellated nostalgia is still funding lots of dime-a-dozen sidescroller copycats to this day. Most of them are largely worthless (we'll get to one of them next) because they have nothing to offer. If all they can give you is a rehashed Prince of Persia with a new loading screen, then i'd rather fire up a DOS emulator and play the original, so i can feel like i'm sitting at my dad's old office computer.
The difference is in the integration. Trine is smooth. It is slick. From the first loading screen to the victory cinematic, it presents no rough edges, no jolts, no sharp disorienting twists. The gameplay is every bit as intuitive as the most simplistic side-scroller while still giving the player a bare minimum of RPG choices to make and plenty of destructible, stackable, graple-able, buildable environment. The player moves in two dimensions in a 3D world. The 3D is not just tacked on as a selling point. It is exploited as a selling point, to create environments one can only describe as "lush" and in which the player is always encouraged to find usable elements. What's more, the environment reacts logically due to an advanced physics engine that would put even some popular first-person shooters of the time to shame. Touch a teeter-totter and it teeters. Tap it and it totters. This apparently simple fact results in a variety of solutions to each level, depending on the player's preferences.
Maximum features, none extraneous. It's the magic formula to meaningful complexity.

Braid, by comparison, is a pretentious and vacuous industry in-joke. It's another side-scroller, ostentatiously low-budget right down to the hipster duds the main character's sporting. Its artistic aspirations would supposedly come from sound and especially storytelling while its innovations are various metagame abilities like teleporting or rewinding. The problem is that neither the innovations nor the artistic side have anything to do with the game itself. While Trine's various elements naturally grow out of the basic 'Prince of Persia' concept, Braid is just a random assemblage of generic gimmicks.
The core gameplay itself is just aggravatingly simplistic. It's never a matter of finding solutions, but only retrying the obvious setup until you manage the correct timing. While both games contain story interludes with dramatic voice-vers, Trine's actually has something to do with the game itself while Braid feels like you're suffering through that nonsensical mish-mash of platforms and traps so you can get rewarded with an entirely unrelated story about a princess. While this may seem like wry commentary on the nonsensical premise of most games, it's simply no incentive to trudge through a Sisyphean repetition of rows of rotund boogeymen on platforms.
Trine also contained much commentary on the nuker/tank/healer RPG triad and various computer game tropes, but these were integrated into the gameplay, into the personalities and playstyles of the three characters. Take, for instance, the knight's introduction:
"At the other end of the Astral Academy, a knight had been practicing his own skills, 
to battle the undead and prove himself worthy of joining the King's army. 
Between me and you, he did not quite understand what “undead” meant - 
but this was his chance to be the bravest knight of all."
Braid's time-warping and other mechanics would be interesting as part of a larger, coherent project, but it seems Braid itself was cobbled as a forced attempt to prove that they could be made to work. Portal was a creative use of unusual game mechanics. Braid is only a disjointed clutter of half-baked ideas sold as a side-scroller.

Dinner Date
On the face of it, Dinner Date should prompt even more scathing derision than Braid. Dinner Date is not a game. It is a one-man absurdist theater sketch, and you're the stagehand whispering lines (which turn out to be largely inconsequential) while the actor makes a shambles of the script. Thankfully, being absurdist, the sketch turns out all the better for it.
This is the fundamental delineation between the pretentious, facetious sale of a bad game as 'art' and art simply using an interactive medium as a platform. Dinner Date was built using the Source engine, Valve's much-publicized FPS game engine used for Half-Life 2. Based on this, there may be certain expectations, but, while Braid makes you hop over various waves of identical enemies to (supposedly) make some point about the lack of creativity in computer games, Dinner Date never puts a rocket launcher in the character's hand to make him shoot paint cans off a fence before you can have your next glass of wine and get back to the point. Neither does it force some unrelated art-house foppery on players like Braid's dreary "princess needs rescue" interludes. As frustratingly powerless as it can make players feel, none of Dinner Date's elements are extraneous. It is focused and succinct in its exploration of the protagonist's personality, from the way he breaks bread to his musings on work colleagues, and players' few actions flow naturally from the frustration they share with their inconsistent modern-man avatar.
I found Dinner Date very frustrating the first time i turned it on. I thought i'd been ripped off and wanted my two bits back. This was, however, because i was expecting a game. What it is, is interactive theater.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
As the title quite bombastically announces, this is a very "goth" game. It's a solid contender for the title of 'creepiest' game ever made. Its creators had a very solid grasp of the power of half-glimpsed terrors. In fact, if you ever do get a look at an enemy, you'll find it somewhat ridiculous, because they are made to be only glimpsed around corners through the haze of an adrenaline rush or while running headlong down a narrow hallway. The implication here is actually the main gimmick of the game: it's a first-person shooter with no shooting, a survival-horror game in which the player is entirely powerless. If an enemy ever catches you, you will die. This results in some oddball memorable moments like "that thing i couldn't see in the water" or "i hid in the dresser" which would be very aggravating if the game had been at all repetitive. It does an excellent job however of keeping the player on his toes, mixing a Lovecraftian "sanity" mechanic in with puzzle-solving, minimal environment interaction, running in panic and a hefty dose of storytelling.
The point of the game is both ridiculously hackneyed (a ploy from the tritest depths of soap-opera "plots") and oddly fitting. You, an amnesiac, awaken in a dark, isolated German castle sometime during the 19th century and must discover the horrific deeds performed within. The storytelling never feels like it disrupts the game. The atmosphere, threat cues, and the audio and video limitations make it so easy to identify with the protagonist that i found myself backing my character away from an object in disgust when i realized its use. It is immersive and no elements ever feel tacked-on. Though completely linear and in the grand scheme predictable, it was a thorough pleasure to play through because everything from puzzles to environment to monster encounters and cinematics thoughtfully converged to contribute to the overall experience of the player.
It manages to be both creative and coherent.

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