Sunday, March 7, 2010

Off balance

I did something that I have rarely done in the last twenty or so years a few days ago; I quit a game then uninstalled it and will be unlikely to revisit it even though I was close to finishing.

It had come close previously with, for example, God of War. Great game with great production values, but the final battle with Aries had the unforgivable curse of unblockable attacks. It's not big and it's not clever; just a series of frustrations before you finally luck through. My controller still works but carries the scars of broken plastic to this day.

But the game I was playing had a much more exasperating flaw - its controls were not up to the task of what the game required you to do.

This problem came up recently on playing 'And Yet it Moves'. I enjoyed most of the game; the art direction, animation and conceptual design were all particularly good. The trouble was with the disappearing platforms in the latter part of the game. The controls were just not good enough to cope with the complexity of the last levels. It changed it from a thoughtful, intriguing game into a rapid-fire memory test; a backwards slip to a platforming mechanic that was barely acceptable at its origin. (My own personal theory is that the controls would have to have complete freedom of 360 degrees as opposed to the four rigidly timed 90 degree positional steps in order for those last stages to work).

The game I quit, the other day, was Tomb Raider Anniversary. It was within the Great Pyramid, with progression based on ascending the platforms with a lava pit beneath you to reach your arch nemesis above. What were the problems plaguing my onward journey? Allow me to list the main contenders...

The Grapple
The grapple is the most poorly controllable mechanism I have ever had to use in a game in recent memory. Intuitive, it is not. The amount of times she jumped backwards instead of to the side, or vice versa, made the use of the tool an exercise in mouse-bashing exasperation. To have a decent chance of the move you want to perform actually occurring the camera has to be persistently moved contrary to the determined will of the game to an angle with which you can determine what left or back actually represents.

Cramped space
You have to fight off flying demons while standing on a small platform with your back against the wall. The big design flaw in this is that it plays havoc with the 3rd person camera, making it quite tricky to see what the automatic aim has picked up - on more frustrating attempts you can eventually determine that it has been purposefully directing your firing to the timer activation button as opposed to the large demons hurling fireballs at you. The main mechanic for dodging attacks in Tomb Raider is the jump or roll. There is only room for side-to-side movement on the platform and more often than not you end up over the side and burning in lava due to the terrible camera positioning. Most importantly though, the controls are just not accurate enough for the task given. There is no way to accurately determine where you will land from the start of the side jump or determine the best way to time the jump to avoid the fireballs.

The shoot, run, jump, slide, jump, flip, turn, flip, shimmy, back-jump, turn, flip on a timer
Nothing is entirely useless, it can always serve as a bad example; this is the best example of setting a task that the controls just cannot adequately respond to. The main culprit is getting from the position you shoot the timer button to jump straight at the slide and then jump forward after she starts sliding down. It just wouldn't perform the jump nine times out of ten; then you would have to start once more at the platform with the flying demons and run through the whole charade. Again. Even once she had successfully made it to the horizontal pole, she would have to start her whole swinging action from scratch and flip to the next pole; once there she would have to stop and face the other way, then flip to the next pole. Getting past the poles and onto the shimmying was when the timer would tend to run out and then once again it was a dip in the lava, leaving me one pole and a grapple wall-walk short of completing the task.

After an afternoon of this it just became a bit ridiculous; I really wanted to finish this game and think I was pretty close to it, but I could not waste any more of my time trying to work through a game that just didn't provide the tools to do the job; it was like having to drive a nail into a wall and been given only a hacksaw to do it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Invention from adversity

It seems that great things are created when you don't have the tools that you think you need to accomplish them.

Take, for example, the obvious example of Star Wars. Created on a very limited budget, but introducing a whole new vision of science fiction. Then have a look at The Phantom Menace with a, pretty much, unlimited budget and then look away, quickly.
The film Shrek was made by Dreamworks on the brink of bankruptcy driven by a need to parody their previous employers, whereas the sequels were made in financial security and found themselves drifting into diminishing returns.
Citizen Kane was made with a young Orson Welles bound by the limits of the current technology but making something that had never been seen before. The sequel "Son of Rosebud - Ski-mobile of Power" made purely in CGI never reached the same heights despite the modern technology available. Although, thinking back, this might have just been a bad dream after some dodgy fish cakes.
Diverging from sequels, Aliens by James Cameron was made in the adversity of the British tea breaks and 5pm clocking off and a budget limiting him to 6 Aliens for the whole shoot. Skip forward to the financial and chronological extravagance of Titanic, the carbuncle on the backside of cinematic history.

But what of the games? What are you actually trying to put across?

This is simply a long, twisted path to try and work out why the brilliance of some games can never be recreated. Modern versions and rewrites of Battlezone, for example, have never had the impact of, nor been as played as much as, the original - which was written in a few KB of memory but with a real passion to create something that had never been done before.

As another example - take the classic Robotron 2084 that introduced the twin joystick control. An addictive, fast paced and difficult game that is everything a classic should be. Robotron X was created many years later in a 3d environment with more memory available than a very wealthy person of good stock could have bought back in 1982. But it just didn't work particularly well. It wasn't a bad game, but it certainly wasn't a great game.

As a completely different example, the many iterations of Defender (the original game was written, co-coincidently, by the same person as the above Robotron 2084) never captured the feel or playability of the original, despite the advanced technology available in the more modern versions.

3D Monster Maze and Mazogs were written with no colour, sound or pixel graphics available. Deathchase 3D and Jetpac were written with 16KB available (as were the previous two games) and only a 2 colour per character square palette. Knight Lore with the first isometric 3D puzzle game and crammed into 48KB. Or the great Elite written originally in 32KB, containing 8 galaxies of 256 planets each with trading, 3D combat, missions and many late nights trying to get a better rating than Mostly Harmless.

In summary, it appears that it is the limitations placed upon older games that made them as great as they were, or are. Would Tir Na Nog have had any place in a free roaming 3d environment as opposed to the fixed camera and paths? These very restrictions gave the game the puzzles and originality that defined it. Mike Singleton saw a friend playing The Hobbit and decided there was no reason it needed to be that slow drawing the graphics and sat down to create a massive strategy adventure game called Lords of Midnight on the same hardware. The work that went into the C64 music prodded and poked into a small area of memory still manages to surpass the mood and feel of some of the orchestral scores around in some modern AAA titles. Restrictions have to lead to innovation if you want to rise above them; you don't spend time on something unless it is something that needs to be done. To revive a well worn expression, necessity is the mother of invention and conversely if you have everything you need in front of you, you have no need to innovate.

As a final, very deep conclusive thought, if Steven Spielberg had had CGI available and could have put the shark in when the model consistently didn't work; would Jaws have been the major impact in creating the Summer movie blockbuster?