Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Not a Delphi post: PC Games

A couple of things I saw yesterday got me thinking about games, something I've been meaning to write down my thoughts about for some time. From long-time experience, I've gathered that my tastes in games are somewhat (but only somewhat) off the beaten track, if only because of the lack of market supply for what I like to play.

First off, "PC game" or "video game" etc. is too broad a category to talk about meaningfully, so it needs to be broken up. However, I'm not so happy with the usual division of games into genres like real-time strategy (RTS), turn-based strategy (I'll call this TBS), first-person shooter (FPS), third-person shooter (I'll call this TPS), etc., though sometimes those divisions accidentally coincide with the divisions I have in mind.

I look at games using several axes: the kind of skills being exercised, the depth of immersion and storytelling, and the nature of the in-game stress / release cycle and pacing.

By the kinds of skills, I mean things like strategic thinking (e.g. Civilization - non-repeatable long-term plans to achieve goals), tactical thinking (e.g. most FPSes - repeatable short-term templates of action that solve categories of problems), mastery (e.g. simulation games), hand-eye coordination (twitch games like almost every arcade game, and also including many FPSes, RTSes and TPSes)

By the depth of storytelling, I'm talking about how essential the story is to one's experience of playing the game. Is the story just an add-on to rationalize the gameplay? Is it just very effective atmosphere, made effective by how the level design directly reflects the story? Or is the story essential to successfully playing the game, or perhaps even ultimately user-written, as they make choices in the world? And by immersion, how easily can I forget than I'm at a computer, and instead think of myself as being a character in the game?

When I talk about an in-game stress / release cycle, I'm thinking in particular of how stress builds up in the player, to what degree it builds up, how it is built up, what options the player has to reduce this stress, and the pacing refers to how long the stressful periods are versus the (relatively) relaxed periods. For example, many FPSes have "action bubbles", where lots of bad guys surround some kind of goal than the player usually has to physically get to. If the FPS is heavily corridor-oriented (e.g. pretty much all the Doom games), where there's really only one way to go, then the player will probably have to kill almost every bad guy met, and can only stop for a breather if any pursuing bad guys have been killed off. On the other hand, there may be relatively quiet corridors linking areas that trigger action after a certain point is reached, something done very well by Half-Life (the original).

My favourite games have been Thief series, Far Cry, Deus Ex, Outcast and Civilization 2, roughly in that order. I've enjoyed playing games like Doom, Half-Life, Crysis, Bioshock, Oblivion, System Shock 2, but none of them had the long-lasting appeal to me that my favourites have. I tried to replay Half-Life several years ago, but it didn't take long in-game before I discovered I'd lost my love for it. On the other hand, I've replayed Thief 2 (in particular) pretty much at least once a year since it came out - an older game (older technology-wise as it uses the same engine as Thief 1, which was weak compared to the upgraded Quake engine behind Half-Life, both being 1998 vintage), but one with far more potency for me.

So, coming back to those axes, what do I like in a game? Story and immersion is very, very important, probably the most important thing. Almost all the games above are FPSes, because that's the format which lends itself best to immersion. Civilization is so sparse on the story side - the only real identity you have is as a nation of peoples, rather than a character - that one's imagination fills in the gap. This usually leads to even more identification with the game than a heavy-handed plot, because it's entirely user-driven. Far Cry has the weakest story of the lot, but its immersion is extremely effective - you really do feel like you're on a tropical island, sneaking through the bushes. Far Cry also makes up for the weak story on the other axes. The other games, in particular the Thief series, are strongly story-driven, but they don't lack in the other axes. Deus Ex has a degree of user participation in the story creation, as certain choices you make affect the plot fairly substantially - for example, you can choose to save your brother or leave him to die (which he urges you to do). The music in Outcast is amazing and highly atmospheric. The feeling of being in an Arabic-style souk is pretty strong in the city of Okriana in Talanzaar, and I have visited e.g. the souks of Marrakesh, with that atmosphere coming back to me.

I like to use strategic skills over tactical or twitch skills in games. So, even though Doom can be fun for a 30-minute blast (on a Windows 3D port, with jump and mouse-look in the Y dimension enabled), it's not what gets me hooked. The Thief series' player character, Garrett, is sneaky enough to be able to assess the ground and the disposition of enemies without being seen. The player's job is then to plan and navigate a path through the ground without being seen or heard, within the resource constraints of the gadgets available. A good friend of mine, far and away my better in twitch games like Quake multiplayer, found progressing in e.g. Thief 2's Bank level very difficult - he got stuck and ultimately bored in many situations that simply increased my appetite for the problems. Civilization is all about strategy - there isn't even a constraint on turn time. Far Cry, Outcast and Deus Ex have sufficient freedom of movement that you can usually plan your encounters from afar and engage on your own terms. All things considered, I prefer engaging from a position of strength (usually means being higher up) and unseen where possible. Up-close and twitchy is too risky: I don't like dying in a game, because that breaks my immersion. In real life, there's no way back from death: why should I play my games like it was any different? Evaluating the enemy, navigating unseen to that position of strength and planning the encounter is usually more fun for me than the encounter itself; however, there is the gratification of a plan well executed and performing as anticipated, something very akin to the pleasure of programming. It also turns out that freedom of movement is very important to permitting a strategic approach to the game: strictly linear games like Half-Life 2 almost actively prohibit strategic thinking.

About the stress & release cycle: one is usually stressed in a game because one is threatened with in-game death. There are different graphs one could draw of the typical stress patterns of different games and gaming styles. A game like Doom 3 or Half-Life 2 often rely on "surprises" - quiet areas / dark alcoves which are obvious traps, and the only "surprise" is the exact trigger location or time. This is probably a feature I hate most about some games: knowing that something bad is going to happen, but not being able to control it. Half-Life wasn't too bad, because one had tactical weapons like grenades and strategic weapons like trip-mines wherein action bubbles could be analysed and solved pre-trap-triggering, but Half-Life 2 (and especially Doom 3) used such cheap tension tactics that I stopped playing the games in disgust. These games often have a ::^^::^^::^^:: kind of tension graph: medium tension interspersed with high tension. On the other hand, a game like Thief 2 looks more like ..:..:..:^^.^^.^^:...: lots of low-tension observation, occasional medium-tension moments when encountering danger areas while scouting, followed by a long stretch of alternating high-stress navigation and resting safely in shadows. The key is that the player has control over the resting and the initiation of the next high-stress section. I far prefer games where I have control over the stress level pacing and have time to consider my options before proceeding.

If you've read this far, well done for putting up with me! I just wanted to get those thoughts out of my head, but if it's been interesting to someone else, then that's gravy.


Unknown said...

Ever tried Portal?

Even though it's fairly short, it has great characters and storyline, a good (fresh!) mechanic and a great overall feel.

ua.Skywalker said...

Oh yeah, the Thief is my favourite game, too. In fact, it is the only game I managed to play from the beginning to the end and I found it to be the most exciting game ever created. Its story, its gameplay, and its atmosphere are simply fantastic! Other games may look terrific with their superior sparkling graphics, but all of them lack this unique shadowy atmosphere of adventure.

Unfortunately, this project was a commercial failure -- only a selected number of people like such kind of games. Alas, I don’t think this game will ever rise from the ashes (in addition, the final mission of the Thief III implies this is the end of the story plot).

Unknown said...

Put me down as another thief fan. I just replayed Thief 2 for the third time over Christmas.

BTW - are you aware of the huge number of fan missions for Thief 1 and Thief 2? (There are a few for 3 as well, but nothing very good.) A few of them are huge - hundreds of megabytes.

If you haven't played them, google "Thief Fan Mission", and find "The keep of metal and gold". Then download DarkLoader, and start with "Keeper of the Prophecies". You'll like it.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I am from India. I just wanted to agree that `Thief 2' is such an awesome game. The Bank level was my favorite one too. I hope that Thief 4 is in the making but an urban setting is a big no no. I think they should stick to the time period.