Saturday, May 08, 2004

Doom 3 (PC, ***)

Playing games like Doom 3 makes me feel like I'm on a ride at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

Now I'm not saying that's a bad thing -- I happen to really like Disneyland. Last time I went there was with my wife, about seven years ago, and I'm really looking forward to my toddler being old enough to enjoy the experience of going back. When you spend a day on the rides at Disneyland, it doesn't take very long to figure out what the formula is.

The rides that have been created in the last 15 years or so -- let's say since "Star Tours" was created -- have a fun but predictable design pattern to them. They're trying to make a cinematic experience that sucks you in as much as possible. So they talk directly to you, the guest, and make you feel that you are somehow involved. When you get in the stationary car that jiggles around a lot, they tell you it's a spaceship, they cut off your view of the real world, and have a little animatronic robot pilot tells you "Hey, you guys are the first people I've flown with since they gave back my license!" Indiana Jones appears on a video screen to let you know that, while you're on your pleasure safari in the jungle, you should keep an eye out for the lost artifact of Wambooza, or whatever. When you go to a 3D movie, an attendant hands you "safety goggles" that must be worn during the presentation for your protection.

Then, as the formula dictates, Something Goes Wrong. Tie Fighters are attacking the ship! You looked at the idol of Zamafu and now you're cursed! Ladies and gentlemen, we've had a catastrophic failure in the core and aliens are loose in the theater!

A bunch of stuff happens to the audience. The ship shakes. A giant rock starts rolling after your car. Water is sprayed on the audience at just the right moment, or a little mechanical thing embedded under the seat touches you on the leg or something. Of course, the audience is never really in any danger -- imagine the liability costs. In fact, the same sequence of events happens to every single customer who gets on the ride, in the same order. You're on rails and can't control where you go; the movie playing is pre-recorded. But it FEELS LIKE something is happening to you, as long as you can willfully suspend your disbelief.

Now I can certainly do that. I like fiction. But I'm not a kid, and most of my brain is telling me that there's nothing to worry about. I focus on the way the experience is designed. Where a kid might be thinking "How does this event make me feel?" I'm thinking "How did the developers want me to feel when they created this event?" Then I just roll with it and have fun.

So that's Doom 3 for you. Technically it's very interactive. You decide how fast to move through the corridors, what weapons to use, how much time to devote to searching for hidden ammo and health. But you're STILL on rails. There is still a predetermined sequence of events that will happen in a certain order. You can get through the game most effectively if you're approaching it with a mindset of "What do the developers *want me* to do now?"

Rarely are there any kind of serious decisions to be made. You go from point A to point B, monster spawn to monster spawn. See that locked door? Let's see if there's a security panel to click nearby. If not, it's not important and there's nothing behind it. Otherwise, there's a key or a code somewhere later on, and we'll be coming back here in a minute. There are "puzzles," certainly, but only of the "Read this note to learn the security code" variety. In fact, surprisingly often, the note is placed practically right next to the door. That's ridiculous. It makes me wonder why they bothered having a locked door at all. More than anything else in the game, this jars the suspension of disbelief and reminds you that you're not really there; you're on a thrill ride and it's time for this door to open so something scary can jump out at you.

Also contributing to the feeling of being on rails is the regulated placement of items and its ratio to monster spawns. I found a big cache of plasma gun ammo, so I KNOW that some high hit point monster is about to rush me. What to do, what to do? Oh I know, I'll use the plasma gun. If I've just had the tar beaten out of me in a room where 5 imps spawned simultaneously, I just smile and keep going, knowing that there is a full cache of health and armor just around the corner. After all, I'm not a terrible gamer; surely SOME people handled that fight worse than I did, which means they're at lower health than I am, which means they need some extra help to keep having fun. I can think this way because I know that the experience is designed to happen roughly the same way to everyone.

There are times when I don't know what to do, but usually that's because I'm running through corridors to find the next door. Most of the time, that means I'm running through empty halls. When a monster appears from a dark corner while I wander around, I think "Aha! I'm going the right way!" instead of "Oh my Asmodeus, I'm gonna die!"

Now all of the above may make it seem like I don't like the game. Certainly a good online game of Warcraft 3 against a human opponent contains many more surprises. But I do like fiction. I like somebody taking the time to tell a story that they thought I would enjoy (and incidentally, pay $50 plus tax to hear). As cinema (if that's not too pompous), there are moments in the game that work. Somebody had to say "You know know what would be cool here? If you hear noises and see spooky shadows in front of you... and then something jumps you from behind." When you meet a really ugly new monster, there's often a cut scene to introduce it. For instance, you see one of those big pink chomping gorilla demons roar at you from behind a window... it charges the glass, can't break it... then it goes away for a second... then suddenly the door bursts off its hinges. That's fun.

Of course, the game certainly does startle me many times, but that's not the same as scaring me, as any Alfred Hitchcock fan will explain to you for hours if you let them. Tip: DO NOT play this game in a house with cats who like to jump on your lap. Also, there is a general feeling that things in the story are getting worse as time goes on. I took a playwriting class in college once, so I know this technique is known as "raising the stakes." Whereas in a game of Warcraft, if things are getting worse for you instead of better, 4 out of 5 times it probably means that you're going to lose, which I don't enjoy.

Still, I'd like to think that there's a way to improve on the formula, so I don't have to feel like somebody else has planned my every move. I don't have a way in mind; I'm all talk. If you were to get off your ride at Disneyland and walk around behind the trees, of course you wouldn't find yourself in uncharted jungle; you'd find a bunch of gears and stuff, and the back of the sets. What's behind that unopenable locked door in Doom 3? Well, I don't have to guess, because I can activate the "noclip" cheat. Then I know that behind the door is the outside of the model. It's a whole lot of nothin' at all.

Score: *** out of 5.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A kinder, gentler RPG

Jeff (aka Captain Liberal) mentioned -- and I agree -- that people in general are friendlier to each other in City of Heroes than I've come to expect from online games in general, and I'm starting to see what makes this game so different from a lot of others.

The fact that there's no player-killing in the game is certainly one aspect of it; the only way you can interact with other people is in a positive way. You can join their team, or you can heal them, or help them fight monsters. But there's more to it than that. The paradigm of this game is different.

In other MMORPG's, like in RPG's in general, the object of the game can best be described as "kill others and take their stuff." I mean, sure, in theory all the things you're killing are evil, but if you think about it that's just your assumption when you play the game. You walk around in the woods, you see an orc. It's just minding its own business, doesn't say a word to you. What do you think to yourself? Hey, I bet that orc has money! Kill it! Once you're outside of town, you can pretty much assume that you want to indiscriminately destroy anything that moves.

From that point, player killing is actually a logical extension of how the game works. I mean, who's going to be richer than another player? Why waste your time killing hundreds of orcs for a few dozen gold a pop, when you can kill one player and earn thousands of gold pieces plus a full set of armor and equipment to boot?

City of Heroes is different in a couple of ways. First of all, the bad guys that you kill are actually doing something wrong to warrant killing. You walk around the city and you see those little word balloons that say things like "Help! I'm being mugged!" Then you run to help the people, and what's your reward? Do they pay you? Do you loot the bodies? No... they THANK YOU, and that's what you get. An ego boost. Or alternatively, if you're playing an indoor mission, you are there because your contact said that there is some kind of illicit activity going on. Again, you're doing it for some kind of societal benefit.

Well sure, you get experience and "influence", which is basically equivalent to money. And sometimes some inspirations or enhancements magically appear in your inventory. But that's the other interesting thing: you get those things automatically. You don't have to scramble to get them before the other players do. There's no competition over limited resources; if you fight for good and cooperate with others, you get rewarded. Period.

In fact, every aspect of this game seems carefully designed to make friendliness not mandatory, but desirable. I can't help thinking that this is a very positive step in the world of RPG design. Your character is not just a wandering cutthroat or a thief. Okay, so he's a vigilante, and that's normally frowned on in polite society. But it's still a step up.