Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Importance of Synergy

THIEF (Eidos Montreal)
I was recently reading a forum discussion on why Thief is often considered to be one of the best stealth game series of all time. The topic predictably drew a wide range of reactions. Many pointed to the innovative light-and-shadow-based gameplay as being the crux of the series. Others believed the main character, Garrett, was equally important in making Thief compelling. Some said it was down to the story, the setting and the individual factions in the game. For me, what made Thief a classic was not down to any single one of these, but the synergy of all of them working together.

Creating this synergy is probably the most important part of developing a game; if one puzzle piece is misshaped or conflicts with the others, then the entire picture is spoiled. Dishonored is a good example of this. There are a lot of things this game nailed perfectly; the fleshed-out setting, the distinctive aesthetic design and the solid hybrid gameplay. However, for all the effort Arkane Studios put into creating a compelling world, it failed in two key areas; characters and dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Dishonored is written and delivered with the sole purpose of feeding exposition to the player and getting them to the next section. There are few asides, no meaningful idle chatter, no 'um-ers'; just instructions and creakily written backstory. This doesn't make Dishonored a bad game by any stretch, but without this crucial piece of the puzzle, the city of Dunwall was never as compelling as it could've been.
Dishonored (Arkane Studios)
The recently released horror sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs had a similar problem. The game received a mixed reaction from long-time fans after several of Amnesia: The Dark Descent's features were altered or removed entirely. This included stripping out the inventory and resource management, the sanity meter and, most crucially of all, the ability of pick up and interact with almost anything in the level. Defenders of these changes claim that cutting down these features allows the player to focus on the story while also removing any distractions to the game's atmosphere. While it's certainly true that none of the removed features lay at the core of Amnesia's foreboding atmosphere, they nonetheless all played a part in making the game work as a whole. Using light as a resource by limiting oil for your lamp and tinderboxes to light torches in the environment contributed to an omnipresent sense of peril throughout the original game due to the threat of being trapped in the dark at any time. The sanity system - which caused various screen effects and hallucinations when the player remained in the dark for too long - helped create a balance between staying sane but also not revealing yourself to enemies throughout the castle. Both of these systems were flawed in their own way; resources were over-abundant and the sanity meter too often resorted to gimmicks to communicate its effects. Instead of improving these mechanics and therefore elevating A Machine for Pigs above its predecessor, the developers instead opted to remove them entirely. Frictional's signature physics interaction system has also been cut down. In previous games, players were able to use the mouse to directly interact with and manipulate almost any object; doors, vases, chairs and bottles could all be fiddled with. This mechanic worked well and gave the player a visceral connection to the world around them and is used to particularly good effect during The Dark Descent's iconic water sequence. In A Machine for Pigs, however, the interaction is now limited to a handful of doors and story-related items. Removing the ability to interact with every trinket in the room doesn't sound like a major loss, but without having the same control over their character, the player no longer feels like a participant in the story, but merely an observer. This seemingly minor change ultimately ruins the player involvement that the original Amnesia was working hard to achieve.
Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (The Chinese Room)
What sets Thief apart from these games (aside from obvious genre differences) is that every part of the game has been carefully laid out to work alongside the others. The factions and people inhabiting the setting all play a part in defining how the world is structured as well as reinforcing the central conflict between magic and technology. The primary gameplay mechanic, the light-and-shadow based stealth, is justified by the context of subtle magical and supernatural powers that permeate every aspect of the City, yet are often kept hidden from view. This synergy between the various gameplay and story elements helps draw us, the player, into the setting; the City feels like a real place, even if so little is ever explained about it. The missions are not designed to be mere video game levels, but instead real places with real people living in them. Anyone who has played First City Bank and Trust from Thief II will know exactly what I'm talking about. All these pieces were what made Thief the game that it was; removing or changing a single one of these would only spoil or otherwise change the overall picture.
Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios)
Many see the changes in factions and characterisation in the upcoming THIEF reboot by Eidos Montreal as being necessary sacrifices when introducing the Thief franchise to a new audience. I find this conclusion to be baseless, as these changes are not merely aesthetic, but they completely alter the way the previous games worked. THIEF may well turn out to be a solid standalone experience, but without the synergy from the previous games, it ultimately won't be a true Thief game.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs - "Survival" horror

After playing about two hours of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the indirect sequel to the rather terrifying Amnesia: the Dark Descent, I thought I'd write down some of the problems I have with the game so far.

One of the key aspects of a good survival horror game is, as you'd expect, surviving. In the original Amnesia, players were encouraged to explore the semi-open levels and scavenge both oil for the lantern and tinderboxes to light torches throughout the environment. There were a few problems with the system, namely that you would end up with a boatload of tinderboxes and never have to worry about running out, but it gave the original an atmosphere of desperation and entrapment that fit perfectly with the storyline. A Machine for Pigs on the other hand completely removes any sort of resource management; the lantern (now a torch) has infinite power, electric lighting has eliminated the need for tinderboxes and the balance created by the sanity mechanic is now gone completely. In fact, the game lacks even an inventory screen and a health system, further simplifying the game to an unnecessary degree and taking away a good chunk of the tension from the original.

Stripping out the survival mechanics has also led to the level design being compromised. There's none of the hub-based exploration from the original Amnesia, instead you merely proceed down a linear path, occasionally stopping to complete one of the game's puzzles. The puzzles are barely worth talking about, amounting to little more than retrieving an item from six feet away and rubbing it against another item to make progress. Linearity in itself isn't a bad thing, but Frictional's previous work has generally been built around a certain degree of exploration and player freedom, both of which A Machine for Pigs severely lacks.

These changes may largely be due to different creative visions between Frictional and The Chinese Room (who developed the new Amnesia). Frictional generally tries to create games where the player's actions were directly intertwined with the story, whereas The Chinese Room instead forces players into a specific set of actions lest the player ruin the pacing of the plot. Interactivity is the key storytelling strength this medium has over films & books, something that Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs seems to forget. Players should experience your story, not merely observe it.

I may write a full review once I've finished the game, needless to say my impressions of A Machine for Pigs so far are not favourable.