Sunday, December 21, 2008

Just a Theory

I'm no insider, but if I had to envision Microsoft's checklist by which they evaluated Vista's success I imagine it would look something like this:

1.) Implement unnecessary pseudo 3d alternative to alt+tab to satiate stockholder anticipation and give marketing something to play with
2.) Prevent Explorer from being able to handle more than 10 or so windows no matter how much RAM/virtual memory the user has available
3.) Do everything in our power to deprecate the creation and editing of Doom levels

If I am right, then bravo Microsoft; you are the very apex of accomplishment.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Games Aren't Elevator Pitches

So I had a dream last night, about a video game. Specifically, I was going through a crazy sequence of events and realized (felt), during the dream and immediately upon waking up, that these events and the setting around them would make for a cool game. The last time I had a game-dream so visceral and structured was about a Doom level that I ended up making into a Doom level the next day with satisfying similarity.

The “Plot”

In the beginning of the dream/game, I am a young journalist who is called, via connections through my father, to fill in for a local news anchor that recently took his own life (or simply vanished, I can't remember). In this context, “local” refers to a submerged city located directly off the coast. Yeah yeah, like Bioshock. I never said my dream was original, just that it was “cool”.

During the prologue, I am walking around throughout the city and finding my way to my new living quarters. While doing so, I end up taking a written test for my new anchor job. One of the questions asks how I would lie to make an example news story more interesting, and I try to figure out how to write that I wouldn't though such an option seems left out of the multiple choice answer suite. I meet some girl in the living quarters, I think she is a typical “childhood friend” character that I haven't seen in a while because there is some unspecified, positive familiarity that I feel toward her. In other words, she is there to give emotional validity when shit eventually goes down.

And down does the shit go. The dream skips ahead in time, during which I am somehow aware that there is more to the original anchor's death/disappearance than the news station lets on (when is there not?). Before I know it, the girl and I are running through the city, which is filled with Rapturesque glass tubes connecting buildings at the bottom of the sea as well as mammoth caverns carved by man into the coast. Predictably, there are monsters, and we are shooting at them, myself in the first person. I don't really know where these monsters came from, but that's okay because neither does my character.

We come to a particularly large cavern, about the breadth of a city block and high enough to store a handful of two story buildings. We are walking down a road when suddenly a huge mechanical scorpion climbs out of its resting place. Think the first boss in FF7, but ten times as big. We run around a building while the scorpion mech shoots at us with a rapid-fire gun. We manage to find the entrance to the building, which consists of two large metal doors that slide left and right. We run inside and close the doors, finding ourselves in a single room warehouse with a catwalk running around the edge.

The scorpion mech is not through with us. It walks around the building, shooting through glass windows on the first floor. We need to maneuver out of its sight to avoid getting hit. At some point, the scorpion brings its excavator-shaped tail down through the roof, hitting part of the catwalk and knocking it down to create a ramp to the second floor. The gamer inside me knows that I must go up this ramp to progress, and the designer inside me appreciates this pace-keeping hint.

From the second floor, we manage to get some better shots and better hiding angles, but it looks like the scorpion mech isn't going down from pistol fire alone. At one point, it brings its tail down through the roof again and gets it stuck in some large metal casing on the catwalk. Pulling the casing off reveals four large green cubes which I recognize as explosive mines. I tell the girl to get back, throw a mine out the second story window at the scorpion, then run back myself. The mine explodes, clearly damaging the scorpion, but not destroying it. I position myself and throw another mine, dealing more damage but failing to destroy my opponent.

Tired of this stalemate, the scorpion wants in. It uses its large claws to try and pry open the door. The girl and I each grab a side of the door and push back (explicit teamwork mechanics), somehow managing to force it closed. I assume the door's hydraulics are working with us. The scorpion backs up, and I somehow know that it is about to jump through the roof. Not taking the time to explain this clairvoyance, I lead the girl back up to the catwalk for an escape (I guess the door is broken and the first floor windows are barred or something?). Sure enough, the giant mech crashes through the feeble roof into the center of the warehouse. The girl and I jump out the hole that it created with its tail earlier.

While the scorpion is stuck inside the warehouse, we run in the direction we were heading before it interrupted us. We run down hill and enter a small cave that the scorpion could probably fit in, but not comfortably. There is a trailor up a hill, but it is in direct line of sight with the scorpion were it to find its way out of the warehouse. Instead of exploring the trailor (which probably has some interesting items due to its vulnerable location), we veer off to the left and run down hill and out of sight of the large cavern. We meet a woman who we both know somehow, a scientist of some sort. She presses some buttons on a terminal and we watch through a window as the warehouse explodes, an explosion much larger than those of the previous green mines. The warehouse itself is vaporized, but the scorpion still stands. While the machine charges up for another blast (however that works, I didn't question it at the time), the girl and I fight off some weaker monsters that inhabit the cavern.

Waking Reception

Despite only getting five or six hours of sleep, I couldn't fall back asleep after waking from this dream. I kept thinking about it, how for a sequence of random neurons firing in my head, it had so much cohesion to it. I wanted to make this game. I don't now, now that the magic of having just experienced it in true first person has worn off, but at the time I did. I was thinking about how I would go about convincing my company to make it, how I would differentiate it from Bioshock, how I could add colors to avoid the typical gray/brown criticism that most FPSes deservedly receive, how the companion AI could operate to be an asset instead of a liability. I started thinking about the boss fight, what would happen if the catwalk fell on me or the girl after the tail came through the roof for the first time. Would that be a game over? Or, more interestingly, would one of us be pinned down while the other tried to find a way to save them? In the dream, I knew when the scorpion was going to jump through the roof simply because it was my dream. If the player was caught off guard by this and got crushed, it would be an unfair death. How would we communicate this to the player? I pictured a huge array of lights resting against the cavern wall just outside the warehouse, perhaps to brighten the cavern. If the scorpion could not jump but had to climb up the wall, and subsequently the array of lights, then the scorpion's shadow through the windows and roof (if the roof was glass) would serve as a fair and frightening indicator of what it was trying to do.

Let Me Tell You What You Think About That

Or at least, what I think you think.

You think this is a generic FPS that I have an inflated opinion of because it came from a dream that I had, right? Of course you do. I feel that way too, now that the post-dream magic has worn off. But that is because you did not experience it, you merely read about it on a blog. What you experienced was a linear story, what I experienced was a dynamic world that responded to my actions, a unique challenge that was life-threatening yet fair. Perhaps because my subconscious was specifically tailoring the excitement for me, I dare say the pacing was perfect.

This brings me to the main point of this post: games aren't elevator pitches. You can not, Can Not fully appreciate a game without playing it. This is the inherent flaw in text reviews and image/movie based previews. It is also the flaw with the elevator pitch mentality that publishers have with game proposals. The strong point of any game is not the visuals, though unfortunately that is what gets marketed too often. Nor is the strong point how well the hindsight story reads when written on a blog. It is the interaction, of course. No, it is the full experience; interaction, immersion, and all. This is game design 101 here. Or 1001, if your college numbers their courses like mine did.

The Catalysts?

It's kind of odd that we are creatures that spend 1/3 of our lives vulnerable, unconscious, and hallucinating, amirite? Being an introspective person, I often wonder where my dreams come from. Consider this an addendum, if blog posts must be so formal in structure.

Obviously, I have played Bioshock and Fallout 3, both of which appear to have influenced the design of my dream-game. There is also a bit of Half-life 2 influence, as the girl can be compared aesthetically and mechanically to Alyx Vance. And interestingly enough, my friend was playing Final Fantasy 7 while on the phone with me and describing nostalgically his encounter with the first boss, just a couple of weeks ago. Finally, I was reading another person's blog last night where they described a dream they had. Finally (for real), I have been working on pitching a game design at my company, which may have primed the mentality needed for that dream to flourish.

How About You?

Have any cool dreams where you are playing a new game or new levels for a game that exists? Is it ever as cool after waking up as it was while you were experiencing it?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

There Are No More Holy Days

That I have mustered any small amount of faith in general humanity can likely be attributed to time spent with friendly colleagues and a reclusive home life. I find it hard to maintain such faith right now.

The short of it, if you don't feel like reading the article, is that an employee was trampled to death by a large group of customers when their store opened on Black Friday. You can find the store name and location from the above link if it really matters to you.

I am not purchasing any gifts this year. I will not accept any holiday gifts. I will accept and read cards, and may or may not send some of my own (I'm not good at that sort of thing, so probably not). Please do not include money in any of these cards if you send one, as that is a gray area that I would rather avoid. I will be coming home for Christmas, unless we miss our deadline and need to work through the holidays - and even then, I will give bountiful weight to a family that has always been there for me over an industry of amateurish practice and poor scheduling that abandoned me during a crisis.

If you know of someone considering purchasing a gift for me, please send them a link to this blog post or describe it to them so they can comply. I promise you I will not accept material gifts. If you end up presenting me with one, I will reimburse you for the cost and give it to charity or a friend, or throw it away if it is perishable. I am insisting on this as a means of communicating my belief that love, when I can believe in it, is non-seasonal, not tide-locked to the rhythm of excessive capitalism.

I will think no less of anyone who decides to exchange gifts among themselves. I do encourage you to ask yourselves the following questions, or at least to skim through them.

1.) Why am I getting gifts for people around me? What am I trying to communicate, if anything, to those people (your intended "message")?
2.) Why am I doing so at this time of year, as opposed to other times of the year?
3.) Is my message any less true at other times of the year?
4.) If you are religious, how does giving gifts in an annual manner coincide with your beliefs (if at all)? Would giving gifts at another time of the year lessen this connection? Does giving gifts now muddy any spiritual aspects of the season?

If nothing else, perhaps holding off on gifts will prove relieving in our current economy. May you have better Holidays than the family of Jdimytai Damour...