Game Design: Introducing your characters (what rapport do you speak of?)

A foggy night with a pale moonlight shimmers among still water. Murmuring in the distance interrupts the tranquil silence. A ripple in the water catches your eye and you trace it back to where you think it came. The camera closes in on your face as you try to make out what could be ruining the tranquility of the scene.

Introducing your character into a story is important to give a grounding for who the player will control and their significance to the story. Will I be analyzing my character or the story around them? Will I be able to impose any free will through them? Are they reliable, are their perceptions to be trusted?

You not only establish a rapport with the character but you establish the ground rules for interaction with them.

Take Half-Life for instance.

Half-Life

Half-Life_Cover_Art

The only information about your character is your name and occupation. Gordon Freeman, Theoretical Physicist. You’re not only the silent protagonist, but you aren’t given a face. At least you aren’t shown it during the game.

Halflife_ingame

The implicits of this dynamic is that this story isn’t about you, but about Black Mesa the facility that you work for. The story doesn’t even need you, specifically,  in it until the end of the game and in subsequent releases where people and things interact with you explicitly. People and things do interact with you in Half-Life but they could’ve used any survivor, not specifically needing Gordon Freeman.

Resident Evil

An open field, thickened with trees in one direction, a helicopter with a chimney of smoke blanketing the sky in another. A group of military come to explore the crash when a rustling is heard in the brush a short distance away. One of the militants falls into the brush as screams surround the field. The rest begin running into the night, firing their guns wildly in the direction of the screams as they spot the lights of a mansion in the distance. The few of you remaining make it to the door of the mansion, and here the player decides who their character will be.

Resident Evil lets you pick who you want to play with and changes the story somewhat depending on who you pick and how you progress through the game. Didn’t save one of your teammates? You get a different ending. Picked Jill instead of Chris? Different ending, different story.

RE character select

The story of the game is coupled heavily between your character and the story of the zombie infested mansion that you explore. Picking your character not only changes your type of gameplay and how you explore the mansion but the outcome of what happens in the mansion.

This becomes moot when there is a decided canon to the story in subsequent games but for the moment as you’re playing the game, there is an urgency to your decisions between who you want to play as and how it affects the outcome of the story.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

An emerald explosion engulfs a stormy mountain top. The silhouette of a lone figure is seen the cloudy remains. The camera pans in closer to make out the silhouettes face. The face is pale, hair tied to fit a traditional warrior’s helmet, tattoos across her brow. Her face changes, now dark skinned, long braided hair with scars plastering her face. What?

DA-I

I understand that character creation is important to Bioware games, but introducing us to a character after a significant event already occurs? You’ve already built intrigue into your story with the explosion and the smokey introduction so why are you detouring our curiosity with a pick your model face maker? It not only detracts from the story at hand, but the flow of creation is disrupted.

The beginning of the game is literally explosion -> Pick a class/race -> Smokey Scene -> SEE a character to control -> Design a look. Why would I want to be detracted from the story not once but twice when the story has already started?

There is an emphasis here that the character and your choices through your character will shape the story around you, but the rapport is thrown away when you introduce the pained face of one character and then tell me to change who she is altogether. The full story feels disingenuous when a character who we expect changes into another. Unreliable Protagonist, rising.

Like a new actor playing the character of another actor. It feels weird because we already associate a character with how they look and their mannerisms which were developed by the original actor. When their role gets replaced, it feels out of place. You can say cognitive dissonance is in play because we already expect a certain image of the character and diverting from that image throws off our perception of that character.

Maybe my gripe is a bit extreme because we don’t really see the original incarnation of the character do anything yet, so our imprint of them isn’t significant, but I think it was an odd choice in introduction. The flow between choice and story was clunky and why use a place holder for our character when it could just as easily have been our final creation taking up the whole story. Pick our character, then give us the story. Make it be their story, not just someone’s story.

Let’s Talk about: The Evil Within

The Evil Within

The Evil Within

For a game with such a great ambiance, able to illicit a darkened intrigue in the splattered scenary, macabre imagery and imaginative reality bending, the game shows that it has a clear vision for itself in some aspects. The problem is that this clarity is only in its presentation, but the game’s execution is all over the place.

Evil Within:scenary
Dark Mental Hospitals, a clear sign of good things to come.

 

Hiding Spots?

When have we ever been able to use these things?

You’re given a gun at the beginning of the game after a lengthy chase sequence and then use either the gun, a rusty nail at the end of a board, a torch or the randomly strewn traps placed about the environment at your disposal and are almost never encouraged or required to hide. You sneak around from time to time or are chased around.

The game tries to differentiate when you should do each through its hulking goliaths patrolling the area instead of engaging with you outright the moment your existence coexisted the same zip code as them, but aside from these handful of encounters, you aren’t given much choice in the matter of “how do I want to play this? Rambo Campbell vs the forces of my bullets to your face; or Snake Pliskin finds a bed to hide under and muddle about with when no-one is walking passed your bed to sneak behind.”

I wouldn’t really call having the choice between “getting from point A to point B by waving your magical portable bullet factory around” and “getting from point A to point A because an enemies patrol path doesn’t cross your hiding place.” This non-choice makes the second option irrelevant and an “almost” attempt at a mechanic just confuses the player.

If you give us an option then we want to be able to use it, but you can’t just leave it around to say that you have it.

Leaving mechanics to rot

Speaking of mechanics that are left around, what ever happened to the invisible enemies? We see them in the first few hours of the game in all of one area, but are never even mentioned again.

The idea for fighting them was simple, but engaging. Watch for them to move furniture around or make other noises (e.g. splashing puddles of water) so you can blast them in the face. It’s almost Five Nights at Freddy’s-esque because you aren’t able to control the behavior of the enemy nor stop the confrontation on their own volition.

YUP. JUST SITTING HERE, NOT POOPIN' MY PANTS. AT LEAST I'M TRYIN'
YUP. JUST SITTING HERE, NOT POOPIN’ MY PANTS. AT LEAST I’M TRYIN’

Your agency get’s squashed because it’s up to the enemies agency to dictate when and how you can deal with them. You could start blasting bullets in random directions in the room, but because your cache of weaponry is extremely small, you’ll run out of bullets quickly making this is very unlikely win-scenario for you. Instead you wait for inviso-bob to give away its location and it’s the waiting that builds suspense.

Waiting, knowing that you can’t do a damned thing until it lets you until your anxiety gets the better of you and the slightest twitch of a table, creek of a wheelchair, murmer in the distance causes a spastic jump from you as you try to take aim before you get a piece of your neck torn off.

There’s a distinct feeling of a lack of cohession throughout the game, like each level was developed by different teams with no clear understanding of re-using similar aspects between them aside from “here’s main characters and here’s zombie things. Make them work somehow. We’ll give you plot points later.”

“Let’s do something interesting and engaging for this 15 minute instance of one level that makes entrance and engagement into an area full of suspense and fear and never use them again. Oh but we do have zombie things all over, let’s just place them throughout a stage and maybe you’ll be tense from having so many of them around.”

Evil Within:many enemies
One at a time, boys. I got plenty of bullets for you tonight

 

More is hard, but more isn’t suspenseful. More is aggravating and challenging but doesn’t feel fulfilling. Defaulting on “add more enemies” shows a lack of creativity or time for creativity which is a shame because the game does have some interesting design choices built in.

It took creative freedom to give Uncharted-levels of eyecandy set-pieces in whichever reality bending directions that it wanted to go. It gave a distinct mind-fuckery vibe in the same vain that Inception and Looper tried to deliver. Shifting architectures, flipping gravity in a new direction, falling into new realities. It leaves the player in incessant inquisition, but the enemies that you encounter don’t match up to the same level of sophistication.

The sophistication of the cinematic visuals surpass the sophistication of the gameplay.

Evil Within:Scenary 1
“Yup, this is the room that I was look for.” as I back away slowly from the hall that I entered.

 

The environments are rich with nightmare-fuel, the destruction and decrepitness instill tension, but the enemies rarely deliver the same tension to accent the environment. If this was more of a haunted house sneaking-party the game would do an amazing job at creeping everyone out and letting the player’s anxiety get the better of them, but because we have to engage in wave after wave of generic bad-guy zombies the tension isn’t from fear of the unknown, but tension of can I shoot them in the face.

"Please don't turn around. Please don't turn around, you fucking-fuck"
“Please don’t turn around. Please don’t turn around, you fucking-fuck”

It’s closer in description to Alien vs Aliens. Alien, we barely see the monster until the end of the movie even though it’s terrorizing the crew members from the half-way point on, but the constant not knowing what strangeness is going on causes the fear-induced anxiety that we come to understand from survivle-horror. Aliens, we fight wave after wave of Xenomorphs, knowing what is after us and just doing our best to keep them at bay until we get a chance to escape.

It’s a shift in tone from survival-horror to action-survival. You take away the subtlety from the scary creeks and distant shuffles and leave the jump scare “blast in face to survive” and the fear goes away.

Any other discussion of The Evil Within, let me know if the comments.

Link to my other LTA’s here.

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