Archive for June, 2011

Syberia

The alpine town of ValadilèneSyberia (not to be confused with the cheesy 1994 FMV game Cyberia) is an atmospheric point-and-click adventure by Benoit Sokal, a Belgian comic book artist and game designer. What is it with Belgian comics and adventure games? Well, in this particular case, I think it has a lot to do with living in the shadow of Hergé. Like the adventures of Tintin, Syberia is a story of traveling to distant lands where everything and everyone is a little odd, rendered in a style that’s fanciful and caricatured, but at the same time oddly restrained about it. This is one of those adventure games with pre-rendered backgrounds under 3D characters and other animated elements. The art is gorgeous, very old-world picturesque with intense clarity of detail and a very pleasing distance haze.

The story starts in an alpine town called Valadilène, where the player character, Kate Walker, a lawyer from New York, has come to arrange a large corporation’s purchase of the old toy factory that forms the basis of not only all the town’s wealth, but much of its machinery and architecture: there’s hardly anything, even in the office of the town’s elderly notary, that isn’t in some way connected to a custom clockwork automaton in a metal top hat. The opening cutscene begins with a funeral procession composed entirely of automatons. Of course, in a sense every single character in the game is an automaton, a machine with fixed inputs and outputs, canned dialogue, and scripted motions that play out as if driven by an uncoiling spring. But I don’t think I’m supposed to have made that connection.

The factory deal is complicated by the owner’s death, which forces you to track down a lost heir, who apparently went off to Siberia on a special clockwork train to look for mammoths or something. Presumably in the process Kate will learn valuable lessons about what’s important in life and stuff; in the beginning, she’s pretty clearly the city slicker amongst simple rural folk, and there’s really only one way that can develop.

I recall getting just past Valadilène to the second chapter before stopping playing this back when it was new. I’m not quite up to that point yet now. I’m finding that I’ve forgotten most of the first chapter, and have to rediscover the solutions to puzzles. There was one particular bit that I remembered quite clearly, though, because it stuck in my craw so badly the first time. At one point, a boy demands that you draw a picture of a mammoth for him. You cannot progress further into the game until you comply. You have a pencil and paper (treated as a single inventory item), but I could not for the life of me figure out how to use them to draw a mammoth. It turned out that you have to apply them to a small carving of a mammoth that I had failed to notice etched into a nearby wall. The problem here isn’t just that the carving is easy to miss, it’s that there’s no clear reason why it’s necessary. Can’t Kate draw a mammoth freehand? Everyone knows what a mammoth looks like. Or, if that’s unacceptable, the game should at least tell us that it’s unacceptable: have the kid look at Kate’s unaided handiwork and say “That’s not what mammoths look like!” or something.

So anyway, that’s what I’m anticipating in the later parts of this game. Lovely art and lousy puzzles.

Prince of Persia: Tricky Ending

It took me until the ending to realize this, but the story of Prince of Persia (2008) owes quite a bit to Shadow of the Colossus. Oh, it’s less subtle about it, leaves less unsaid, puts the player in a less morally ambiguous role for the bulk of the game. But the two games share a fundamental story of a woman restored from the dead by means of a Faustian bargain with an imprisoned dark god (who speaks in both male and female voices), a bargain that leaves the buyer physically changed, corrupted (or Corrupted), and the darkness empowered. There’s some similarity of setting as well: an isolated and forgotten valley containing ruins of a dead civilization, including the massive central temple where the darkness is housed.

The chief difference is that in SotC, arranging for the woman’s resurrection by doing the bidding of the darkness is the player’s job, whereas in PoP it’s already happened: Elika’s life was the one restored, and her father, the king, was the one desperate enough from grief to listen to Ahriman’s temptations. As a result, he becomes one of the game’s recurring bosses, always waiting for you back at the temple when you have something important to do there. This state of affairs is revealed in full through dialogue about midway through the game, but disjointed visions hint at it throughout. (In fact, the very first thing you see on starting a new game is a disjointed vision, which seems like a very bad choice to me. As I’ve said before with respect to other games, the purpose of a game’s intro is to orient the player, not disorient them.)

The point is that Elika, as beneficiary of the deal, feels responsible for Ahriman’s imminent escape. This is why she’s pushing herself so hard. Also, she belongs dead, and she knows it. In the end, sealing Ahriman away again means sacrificing the life that she got from him. I’m not quite clear on which is cause and which is effect, as it makes sense either way, but they definitely go together. And what follows is one of the most interesting things about the game, or at least one of the artsiest.

Control of the story effectively ends here, but control of the avatar does not. The Prince picks up Elika’s limp corpse from where it lies, at the base of the now-luminous tree growing on the seal of Ahriman’s tomb, and control is given to the player, who pilots the Prince back outside — there being nowhere else to go. You move slowly; you can’t run or jump while carrying the body. At a certain point in the long passageway out, the credits start scrolling by on one side of the screen. This condition lasts long enough for the player to think of this state, of carrying the dead princess out, as an ending.

But of course it’s an ending that has to come to an end, when you emerge from the temple, and lay Elika down on her mother’s tomb, and still have no place to go. There’s no way out of the valley. The areas you spent most of the game exploring are unreachable without Elika’s magic. You can’t even try to kill yourself; all the cliffs are now protected by invisible walls. You can hear Ahriman whispering about how unjust the situation is, that Ormazd (Elika’s god but explicitly not the skeptical Prince’s) used Elika as his pawn and then discarded her. It’s easy to feel a similar sense of betrayal here, if not by a creator deity, then by the creator of the game.

Restoring the temple had caused four withered stumps on top of stone structures outside to grow back into small trees, each bathed in light. Reaching each of these trees required a different jumping trick — here we are after the credits, but there’s still a bit of genuine gameplay left. This left the question of what to do with the trees once I reached them. It turns out that there’s only one thing you can do, only one input recognized: the Sword button, which chops them down and re-corrupts the area around them. And it was clear: I was being given the opportunity to re-make the choice that Elika’s father made. To bring Elika back to life by giving Ahriman what he wants. To render the entire game thus far moot. To imitate Shadow of the Colossus more directly. A moral choice, leading to good and bad endings (or bad and worse, as the case may be)? No, there’s only one ending. I looked for another option, a way to just leave this place, to leave Elika dead and not make things any worse. The only options are to continue the story by destroying the world, or to quit, which is more or less the same thing.

The strange part is that I kind of feel like quitting was a legitimate option here. I don’t usually feel that way: just as shutting a film off before the final reel doesn’t change the film’s ending, so too does a game with a single scripted ending still have that ending even if you refuse to play through it. But, like I said, this game goes out of its way to make you feel like you’ve already seen the ending of the story at this point. Elika here wears the "Beyond Good and Evil" Jade outfit, unlocked on completing the game once.Nonetheless, I played on to the darker conclusion. The last thing you see is the Prince carrying Elika away, groggy but definitely living and not at all pleased, as Ahriman emerges and overtakes them, filling the sky.

Apparently a lot of people were unhappy with this ending, and a DLC epilogue was added to the console versions to pacify them. (The epilogue does not seem to be available through Steam.) However, as seems to usually be the case with unpopular endings, I like it. It is, if nothing else, gutsy. It’s not just a cheap shock ending, because it emerges from the characters — including the self-centeredness of the Prince, who proves through his actions here how little he cares about the epic struggle he’s been assisting, or even about Elika’s wishes. Also, it’s kind of a Snake Plissken ending, a way for the hero to assert his autonomy by defying the powers that dared to assume his continuing loyalty even as the reason for that loyalty was taken away. And that’s something you don’t see a lot in games. (You don’t even really see it in the Metal Gear series, which is on record as taking inspiration from Snake Plissken.) Ironic, then, that for the player, it’s the ending you get by just going along with what the game wants you to do.

Viewing it cynically, though, the whole thing was probably meant mainly as a sequel hook, and from that point of view, it was a failure. Just as well. To my mind, it works best as the last word.

Prince of Persia: Animated Motion

Playing Prince of Persia (2008) again just after sampling Angry Birds makes for an interesting contrast. I said that I was prejudiced against thinking of stuff that you play on a phone as “real games”, but in a way, Angry Birds feels like more of a game than PoP08. Even though your actions in it are limited to operating a slingshot and tapping the screen to activate special abilities, it somehow feels a lot more free than PoP‘s full movement and array of contextual actions. I think this is because the few actions you can perform in AB are more significant: any input is acted on immediately, and small differences can have large consequences. PoP, on the other hand, is designed around discrete actions, and windows of opportunity to to perform them. If you’re swinging by your arms from a horizontal flagpole, and you press the Jump button to flip to another flagpole farther along, the precise moment that you press the button doesn’t matter, as long as it’s within the interval allocated for success. I suppose this is the sort of gameplay that OnLive is ideal for.

This sort of gameplay is the consequence of a particular model of action that goes back to the original 1989 Prince of Persia, a game that was famously built around rotoscoped animation, allowing for movement of unprecedented realism. It was, in essence, the ancestor of modern motion capture — just in 2D, which meant that all they needed to capture motions was a movie camera. But a rotoscoped animation is just a static series of frames, something that can’t respond to changes. Most other platformers didn’t put such a high priority on fluidity of motion, and therefore didn’t care if they snapped directly from a walk animation to a jump, or from running at full speed to the left to running at the same speed to the right. In PoP, jumps were linked to the Prince’s stride, and switching directions meant playing a brief animation of the Prince skidding to a halt and turning around. Anyone who’s played the original for any length of time has toyed with just skidding left and right repeatedly.

Now jump forward nearly two decades and add wall-running. A wall-run is a pre-recorded animation. When the animation ends, the Prince has to go into one of his other animations, such as catching hold of a ring embedded in the wall and swinging himself further onward, or planting his feet against the wall and jumping outward, or plummeting. Unlike simple 2D rotoscoping, a 3D engine allows for blending of animations, and we see that in cases where the player is allowed to interrupt an animation at any point, such as jumping away from a wall-run. Nonetheless, in a lot of situations, animations are allowed to play out in full before further input from the player is acted on. It’s like moves in a fighting game. I compared the combat sequences to a simplified Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat before, but the same movement model, and therefore the same feel, is found in the acrobatics as well.

It should be noted that the developers really did go all-out in producing the movement animations, particularly in the way they accomodate Elika. Elika follows your every move, swinging from the same flagpoles and balancing on the same beams. When this would normally result in Elika occupying the same space as the Prince, there are special two-person animations built around it. For example, if you’re both balancing on a beam and you try to move the Prince into the spot Elika occupies, the two of them execute a tricky maneuver where they swap places by grasping each others’ arms, putting their toes together, and pivoting 180 degrees. When I saw this for the first time, I was incredulous that two strangers could pull that off without exchanging any words. But as the game goes on, you of course get used to such things. Which, also inevitably, means that they stop being impressive. It’s got so that I try to keep significantly ahead of Elika most of the time just so that I don’t have to spend time waiting for the more elaborate two-person animations to execute.

Angry Birds

Hardware failure has left me unable to continue in Prince of Persia for the nonce, so in the meanwhile, let’s find out what the big deal is with Angry Birds. I’ve had access to iOS devices for a while, but I haven’t really tried to play games on them, even though they’re dirt cheap compared to most PC and console stuff. I suppose I still somehow regard them as some how less “real” than PC games, which is an irrational prejudice that I’ll have to play a few to overcome.

So, Angry Birds. The gameplay consists of catapulting projectiles (in the form of cartoon birds) at structures made of blocks of various materials (glass, wood, stone) that have enough of a 2D physics engine behind them for them to react convincingly to all kinds of impact, weight, and pressure. Most types of bird also have some special action that can be triggered once during their initial flight, such as speeding up or exploding. As in Peggle, you control the launch angle without a lot of feedback about what the effect will be, which gives the game a substantial luck factor. This creates partial reinforcement. Although some levels definitely have specific planned solutions in which you target a series of structural vulnerabilities, there’s always the possibility that you’ll win by a fluke if you just keep trying over and over. I can see this as contributing to the game’s popularity (just as it did in Peggle), but I understand that there are a bunch of Flash games based on the same mechanics that haven’t been such monumental commercial successes. I’m not really familiar with them, and presumably neither are most Angry Birds players, but most of what I’ve described so far seems unavoidable.

Whatever the virtues of the other castle-smashers, I’ll give Angry Birds this: it handles well. It’s very responsive to the touch and supports all the most-used touchscreen operations, including wipes to scroll the playfield back and forth and scrunching the screen to resize the view. And for that reason alone, it’s probably worth playing on its original target platform, even now that it’s been ported to PC.

All that said, I have to say that I’m taken aback by how mean-spirited the game feels. First off, the goal is to crush pigs to death. The pigs, located in and around the structures you’re smashing, are ugly green creatures, stylized into just heads, which roll around if nudged. They can’t fight back. They’re utterly helpless. When hurt but not hurt enough to pop, they develop bruises and black eyes. And your motivation for crushing them — well, the ostensible reason that the birds are so angry involves stolen eggs. Goodness knows if the specific pigs you’re smashing with bricks were involved in that at all; the birds certainly don’t seem to care. But that really isn’t important; it only comes up in a cutscene once every 21 levels, and besides, it’s only the motivation within the fiction. The motivation for the player is what’s in front of you all the time: the pigs are ugly and disgusting, and they laugh at you. If you fail a level (by using up all your birds without murdering all the pigs), the survivors smile snaggle-toothed grins and guffaw piggishly. If you fail to fail, you get raucous and triumphant avian laughter from your own side. That’s the game’s mindset: the only options are to laugh at or be laughed at, to dominate or be dominated. Life is mean.

Furthermore, the birds, who are presented as being capable of emotion (or one emotion, anyway), are deliberately reducing themselves to nothing more than weapons, things to be used, and used up. I’ve seen it posited before that the birds are terrorists: they are, after all, killing their victims (not enemies, as I hope I’ve made clear, but victims) by flying into buildings. I’ve seen that suggested jocularly, but I didn’t realize until I played just how close to the surface it is. The birds are making suicide attacks: shortly after a bird comes to rest, it goes poof. As I mentioned above, there’s one type that explodes on command, which makes it specifically a suicide bomber. They even make use of their offspring this way: there’s one type of bird whose special ability is to drop an egg, which falls straight down and explodes (while the bird itself, having no other purpose than to give birth to a weapon, collapses into a flaccid husk and perishes). Remember that the birds’ whole casus belli was to protect their eggs. Either that was just a pretext, or something has gone very wrong in the execution of this war.

The real hallmark of mean-spiritedness, though, is that when it presents cruelty and dehumanization, it expects you to respond with laughter. But there are definitely people who respond to that, and they’re probably underserved by the game industry in general. So I expect that this is part of its popularity. Although honestly I suspect that it’s sold as well as it has mostly just through a positive feedback loop, with people buying it simply because it’s at the top of the charts. Which, I have to admit, is more or less why I myself chose it above all the other iOS games I could have been playing during this interlude.

Prince of Persia (2008): Bosses and Combat

Prince of Persia (2008) is organized around groups of four. There are four colors of power-plate, and four distinct sets of zones, each of which is made of an entrance zone, a terminus, and a circle of four zones between them. And there are four bosses, each ruling over one of the four zone groups.

The bosses are a bit like ringwraiths. Former humans with bodies made of black, oily Corruption 1Come to think of it, Corruption strongly resembles petroleum, and the whole game is set in the middle east. I’m a little tempted to read allegory into this, but such things are really too subtle for this game. , they accepted power from Ahriman during their mortal lives, and consequently now serve him for eternity. Their names are apparently forgotten, because they’re all identified by their jobs: the Hunter, the Alchemist, the Concubine, the Warrior. And the peculiar thing is that most of the fighting in the game is against just these four creatures. You have to fight them over and over; every zone has a boss fight you have to win before you can cleanse it. And there isn’t a lot of combat beyond that.

To be precise, I’ve seen three other sorts of foes. In the very beginning, you have to fight some soldiers who are chasing Elika on her dad’s behalf. (Notably, you don’t kill them. They run away when defeated. I recall that The Sands of Time also had a bit at the beginning where you fought ordinary human soldiers before everyone turned into sand-wraiths, but it wasn’t so squeamish about letting them die.) Then there’s a periodic between-chapters battle against Elika’s father himself, who’s not undead yet but probably on his way, if I understand the backstory correctly. And finally, there are lesser Corrupted that spawn at specific points in the paths between corrupted zones — but there’s at most one such point per path, and it’s possible to slip by them without a fight if you’re fast enough. Even if you do fight the lesser corrupted, they’re a lot quicker to defeat than the bosses: if you can back them all the way up to a ledge or wall, you drain the rest of their lifebar automatically. A boss in a similar situation will just teleport closer to the center of the battlefield.

Combat is always one-on-one (apart from Elika’s magical assistance), and feels a bit like a simplified Street Fighter/Mortal Kombat-style fighting game, in that it’s about carefully-timed button presses rather than fluid grace — a charge that could be leveled at the platforming sequences as well. For what it’s worth, I’m rubbish at this sort of fighting. I understand that there are combos to be discovered as well, but the only combos I’ve managed to pull off are the simple ones like “sword-sword-sword-sword”.

All Corrupted, whether minor or boss, have a habit of metamorphosing into forms that are vulnerable to only a single sort of attack: turning the Corruption of their body into a sort of armor with blue highlights means you need to use sword attacks to get it off, a sort of black cloud around the feet and back needs you to pull them out with your gauntlet, and turning into a mass of black tentacles is an invitation to use Elika’s magic. You’re given a help text explaining these vulnerabilities the first time each form is used, but after that you pretty much have to just remember them (unless Elika shouts out advice, as she does sometimes). What I didn’t notice at first is that the combat QTEs work very similarly. I mentioned before not being able to react to the QTE button prompts quickly enough; I now suspect that this is intentional. What you’re supposed to do — what works — is to recognize the situation before the button prompt comes up. If a boss rears up on a tall column of Corruption, for example, it means that you’re about to be asked to press the Jump button to leap out of the way before he falls on you like a wrestler. So for once, we have QTEs that make it worthwhile to pay attention to what’s happening in the gameworld instead of just staring at the UI.

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1. Come to think of it, Corruption strongly resembles petroleum, and the whole game is set in the middle east. I’m a little tempted to read allegory into this, but such things are really too subtle for this game.

Prince of Persia (2008): Structure and Freedom

I’ve probably been making Prince of Persia (2008) sound more linear and constrained than it is. Let me describe its structure more fully.

Points of PersiaThe map is a highly symmetrical network of zones and passageways. The divisions between zones aren’t explicitly marked; it’s possible to go from one zone to another without realizing it. Each zone starts off in a state of darkness and corruption. In fact, “The Corruption” is the name of a sort of writhing slime that covers any surface that the level designers don’t want you to touch. And each zone has a special spot called “Fertile Ground”, consistently pronounced with a long i, like “fur tile”. When Elika does her sacred magic thing on the fur tile, a Genesis-Effect-like aura spreads out from it, restoring color, making grass grow, and permanently cleansing the zone of the Corruption. (The architecture is left in ruins, but you can’t have everything.) Cleansing all of the zones is pretty much the game’s main goal.

The important thing to recognize about this is that the Corruption is a constraint on your movement. Entering a corrupted zone, you’ll find that you’re mostly confined to a single path. Cleanse it and your options open up. Which is a good thing, because you still have a good deal more to do there. The cleansing magic also makes glowy floating things called “light seeds” appear, turning the zone into a hunt for collectibles. And in this phase, the player has considerable freedom. Yes, you get the same visual cues as always for reaching them, but in some cases I’m pretty sure that I spotted and followed alternate routes to light seeds before I found the preferred one. Notably, light seeds that you collect while falling stay collected even if you get rescued by Elika. I don’t think the preferred route ever actually requires you to be rescued, but it’s a serious option.

Now, with certain exceptions, every zone in the map is open for exploration from early in the game. However, most of the fur tiles (and some of the light seeds) are in places that can only be accessed by means of special magical powers that Elika accesses one by one over the course of the game. There are four different powers, including flight and a power-climb that can take you across ceilings, but they all come down to the same thing: they all, in some way, transport the player from a special colored plate — the color determining the power — to a fixed destination. The plates are another assertion of authorial control: if you could just activate these powers from anywhere, the experience would be in the player’s hands, and we can’t have that.

So, how do you obtain these powers? By collecting light seeds. You get your first power at 60 seeds, the second at 170, the third at 340, and the fourth and last at 540. 540 is significantly less than the amount available, and (as far as I’m aware) there’s no advantage to collecting more after you’ve got all the powers, so obsessive completism is not required, unless you’re like me and just value 100% completion for its own sake. You do, however, need all four powers to complete the game, and that means a lot of hunting and backtracking to find enough seeds. Inevitably, you wind up crossing through zones that you can’t cleanse yet in order to reach ones that you can.

The interesting part, however, is that you can take the four powers in any order. Whenever you go back to the Temple to cash in your seeds, you get to choose whichever of the remaining powers you want. And the order in which you take them affects the order in which you can cleanse the zones. If you want to tackle a particular zone first, you can find out its required power (which is helpfully listed in the map screen’s zone data) and obtain that power first. You still ultimately have to cleanse all the zones, but there’s no particular ordering to them, even though there’s still a Metroidvania-like progression of decreasing constraint.

Prince of Persia (2008): An artifact of its time and place

Prince of Persia on the PC really feels like a port of a recent big-budget console game. I don’t even play recent big-budget console games, and even I can recognize this.

The most obvious signifier is the button icons. There are six basic action buttons: jump, sword, block, gauntlet, talk to Elika, and use Elika’s magic (with effects that depend on context). On a console, these are bound to the four face and two shoulder buttons. With PC controle, all six can be executed with the keyboard, but also, the game rather surprisingly supports up to four mouse buttons: by default, sword and block on left and right mouse buttons respectively, magic and gauntlet on the forward/back buttons that are usually only recognized by web browsers. The trackball that I use for PC games does in fact have these extra buttons, but I think this is the first game I’ve seen that supports them; even HTML-based games tend to not handle paging around through your browser history very well. Anyway, each of these buttons has a circular icon associated with it, each with a distinct background color. Invented for this game, they’re clearly replacements for the standard console button prompts, in both appearance and function: options in menus have button icons displayed next to them, and in the QTE-like moments in combat where you have to press or mash a specific button to execute or avoid a special move, the icon for the required button is displayed on the screen. This isn’t ideal. When it’s in combat, I usually fail to execute the move, because the symbols don’t have a strong association with their associated buttons in my mind. I do have a strong association between the buttons and their actions, but looking at the symbols is like reading a foreign language; it takes me a moment to translate from “green circle with a pair of legs in mid-leap” to “space bar”, and so by the time I know which button to press, it’s too late. I speculate that this is because it’s a two-step associative chain: the icon depicts an action which I associate with a button. On the consoles, it presumably just shows a picture of the button.

The other thing that seems particularly symptomatic of modern console games is the sheer amount of guidance the game gives you. The QTE prompts, where it tells you exactly what button to press, are the extreme case of this, of course, but it goes beyond that. In platforming, the player is basically never trusted to figure out what to do next. Sections of wall where you’re expected to do the Prince’s trademark wall-run 1The wall-run was introduced in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and quickly became known as the Prince’s signature move. I’m old enough to remember the original Prince of Persia from 1989, and at the time, I felt that his signature move was leaping across a gap, catching a ledge with just his hands, dangling for a moment, and pulling himself up. But then Lara Croft took that over, and nowadays it’s just expected of any decent platformer hero. are marked with scratches. Even if you get stuck (or, more likely, disoriented), Elika can produce a ball of light that floats ahead, showing the path to your current designated destination. Mind you, you get to designate your destination yourself — the game isn’t linear. That alone saves it from the worst excesses of the don’t-let-the-player-get-lost philosophy. Also, it is in fact still possible to wall-run in non-indicated places, and possibly even to discover shortcuts that way, although there’s a tendency for the solidity of objects to break down when you’re in a place where the game doesn’t expect you. Even so, the intense guidance robs the experience of a certain element of discovery found in prior Prince of Persias. I remember having to look carefully around a room and plan out a route, thinking “Will I be able to reach that beam from that pillar?” and the like.

And in general, the whole player experience seems very planned. The mechanics here don’t allow for a wide variety of alternate approaches. You can’t try to somersault under blade traps like in prior games — there’s no somersaulting (and, indeed, no blade traps). You can’t run away from fights. Combat generally takes place on circular platforms without exploitable environmental features; in the few places where you can exploit the environment, it’s because you’re facing a puzzle-boss who can’t be defeated any other way. The fact that you can wall-run in non-indicated places almost feels like an oversight on the developers’ part. Even when there’s no button icon on the screen telling you what to press and when, there’s a very clear sense that there’s a single right thing to do at every moment, except at planned branch points.

I’ve seen it advised that one should design games by thinking first about the experience that you want the player to have. I get the impression that a lot of big-budget games these days attempt this, but confuse experience with spectacle: they start by deciding what they want the player to see, then implement a game around making the player perform the correct actions at the correct moments to see it. For all the sophistication of its underlying engine, Prince of Persia can be viewed as a descendant of games like Cyberia. There are bits where you slide down a chute and have to clear gaps by pressing the jump button at the right moments, and other bits where you’re sent flying through the air with no control over your trajectory and have to dodge obstacles with the directional movement controls. These are both things that could have been done in a Dragon’s Lair or Rebel Assault engine without significant loss.

And yet I’m still having fun with it, which perhaps means I’m being overly sour about this sort of gameplay. Or perhaps it just points out how shallow fun is as a criterion for judging games.

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1. The wall-run was introduced in 2003’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and quickly became known as the Prince’s signature move. I’m old enough to remember the original Prince of Persia from 1989, and at the time, I felt that his signature move was leaping across a gap, catching a ledge with just his hands, dangling for a moment, and pulling himself up. But then Lara Croft took that over, and nowadays it’s just expected of any decent platformer hero.

Prince of Persia (2008)

For our next game, we have Prince of Persia, which unfortunately doesn’t have a subtitle to distinguish it from Prince of Persia. Prince of Persia at least had the excuse of being the only game titled Prince of Persia when it was released, but I’m not playing that one, I’m playing Prince of Persia, the 2008 game with a new “prince” (apparently a thief, although I suspect he’s just pretending and incognito) assisting Elika, a young magician-princess, in keeping Ahriman, the god of darkness, from escaping his prison. I won’t call this a “reboot”, because I think it’s pretty well-established, in “expanded universe” materials if nowhere else, that PoP continuity contains multiple different Princes echoing each others’ stories at various points in history. This is just one of the ones we haven’t seen before.

I have quite a lot to say about the gameplay, but for this post, I’ll just share some early impressions.

The graphical style makes a strong first impression, somehow looking very illustration-like. It’s not cel-shaded, but there’s some similar simplification going on, or maybe it’s just the thin black outlines on the characters that make it seem that way. It reminds me of what little I’ve seen of Street Fighter IV. Still, as usual, it doesn’t take long to get used to it and not notice it any more. Elika’s magical effects, on the other hand, turn her outline and shadows, and sometimes those of Prince as well, into pale blue, and that remains a striking effect when it happens, presumably because it’s not in front of your eyes all the time.

My second strong impression is dismay at the characters’ wardrobe. It’s not nearly as direly sexualized as in Warrior Within, but there’s still a strong “who in their right mind would wear that in public” vibe. It isn’t that they show a lot of skin — both the Prince and Farah wear more revealing outfits in The Sands of Time, but garments in this PoP08 expose skin strategically. The prince wears an impractical-looking muscle shirt that’s cut to show off his slab-like pectoral and abdominal muscles, and yet manages to give the impression that he has no nipples. Elika sports a tattered top that leaves weird portions of her hips exposed and was probably intended to go with some kind of high-waisted skirt instead of the trousers she’s got on. (Those trousers seem fairly practical, mind you, especially in contrast to everything else ever worn by any woman in a Prince of Persia game.) To expand on the contrast: in The Sands of Time, Farah managed to be dignified even in her slave outfit, while the Prince was the hapless victim of gradual wardrobe loss, a symbol of his lack of control over the catastrophe that he himself helped to cause. That was their relationship in a nutshell. PoP08 turns this backward, giving the female lead a torn and ill-fitting outfit that suggests victimhood, and pairing her with a tall, muscular man who looks like he’s dressed to go cruising for chicks.

In fact, Elika’s weakness is a major plot point. Use of magic sometimes drains her to the point where she collapses onto the floor, or into the Prince’s arms. (The Prince manhandles her quite a lot, considering that they only just met.) And yet, whenever the player makes a mistake and jumps off a ledge or something, Elika uses her magic to instantly rescue him, regardless of the circumstances. Even if she’s bound up in a writhing cocoon of magical darkness and awaiting rescue, which is something that happens more than once over the course of the game, she finds a way to break out of it for just long enough to save the Prince, and then immediately becomes bound and helpless again. I suppose you could argue that this shows that the relationship between Elika and the Prince is really one of mutuality, that each of them relies on the other, but it feels more like the Prince’s needs come first, that he somehow has the right to expect a woman who’s suffering from fainting spells to run around making sure that he never has to suffer the consequences of his actions.

Am I being unfair? Perhaps. I have to admit that I simply find this incarnation of the Prince irritating. His type is what I think of as the Brendan Fraser role, all smug and cocksure, with a smirk in his voice. He keeps telling Elika that she ought to get out and live real life among ordinary people, which is not so much a piece of advice as an aggressive act of reverse-elitism, a way for him to act superior and assume authority while at the same time accusing her of the superior attitudes. And in contrast to the Prince’s arrogance in The Sands of Time, which was flaw that humanized the character and made him more sympathetic, it seems like in PoP08 the writer, or possibly just the voice actor, doesn’t even think he’s being arrogant. He’s just trying to be the common-sense voice that the audience agrees with. If the Prince and Farah in TSoT bickered like Tracy and Hepburn, the banter in PoP08 comes off more like the arguments between Spock and McCoy, and has about as much romantic tension. Fortunately, most of the dialogue is optional, and only comes up if you choose to press the “talk” button.

I had to look this up, but a growing suspicion of mine turned out to be correct: the voice actor for the Prince is none other than Nolan North, best known as the voice of Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series. I haven’t played any of the Uncharted games, and certainly didn’t recognize the voice. I just guessed this on the basis of the complaints I’ve heard about Drake.

Anyway, despite all that, I am quite enjoying the actual game. When my mind is on wall-running and leaping across chasms, I don’t much care about what my avatar is wearing, or what he sounds like. And it’s rather compelling, with a strong “one more level and then I’ll stop” factor, possibly assisted by the way that Elika’s automatic rescues keep you away from any kind of “game over” screen or save/load menu.

I recall that these auto-rescues were controversial when the game was first released, and that some people complained that it caused the game to lose something — a sense of danger or whatever. I was skeptical about this; it seemed to me that it was just expediting the die/restore or checkpoint cycle, and thus not really changing the interactivity in any significant way. Well, I don’t quite know how to justify this, but in practice, it honestly does feel different, like your failures are less significant than they should be. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s happening within the context of the game’s fiction, and thus makes you aware of the cheatingness of infinite take-backs in a way that you don’t notice when it’s at the system level. Perhaps it’s that the game is robbing you of even the possibility of doing things wrong, and thereby reducing the sense of agency. Regardless, it only feels this way for a while. Just like the graphics, I got used to it pretty quickly.

Cyberia: Done

Zak, the player character in Cyberia, is a cyberpunk-as-interpreted-by-videogames sort of hero: a cool tough guy with computerized shades. His voice is permanently bored and his face never changes expression, or indeed shows any sign of being able to move his facial muscles at all, which is a bit of a problem for a kissing scene early on. And he kills and kills and kills. Once you’re in the Cyberia compound, leaving anything alive behind you generally means getting shot in the back. If you manage to slip by someone without killing them, it just means you’re going to have to kill them some other way later.

For the wandering-around-corridors segment of the game contains shooting of zap guns aplenty, usually in the form of shootouts where you and the enemy are popping out from cover repeatedly. This is one of the game’s few ways to keep repeatedly killing you in what would otherwise be a lightweight adventure-style situational puzzle sequence. Some puzzles require actions in more than one room, which is a bit of a strain on the checkpoint system, which is designed to just remember a location, not any state. The result is that the checkpoints can get pretty far apart here, with the result that any time I died, I needed to repeat multiple roomworths of content, including shootouts. Just a few days ago, I complained about the rapid die/retry cycle, but it’s even worse when it’s long.

Each floor of the compound is mostly just one big curving corridor with rooms hanging off it here and there, but in its favor, the place really is conceived as spatially coherent, and there are a couple of puzzles that rely on this. For example, one bit requires you to open a vent so you can reach through it from the other side, after going back the way you came and then coming back through some unusually spacious air ducts.

Also to its credit, the game does go slightly nonlinear here, with two entrances to the compound, one guarded by a guard with a gun, the other by something even more lethal: a spinning metal fan. (For some reason, videogame designers seem to think that fans are the most dangerous things on Earth. Even in a game where you can keep going after falling five stories and taking multiple bullets to the chest, touching a fan kills instantly.) Anyway, the guard route leads to one of those self-contained wall-panel puzzles that I liked so much. Unfortunately, that seems to be it for those puzzles. Just two in the entire game, and one of them is skippable.

We get more story in the compound than in the rest of the game put together, partly through snooping into the staff’s video emails. But the story is pretty much all cliché, including the genre-mandated betrayal of the hero by his employer. Why is this such a mainstay of the cyberpunk videogame? It wasn’t that big a part of literary cyberpunk.

Towards the end, there is more of the FMV swoop-and-shoot, but not in the way I had anticipated. In fact, you get three different contexts for it, two of which involve controlling a machine remotely, so that you’re playing the part of a person sitting and staring at a computer screen. The third, the climax of the game, involves becoming a sort of nanotech superman and flying off into space for the most direct Rebel Assault imitation yet. Space seems to me a better setting for this stuff than Earth, if only because it’s easier to render convincingly.

And that concludes Cyberia, a game that I didn’t want. I’ll say this for it: it’s a pretty pure specimen of its type. If someone asks “What were 90s FMV games like, and why are people so down on them?”, you can point them at Cyberia to answer both questions.

Cyberia: Aerial Combat

So, my latest session was all about the Rebel Assault-style FMV swoop-and-shoot. For a lengthy portion of the game, that’s all you get, just one air-combat mission after another. It makes me think of how the vehicle sections of Half-Life 2 were broken up with obstacles that you could only clear by getting out the the vehicle and pressing a switch or something in a guarded building nearby, a fragment of ordinary FPS gameplay inserted to make the whole thing less monotonous. Nothing of that kind happens here.

I have a couple more big complaints about the way air combat is handled here. One is that the underlying movie clip sometimes cuts away to show a third-person shot of a particularly dramatic explosion or your plane noninteractively executing a sweet maneuver, and that’s pretty much always a mistake in the middle of an action scene, particularly if there are still targets on the screen that the mini-cutscene is keeping the player from blowing up. Even worse, because some of these cutscenes show things that you can shoot at blowing up, there is no way to destroy those things before the video playback reaches the cutscene. You’ll be shooting at a plane over and over for a couple of seconds with no effect, and that’s frustrating.

Also, I can’t help but feel that this sort of fast-paced first-person air combat really needs a resolution higher than 320×200. Enemies often spend most of their time onscreen as one or two pixels, too small to identify even on the level of “is it a plane or a tank”, and thus too small for the player to anticipate their behavior or prioritize their destruction. Instead, we’re given the opportunity to learn what’s going to happen and how to react to it by means of exact repetition.

To be honest, there is a pleasure to be found in this: the pleasure of finally overcoming a challenge that you’ve failed many times, a mix of triumph and relief. But I’m impatient with this game, and want it off my Stack, and some of the levels just seem insanely difficult. And so I’ve dropped the difficulty down to Easy for action sequences (the game has separate difficulty settings for action and puzzles), despite the implication in the docs that this setting is for babies and grandmothers. Even on Easy, I had some difficulty with the later shooty levels, but the overall experience was an improvement, replacing the pleasure of overcoming a challenge failed repeatedly with that of getting it right on the first try. 

There was just one problem: the game doesn’t support switching difficulty settings on the fly. To drop down to Easy, you have to create a new profile and start over from the beginning. But I didn’t have a whole lot of ground to re-cover, and it goes a lot faster when you know what you’re doing. Also, I decided to take advantage of this discontinuity by switching to a different machine, and found that on the other one I could play full-screen without problems. I’m finding this much nicer, even if it does expose the pixelation more. Well, it’s not like the graphics were all that good anyway, right?

Anyway, I seem to be done with this stuff, at least for now. Last night, after something resembling a boss fight (involving a large aircraft with three weapons that had to be destroyed individually), I reached my destination, the compound housing the Cyberia project (which is something to do with nanotechnology), and that seemed like a good stopping-point for the session. It remains to be seen if I’ll need to do more dogfighting as I make my escape.

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