Archive for February, 2007

Serious Sam: The Second Encounter

Not Chichen ItzaThis time around, I was in the mood for something mindless. It’s been a while since I played a first-person shooter, so I pulled out Serious Sam: The Second Encounter, which is not to be confused with Serious Sam 2. They’re both sequels to Serious Sam: The First Encounter, but this one is older and uses approximately the same graphics engine as the original. “First, Second, Two” isn’t the best numbering scheme in the world, but I’ve seen worse. (Dark Forces/Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight/Jedi Knight 2 comes to mind, as does Heretic/Hexen/Hexen 2/Heretic 2.)

Like the original Serious Sam, this is a big, loud, dumb game that knows it’s big, loud, and dumb, and sets out to be the very best game it can be without sacrificing the bigness, loudness, and dumbness. At the time when it was released, games like Half-Life and Deus Ex were starting to turn the FPS genre into something more sophisticated, something where the action was part of a narrative set in a coherent world, where there was more to the player’s actions than shooting everything. 1In a way, this was not so much a new development as the genre returning to its roots. Ultima Underworld is a game in this more story-driven and less action-based mode, and although it’s not usually classified as a FPS, it was the inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D and thus for the FPS genre as a whole. But after the phenomenal success of Doom, this kind of design took a backseat to emphasis on graphics technology. The designers of Serious Sam consciously and deliberately rejected all that. This is a game where the thought “Should I blow that up?” is immediately followed by “Sure, why not? It couldn’t hurt.”

To the extent that Serious Sam added anything important to the genre, it’s because of its improved technology and its perspective on what’s gone before. The technology is obvious: the graphics take advantage of advanced techniques that couldn’t have been done practically in Doom. There’s even a special demo area with Utah teapots to show off what the engine can do. But the perspective on the past, while less obvious, is just as important. When Serious Sam was released, most people took one look at the guy on the box and concluded that it was a Duke Nukem clone. This is wrong: it’s an everything clone. The designers seem to have chosen a distinctive element from each major old-school FPS written up to that point. Duke Nukem 3D provided the template for the macho, wisecracking player character. Quake provided the leaping Fiends, the obvious model for the Kleer Skeletons, one of the best monsters in the game. From System Shock, we get Autobombs, remade here as Headless Kamikaze. From Rise of the Triad, the dual pistols. From Powerslave, the ancient Egyptian setting. I could go on.

The Second Encounter isn’t set in Egypt, though. It starts near a Mayan temple, which is rougly equivalent to Egypt from a level-designer’s point of view, except that the texture maps are different and the exterior scenes contain vegetation. I think this is the first FPS I’ve played in which you can actually use your Doom-style chainsaw to cut down trees. Or, of course, you can pull out your rocket launcher blow them up.

1 In a way, this was not so much a new development as the genre returning to its roots. Ultima Underworld is a game in this more story-driven and less action-based mode, and although it’s not usually classified as a FPS, it was the inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D and thus for the FPS genre as a whole. But after the phenomenal success of Doom, this kind of design took a backseat to emphasis on graphics technology.

The Forgotten: It Ends

The end! Huzzah!I seem to have finished The Forgotten. This happened quite abruptly.

Adventure games are often short. I remember completing Myst in more or less a single sitting. They don’t usually leave quite so much unresolved as this game, though. The docs describe this as the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it doesn’t even seem complete enough to be a chapter. It’s more like a story told by someone who stops in mid-sentence to take an important phone call. There are things that are clearly clues for puzzles that never appear, as if they had to cut things out to meet a deadline. The very first thing that happens in the game is that you find a box containing a rusty pistol and a broken pocketwatch, together with a note stating that you’ll know what to do with them when the time comes. Neither is ever used. I suppose that the entire game is just the first act, and Chekov’s rule talks about the third, but still.

It seems to me that there’s something like the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy here. (Self-denying?) The attempt at episodic narrative yields an incomplete and unsatisfying game, which results in bad reviews, low sales, and ultimately the cancellation of the project before any more episodes can be made.

By the end, I’d briefly held four cards, but not really gotten a chance to use any of them: two were acquired at the very end, and one had to be abandoned to solve a puzzle immediately after obtaining it. The game’s puzzles were mostly mechanical things of the sort that any post-Myst graphic adventure would have. I also learned, from the journals scattered about in lieu of characters, something of what other people had done with their cards: at least one deck provided the power of time travel, and Amelia Earhart apparently had a “flight deck”. Yes, Amelia Earhart figures into the plot. So does Anastasia Romanov. Using people who disappeared gives the authors an excuse to not have them around where the player can interact with them.

Like I said, constrained and linear. The game provides lots of scenery that you can look at, but relatively little that you can interact with, and basically no way to affect game state other than the ways that are necessary to complete it. In short, it’s a typical post-Myst graphic adventure.

The Forgotten: It Begins

There are basically bones all over the place in this game.So, after spending so much time on GTA3, I figure the next thing I pull off the stack should be as unlike it as possible. It has to be nonviolent, it has to offer highly constrained and linear gameplay, and, most of all, it has to be obscure. Searching the stack, I see the perfect thing: The Forgotten, an aptly-named first-person adventure game from 1999 in the gothic horror/fantasy/mystery genre. When this game was new, I played it until I got severely stuck, then shelved it. Starting over from the beginning, I find I remember very little about the game consciously, but it’s still familiar enough for me to waltz through the parts I had seen before. I’m already into new territory.

The premise of the game is like a cross between Cardcaptor Sakura and H. P. Lovecraft. Individuals called “collectors” pursue magical cards crafted by the powerful and mysterious beings who held dominion over the earth before the rise of humankind, but the cards are a kind of trap, and the collectors who use their power too much wind up collected themselves. This is a promising basis for a game. Collecting items that give you special powers is always fun. But so far, it hasn’t met its promise. I only have one card, and it’s only been usable once, teleporting me like a Myst book to a decrepit and abandoned street in New Orleans. It doesn’t even let me teleport back.

I like to think that every game has a lesson for us, whether about life or about game design. In the case of The Forgotten, the lesson concerns hubris. To quote from the docs:

The Forgotten is not just a single game. It has been conceived, and the plot line developed, as a series of games that will progress over time, each module developing the story line and taking advantage of the latest technology available to us during the development process.

The first installment, It Begins, is meant to introduce the player to the series: the plot line, the recurrent locales and themes, the interface and the basic nature of the gameplay. There are objects and cards collected here that will be used later as the player progresses through the story…

Such confidence! Elsewhere, the titles of the other six episodes are given. Eight years later, this is still the only episode. The official website has some material on episode 2, but this hasn’t been updated since 2002 at the very latest.

GTA: Challenges vs. Activities

An activityToday I finished GTA3. That is, I finished the last mission, which was indeed the one described in my last post. I’m still missing three hidden packages, and the game itself calls my current state “43% complete”, but I’ve completed the story and triggered the closing credits. The credits roll over a series of views of Liberty City from high vantage points, and as they scrolled by, I tried to spot any sign of the missing Hidden Packages in the background.

Completing the final mission took many tries. At the beginning of the mission, Catalina’s goons take your weapons away, which makes the rest of the mission more difficult. You basically have to start over with just a pistol and scavenge new weapons from progressively better-armed opponents, like the whole game in miniature. After a few attempts like this, I started to wonder if it would be worthwhile to instead go back to my hideout immediately after the mission starts and pick up all the free weapons I had earned by finding hidden packages. There’s a time limit, but the hideout isn’t all that far from where you start the mission. In the end, I did not complete the mission this way, but I think that this approach would have made it much easier if my hideout had had the one weapon capable of bringing down a helicopter: the rocket launcher, earnable by finding all 100 hidden packages.

So I did some more unsuccessful scouting for hidden packages, and while I wandered looking for them, I tried out some of the things to do in Liberty City that I had been neglecting. I think these things can be meaningfully divided into two categories: challenges and activities.

By “challenge”, I mean something resembling a mission: you are assigned a goal, it is difficult to achieve that goal, and once you’ve done it, it’s done. It has some kind of permanent effect on the gameworld, at the very least deleting itself from the pool of available challenges. Optional challenges in GTA3 include Rampages, various missions not connected to the storyline and assigned by payphone, and certain special vehicles that, when entered, offer you an opportunity to earn extra cash by racing through a set of checkpoints before a timer runs out.

By “activity”, I mean something that has no final goal, that is not difficult, that you can do as much or as little as you please, and that, if it’s connected to the larger game at all, provides some incremental benefit rather than a single significant change to game state. In a typical CRPG, killing low-level monsters for the sake of XP would be an activity. Activities in GTA3 mostly involve service vehicles of various kinds. Steal a taxi, and you can drive passengers around for fares. Steal an ambulance and you can deliver wounded people to the hospital. Steal a fire engine and you can extinguish flaming vehicles. Steal a police car and you can go into “vigilante” mode, hunting down and killing assigned criminals. Steal an ice cream truck… well, okay, there isn’t a special activity for ice cream trucks, but there should be.

The fire engine activity is of particular interest, because while you’re doing it, the fire engine seems to be invulnerable. Since it’s also massive and powerful, this makes for the perfect opportunity to smash your way down the road, not caring what happens to the other cars. Indeed, I find that the easiest way to aim your firehose at the car that you’re supposed to be dousing is to just ram it at full speed.

The vigilante activity is also of note, because unlike the other vehicle activities, you can exit the car and continue the hunt. This is crucial, because police cars are prone to flipping over and exploding.

Now, although I tried all kinds of challenges and activities this afternoon, I spent most of my time on activities. An activity can be a nice break from a difficult challenge (such as the game’s final mission), and can give you an opportunity to hone your skills in a low-risk environment, which is really what gaming is all about in the broader world. Thus, activities are a good thing in a game, provided that they’re optional.

GTA3: Climax or Transition?

Catalina makes her moveThere’s something peculiar going on at this point in the story. Ray has fled to Miami (what, not Vice City?), Donald Love has vanished without a trace, and Asuka and Maria were abducted by the Colombian cartel. More specifically, they were abducted by a woman named Catalina, who apparently has some bad history with the player character. (It seems this was established in the opening cutscene, but it’s been so long since I watched it that I don’t remember her at all). Catalina is turning into the story’s chief bad guy. No, make that the story’s chief antagonist. Everyone in the game, including the PC, is a bad guy.

So all my former sources of plot-related missions are gone in one way or another. The only mission now available is delivering ransom money to Catalina herself. On receiving it, she breaks her promise to free Maria, insults you with great vehemence, and then leaves her henchmen to kill you while she escapes in a helicopter. What happens when you catch up to her, I can’t say; I haven’t managed to do that yet.

And this leads to the peculiar thing: this could easily be the end of the game. The story has come full circle, everything has funnelled into this one confrontation, and the car-vs-helicopter chase seems kind of ultimate. But it might just be the end of a chapter. The first chapter similarly funnels into a single mission requiring a large amount of cash after you complete all the missions for the Mafia in Portland. As a result of finishing that mission, you gain access to Staunton Island and can get new missions from the Yakuza. The same narrowing of options occurs in the second chapter, and ends when Shoreside Vale becomes available, but you still get your missions in Staunton, even as the content of those missions takes you into the newly-opened territory. Catalina’s ransom demand is the first mission that starts in Shoreside Vale. Maybe this is just the start of a shift to the new area, and a new series of missions will follow, probably involving Catalina in some way.

This uncertainty is something peculiar to games. When reading a book, you always know how far you are from the end. When watching a movie, you may not know exactly, but you know approximately how long it is and how long you’ve been watching it. With a game, all you have to go on is the game’s content. A lot of games make it obvious when you’re approaching the end, by making it clear what your ultimate objective is and providing some metric of how close you are to that objective. For example, if a game is divided into levels, and you’re told in adavance how many levels a game has, the number of levels you’ve completed serves as such a metric. But this sort of thing is the result of deliberate design decisions, and not inherent to the medium. The geography of Liberty City, and the design of the first chapter, suggest that this is a story with three chapters tied to the three districts, but the missions in what I’ve been calling “chapter 3” call this into doubt.

GTA3: Dodo

My proudest momentWith access to the airport comes access to aircraft. Not many, though. There’s a herd of jumbo jets just kind of sitting around, and a pile of helicopters off in one corner, but the only craft you can actually fly is the Dodo, a small prop plane with an absurdly small wingspan.

And when I say you can fly it, I mean this in the loosest possible sense. It isn’t really an airplane designed for flying. (Maybe it would be more aerodynamic if they put the rest of the wings on.) The way it works is: you position yourself on a runway, you push the “go forward” button, you wait until you’ve got a good head of speed, you pull the joystick back, you rise off the ground briefly, you fall back to the ground. Usually you spend two seconds airborne, but with repeated attempts, I find I can spend up to four or even five seconds before touching down. I’ve had longer flights than that in a car.

Perhaps I’m doing something wrong. There are no in-game instructions for flying the dodo (or if there are, they flashed by while I wasn’t paying attention), so it’s possible that there’s some button I should be pushing that I’m not. The thing is, I’m eager to get this contraption aloft if possible, because if it is, there are probably some hidden packages in places that are only accessible that way. There are some promising spots I’d like to look at, such as inside the stadium on Staunton Island. Since I’ve found 96 out of 100 hidden packages so far, this may well be all that stands in the way of a complete collection and, with it, free rocket launchers.

GTA3: Act 3

After a marathon session of mission after mission, I have gained access to Shoreside Vale. It’s basically suburbs and an airport, the New Jersey to Liberty City’s Manhattan. So much for my theory about progress in urban games being measured by ritziness of environment.

One thing that surprises me now is that the game is turning out to have an actual plot, and maybe even themes. There wasn’t any real story in the first two GTAs — how could there be, when every single mission was optional? That obviously isn’t the case here, but look at the protagonist: he’s mute, nameless, and defined solely by his role in doing missions, which are chosen for him and which he passively accepts. How much of a story can there be about such a person?

Not much, perhaps, but more than I was expecting. Let me describe the major plot events so far. First, you escape from prison and fall in with the Mafia. They send you on various missions against their competition, but in the end, despite your exemplary service, Sergio, the big boss, tries to have you killed: he thinks his wife, Maria, has taken you as a lover. With Maria, you flee to Staunton Island to do jobs for the Yakuza, which is ruled by a a brother and sister named Asuka and Kenji. They have you take payoff money to a crooked policeman named Ray, who in turn gives you a job destroying evidence against another of his donors, Donald Love, a prominent businessman and owner of one of the radio stations you’ve been listening to on your car radio all along. Donald Love has a scheme that requires lowering property values, so he asks you to start a gang war by killing Kenji and making it look like the Colombian cartel did it.

Now, you have to understand that this gambit, faking an attack to start a gang war, was used extensively in the first two games, entirely without consequence. In GTA2, each level had three gangs on it, and I think every one of them had a mission to start a war between the other two. But missions in those games were isolated, self-contained scenarios, not part of a storyline. You’d nominally “start a gang war”, but nothing would change. So it was a little shocking to find, in a mission that took me into Colombian turf early in Act 3, that the gang war was still in progress, and that Asuka, who had disappeared from the story once she ran out of missions for me, is still around and obsessed with finding and punishing the guy who killed her brother.

At the moment, Asuka still regards me as an ally, and is willing to send me on new missions.The irony is that throughout the game, various characters have blamed me for things that weren’t my fault: Sergio most obviously, but Kenji and Ray also had their unprovoked outbursts. So of course the one time I actually commit a grievous offense against one of my benefactors, I get no blame at all. It’s an uneasy situation, though, and produces twinges of guilt in a way that running down random pedestrians doesn’t for some reason. Act 3 may well turn out to be a time of revelation and reckoning.

GTA3: Reckless Driving

If the core of the entire GTA series is reckless driving, it took them three tries to get it right. The first two games have an overall mechanic that discourages taking risks most of the time.

In the first two GTAs, no particular missions were required for progress. To get from one level to the next, all you needed was enough money. In theory, you could earn the entire amount through petty crime, but finishing a level would take days that way. The key to advancement was the score multiplier, which increased the cash you got from everything. If your multiplier was 10, a simple fender bender worth $10 before modification would instead get you $100, equivalent to running over a pedestrian without the multiplier.

So, how did you increase your score multiplier? Each level would have a few powerups in obscure corners that did it for free, but the main way you did it was by completing missions. That’s the thing that made missions important. The cash reward for the mission was a nice extra, but the multiplier was the real motivation.

Now, the opportunities to increase your score multiplier were limited. There were only so many missions on each level, and unlike GTA3, if you failed a mission, you couldn’t retry it. And in GTA1, there was no way to save the game between missions; only after finishing a level could you save. So every time you failed a mission, you irrevocably wasted a potential multiplier increase, in effect losing a number of points equal to all the points you would earn from that moment onward. In addition, if you got arrested on a mission, the cops would confiscate part of your multiplier. So there was a great deal of motivation to not take risks, especially on missions. If you ever, at any point in a mission, acquired a “wanted” rating, the top priority was to get rid of it. Missions with a time limit could be an exception, but even in those, you tried to be as careful as you could.

In contrast, GTA3:

  • Has no score multiplier
  • Allows you to save your progress between missions
  • Allows you to retry missions even if you didn’t save

All of the GTA games provide the same basic motivation for driving recklessly, ignoring traffic lights, driving on sidewalks, and so forth: it’s fun, and with the interface they give you, breaking the rules is easier than following them. (I half suspect that the developers were at first just experimenting with a driving interface, and came up with the crime theme after noticing how the system they had come up with encouraged car-chase-like behavior.) In GTA3, for the first time, they had the good sense to not punish you for following this instinct. Even crashes that in GTA1 would make your car immediately blow up in an unrealistic orange fireball usually give you an opportunity to climb out and escape in GTA3.

Heaven and Earth

In a reply to an earlier post, corto writes:

I too am a fan of games modeling other types of games inside themselves. The Sokoban levels in nethack are another example – I’m trying to think of others.

I have to mention Heaven and Earth, a game from 1991 featuring abstract puzzles by Scott Kim. There are 12 types of puzzle in the game, several of which are used to model other types of puzzles.

For example, one of the types of puzzle involves assembling a given pattern out of pieces made of line segments on a grid. This is straightforward at first: you look at your pieces, you look at where they might fit in the target shape, you put them together. It’s like tangrams, except that the pieces are made of lines and are allowed to overlap. But after a while, you get a puzzle that’s not like that at all: instead of the target pattern being a composite of the pieces, it’s just the same disconnected pieces, arranged differently. Suddenly the constraints of the space matter. The thing that makes it hard isn’t figuring out which piece goes where, but getting them were they belong. If you allow two pieces to touch, they stick together, which isn’t what you want. And the meager empty space isn’t large enough to contain an entire piece, so you have to shift and shuffle them around. In short, it uses the rules of a pattern-assembly puzzle to create a sliding-block puzzle. Again, this is not the only example in the game.

I notice that Mac and MS-DOS versions of Heaven and Earth have been made available for free download by its creators. The DOS version runs under Windows XP, but had no sound when I tried it. Presumably VDMSound would help there.

GTA3: Staunton Island

At this point, I’ve spent several hours on Staunton Island, the second of Liberty City’s three major areas. If Portland is modelled mainly on lower Manhattan, Staunton is more like midtown: less industrial facilities and urban decay, more retail and tourist attractions. It strikes me that this is the pattern in most games in urban settings, from Leisure Suit Larry onward: you start off in the slums and work your way up to the wealthier areas. I suppose that’s the American dream for you. But it’s the opposite of the general trend in fantasy games, which often start in a peaceful, happy, prosperous kingdom and end in the gameworld’s equivalent of Mordor.

I haven’t done many missions here yet, partly because the missions are starting to get much more difficult, partly because I’ve been spending so much time wandering the streets, getting the lay of the land, and hunting for Hidden Packages. These things are related: the reason I’m hunting for hidden packages is that I’m doing so poorly on the missions. I’ll say this, though: I’m getting pretty good at finding the hidden packages efficiently. Once you learn how the designers think, it’s not hard to spot the right kind of landscape feature. If there’s a staircase, you climb it. If there’s an area enclosed by a low wall, you find a way inside. If there’s an elevated roadway of any kind, you look for rooftops that you could reach by dropping off of it.

I keep talking about the hidden packages. Reading my posts, you might think that the hidden packages are a central concern in the game. They’re not. They’re optional bonus items. You get a free weapon at your hideout for every ten packages you collect, but that’s a mere convenience. They’re no more important to the game than the “rampages” (opportunities to score big by killing a set number of a particular gang), which I’ve been ignoring when I find them. No, the important thing, the emotional core of the game, is the simple joy of reckless driving.

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