Dino Crisis: Technology

At heart, Dino Crisis is mainly a game about technology. It’s a theme that’s present throughout the game, but it really comes to the fore towards the end, when your main goal is to get Dr. Kirk’s room-filling machines working again.

Kirk was researching what he calls “the third energy”. What are the first two energies? No idea. As far as I can tell, “third” is just a way to suggest that things are coming to some kind of dramatic peak, as in Tolkien’s “third age” or Evangelion’s “third impact”. Regardless, the third energy apparently involves harnessing space itself as an enery source. The rifts in time resulting from this, and the dinosaurs that wandered through them, were an unexpected side-effect. And there, we part company from both of the game’s primary inspirations, Resident Evil and Jurassic Park. Like Dino Crisis, both of these works are about man tinkering with nature and suffering unintended consequences, but at least the consequences are directly related to the tinkering. The Umbrella Corporation didn’t actually want a zombie apocalypse, but they did deliberately expose humans to the T-virus with the aim of producing monsters. Hammond didn’t want the dinosaurs to escape and start eating people, but he was aware of the possibility and considered it an acceptable risk when he set up the park. In both cases, their mistake was thinking that they could control their creations. Kirk? He wasn’t trying to control dinosaurs. He had no idea there would be dinosaurs to control. The dinosaurs are almost tangential to the plot. You could swap them out with any other random monster and the story would make just as much sense. Heck, all you have to do is replace “millions of years ago” with “an alternate universe” and you’ve got the premise of Half-Life.

The goals in the game are all about technology: find various disks and keycards that give you access to further reaches of the complex, turn on power systems, access computers, etc. And they’re not so much about defeating technology as about mastering it. There are a lot of Laytonesque self-contained mini-puzzles — I think the most engaging one I’ve seen involves rotating and stacking three pieces of a grille to produce a specific pattern. These are the riddles that the machines pose to you to prove your worthiness to use them. Once you’ve answered them, they will do your bidding. Even those locked doors become your allies against pursuing dinosaurs. The dinosaurs themselves cannot be mastered in this way. They’re only worthy of slaughter.

Dino Crisis: Characters

dinocrisis-gailMy last post described the mission leader, a man only referred to as “Gail”. It’s not clear if this is a first name or a last name, so it either fits in the tradition of tough guys with feminine names, like Firefly‘s Jayne Cobb or Vyvyan from The Young Ones, or the tradition of Japanese game designers not knowing what names sound plausible to an English-speaking audience. Anyway, let’s cover the rest of the team.

The first one on the site was Tom. He’s not really part of the current mission: he infiltrated the site some time beforehand, posing as a researcher. He’s the one who notified your organization that Dr. Kirk, the scientist you’re there to extract, was present and, more importantly, alive. (“Extract” is such a convenient word here: it leaves it ambiguous whether your mission is to rescue him or to capture him, something I’m still not sure about.) Tom doesn’t spend much time with the team: he’s already badly injured when you meet with him, and dies soon afterward. At least, that’s how it worked in the plot branch I chose to pursue, but I can’t imagine things work out much better for him in the alternate branch, where you decide to ignore Tom’s rescue signal like Gail wants you to.

dinocrisis-michaelRick is a bit of an oddity. He’s black, and his voice actor seems to have decided that this is all the characterization he needs. The moment he opened his mouth, I thought I had a handle on the stereotype here, that his role in the story is that of “the black guy”. But no, his role is team technician. He’s the guy you keep going back to for advice (Gail generally seems to be busy), and definitely not the first to die. (That would be Tom, although for a while it looked like it was Gail. Gail’s death seemed plausible, as he’s the least sympathetic character, but he turned out to be tough enough to survive a fall off a cliff in the grip of a velociraptor, which he probably killed with his bare hands.) Well, this is ultimately a Japanese game, and Japan doesn’t have the same stereotypes as we do in the West. Gail’s stereotype transcends national boundaries — if anything, it’s more prevalent in Japan — but “black” mainly just seems to connote “American”.

dinocrisis-reginaFinally, there’s the player character, Regina. As often the case with player characters, she receives the least characterization. She’s not quite a Gordon-Freeman-like silent protagonist, but pretty much all you know about her is what she looks like. She’s a post-Tomb Raider babe hero with a red dye job. This is something of a break from the patterns of Resident Evil, which (for the first couple of games, at least) provides a choice of male or female player character. It always seemed to me that the original RE seemed to expect the kids playing it — and yes, it definitely expected to be played by kids — to pick the character of their own gender. Regina, on the other hand, is definitely a female character designed to appeal to male players. Everyone on the mission is dressed in a black stealth suit with high-tech body armor, but on Regina, it looks more like a leather corset. dinocrisis-outfitsThat’s if you choose the default outfit. You get a choice of four outfits at the beginning of each session. (You don’t even have to unlock them.) In addition to the “stealth type”, there’s “army type” (olive green t-shirt and extremely short cutoffs), “battle type” (some kind of weird lingerie), and “ancient type” (what can only be described as a Flintstones-pattern minidress).

The only other non-dinosaur character I’ve seen so far is a picture of the mysterious Dr. Kirk. He’s handsome and has longish hair, and therefore can be confidently expected to be completely evil.

Dino Crisis: Dino Types

Let’s talk about the dinosaurs a bit. They are, after all, the alleged focus of the game. I’ve encountered three types so far (one of which isn’t technically a dinosaur), and Wikipedia tells me there are only two others to be seen.

The first and most common type is the velociraptor. Or, well, the thing that corresponds to the popular post-Jurassic Park conception of the velociraptor: they’re about human-sized, more like Deinonychus, and lack feathers. I’ve always kind of wondered about Spielberg’s decision to make velociraptors larger in order to make them scarier, and yet leave in the dialogue about how physically unimposing they seem and how deceptive that is. The featherlessness is easier to excuse: firm evidence for feathers has only been around for a few years now, so you can’t really blame a game made in 1999 (or a movie made in 1993) for getting it wrong. If it can truly be said to be wrong: these creatures could simply not be velociraptors at all. It’s not as if they’re authoritatively identified in the game. I think of them as velociraptors because I’m clearly meant to — as much as this game is a blatant imitation of Resident Evil, it’s also a blatant imitation of Jurassic Park — but the central characters here are soldiers, not paleontologists. No one was expecting them to encounter dinosaurs when they embarked on the mission. (Unless there’s a plot twist coming up where their commanding officer turns out to be secretly in league with the dinosaurs or something.)

Anyway, velociraptors are the basic grunts in this game. You find them wandering in corridors or sleeping in rooms, sometimes in groups. Other creatures can also be identified in terms of their standard videogame roles. Pteranodons are the obligatory flying unit, capable of lifting you off the ground and dropping you like an eagle trying to crack a tortoise. There’s at least one tyrannosaurus, which seems to fill the role of recurring boss. I’ve only encountered it once so far, when it interrupted a cutscene by smashing its massive head through a second-floor plate glass window, and at the end of that encounter, it was clear that I had driven it off rather than killed it.

The two types I have yet to encounter — compsognathus and therizinosaurus, apparently — seem to fill other standard niches. Compsognathus is most familiar as the tiny guys at the beginning of Jurassic Park 2 that seemed more like what the velociraptors were supposed to have been than the velociraptors were. So there’s your small, annoying, and hard-to-hit type. Therizinosaurus — a singularly freaky-looking species, to judge by pictures online — are probably the high-level grunts, the replacement for velociraptors when you’re far enough into the game that they don’t seem threatening any more. I’m expecting this mainly because of the way that Resident Evil replaced its standard zombies with tougher, faster, freakier-looking zombies halfway through.

Presumably the sequels introduce more species, filling other familiar roles. One imagines a water level where you’re menaced by a plesiosaur. Triceratops seems like a natural for the part of first-level boss that charges at you and is rendered temporarily vulnerable when it smacks into a wall. Unfortunately, the genre more or less demands that dinosaurs have to be monsters, and that makes it difficult to use the less threatening herbivores. For example, I’ve recently developed a certain fondness for the stegosaurus, having found them enchanting in Evolution. (They were the first really large creature you could develop, taking up immense quantities of space to just drift about lazily, grazing.) But it’s hard to imagine a convincing stegosaurus assault, because the only weapon they have is the thagomizer, which is on the wrong end to be used offensively.

Dino Crisis: What You Do

I’ve mentioned that this game contains both dinosaurs and guns, so it probably doesn’t come as a shock that it involves shooting at dinosaurs. However, that’s not what you spend most of your time doing. There’s a lot of time spent wandering around wondering when the next dinosaur is going to show up, for one thing. Even when you find one, there’s a good chance that you’ll be out of ammo and unable to shoot at it — insufficient ammo being one of the defining traits of the Survival Horror genre. Normally, this would be the point at which you start running from the monsters, which is a good tactic against zombies, but less so against velociraptors. Here, escape means getting a closed door between you and the animal, usually by backing out the way you came.

Actually, there’s one other interesting twist on the shoot/escape duality here: tranquilizer darts. These can disable a dinosaur, but they wear off after a while. If you think you’re not going to be coming back to a location, they’re as good as shooting a dinosaur dead, and even if not, they can be used as a stopgap until you find more bullets. Figuring out when it is and isn’t worth using tranquilizers to save your ammo is probably a big part of the game’s tactics, but it’s a complication I haven’t really engaged yet.

Speaking of complications, the game has a bunch of gratuitous ones. For example, there are security doors that don’t just require a key, they require a matching data card and a data disk that, once inserted, require you to solve a simple puzzle before proceeding. (How the velociraptors got to the parts of the complex behind these doors when they can’t even operate simple doorknobs, I don’t know. But then, I don’t know yet why they’re present on the island at all, so I’ll let it slide for now.) Or consider the boxes. This is a strange mechanic basically inherited from Resident Evil. In RE, your carrying capacity is limited, and you can’t just drop stuff anywhere, but there are boxes you can stash things in. The strangest part is that they’re all the same box. If you stash stuff in one, you can retrieve it from any of the others. It seemed like a gratuitous complication there, just extra mechanics for the sake of extra mechanics. Dino Crisis adds more complexity: you need to open the boxes with “plugs” of various colors, and only boxes with the same color of plug share their contents. Or something like that. Resident Evil had a simple crafting system for making healing items of various strengths out of herbs; Dino Crisis has a more complicated system that apparently can be used to make tranquilizers as well.

And that’s where a lot of the time goes, as well as a lot of the player’s attention. On all these little complications. We have here a largish system of details, only some of which are related to the game’s theme or premise. It seems designed for people who have already played Resident Evil backward and forward, and have gotten bored with it. It gives those players new stuff to learn, to persuade them that it’s not just a reskinning of old gameplay.

Dino Crisis: Its place in the history of Survival Horror

I mentioned in my last post that I never really understood the appeal of Resident Evil. Well, Tom Bissell devotes an entire chapter of Extra Lives, his recent book on the videogaming experience, explaining it to me. The key is that I approached it from a background of playing games on computers, while Bissell is purely a console gamer. What difference does this make? First of all, it means that he had never played Alone in the Dark, and thus the the gameplay in RE seemed new and different to him. Beyond that, he writes about how the game created a sense of unease by subverting the console gamer’s expectations. “Plenty of games have given you spaces around which to wander”, he says, “but they always took care to provide you with a maximal vantage point. This is not a maximal angle; this is not at all how your eye has been trained by video games to work.” Or about the awkwardness of the gunplay: “Video-game armaments have always seemed to you 1In this chapter, Bissell makes the odd choice of describing his own experiences in the second person. It’s especially weird if, like me, your actual experiences with the game are completely unlike his. a kind of voodoo. If you wanted some digital effigy to die, you simply lined it up and pushed in the requisite photonic pin. Here, however, there is no crosshair or reticule.” Later, he describes the discovery that you can’t move while shooting, and describes it as violating “another convention of the form”: “In video games, you can shoot your sluggish bullets while running, jumping, falling off a cliff, swimming underwater.” These unaccustomed limitations create a sense of helplessness conducive to panic. “A ‘scary game’,” he concludes, “seems a far less laughable notion than it did only a few moments ago.”

But who said the notion was laughable? I come from text adventures; I had known ever since The Lurking Horror how interactivity could heighten a sense of fear even in cliché situations. Moreover, the awkward controls were probably less effective on the PC, because to a PC gamer, awkward controls were the norm. Even back then — especially back then — the lower barriers to entry and complete lack of enforceable standards meant that PCs were friendlier to experimentation on the part of game designers, for good and for ill.

Finally, it’s always seemed to me that RE severely undercut the horror element by making the player character part of an elite special-tactics police team, and therefore already more prepared than most to deal with a zombie uprising. To console gamers at the time, this may have been unremarkable; console games were mainly action games, which tended to have highly-trained, technologically-augmented, or even outright superhuman protagonists, to both justify how you could singlehandedly defeat scores of computer-controlled enemies and to appeal to the target audience’s power fantasies. Again, I was a fan of adventure games, which are more given to everyman heroes. But adventure games have never been big on consoles.

So, how does all this relate to Dino Crisis? For starters, it carries the highly-trained player character part even farther. You’re military this time, part of a G.I. Joe-like special-forces team, sent to extract a scientist from a secret laboratory on a remote island. The intro cutscene shows you parachuting onto the island with a kind of gee-whiz feel, clearly aimed at kind of kid who doodles tanks in his notebook. This is horror?

Well, maybe it’s not. Those subversions of expectation that Bissel described as contributing to the sense of fear? The designers of Dino Crisis seem to have generally regarded them as flaws, and removed them. This time, you can walk around with your gun drawn. Abrupt changes of camera angle still exist, but to a much lesser degree: unlike RE, DC is in a fully 3D-rendered environment, which allows the camera to move smoothly with you. The gun seems to auto-aim, or perhaps it’s just that the dinosaurs are big enough (and, whenever I encounter one, close enough) to be hard to miss. Either way, it makes the lack of aiming aids unimportant. The movement controls are still as awkward as non-camera-relative directional movement always is, but that’s as far as it goes for interfering with convention.

It’s still a blatant RE imitation, but it’s as if Capcom decided that the way forward, the way to make the genre to appeal to more people, was to play it safe and make it more like a typical console game. Meanwhile, I’m approaching it from the opposite direction, so it seems like a step backward.

1 In this chapter, Bissell makes the odd choice of describing his own experiences in the second person. It’s especially weird if, like me, your actual experiences with the game are completely unlike his.

Dino Crisis

Not a lot of time to post today, and not a lot of play-time to post about, so I’ll just briefly introduce our next item. Dino Crisis is another one of those games with an easily-stated high concept: it’s Resident Evil with dinosaurs instead of zombies. I’m playing the PC version, but it’s blatantly a port from the original Playstation. A surprisingly robust one, too. I’ve more or less skipped past the PC’s first fumbling contacts with 3D graphics hardware here. By 1999, Direct3D was on solid enough ground that the game works effortlessly on my current system, albeit at a maximum resolution of 640×480. However solid their foundations, though, the 3D objects themselves are quite wobbly, especially when the camera is pitched at an oblique angle, as happens a lot in Resident Evil imitators. But I’ll tack this up to faithfulness to the original experience.

The survival horror genre, like the rhythm game, is primarily a console phenomenon. There really aren’t any survival horror games native to PC other than proto-example Alone in the Dark, which is sort of like the genre’s Pete Best, a franchise that left before the genre became famous. As such, I think I felt almost obliged at the time to pick up what few PC ports there were, once they became cheap. It wasn’t until Silent Hill 2 that I found one that I unreservedly liked. Resident Evil itself confounded me: here it was, staggeringly popular, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. When I bought Dino Crisis, it was in part in the hope that another data point would help me to understand. This is a point I’ll return to.

One other thing: I don’t like to talk about my professional life on this blog, but readers who know me will recognize that choosing this game at this time was really no choice at all. Playing this game is essential research.