Thursday, July 02, 2009

Evolution of Monkey Island

In preparation for the new Tales of Monkey Island episodic games, I recently played through the entire Monkey Island series, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. I found it really interesting to see the progession of this series from one game to the next. These games were released over the course of an entire decade, and have gone through enormous shifts in graphical style, writing, sound design, and overall tone. This article’s purpose is to provide an examination of these changes. A warning: SPOILERS.

The Secret of Monkey Island

256 colors, 320x240 pixels, midi music. This was your standard 1990 DOS release. What struck me the most on my playthrough was how easy the puzzles are in comparison to other adventure games of the era. Granted, I’ve probably played through this game four or five times so my viewpoint might not be the most objective, but there really aren’t many true brain-busters in here. Monkey Island began development as a much more serious pirate adventure as opposed to the yuk-fest it became, so game seems to be designed as a swashbuckling adventure first, and a comedy second. There’s plenty of humorous dialog and comedy-oriented puzzles, but the humor doesn’t seem forced at all, and unlike later games in the series, there are stretches of dialog where it’s entirely absent. As the game’s designer Ron Gilbert mentioned, the humor and tone of the game actually seems a bit at odds with the graphical style—especially the close-ups, which feature realistic depictions of the characters. Perhaps this style was nailed down before the game’s humorous tone was fully developed?

Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge

This sequel’s most obvious improvement lies in its hand-painted backgrounds. These look quite nice, but also lead to a good deal more pixel-hunting—noteworthy objects aren’t always as clearly defined as you’d like them to be. There were numerous points in the game where I became stuck simply because I hadn’t noticed something in the background that I needed to interact with. Another notable aesthetic difference is the music. It’s much more prevalent this time around, while the first game was, for the most part, silent. The game also benefited from LucasArts’ then-new iMuse system, which allowed musical tracks to flow naturally into one another. The puzzles in general are a lot tougher this time around—so much so that there are actually two difficulty settings available. The tone of the dialog remains largely unchanged, which is no surprise considering Gilbert was once again the designer. However, the plot takes some rather dark turns toward the end of the game, and ends on an enormous cliffhanger. I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for players back in 1992, especially given that it took LucasArts another five years to release the sequel…

The Curse of Monkey Island

I consider this game to be the pinnacle of the series. While purists may prefer the first or second, I really believe that every aspect of this game was top-notch. Released in 1997, Curse was a much larger effort than the first two games. It has the aesthetics of a particularly well-made cartoon. Terrific animation, gorgeous backgrounds, a really amazing musical score, and (a series first), grade-A voice acting, as was common in all CD-based LucasArts adventure games. The whole package holds up better than just about anything else released in that era. Right from the sweeping introduction sequence, this is truly a beautifully crafted production. The stylistic change also meant a complete redesign of the cast. While some of these changes may be a bit jarring at first, particularly the tall and lanky rendition of Guybrush, I personally got used to them pretty quickly.

On my recent playthrough, I was surprised at the sheer amount of dialog in this game compared with the first two. It typically takes two to three times as long as before to exhaust all of a character’s dialog options. The writing is pretty consistently joke-laden this time around—considerably more so than before—and fortunately, a lot of it is funny. The tone of the game seems a bit lighter than it did previously, though this may be in large part due to the change in aesthetics.

One other notable addition to the series is action elements, which come in the form of ship-to-ship combat. This reminded me a lot of the combat in the game Pirates! There’s really nothing spectacular about this combat, but it does offer variety to the game—it’s a nice break from the adventuring.

The game ties up nearly all of the series’ loose ends in what has to be one of the longest exposition sequences in history, a dialog between Guybrush and LeChuck toward the end of the game. The ending itself is a little abrupt, but it did give a real sense of closure to fans. If there hadn’t been any other games in the series following Curse, this would have been a great way to end things.

Escape from Monkey Island

Admittedly, a big part of the reason behind my wanting to write this article was so that I could have the chance to rag on this game. And rag on it I will. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it completely fails to live up to series’ quality standards.

Because Escape was released in the year 2000 and every other series was going 3D, LucasArts decided that this was the right move for Monkey Island. Unfortunately, their implementation left a lot to be desired. Graphically, Escape is practically the definition of half-baked. The character models look like soulless bundles of polygons, and exude very little personality. This can be blamed on the limitations of the Grim Fandango engine, but that game adopted a very unique aesthetic to work around these limitations. No chance for that in a Monkey Island game. While some of the cartoony pre-rendered backgrounds look nice, others suffer from noticeably blocky texture-mapping. This absolutely baffles me. For example, check out the grass at the bottom of this screenshot.

Now check out where the arrow is pointing here (click to see it bigger). That's not even smoothed out!

It would make sense if the game world was rendered in real-time, but that’s not the case here. Grim Fandango didn’t have this problem. It's not that huge of a deal, but it does seem to signify a lack of care. I’m frankly amazed that more critics didn’t mention these issues at the time of the game’s release, because I remember being bugged by them even way back then.

The shift to 3D is also responsible for the game’s second big issue: the control scheme. Piloting your character through environments like a truck using the arrow keys is infinitely more cumbersome than the point-and-click interface of previous games. The overall feel is actually worse than in games with comparable control schemes like Resident Evil, due to a lot of confusing camera angles and unclear paths.

The game’s dialog can best be described as ‘snappy’. The voice actors seem to be rushing through their lines, and the time between one line ending and the next beginning has been noticeably shortened from Curse. It actually somewhat resembles the interplay between Sam and Max in their own adventure game—not surprising, considering the lead designers are responsible for that game. Unfortunately, the humor here feels very forced. It’s as if the designers felt the need to ring comedy out of anything and everything, and stretched themselves way too thin. There’s also far too much fan service, with constant references to the previous games that don’t really bring any new funny to the table. A lot of the dialog and jokes are going to be entirely lost on non-veterans of the series.

Story-wise, Escape feels more like a tacked-on addition to the series than a piece of an epic saga. It’s more like “Hey, here’s a crazy yet unnecessary new adventure in the Monkey Island universe! You wanted more Monkey Island, you got it!!!” The game really strays from its roots as a swashbuckling pirate adventure that just happens to be pretty funny, and instead turns into a full-on Saturday morning cartoon. The word “Heck” is actually used in place of “Hell”, which I assume was a rather transparent attempt to avoid a T rating (they failed, by the way). Characters are far less interesting than before. Elaine, in what is by far her largest role to date, is a stereotypically bitchy society woman who doesn’t seem to give a crap about Guybrush as anything more than a boytoy/lapdog. LeChuck isn’t quite the evil force he was before, spending most of the game acting as sidekick to a new villain: a greedy land developer. And while a host of other series favorites are brought back, they simply lack the charm that they had in previous outings. They’ve been shoehorned into Escape as fan service, and it’s painfully obvious.

On a more positive note, while the puzzles generally aren’t quite as creative as those in Curse, they’re still pretty decent, with a few really cool ones here and there (the “future Guybrush” encounter in the Mists of Time comes to mind). It’s also worth noting that Escape is a much longer game than any of the others. In terms of gaming value per dollar, Escape certainly delivered. But overall, I feel like the love and attention to detail that obviously went into the first three games is almost totally missing from this project.

So, to sum up, the Monkey Island series consists of three great games and one really mediocre game. That is, up until the first episode of Tales of Monkey Island is released next week. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I’m expecting good things. The 3D characters have actual character, the cinematic camera angles allowed by the new engine really enliven the proceedings, and the voice actors are once again in top form. While I’d prefer a proper sequel rather than a series of episodes, one of the developers stated that the episodes are meant to take place after the next big epic, which leaves me with a bit of hope. A remake of the first game will be released soon as well. I’m not a fan of the art style at all, but I may play it to check out the new voice acting.

Will the success of these new titles in adventure gaming’s most heralded series spark a resurgence in adventure game development at LucasArts, which will in turn spark a resurgence of the entire genre? Who knows, vote with your dollars and it just might.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Masochism games, a genre to watch!

Many, many years ago, I stumbled upon a wonderful NES emulator known only as Nesticle. It brought great joy to my heart, as I was able to play the entire library of NES games on my PC. One of the great advantages of using a PC emulator was save states. Previously unwinnable games like Battletoads were no match for the almighty save state—the simple process of saving and loading repeatedly throughout a particularly difficult stage would almost guarantee victory. And admittedly, I abused this feature pretty hardcore. For the most part, I’ve stopped this practice when playing emulated games. I make an effort to only save at the beginning of levels, or maybe at checkpoints. As I came to discover, severe save state abuse strips the fun out of games and makes playing them a really pointless endeavor.

So, imagine my surprise when a few years ago, an entire genre of games was born of this feature. Stuff like this started popping up. Ridiculously difficult rom hacks, mostly of Mario games, that made save-stating an absolute necessity because death lurks absolutely everywhere. I have no idea why anyone would want to subject themselves to something like this, but apparently, not only are people more than willing, they’re also prone to recording their playthroughs and sticking them on YouTube. The gag is funny the first time you see it, but quickly becomes painful to watch. Almost as painful as actually playing the games.

More recently, the first full-featured standalone game based on the gameplay of the Mario romhacks was released, known only as “I Wanna Be the Guy”. It has gone on to become a popular indie title, and much like the romhacks, has become a staple of playthrough-recording YouTubers. And a sick, twisted game it is. The player no longer has the benefit of using save states, and as a result the game was designed to be slightly more forgiving to play through than your average romhack (but not much). It’s definitely more rewarding as well because of this. But man, is it a painful experience. I’m not trashing the game—it is what it is, designed with a specific goal in mind, and handily achieving that goal. It's a well-made title. I just personally find playing it to be a complete chore.

I wonder whether players are actually having fun with this game, or rather they’re just playing through for the sense of achievement garnered from overcoming such an insane challenge. I also wonder just how great the chances are of seeing an actual commercial game release done in this unique style. Though masochism games certainly have their niche appeal, I can’t imagine that the niche is very large. Maybe large enough for a budget Nintendo DS product. But how do you convey to the average consumer just how difficult these games are? You’d have to make that the focal point of the game’s marketing or risk pissing off a lot of unwitting people. “The hardest game ever! Don’t say we didn’t warn you!” Come to think of it, that might actually be crazy enough to work. I could see that selling to a fair number of gamers. I would not be in that group.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dead Space: Easy to swallow

I started playing Dead Space last night, and I’m about three hours in at this point. It’s a really well constructed title—great atmosphere, gorgeous to look at, some of the best sound design I’ve ever seen, a ridiculously cool interface, just an all-around top-notch production. It’ll certainly tide over any horror fan until Resident Evil 5 comes out in a couple of months.

One really notable thing about the game that I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews is just how incredibly accommodating it is to the player. Frankly, it’s maybe even a little too accommodating. For starters: Up until recent years, games in the survival horror genre featured checkpoints at relatively lengthy distances from one another. And when I say “relatively lengthy”, I don’t mean they were actually all that far apart, just in comparison to Dead Space. It seems like anything notable that you do in this game results in a checkpoint. Even the very similar Resident Evil 4 only featured checkpoints at the start of each new area. This actually breaks one of my rules of survival horror games listed in the “Games are terrifying” entry. It empowers the player just a little too much, and I think the game could have potentially been a lot more tense and scary if death actually meant something to the player. As it stands, he might lose a minute of playtime. Of course, this also alleviates a lot of potential frustration. One could make the argument that games in this day and age are lengthy enough that there’s no need to artificially lengthen them by forcing the player to replay large segments. But survival horror games have always been somewhat about the struggle to, well.. survive. And in Dead Space, the struggle just isn't very meaningful.

Next order of business: The game’s missions. So far, I don’t think there’s been one point in the game where I was remotely confused about what to do next. This is because the game actually features a button that draws a line on the floor pointing out the next location you’re supposed to be at. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s possible to finish the entire game without listening to any character dialog or reading any mission objectives. There is absolutely no thought required, save for the occasional simple puzzle involving the game’s gravity gun device. This is not to say the game is completely brain-dead. The combat, especially when multiple creatures are present, does require a good bit of strategy. But the missions are just a little too simplistic for my taste, and the level of hand-holding here is one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen.

Overall, the game ends up feeling very streamlined, as if the designers recognized that they were going to be pulling the player through the survival horror motions, so they decided to allow him to reach the end as simply and painlessly as possible. The approach works pretty well here, but I just hope this isn’t too indicative of where games are headed. If the next Deus Ex game is this easy on me, I don’t think I’ll be a happy camper.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy new year, Bob

A few months back, a guy named Robert Pelloni (a.k.a. Bob) announced a little piece of Nintendo DS software known only as bob’s game. Little was known about the game, except that it was a 2D top-down adventure game, and that Bob had apparently worked on it for 5 years and 15,000 hours. If you do the math, that’s about half of his waking hours. Bob sold the game on the fact that this was, according to him, the largest game ever constructed by a single person. Bob’s ultimate goal is to get the game released on the DS, either in a box or as a downloadable title.

Now, I’m no stranger to long-term one-man-army development. My game Between Heaven and Hell took two and a half years to complete, and AfterShocked! took about three and a half. Naturally, I took a special interest in this project. 15,000 hours is a lot of time, certainly a hell of a lot more than I spent on any of my games. That’s some serious dedication right there.

So, at this point, as you’d expect, Bob rolled out some videos to drum up publisher and game community interest. The first released video showcased some very basic highlights, including scene transitions and adjustable walking movement speeds. Exciting stuff this was not, but it did give an impression of the large scope of the game’s modern-day suburban world. It also included numerous jokes about the character’s name, “Yuu”. I found this amusing, though that’s probably because I’m an abnormally huge fan of the “Who’s On First” routine. The second video showed a fetch quest that takes place at the beginning of the game, in which Yuu goes on a hunt for some batteries. Okay, fair enough, though I’m not sure why Bob chose to showcase this of all things, given the assumedly enormous amount of content in the game. These two videos left a lot of unanswered questions. What’s the ‘hook’ of the game? What makes this unique and different compared to the hundreds of RPG Maker games out there? Does the game just involve walking around and talking to people, or is there more to the gameplay? Is it meant to be portable gaming’s answer to Shenmue, a storyline-driven life sim? That actually seems like a good hook if you ask me, and given what I’ve seen, it may be a pretty accurate description of the game.

But Bob, even while posting on various message boards, offered very little in the way of new information, and has continued to sell the game on the whole “Largest Game Ever By One Person” point. This is around the time I started to get a little concerned. Bob stated that no one had played through the game in its entirety, or even knew the storyline of the game. His excuse for this:
“I want it to be a surprise for everyone, I worked really hard on it and I know it's well made.”
Bob. You need at least a couple of testers. My games would have been complete messes if it weren’t for people telling me exactly what sucked about them. You want to release a game at retail that’s had scant little outside feedback? Really?

More cause for concern came when the third video was released. This video contains a timelapse shot of Bob working for 30 days on the game, often shirtless, as proof of his hard work. Unfortunately, the video lacks any decent amount of new info regarding the gameplay or storyline… until the end of the video. Guess who’s the end boss of the game? Bob. Yes, the game climaxes at the bob’s game Championship, in which I assume you play against Bob at bob's game.. while playing bob's game.

Bob put in a request to Nintendo some months ago to purchase the software necessary to complete his game. They haven’t gotten back to him. Until they do, or until 100 days has passed, Bob has locked and barricaded himself in his office without TV or internet beyond access to his website and e-mail account. Stop by and check it out, he’s set up a webcam to prove it.

Sadly, I think the major factor keeping bob's game out of consumers’ hands is Bob himself. He’s clearly a bright guy, but in my completely non-professional opinion, I think he has some real psychological issues. I don’t think locking himself in a room for 100 days is going to be effective, since A. it’s unprofessional and Nintendo most likely prefers to not deal with nutjobs, and B. from the sounds of his website, this isn’t much different from his normal life. If Nintendo does give him the tools he needs, he’ll still have to get a publisher. There have been much weirder DS games released and I think Bob’s got a shot, if not with one of the major players. But please Bob, do not try to sell this to publishers the way you’ve been selling it to the public. Frankly, few consumers will give a shit that this was created by one guy over a 5 year period, that’s not a big selling point. This shouldn’t even be called bob's game, that title alone will turn off a ton of people.

Personally, I’d really like to play bob's game—not just out of curiosity to see what a fellow one-man-army developer could come up with in 15,000 hours, but because I think it could actually be a fun and interesting game. Emphasis on “could”, however, because I still don’t have much concrete information about it. But before that can happen, I think Bob needs to get his ego in check, stop making a spectacle of himself, and show people an actual game they can root for. Because right now, I’m mostly just rooting for Bob.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

RT-DAT: Noble technological failure

Many years ago, at the turn of the millennium, I was highly excited about a little game from Shiny Entertainment known as Messiah. The player took on the role of an adorable angel known as Bob, sent down from the heavens to clean up a grungy cyberpunk Earth. Bob was able to jump into the bodies of every human he could find, allowing him control of their bodies until they died. Messiah had been heavily hyped a couple of years earlier for a technology known as RT-DAT, which stands for Real-Time Deformation and Tesselation. Essentially, the character models’ polygon counts would adjust in real time to keep the frame rate consistent. Dozens of models on the screen? Just lower the poly count and the game will be fully playable with no slowdown. What’s more, users with high end computers would potentially be able to view character models with bajillions of polygons, comparable to the models you see in animated films. Shiny’s former president David Perry was adamant that the technology was going to be huge.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. To my knowledge, the only games to make use of Shiny’s tech were Messiah, Sacrifice, and VR Baseball 2000. So what went wrong here?

Well, first off, the tech just didn’t work as well as it should have—in Messiah, anyways, which was supposed to be the flagship title for RT-DAT (though technically VR Baseball came first). I haven’t played Sacrifice, which was released later in the same year, so I can’t say if things improved much there. But looking at Messiah’s character models up close revealed a blobby mess. At times, it was actually a pulsating blobby mess. Because the poly counts were being adjusted in real time, the characters’ bodies sometimes appeared to bulge and contort in distractingly weird ways. When they weren't doing this, the polygons would often settle into a shape that just barely resembled a human being. Take a look at this classy young lady’s body.

Now check out this scientist's arm, body, and left side of his head. Ech.

Now, remember the effect that water had on Gizmo from Gremlins’s body, minus the furballs popping out? At times, that’s kinda how the characters looked in motion. And as for the potential of seeing super-high-poly models? Try the game on a modern machine. Seriously, try it, it’s a fun game, Good Old Games has it downloadable for $5.99. But don’t expect the polygon models to look any better than they did on a decent system when the game was released.

Speaking of which, the technology was introduced in mid 1997, but Messiah, originally planned as a short project, ended up taking longer. A LOT longer. The game wasn’t released until March of 2000. In those days, a 3-year development cycle was almost unheard of. When Messiah was announced, the age of 3D-accelerated polygonal gaming was in its infancy. This was a time when everyone was oohing and ahhing at Lara Croft’s amazing triangle boobs, so natururally, RT-DAT seemed all the more amazing, since there was the potential to see super-high-poly boobs, provided there weren’t too many sets of boobs on the screen at once. In 2000, engines like Quake 3’s were upping the ante considerably for poly counts, and running well on a wide range of machines to boot. Guess what else was released around the same time as Messiah? Yep, the original Serious Sam tech demo, where dozens of enemies would rush the player at the same time. Good-looking models and high frame rates.. so why was RT-DAT necessary again? Really, I think gamers would rather take a frame rate hit—which seemingly ends up being fairly small in well-coded titles—than witness characters warping and bending in front of them. Furthermore, the plethora of other options that PC players have always had to adjust their graphical settings make RT-DAT seem even more like an oddity that didn’t really need to exist.

Maybe the technology would have been more widely used if it had been better implemented, or if the timing had been better, or if Messiah had made better use of it by actually including areas with more than a scant number of onscreen characters. Scaleable 3D models are still used today. For example, low-poly assets were used in a game that I worked on, SimCity Societies. When the camera got to be a certain distance from a building, it would switch to its low-poly version. I’m sure a lot of other games use this method as well. But not since Messiah I haven’t seen anything like the real-time deformation and tessellation that was supposed to be the next big thing in game technology. The technology and the games in which it was used have been relegated to obscurity. And maybe that was a good thing, to see RT-DAT go the way of voxels. Ah, voxels, that’s another topic I’m going to have to write about…

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Recession rant

Today, EA confirmed lower-than expected holiday sales and cuts of 6% of its workforce. This comes on the heels of Midway facing an imminent bankruptcy, Sony’s plans to cut 16,000 jobs, and THQ’s closing of 5 studios. Everybody else is either merging or buying each other out. It seems a little odd that the economy should be affecting the games industry to this degree considering games and consoles are selling in record numbers this year. I’ve seen a couple of articles in recent months on how the industry is recession-proof, but that’s clearly not the case.

It’s apparently tough times finding and keeping a job in the industry, too. I’ve personally been downsized twice this year. The first point was back in May, when EA stopped working with my studio fairly abruptly. This was really disappointing, because it was an absolutely fantastic studio to work for and I was hoping to have a real future there. The second point was just recently. I had finally landed a job at a studio in Canada as associate producer, and got laid off along with at least five other employees after a very short time on the job. Without saying too much, I have reason to believe that this was due to THQ’s troubles. The whole thing was an odd experience to say the least. That's a story for another time, kids.

My status as of now: Back to job-hunting in the absolute worst time in years to look for jobs. On the plus side, I have time to write blog posts. :P This will be my only rant on the economy and my job situation, I thought I deserved at least one.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Games are terrifying

One of the things I love about games is that they’re the only form of media that can actually scare me. I honestly can’t remember a time in my post-elementary school life that a movie, TV show or book actually caused me legitimate feelings of fright. I’m sure there are a lot of people who will jump out of their seats in fear while watching The Hills Have Eyes 2 or something, but I’m not one of them. I have my reasons for watching horror movies (hint: GORE), but the prospect of actually being scared isn’t one of them.

I really believe that games have the potential to be much scarier than other forms of media for one simple reason: you are in control of your character’s fate. You are the character, and you’re not hurtling toward a predetermined destiny. Other types of media are can be scary if you can place yourself in the characters’ shoes. But games place you in a character’s shoes like nothing else can.

There are however a couple of pitfalls that can drastically reduce the scary factor in games. Any developer trying to create a consistently terrifying experience should avoid these. Note that I’m referring mainly to survival horror titles where there is a fear of death. There are graphic adventure horror titles out there which do not involve dying, but I don’t find these as scary.

First off, the main character should never be too empowered. If he gains a great advantage over his opposition, there’s nowhere near as much to be scared anymore. An advantage can come in the form of too-powerful weapons, too-weak foes, the ability to save anywhere, etc. Anything that makes the game a cakewalk is also going to make the game less scary. This doesn’t mean that a horror game needs to be ungodly difficult, but the player should feel that failure is a very real possibility.

The second pitfall is repetition. Sure, shooting zombies on a limited ammo supply might be a pulse-pounding experience for the first few hours, but in this era of 15-hour epics, that’s not going to satiate a fear junkie. It’s important to find ways to change things up. Hey, maybe shooting zombies could remain scary if open landscapes were swapped out for absurdly cramped tunnels. Environment switches, new creature introductions, whatever, just keep things fresh.

I haven’t played a horror title that hasn’t fallen victim to one of these pitfalls in a significant way. But that might not be such a bad thing, either. Being scared shitless for 15 hours of game is a bit much, even for me.