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.