Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Masters of Doom part 2: the Wow Factor

I again have a capable gaming PC, and by capable I mean that I am now able to play all the games I missed over the last 5 years. I am resigned to the knowledge that I will always be staggered behind the latest and greatest developments in PC gaming (and, indeed, the platform in general). XKCD's Randall Munroe sums up the phenomenon perfectly in this strip: (for more, go to http://www.xkcd.com)

And speaking of Half-Life 2, I have chosen to re-enter the world of PC Gaming picking up where I left off: Episode Two. This continuation of the Half-Life story is fantastic for any number of reasons, but to fully explain my experience of it, I have to share some history with you.

The first videogame to ever make me say "WOW!" was Quake 2. I'm talking slack-jawed, incredulous, protracted WOWWWWing. Sure, I'd been impressed by games before - the Super Nintendo was blossoming as a creative platform around the time I started evaluating games on a level beyond arcade-instant-gratification. I remember people "ooohing" and "aaahing" over Donkey Kong Country and its polished pseudo-3d effects. The technology of gaming had matured to allow very expressive visual art, perhaps for the first time. I am not denigrating the work of game artists before the 90's; getting attitude or atmosphere with precious few pixels was a creative triumph of its own. But increased resolution and color depth allowed the creation of games that even a layperson could call beautiful, and meant that games were less defined by their technical limitations than they had been in the past. The Super Nintendo (and, arguably, the Sega Genesis) marked the culmination of 2d game art.

Around 1997, all my rich friends started getting Playstations and Nintendo 64s for their birthdays and Christmas and Hanukkah. I was not impressed. All of a sudden, Mario was flying around in large 3d worlds and doing karate. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was visually stunning, but felt like more of a tech demo than a game. Goldeneye had satisfying multiplayer, but often felt staged and hokey in singleplayer. The Playstation delivered well for a number of genres, but all of the games I played that were supposed to be breathtaking already looked dated to me: Resident Evil was as awkward and ugly as the teens glued to it. Final Fantasy VII was a triumph of the RPG medium, but the visuals were painfully stitched together from a mess of 2d and 3d elements that clashed on screen. Even Metal Gear Solid failed to grasp me with its drab environs and snail's pace. The Playstation, though inspired with content, was not powerful enough to do real 3d environments justice, and as such I failed to be wowed by any of its games.

The sinking feeling this game gave me.

I played these games with a detachment that felt foreign to me so far in my experience of videogames - I didn't care that they were 3d. What was surely a landmark technical achievement in the gaming industry often didn't seem to translate to me, the gamer, having any more fun. Mario 64 was a good game, maybe even a great game, but I couldn't help but feel that it lacked the depth of its SNES predecessor, Mario World. Same with the (later) Metroid Prime. Same with Zelda: Ocarina of Time. For all of its visual impressiveness and way-paving, I always found the content for the Nintendo 64 lacking - a triumph of style over substance. I think I could sense, even at the tender age of 12, that the glorious age of 2d gaming was coming to a close, and that 3d entertainment had not matured to the point of being a worthy replacement.

My disappointment with these supposedly 'revolutionary' titles slowly pushed me to the realization that there was a much less quantifiable element, the immersiveness of a game, that I found so compelling. It was an effect achieved through a very deliberate concoction of elements such as sound design, pacing of the action, player rewards and visual fidelity. The in-game environments needed congruency - a consistent feel in which no part of the virtual reality was displaced enough to break the suspension of disbelief. I played games because I liked being in the environments created, and I was more compelled to spend time with the incredibly polished Zelda: A Link to the Past than I ever was with Ocarina of Time.

Turok: If you search real hard, you might actually find an enemy!

Meanwhile, the experience on the PC at the time was confusing. The transition to 3d hardware acceleration was difficult on a good day and left a bad taste in the mouths of many gamers. PC games had been thus far less visually adept (due to lack of hardware acceleration) but more conceptually adventurous than their console counterparts. The high cost and initial investment in making a console game has always steered investors towards 'safe bets', games that appeal to the lowest common denominator. The PC platform, conversely, is an open sandbox in which anyone enterprising enough can attempt their own games, and the channels for distribution are many and varied. As such it is the unofficial home of a vastly quirky and creative gaming culture.

Part of the unique opportunity present on the PC was the interface: a mouse and keyboard comprise a very robust input scheme. Text-based games were possible, and the pointing control of the mouse allowed for a level of interaction not possible on consoles. In addition, the almost endless slew of joysticks, gamepads, racing simulator wheels and whatever-else-people-could-possibly-imagine meant that, when it came to control, PC was king. This allowed for the birth of new genres: the point-and-click adventure, simulators of every scope and focus, the realtime strategy game... and the first-person shooter.

I want to take this opportunity to mention that I am not a violent person. Anyone who knows me personally will tell you as much. Although any conventional child psychologist would have labeled me with ADD, and although I was a very destructive and angry youth, the moment puberty hit I became a skinny, docile teddy-bear. Actually, you'd probably find a moving, talking, 1-foot-tall teddy-bear a lot scarier than me. So when I describe my superlative experience of playing these (absurdly violent) games, please don't misunderstand the root of my excitement. I was not waiting for a socially sanctioned excuse to shoot people in the face - I just enjoyed it when I came across it. (An aside: if you're still uninformed enough to believe that videogame violence correlates in any way with real-world violence, don't bother to share your opinion with me. You've already lost the argument. Seriously.)

Enter Quake 2. Made by the founding fathers of the visceral first person PC gaming experience, id software, Quake 2 knocked my socks off. There was a level of detail, of atmosphere in this game that I had never seen before. The in-game environments were believable: chunky in the familiar idiom, and the structures and buildings seemed to have weight to them. Dynamic lighting meant that laserbeams would create an orange glow on the walls around them. The game's locales were somewhat drab, following id convention, but they had an open-endedness that encouraged wandering and exploring without turning down the heat on the action too much. Enemies in this game were smarter: they would wander through the levels to find you. They reacted quickly and semi-intelligently to your attacks, displaying some manner of the will to live and to challenge the player's right to. And some of them were quite aggressively scary: robotic dogs that would jump out of the dark at you, attack relentlessly and take some real killing. Cyborgs with large grafted blade arms that wanted nothing more than to hack you to pieces. Landing a shot on one of these guys would register a believable reaction: whiplash, bleeding, visible signs of injury (called 'pain skins' by the developers) and, of course, the trademark giblets if you hit them hard enough.


Quake 2 was a real refinement of id software's design principles: that a first-person action game should be intense, scary, atmospheric, gory and, most of all, immersive. They didn't waste time on hokey story elements (that wouldn't become really viable until the next generation of first-person-shooters, anyway) or glitzy silly special effects, instead opting to make interactions in the game as believable as possible. Your machine gun kicked back as you fired it, requiring you to 'steady your hand' using the mouse. Dead enemies would attract swarms of flies. Grenades bounced around with somewhat believable physics models. Landing on the ground after falling from a height looked, sounded and felt painful to the player. Little details such as these combined to make the experience of being in the game world tangible in a way that was previously unknown to me. These simple stabs at realism brought me into the game in a way that bad voice acting, poor NPC behavior and some silly pubescent sci-fi drama never would have. To this day, playing Quake 2 makes me feel vulnerable and mortal, afraid to get hurt. Quite a far cry from the Rambo superman antics of Doom and its copies. Quake 2 marked for me the maturing of the first-person action genre.

And don't get me wrong: some of these elements had been present in some form or another in abovementioned games. Turok had impressive level design visually, but none of it felt that relevant to the player - aside from feeling like a ghost world, it was a setting that the player wasn't particularly compelled to explore. I dunno, maybe people just like dinosaurs. Or being bored. Resident Evil did very well building dramatic tension and dread, but damn did it suck to play! The simple mechanics of walking across a room were painfully difficult for some inexplicable reason, as if the programmers had purposefully screwed with the laws of physics just to piss me, Tarun Perkins, off. Never mind lining up a zombie in your crosshairs or getting anything useful done. Those apologists who thought the terrible control scheme was a deliberate ploy to heighten the panic can go F*** themselves. This line of reasoning constitutes the worst excuse for poor design ever. Goldeneye had interesting missions and some pretty good level design, but enemies just stood around in the environments and waited to be shot. I felt like I was playing that game through a distancing film, as if Bond himself were several martinis deep at the beginning of each mission. Enemies moved drunkenly and illogically, and their comical animations made me imagine them as being rejected stunt men from other games. In-game events such as explosions or helicopter takeoffs seemed to happen slowly, predictably, like they'd been waiting patiently to be triggered. It felt so linear, so call-and-response, and the ultimate suspension of disbelief was not fully created. Let's not even get started on the poo-fest that was Hexen II.

Line up so I can shoot you!

Unfortunately, the release of Quake 2 marked the culmination of id's important content contributions to the gaming community. They could only work one formula so far, and it would be simply a matter of time before their imitators started successfully taking the genre in new directions. Imitating your imitators is a sure sign of creative failure, evident first with Quake III, which competed against and was ultimately bested by Unreal Tournament. Doom 3 borrowed heavily from Half-Life (let's see: game starts with a mundane but informative walk through a science facility, only to require that you walk back through it after it's been ravaged and infested by demons. Check. There's a protracted and relatively boring stint on a train. Check. Full of scientist NPCs. Check. Doom 3's marines look and fight surprisingly similarly to Half-Life's... you get it). I will say, though, that it earned my respect for being highly polished and went down in my personal history as the first game I was too afraid to finish. id's current labor of love, Rage, looks set to follow this trend, and I predict that it won't sell as well as they're hoping for.

Yet id had found by this time what it was good at: licensing its engines. Quake 2 spawned a whole generation of games based on its code, games that ambitiously pushed the genre forward. Sin was a great example of a plot-driven shooter (once patched enough to be playable), Soldier of Fortune was gloriously violent, and Kingpin brought the action to the hood with mature language and a flamethrower.

And then there was Half-Life...

This article ended up being much longer than I originally anticipated, and covered a lot more ground. Stay tuned for an actual exploration of Half-Life in Masters Of Doom: Part 3!

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