Texas Gunfire

  • Reading time:7 min(s) read

Doom is very different in philosophy and design from modern FP shooters.

Doom is built like a console game. Heck, Romero idolizes Miyamoto. Commander Keen came out of a demo that he and Carmack whipped up for Nintendo, showing how to implement the scrolling from Super Mario Bros. on a PC (which, I guess, was a feat at the time). Howard Lincoln yawned. The Texans made their own game.

Quake is, indeed, more the prototype for the modern shooter. It’s also kind of boring in comparison — at least, for me. Here they paid less attention to actual design; more to just getting a 3D engine up. That, and getting Trent Reznor involved. I mean, they already had a template with Wolf3D and Doom. Quake was just technology. They filled in the blanks with gray textures and asinine Lovecraft references. It feels like they were bored, doing it — as well they should have been, I guess, since that’s not what they cared about anymore. And this was about where Romero started to flake out, too. Whether the rise of Superprogrammer was the cause or result of this, I don’t know.

Doom isn’t concerned with being a first-person shooter as-such, since the genre didn’t exist at the time. Instead, it is an attempt to rework the rather barren Wolf3D into as vibrant a design as possible. To do something substantial with the concept, if you will. It’s kind of the same leap as from Quake to Half-Life, because it’s the same mentality at work.

Doom’s console sensibility extends from its controls (as with Wolf3D, it’s made to be played without a mouse; the mouse only really enters when you have a Z axis to worry about) to its level design and (as someone noted) pacing, to its monster designs, to its set pieces and its idea of secret areas and items.

For one, the game just drools charisma. We all can rattle off most of the monsters in Super Mario Bros. and Zelda. We know Brinstar like the backs of our hands. There is a certain iconography even to the level design: even if on a cursory glance it might not stand out as anything special, it bores into the consciousness just as well as a cheep-cheep or a zoomer. Everything is placed preciously, exactly because there is no template to fall back on.

And, as we know, there is a certain subconscious pacing built in, for how the game introduces concepts. You run to the right, jump up and hit the flashing object overhead. It makes a chime sound and a coin pops out. You’ve clearly done something well. You hit another block and a mushroom appears. It must not be harmful, unlike the enemy you either ran into, jumped on, or jumped over a moment before, as it comes out of a block like the one which rewarded you with a chime a moment before. When you touch it, you grow. Since you’re bigger, you can more easily reach the platforms above you. You try jumping and can break the bricks. Keep going right and you hit a pipe. Then two enemies. Eventually a pit. Then a fire flower. Then a koopa troopa.

And. So on. It all sounds simple, yet so few people get it right. And since it’s supposed to be invisible, so few people notice on a conscious level when it’s missing.

Doom does this, yes, on a mechanical level. Yet it does something else, too. It paces the atmosphere. I maintain that the best part of Doom is episode one (the Shareware episode) of Doom 1. After you leave the manmade environments, where something has gone really awfully wrong, and enter the abstract flesh-tents of Hell, the game has pretty much blown its wad (pun very much intended). Then the game just becomes about shooting, and I don’t much care for it. Episode one has a certain stress to it, however. You wander the station, looking for something to restore your ailing health. The lights go out. You hear snarls in the distance. You know something’s out there — but where?

And then there are just so many hidden passages. You never know what wall might open, and how. Or what you might find (like the Chainsaw). It’s kind of like Zelda, again. Often you can see things in the distance, or through windows, that you just plain can’t access through normal means. This gets you exploring.

The whole mindset that the game creates, with all of this — the mindset that it asks for — is different. It’s more introverted. More careful. The game is as much about exploration and generally owning the gameworld as it is about blowing shit up.

There’s a certain balance here, from level to level. Just study how things are laid out. It’s no mistake that the shareware episode is the best; after all, it’s the one that id needed to be good, if anyone was going to register.

>How would you say the modern FPS has deviated from this Doom mindset? And starting where, exactly? Doom II? Duke Nukem 3D? Quake?

I don’t know. I became disgusted with the whole degenre around the time of Q3 and UT. I like what I’ve seen about HL2, from this distance. It reminds me of, uh, Myst.

Quake’s probably a good place to start. Or maybe you could begin with all of the knockoffs of Wolf3D and Doom, which used the same engine yet didn’t do anything interesting with it. They helped to pollute the mindspace a bit, I bet, and distract from the reasons why Doom was as excellent as it was.

Quake’s the landmark, though, for all the obvious reasons. I mean, it led the way, from Quake to Quake II to Quake III, to a technology-oriented philosophy. It doesn’t matter what you do with the engine; it just matters what the engine does. Throw in a few rules and some network code, and you have a game.

I’m oversimplifying to an insulting degree, I realize. On the one hand, the whole multiplayer thing, although it appeals to me in NEGATIVE INCREMENTS, meaning a piece of me dies every time the subject comes up, has attained something of the same distinction that a versus fighter has in comparison to a sidescrolling brawler. It’s a place to show skill and piss on other people (even more so than with a fighter, for various reasons), and if that’s your kind of thing, there are a lot of excellent games to help you vent that testosterone.

On the other, you have the Half-Life-inspired movement toward using the form for a more holistic experience — expanding on exactly the part of Doom that the Quake thread gave up on. Halo sits on this end, mostly — though a little more to the right, toward Quake, than HL. If you were to count Metroid Prime as a FPS, it would be about as far to the left as possible.

>Masters of Doom says that Quake’s formative years were sort of the epitome of development hell. […] Carmack was going off into his abstract, workaholic computer world and Romero was becoming increasingly arrogant and was slacking off more than usual. The end result, then, was a Doom clone where the engine was designed independently of the levels, which were designed independently of each other, which is why they’re so goddamned bizzare and incongruous.

Yeah! I remember that, now. I guess that’s whence came Daikatana.

For my part, I did enjoy Quake at the time. It’s not half-bad. It’s just — it leaves me empty.

I can feel the walls closing in on me

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

So everyone around me kept saying how great the new Zelda was

I don’t know. It struck me as another Zelda game, from what I saw of
it. And. I understand that some of Nintendo’s trends have been worsening. Even though Capcom’s making all of their games, these days.

Zelda used to be a thing of wonder. Now it is a template. Metroid is starting to go the same route, too. The series has been stagnating since the third game. Both series have been. It just gets more obvious, the more often it’s iterated. And the more out-of-touch and patronizing each iteration becomes.

Metroid Prime is a nice exception.

Wind Waker brings a lot of nice things to the series, just as Metroid Fusion does. The problems with them are the same, though. They don’t really succeed because in the end, the template rules. They have to answer to it, so they don’t get away with as much as they might. It’s mechanics, not experience, that Nintendo chooses to deliver these days.

I don’t give a damn about the rules. I want to feel something.

Here’s the part where I’m a wiseguy and ask which series has undergone more substantial changes over the years, Zelda or King of Fighters? I suspect most fans of either would pick the other, which is only natural. Fans of something pay attention to the small but sometimes crucial changes between iterations, while non-fans shrug their shoulders and say that they all sort of look the same.

I adore Zelda and Metroid — or at least, what they once stood for. The series have certainly changed; they’ve regressed. It’s pretty sad when the first two games are the most sophisticated, and everything else has just been about weeding away what made the games stand out from the crowd. A process of prolonged blanding. That’s what distresses me. I have come to be dismissive through one mediocre decision after another.

As far as fighting games go, KOF has evolved more in concept, and covered more ground, than any other series I can think of. If you can even compare it to other games; the series operates on its own terms. It’s more a serial novel than anything. Yet it’s a serial that only becomes richer and more rewarding as it unfurls.

Meanwhile, all of Nintendo’s series become more generalized and mathematical, drawing from the same proven design documents.

Metroid isn’t as far along the decay as Zelda, of course. Nintendo avoided the series for nearly a decade after Yokoi died. And Intelligent Systems isn’t EAD. Now Retro is doing some insightful stuff with the concept, fleshing it out in a way Nintendo never did. Zero Mission gets a lot right, especially where it borrows from Retro rather than from Miyamoto. I like the way it prepares the player for how to deal with Metroids, for instance. It is, however, still mired in the same hyper-safe, inbred theory that Nintendo’s been using since 1991. And with every generation, that theory generates more genetic defects

If every chapter of KOF were 2002 or NeoWave, I would feel the same as
I do about Zelda. (Conversely, this would probably please a lot of people.) If a game like Wind Waker or Fusion were allowed to follow through on its own ideas, rather than bow to the Miyamoto machine, I would be inclined to care more.

I’ve not really played Majora’s Mask. It’s the only Zelda game aside from Wind Waker to look interesting to me since the NES. I played for about half an hour, and in that time noticed that all of the models were recycled from OoT. That wasn’t too encouraging, though I suppose it doesn’t mean anything on its own.

Keeping Your Options Open: Reinterpreting a Legacy

  • Reading time:12 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

This is an early draft of a feature or review (depending on your perspective) that soon after went up on Insert Credit. The version there is probably better. Still, interesting to compare.

I must be forward: although the series has charmed me for two decades, Gradius is as cold, arbitrary, and unforgiving as videogames get. It almost feels like it doesn’t want me to play it. For my part, I abide where I can; I turn the game off when I lose my first life. The only chapter that has stuck to me through the years is the NES version of Life Force — yet I adore the game. Life Force is one of my favorite games for the NES. It’s one of the best shooters I’ve played. It’s probably one of the games I have the greatest affection for, overall.

Clearly something is odd here.

On Metroid: Zero Mission

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

> So I was wondering, why did you never review Metroid Zero Mission?

Because I moved to the other side of the continent, and some plans have gotten kind of lost along the way.

It’s a good game. I really like a few things it does, in particular the way it frames itself and what that means; how it justifies existing alongside the original version of that game. There are some little bits of narrative which I find uncommonly clever and illustrative of just how videogames work, as a medium. The game also tries hard to fix some of the problems in Fusion. Much of that is a success. Some of it, not so much.

I just had a dream in which it was common knowledge (and indeed true) that oranges, left unpicked, grew up to huge gourd-like fruits; their rinds hardened into a shell, while their pulp decayed into a juice then dried away. Oranges also grew along the ground, on vines. There was one orange in particular, on the front porch of my mother’s house in Maine, that had a fungal infection on one corner. Sort of a tumor. I knocked it off, only to realize that if it had the one infection, the whole orange was bad. Especially if I left the hole in the shell which I (unintentionally) did. So I tipped the orange over, adding a flood of rancid matured orange juice to the front lawn.

There are a few things about the game which I don’t like as well as I might, of course. Most of those would take a while to explain, though.

The Focal Point

  • Reading time:4 min(s) read

It seems to me that the distinction here between the “big” and the “small” is one of focus. And I think that’s what made me think of B-games.

Silent Hill 2, Ico, and Shenmue are all very small games in the sense that they each consist of really one key theme, or concept — with maybe a related secondary theme, that helps to flesh out and color the primary one.

Further, each game is mechanically, substantially, practically designed so as to illustrate the theme at hand as well as possible. The games don’t always succeed; there are often silly elements present for no good reason. Some of the mechanics aren’t thought-through or implemented as well as they might be. The intent is there, though.

Ico is about Yorda, and the intent to create affection, a protective impulse for her. The game is designed in order to do that, without any distraction. There is no life meter because it’s not about life and death. You can die if you do something retarded, like jump from ten stories up, but that’s just there to keep the player from doing something retarded and to make the world feel more believable. What genius there is in the game is in what it chooses to omit, in order to make its point.

Silent Hill 2 is about James’s emotional state; the entire game is a dive into his subconscious, into his guilt and sorrow and his inability to let go. Everything — well, nearly everything — exists as an ingredient for exploring this: the monsters, the level construction, the imagery. Even the way the game determines the ending is tied into what the player focuses on; how he or she has, intentionally or not, chosen to narrate the game and thereby illustrate the details of James’s condition, through his or her behaviour. There are a bunch of issues with the practical implementation (particularly in the actual moment-to-moment details of gameplay), that threaten to get in the way. Ultimately they don’t occlude the underlying design, though.

Shenmue exists to illustrate the mundane beauty of Being. That life is in the moments, not in the goals. Some people complain that the game is boring; those same people probably wouldn’t think of staying up all night just to watch a sunrise. It’s almost Hitchcockian in the way that, right from the start, implicit in the gameplay, the game lets the player in on something that the main character can’t even see, to try to make its point.  In a way, Ryo himself is kind of a caricature of the average singleminded teenager who would likely play Shenmue, and thereby a perfect tool for the game’s purposes. Everything in the game exists either in attempt to illustrate the simple beauties of life, or to support the plot and characters which wind through this mission — in time, perhaps, to get to the point of seeing what the game has been trying to show the player from the outset, and thereby clearly state its case.

The games feel small in the same sense that a good movie will always be too short, and a bad movie will always be too long.

Same deal with B-games. Often as not, they exist to illustrate one concept. That concept might be philosophical or emotional; mostly it has to do with a unique idea for a play mechanic, or some other gimmick. Anyway, these games don’t mess around; for well or ill, the entire game exists to try to get that central idea across. See Gyromite or Pikmin — which I do consider a B-game. Heck, see Katamari Damacy. It is effective because in the end, its entire being is focused on getting one thing across.

In contrast, games which try to please everyone (like, say, Final Fantasy) try to include something to please everyone. So they come off as unfocused. Expansive. Big. Games which exist solely to reflect some outside idea (like, say, the games based on the Lord of the Rings movies) by nature don’t really have a focal point of their own. So regardless of their craft, they tend to feel empty.

Optional behavior

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

That’s a thought.

The focal point of Gradius is the Options. It always has been. They are the most uncanny element of the game. They are one of the most critical elements to success. They are what make Gradius what it is.

G5 knows this. As mentioned, it designs the controls and the power-up systems around the Options. There is also the respawning, though. Unless, for some foolheaded reason, you set the game to restart you at a checkpoint, the Options wait around for you to reclaim. They are the powerups you keep with you throughout the game, regardless of error. With the Options in hand, it’s not too difficult to get back on track. All you need are a few speed-ups and a laser. That’s not hard to earn back.

Options, for all their enigmatic charm, are the heart of Gradius as a game and a series. G5 is the first game, though, to notice that; to be entirely built around them. At least, so far as I am aware.

I intend to dwell on this for a while.

Game narrative: NO REFUGE

  • Reading time:7 min(s) read

A story is what is being told. A narrative is how what’s being told is being told.

There are only so many stories in the world. There are limitless narrative possibilities, however. Videogames present a bunch which don’t exist elsewhere. Every game has a narrative; even a round of Dance Dance Revolution has a certain arc. There is a certain amount of conflict and drama, according to the structure of the song and the difficulty of the steps involved. I’m not sure what kind of message it really contains. I guess it’s up for interpretation.

The question is, how can the elements implicit to a videogame be used to narrate more effectively, on both a human level and one distinct to videogames? Whereas most videogames, at the moment, just take their nature for granted, one wonders how that very nature might be used in the way brush and canvas, film and lens are already used to explore our own nature.

Silent Hill 2, Shenmue, Ico achieve this, to varying extents and in various ways. They use the framework and grammar of a videogame as an opportunity to explore something more interesting. In these cases specifically, something more human. They’ve almost gotten over their existence as videogames (though not entirely yet).

Ikaruga is kind of a haiku about the nature of sacrifice in its most abstract form, using the most basic, abstracted form of videogame available as a template. As with Rez, it is intentionally just about as simple as can be, such that it might present to the player an orchestrated sequence of events, in an orchestrated order, with as much clarity as possible, without interfering with the basic gameplay.

Although simple, the game is informed by the last decade and a half or so of game design; it understands how shooters work, what players’ expectations are based on every other shooter which has existed; it anticipates them, and it plays with them. It does this through stripping down the existing template, while rebuilding it subtly with different ingredients, to comment on the game’s very nature as a videogame (much as Kojima does, though more subtly).

The game, for instance, puts a focus on not shooting; on the concept that every negative action you choose has a reaction that just makes life all the harder, all the more complex, even if at first it seems the easiest, or the only path. This is all implicit. It all ties into the game’s themes. And yet you never think about it openly, because the idea is communicated through the game’s mechanics.

Where Silent Hill is a short story, Ikaruga is a poem.

Mister Toups said:

The point of all this is that storytelling in and of itself was not always linear or static, and in fact, when we relied more on oral storytelling than on printed texts, it was to a degree interactive.

The model is as with performed music, versus recorded music (two different, though related, forms), or theater, versus film (similar relationship).

Theater and performed music, of course, are both offshoots of bardic storytelling. So are folk tales and children’s stories. (See how many versions of “Red Riding Hood” you can count.)

Even the modern frozen forms tend to contain some hint of that ephemeral potential. This is how we get “cover songs”, and novels which retell the same familiar story from a slightly different angle, and films which get remade, and the legend of Zelda told and retold, with a slightly different set of embellishments each time around.

Videogames sit in some weird nether-region, where they are both frozen and active. If anything, they are probably closest to theater — out of the other existing forms I can think of, at the moment. That is, theater, if you happen to be one of the players. And if you happen to be playing with a slightly improvisational troupe, and with material which lends itself to interpretation while still providing strong guidelines.

If you think of it, the term “player” has its particular roots…

This here might explain in part why I have such a fondness for the B-game, as it were; the small game, without the budget of your Mario or your Final Fantasy, made to fill in a crack in the catalogue or to try out a few random ideas, without the pressure to sell big numbers.

In the NES era, you had Nintendo R&D#4 (now EAD) with its golden Zelda and Mario and whatnot; then you had R&D#1 with its silver Kid Icarus and Metroid; then you had the filler material: Ice Climber, Clu-Clu Land, Wrecking Crew, Balloon Fight.

You don’t see as many B-games these days, from major publishers. I mean, it happens. Early on, I was kind of excited about the Gamecube because it seemed like Nintendo was reverting to the old strategy with the likes of Luigi’s Mansion and Pikmin and Doshin and Cubivore.

Even so, it remains the smaller games — the ones that are developed out of the spotlight, away from the microscope — which tend to attract my attention. Yes, things like Katamari Damashii. Or like a lot of Treasure’s original concepts (successful or not). Simple concept; simple execution; simple message, conveyed mostly through gameplay. They often seem to get more to the point of what videogames are about, from what I can see, compared to the headliner games which are intended to please everyone. There is a sense of fun, of life, of freedom to play with different approaches. Different kinds of narrative. I feel more involved because the game does not take my attention for granted. It actively tries to engage me, even if it must stand on its head to do so.

* * *

I would enjoy seeing a remake of Castlevana and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, as a single game. The structure would be unusual, of course: a maddeningly hard action-oriented buildup, and then a free-roaming Zelda-like middle and end. This could be something. Consider that the two games are, functionally two halves of the same story. The different kinds of gameplay, then, reflect the different forms of tension going on at each given point in the story. Such a remake will also make more clear what’s going on: that the almost-too-direct quest in the original Castlevania was really just a trap for Simon.

You could call it “Castlevania: Song of Simon”. And also include key material from the various existing remakes, where it would fit: Super Castlevania, Castlevania Chronicles, Haunted Castle. Maybe redo the ending to Simon’s Quest, using some of this material, to make it more interesting.

Similarly: consider a remake, from the ground up, of the two Dracula Denetsu games for the Gameboy (The Castlevania Adventure and Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge) — again, assembled into a single narrative. Hell, Christopher LETS DRACULA GET AWAY at the end of the first game, allowing Dracula to later kidnap his son. Suddenly, Christopher seems a lot more prepared the second time around. In a way, the second half of the story is an extended payment for Chrisopher being such a doofus at the outset. It forces him to take his heritage, and his lot in life, seriously.

Again, the structure is unusual: a linear slog for the first portion, then a multiple-choice, multi-path section, to dramatize through the game structure Chrisopher’s search for his son.

This could be: “Castlevania: Cantata of Chrisopher”

Lots can be done there.