Sanitarium

You wake up in a tiny, dirty room. Like in many other videogames you’ve played before, you’ve been involved in a car accident, and now you don’t remember who you are. Unlike any other videogames you’ve played before, you open the door and find yourself in mental facility located in a a gothic tower, and one of the patients is smashing his bloody head against a wall. An alarm rings intermittently in the distance, and the patients are all out of their cells. The staircase has broken down, and one of the patients is standing at the edge with his pants down. You go talk to him, and he falls down. It’s a long fall. There’s a huge statue in the middle of the tower, and suddenly it lights up and starts talking to you. Now you’re in a small town full of giant plants. There are no adults to be found, and all the kids are mutants. You play Tic Tac Toe with one of the mutant kids. This goes on for the duration of the game. 

Sanitarium is, mechanically speaking, a fairly by-the-books adventure game with a minimalist UI and control scheme. You play only with your mouse, left clicking to observe and manipulate objects, and holding the right mouse button to move around. Clicking on your character will show the items you’re carrying, which are never more than four, and clicking again will let you use them on the environment. The UI consists of the inventory and a simple conversation system. That’s it.

You walk around, look around, talk to people, find objects and use those objects on other objects. Sometimes they are a bit hard to figure out because of the sheer amount of cool details that are on the levels, other times the top down perspective will trick you and an obvious solution will seem impossible, but those moments are few and far between. The puzzles are mostly relatively straightforward, and compliment the story nicely. There are also one or two action sequences which can prove to be frustrating since the game’s controls are clearly not designed with that in mind. Every now and then though, the camera will change to a fixed first person perspective, and you’ll have to solve a “proper” puzzle. Breaking down the pace of the story to turn switches and pull levers for ten minutes can be irritating. These feel out of place, since this game’s strength is in it’s atmosphere and story.

After a cutscene showing the accident, you’re thrown into a spooky, twisted world. It quickly becomes apparent that this is all a product of your imagination, and yet, there seems to be meaning in it. You find yourself in a series of locations, all exceptionally different and familiar at the same time. Nothing is the way it should be, it all feels wrong. There’s a certain uneasiness that permeates the whole experience. I wouldn’t describe Sanitarium as a horror game, but it is, however, continually unsettling.

Proudly taking inspiration in Alice in Wonderland, Sanitarium is a game full of apparently random fantasy elements, that anyone who doesn’t give it his full attention will find merely amusing. That’s why the adventure game format fits it so well. As you’re constantly looking for clues to solve your mostly trivial puzzles, you focus on the details of these dream-like worlds, and you start drawing lines between them to solve the real puzzle: “Who are you? And why are you here, doing these things?”. The answer isn’t in ringing the bells of the church so the kid with the deformed face fishing in the beach will leave his fishing rod up for grabs, but in the details that shape this place, a place formed in the mind of the protagonist, but also in the mind of the player. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the story is multilayered. On one hand you have a very concrete situation in every dream/world you come across, and problems will come up in that story in the form of puzzles, but on the other hand, all these say something about the broader story, which is the real life of the protagonist.

Sanitarium is wonderfully creepy, it tries some new things, and does some old ones well enough. For some it might be too weird, but for any fan of adventure games, this one’s a gem.

Damsels in pajamas

If you’ve visited any gaming site during the past year and specially during the past week, you might have noticed there’s been quite a heated discussion about women and videogames. How they are portrayed, their place as professionals in the industry and the existence of sexism in videogames and in gaming culture are just some of the topics that have dominated the core of the discussion. Some gamers feel those claims are trying to attack or destroy their beloved hobby, I’d like to think they are trying to improve it. Either way, it seems it is impossible to have a discussion about this topic without getting into a sea of accusations, generalizations, and half-truths. In this post, I’ll look at five female characters that I think are awesome. My aim here is by no means to dismiss the concerns about sexism in videogames, but to give some contrast and hopefully some perspective to the discussion at hand. Also, expect some minor spoilers. That said, let’s get started.

Heavy Rain is usually criticized for depending too much on quick time events, having a weak storyline or lacking meaningful interaction. Personally, I found it quite enjoyable; while the mechanics do feel a bit awkward, I certainly appreciate any game that attempts to innovate in terms of gameplay and/or storytelling. Heavy Rain was a remarkable effort in both of those areas, even if not a necessarily successful one.

Most of the four characters you play are reasonably one-dimensional (JASOON! [...] SHAAWN!) but not her. Madison’s background and story is the less developed of the four, and maybe that’s why I found her so intriguing. She’s a journalist burdened by nightmares and hallucinations fruit of her insomnia, the cause behind which is potentially the covering of serial killer stories or, as revealed in a behind the scenes video released by Quantic Dream, her past as a reporter in the Iraq conflict. She takes her job extremely seriously, and will do whatever it takes to find out the truth. Alluded to have had a somewhat difficult childhood, Madison is a caring, affectionate character despite her inner troubles. She’s brave, she’s honest, she’s authentic; she’s memorable.

Chell doesn’t talk. You don’t see her much either; you’ll see merely glimpses of her when playing through the Portal games, and yet, she’s one of the most iconic and well known female characters in gaming. How’s that possible?

Well, essentially, the player is Chell. There’s no cutscenes where she does something out of your control, what you see is what she sees, what you solve is what she solves and what you experience is what she experiences. From that we know that she’s mentally and physically agile. A great observer, she has a strong will and a rebellious tendency towards authoritative figures. From the little information we can gather about her throughout the two games, she’s the daughter of a former Aperture scientist, but there’s little to no information about her childhood and early life. GLaDOS sarcastic (or not) comments about her being adopted don’t help to clear that out. Either way, Chell represents all that is cool about being a videogame heroine/hero.

Although the player doesn’t control this character in the game, I think it would be hard to argue against her being the protagonist. For those of you who don’t know, Analogue: A hate story puts you in the place of a space traveler from the future who finds an abandoned ship and has to unravel the truth behind it’s society’s demise by interacting with the ship’s artificial intelligence.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about the story, as it’s the game’s principal strength. *Hyun-ae, the ship’s AI, functions perfectly to help the pacing of the narrative. She’s an AI, so even though she’s been alone for hundreds of years, she’s a fun, quirky character. She’s always happy to lend a helping hand and also, she likes cosplay. An AI that likes cosplay! How awesome is that? Paradoxically, a robot is one of the few female videogame characters who actually feels like a real person.

Yet another reporter, this one brought up in an island in the outskirts of the biggest city on Hillys, an aquatic, mostly peaceful planet. She lives with her adoptive uncle, Pey’j, and other orphans.

She’s the oldest of the group, and as a result she has a strong sense of responsibility and morality. She likes meditation and photography. Upon discovering some suspicious business going on with the Alpha Sections, the military force dominating Hillys, she becomes a reporter for the IRIS Network, an underground rebel organization. Like any good reporter, Jade isn’t easily fooled, and quickly picks up on any suspicious attitude and doesn’t easily trust people. Although visibly devastated by some of the catastrophes that accompany her through her journey, her sense of righteousness and commitment do not decline, and she pushes forward. She’s light-hearted, passionate, and ultimately honorable.

The Walking Dead’s adventure game wouldn’t be anything without Clementine. Her relationship with Lee and by extension with the player is by far the strongest I’ve felt and stands as a benchmark of player involvement. There’s just no way anyone can play through TWD and not care about Clem. Yes, the fact that she’s a cute little girl in the midst of a zombie apocalypse with only the player to protect her, helps. But the narrative doesn’t stop there, that’s just the premise. As days go by, the decisions made, the struggle, the sacrifices that any survivor has to go through pile up on all of the group’s backs, but they impact her in a much more meaningful way. Lee -the player- knows his actions will be reflected on those innocent brown eyes, and that takes us out of the shoot all of the things mindset and into seriously questioning the morality of our actions.

As the adventure advances, we see her grow up. From a regular american child in the suburbs to a survivor. As is the destiny of any of any child in the zombie apocalypse, she either grows up prematurely or dies prematurely. But even in the worst of circumstances, even after the most depressing of the situations, she finds strength inside her. She smiles. Her innocence might be gone, but her humanity remains untouched.

On linearity and the future of videogames

This is part one of a series in which I will write about words related to videogames; how we use them, what they actually mean and my thoughts on them.

Linearity: Progressing from one stage to another in a single series of steps; sequential.
Non-linearity: Not sequential or straightforward.

Gaming is an interactive medium, and as such, one of the key elements a game should transmit to the player is the sense that their input somehow affects what is happening on the screen. From making a line disappear in Tetris to throwing a person flying in the air after punching them with a giant dildo in Saint’s Row 3, feeling like you are the direct cause of something that happened ingame is satisfying and is crucial for immersion (that’s a word for another day). This is relatively easy to achieve when a game is purely mechanical, such as sports games, driving games, twin-stick shooters, fighting games… When a game is trying to deliver a narrative, on the other hand, things get complicated.

Narrative usually includes text, either literally or in the shape of dialog or audio logs, and that text is written by writers. That means that the more freedom is given to the player, the more text will have to be written to react to that player’s actions. Realistically, it means that more freedom to the player will result in the NPC’s reacting unrealistically to the player’s actions or simply not acknowledging them at all.

But we like stories, no, we love stories. Stories keep us engaged when repeating the same action a million times or the pretty graphics aren’t enough. Good stories make us connect with the characters that surround us, they stimulate our imagination and make us emotionally invested. That’s why they have a place in any form of entertainment, because they’re a crucial part of our nature. So the ultimate challenge for videogames today is finding the sweet spot between telling a story and making the player feel like their actions have direct gameplay consequences. Here’s when the concept of narrative linearity comes into play (pun intended). Telling a written story directly interferes with player interaction, given it’s limited nature. That is unless you make the story itself interactive. Generally speaking there have been three approaches to this problem:

1-Separate gameplay and narrative sections entirely, through the use of cutscenes or text.
2-Deliver narrative through audio logs, environment objects or npc dialog.
3-Make the player active in the narrative delivery via dialog choices.

Most games have a linear narrative, delivering their story through a mix of examples 1 and 2. The problem with it is that it usually interrupts player interaction. But recently a significant number of games have opted for the 3rd choice, to let the player “choose their own path”.

Now, videogames are based on an illusion of freedom; you give the player a set of tools, environments and gameplay elements to play with. Player enjoyment is directly related to how solid, consistent and believable those systems are. The bright side about linear narrative is that it provides a sense of cohesion that just can’t be achieved through player choice. As we’ve already established, giving the player too much freedom only makes his lack of freedom more obvious. Of course every choice the player makes in a non-linear game can’t have a truly believable set of consequences, and the number of choices the player has is rather limited, because the game is made by a limited amount of people in a limited amount of time with a limited amount of resources. Even if a game just offers several narrative arcs to arrive at the same conclusion, it is still a non-linear game. Linearity is about the sequentiality of the path, not the conclusion.

I think it’s fair to argue that videogames still haven’t found their own language when it comes to delivering stories. We’ve become used to watching cutscenes between actual gameplay as a way of mixing things up and making us feel at least a bit emotionally involved, but I think we can all agree that today’s standards for storytelling in videogames are far from ideal. In response to that feeling, the general trend is towards narrative that is somehow affected by the player’s decisions, but some games have decided to avoid traditional narrative altogether.

Okay, we’ve already established that linear games are those that make you progress from one stage to another in a single series of steps. Non-linear games, on the other hand, are those that give you several steps to choose from, even if they do all end up in guiding you towards the same stages. The tendency towards including player choice in the narrative has also made an appearance in gameplay mechanics, with games that were traditionally extremely linear giving the player some options in their latest iterations (like CoD: BlOps 2) that even if rather limited, are just a sign of a bigger trend towards palyer freedom, better exeplified by games like Dishonored or Far Cry 3.

This is a fundamental change in the way we understand games; no longer are they toys designed with specific functions in mind, but entire playgrounds with dozens of options that let the players express themselves through the way they decide to play. Minecraft, Day Z, Dwarf Fortress, Proteus… those are games that don’t bother with feeding the player a specific narrative, they just give them the tools to create their own experiences. Not only does that mean different experiences for every player, but the stories that flourish from those experiences feel more genuine because the games feel more genuine. The player feels like his actions are the direct and only cause of the events that surround him, and that’s what true freedom is all about: Not only choosing your own path, but building your own path with your bare hands; we’re moving past non-linearity and towards pure freedom.

But where does traditional narrative fit in that picture? Will we have a separation between narrative-driven games and player-driven games? I don’t think so. What I see coming is a sandbox of sorts. The creation of those forever-mentioned “living, breeding worlds”. Worlds where stories happen all the time, and you can choose to have an impact on them, observe them or just ignore them altoghether. I’m not only talking about MMO’s, which I think will have an important paper in the future, but also procedurally created sandbox games, with so many options that the player-created stories would be endless, and traditional stories would be just one option from the menu, culminating the ideal of player freedom. While games with high production values would focus on offering a lot of different options, less expensively-produced games would focus on offering worlds that were out of the ordinary.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit crazy. Maybe I’m just exaggerating and it’ll all keep going as it is. I’m not saying that is the future I’d like for videogames, it just seems like the natural progression from the perspective we have today. Damn, I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent here. Oh well, whatever.

I played 7 indie games this summer, and they were all awesome.

This summer I played quite a few indie games. I started with the more critically acclaimed ones like Limbo and Braid, and fascinated by what they accomplished, moved onto different, maybe not-so critically acclaimed indie titles. This is my experience with them in a short format.

Limbo
LimboGreat atmosphere and level design. It has that kind of puzzles that make you think, but not too much. Cruel and funny at the same time. It’s about 4 hours long. I can’t recommend this one enough.

Braid

This game is just amazing. The story is meaningful and universal, the graphic style is beautiful and unique, but it’s in the gameplay where it really stands out. The level design is tricky, making you think outside of the box all the time. Every puzzle is different and brings something new to the table, a new mechanic, a new variable to take into account, multiplying the possible answers and putting the player’s creativity to the test. This is a true masterpiece of the genre. The six hours it lasts are of pure gaming joy.

Gemini Rue

With an interesting Sci Fi setting and an old school look and gameplay, Gemini Rue tells quite an intricate detective story. It plays like a traditional adventure game, but it introduces a few innovations in terms of storytelling and gameplay, letting you change between the two main characters through most part of the game, something that feels fresh and helps you unlock your brain from some of the few tricky puzzles. It lasts around 8 hours.

Tiny and Big: Grandpa’s Leftovers

If I had to choose a word to describe this game, it would be ”original”. Original and fun. It’s physics engine is greatly flexible, enabling the player to move, cut and destroy 90% of the level’s structures. The game is quite short (around 3 hours) but if you like exploring and experimenting with the different gadgets it can last a lot more. The graphics, just as the overall feel of the game, are a breath of fresh air, providing an experience very different from games I’ve played before. The platforming can be a little tricky at parts and the game becomes easy once you’ve mastered the different abilities, but it’s fun and varied nonetheless.

Analogue: A hate story

I’ve haven’t played many text adventures, but I have to say, this was pretty amazing. The sense of discovery and the way the story branches out in different ways is surprisingly dynamic considering the game consists mainly of text entries. The story is original and well developed, presenting themes we hardly ever see in videogames. Overall, a great game and a must play for anyone who can concieve things like reading and thinking as a form of entertainment.

And yet it moves

With a simple concept (changing gravity) a unique visual style and challenging level design, this is a fun, solid platforming experience. The sounds and visuals give it a very unusual atmosphere. Duration is around 6 hours.

To the Moon

Let me start by saying that to me, To the moon has one of the best stories I’ve ever experienced when playing videogames. It touches themes that few videogames ever come close to and it does so in a balanced, well structured way. It’s engaging, it’s romantic and it’s hard to forget. That said, it has some aspects to it that will probably put off some gamers. First of all, it is really, really story-driven, so if you don’t find the story (two people who venture into an old man’s memory to make his dying wish come true) and the themes it touches (marriage, disease, love, human relationships, morale…) interesting you probably shouldn’t play it. Adding to that, the “gameplay aspect of the game is rather limited; you basically walk, talk and find objects. I don’t think this makes it a less worthwhile experience, but some may disagree. The venture into a character’s past makes for some fun and interesting exploration.

To make up for some truly depressing moments, the two main characters -and specially Neil-provide a bit of a comedy contrast. Some say this is out of place, but I have to say I disagree completely. After all, it’s the kind of stuff they have to go through everyday, so I find it logical that they would joke around to make it less painful. Neil’s jokes aren’t always funny, but there are some truly hilariating moments.

Personally, I’ve cried and I’ve laughed out loud with this game, something almost no other game has ever done, so I’d recommend it to anyone who finds it’s main concepts even mildly interesting and wants to experience something a bit different from other games.

Conclusion
Indie games are fucking awesome. If you’re looking for something different than  your average mindless shooter, these are something to have a look at. Next games on my list: SB:Sword and Sorcery, Frozen Synapse, Machinarium, Trine…

Sniper Elite V2

hitlerDLC

Attracted by the idea of killing Hitler (best pre-order DLC idea ever), I approached Sniper Elite V2 looking for a challenge, a game that required some precision and patience, unlike most other first person shooters nowadays. So, when the menu suggested the “Sniper Elite” difficulty (aka the hardest difficulty) as the ultimate sniper experience I obviously accepted the challenge. After all, I’m good at this stuff, or at least I like to think I am.

Another thing that made me want to play the game was the setting. An American sniper, in the battle for Berlin, behind enemy lines, making sure the Russians didn’t get any German scientists to help them develop weapons of mass destruction. World War II has been present in videogames a considerable number of times, but it’s been a few years since shooters moved away from that setting into the present era and near-future settings, so this seemed fresh and new all over again.

But it wasn’t.

Continue reading

Dreaming a game

In a sunny morning of August, last year, I woke up with an idea in my head. For the past few hours I had been dreaming about a videogame I had never actually seen, but that was very clear in my head. I instantly sat in fornt of my laptop and started writing. It was one of those ideas I didn’t want to forget about.

Two weeks ago I accidentally broke that laptop, and now what I wrote that day is gone forever (yes , I know, security copies and stuff, whatever). Luckily, I can still remember most of what i dreamed that day, so I’m going to do my best to put into words again.

Story
A 10 year old kid changes house because his parents are splitting up, so he now has to live with his dad. Something goes wrong with the pantech van so the house is still empty when they arrive there. Their stuff wont arrive until the next day, so the kid has to sleep on his almost empty room. He only has a bed and an empty shelving. As you can imagine, he’s pretty fucking depressed. His dad comes to the room and says good night. He seems depressed too. Then, the kid looks at the top of the shelving and he sees a few colorful books. He looks for a chair and uses it to get them. They are old children’s books. The kid is exited.

He opens the first one and starts reading and looking at the pictures. Halfway through, he falls asleep and starts dreaming about the story in the book. That’s where the “game” starts. You play through his dream, which mixes concepts from the story the kid is reading, things that are going on in his life and his own imagination. When he finishes “playing” one of the dreams he suddenly wakes up and decides to read the next one. After he has finished the third one, he falls profoundly asleep.

imagining_stories

Gameplay and style
It is a third person adventure-platforming game. Every book would be a different experience. Visually, because it would adapt to the style of the drawings in each book, and in terms of gameplay because depending on the setting it would use different mechanics ad environment. Also, the laws of physics wouldn’t necessarily be applicable. I mean, it’s a dream, so things would change inexplicably and suddenly, without it becoming a complete mess, obviously.

The game would be divided in 4 acts. As I said, every book would have different gamplay mechanics and visual styles. When the kid finally went to sleep he would blend everything together. The visual style and setting would be a mix of the ones seen in the different books and the gameplay would put the gamer’s hability with all the different mechanics to the test, mixing them too.

The cutescenes (or maybe short playable parts?) about the kid would be in first person, from the kid’s perspective.

cloud_thatgamecompany

Conclusion
So, reading this idea through you have probably noticed there are two main “holes” in it. The first and most relevant of them being what the game mechanics would be. Sadly, that is the thing I remember less about from my dream. I myself was thinking about a mix of all the mechanics I have played in platformers in the past. Also, I’m not sure what the story in every book would be or what could be told about the kid’s life. I have a few ideas about it, and I could perfectly explain these ideas, but this is a dreamed game where you play the dreams of a kid dreaming about books, so I will let you, the reader, fill the holes with your imagination.