Thursday, April 28, 2011

Keep on Trekkin'

Okay, full disclosure: I'm writing this post mostly to have an excuse to share this image.

It doesn't take much to get me to extol the virtues of Star Trek, as certain people named after certain starship captains can attest. Buy me a couple Racer 5's and I'll happily expound upon the psychologically symbolic triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones, or describe in minute detail my childhood epiphany at Sir Patrick Stewart's famous "There are four lights!"

I blame my father and syndication, in that order.

It's worth noting that the only branches of the franchise I followed were the original series, The Next Generation, and their associated movies. (I'm not sure if that makes me an elitist or a plebeian. Frankly, I don't want to even try to navigate the treacherous waters of Star Trek fandom's politics.)

The primary reason I never got into Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise, I think, is that the Star Trek mythology was never remotely as interesting as the characters. And the performances of that original cast and the Next Generation actors, in their earnestness, humor, and occasional subtlety, realized the sense of romance, adventure, and promise Gene Roddenberry's "Western in Space" premise afforded. Due respect to the spin-off series, but their lack of compelling characters and emphasis on mythology left me cold. Star Trek just wasn't Star Trek without Kirk and Spock or Picard and Riker.

It's unfortunate that Star Trek has had such similarly mixed success in videogames. I still think my favorite entry to date is the NES version of Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. An adventure game with light (and kind of odd) space combat, it featured a linear story with some neat illusions of choice. For away missions, you could choose two companions from your crew to accompany Captain Kirk. Spock and Bones were my defaults most of the time, but you would also need to take along specialists (a geologist to study rock formations, a redshirt for extra firepower) to solve certain puzzles. Familiar faces like Harry Mudd and settings like the 1920s Chicago planet even made appearances. The experience was very much like playing through an episode of the show, albeit with some fetch-and-assemble quests shoehorned in.

Revealed a WHAT, Spock? Spit it out, you green-blooded Vulcan!

The other Star Trek game I have fond memories of is the Next Generation title for the SNES, Future's Past. The setup was similar to 25th Anniversary, but with more variety and some pseudo-open-endedness. Rotating through the bridge stations would allow you to warp to any location in the galaxy (although, to my knowledge, the only gameplay content was found on the story-related planets), browse dozens of entries in the library computer, or call a briefing in the conference room. You had many options for away team personnel and equipment, and the top-down space combat, viewed on Worf's tactical screen, was oddly satisfying—even if it was essentially flying in circles while spraying & praying. In retrospect, it probably wasn't that great of a game, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

The majority of the entries in the Star Trek videogame roster are, from what I can discern, a distinctly mediocre lot. The best of the rest, in my experience, was Elite Force, a solid FPS with a good amount of variety in environments and some surprisingly interesting character development. Of the several Star Trek RTS games released in the last two decades, the only one I tried was New Worlds, which was decidedly clunky and largely incongruous with my experience of the franchise. Shattered Universe on Xbox was abysmal, and the demo of Legacy I downloaded or the 360 was nigh-unplayable. The incomprehensibly titled shoot-em-up Star Trek: D-A-C, a tie-in to the 2009 J.J. Abrams movie, was only tangentially related to the franchise and barely worth the half hour I sunk into its demo. Finally, although I don't play MMOs, I can say with some confidence that Star Trek Online has not exactly lit the galaxy on fire.

And that makes perfect sense to me. Again: the characters, not the universe, are the draw. A Star Wars MMO might stand a better chance of success, given the wide variety of powers and abilities for the player to draw upon. But the Star Trek fiction doesn't really allow for much of that. And even if it did, there seems much less flexibility in the franchise canon for players to create their own stories. Star Trek has always felt more stiff-collared than the wanton playground of the Star Wars universe.

Computers? Worf got MAD computers in this bitch, son.

It's a shame we haven't gotten stronger efforts lately in the Star Trek game, um, space. In fact, I think now is an opportune time to reinvigorate the franchise in the adventure genre, for a number of reasons:
  • Episodic game storytelling works. Telltale has proven again and again that it can be not only a viable business model, but also an engaging format. Star Trek was at its best when it was episodic, letting the mythology serve as a backdrop for character development, not the other way around. Building a sprawling game world around its arcane lore seems backward to me.
  • Optimism is welcome. One of my favorite things about Roddenberry's vision of the future is that we didn't fuck it up. Intelligence, innovation, and compassion won out, all but eliminating hunger, poverty, and intra-species war. How many games do you know that present the exact opposite outlook? Aren't we all a bit apocalypsed-out by now?
  • The uncanny valley is narrowing. Advances in technology and designer skill have rewarded players with more photorealism than ever before. This is particularly useful in character-focused game narratives, which convey increasing levels of subtlety and nuance in performance. Imagine L.A. Noire's technology applied to a Star Trek game. It'd really be something to see that paired with voice performances by the actors we know and love. (And not to be too morbid, but, uh, Shatner, Nimoy & Co. ain't getting any younger—so sooner would be better than later.)
  • The adventure game is making a comeback. The buzz around L.A. Noire is due in part, I think, to the experimentation of titles like Heavy Rain and Deadly Premonition, and perhaps even the retro appeal of indie gems like Gemini Rue. There's a demand for this kind of game experience, which seems perfectly suited to Star Trek's strengths.
  • Marketing opportunities abound. Naturally, Abrams will have a sequel in theatres soon enough, and an attractive young cast can't hurt any potential tie-in. But in the 45 (!!) years since it first debuted, Star Trek has continually demonstrated its lasting appeal. There's a built-in fan base that will automatically snap up anything Star Trek-related, sure. But I think the makers of Star Trek Online may have counted a little too heavily on that. Again: characters. Telltale's Back to the Future game would not have sold nearly as well had they not gotten Christopher Lloyd and a remarkably good Michael J. Fox impersonator to do the voice acting. Nobody gives a crap about Ghostbusters: Sanctum of Slime not just because it's a dumb twin-stick shooter, but because it doesn't star the original Ghostbusters. Of course, getting some names attached is only the first step: Several of the mediocre Star Trek games featured recognizable talent. But pairing that talent with the appropriate game format and some of the series' experienced writers could be a huge draw.
Obviously, it would take a massive amount of investment, coordination, and skill to pull off a satisfying Star Trek adventure game. But as Spock might say, it's only logical.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Downgrading the Forecast

Story of my life.
Apologies for the absence of new material here lately, friends. I'm afraid the outlook for the next few months is equally grim, as a number of professional and personal commitments will prevent me from writing here very much. We may want to downgrade the posting forecast from "intermittent" to somewhere between "very light" and "nonexistent" for a while.

In the meantime, I do hope you'll enjoy a few things I've been working on lately.

1. At Kill Screen, I participated in a group review of the new Mortal Kombat title. Well, kind of. We actually just reviewed some of the fatalities. But as the editor's note says, that's kind of the ideal way to get at the (violently extracted, still-beating) heart of a Mortal Kombat game: Just go straight to the main attraction. This assignment was a lot of fun, and I'm currently loving getting my various body parts lacerated/severed/crushed/excised in the game itself. Quick impressions: The B-movie schlock of the Story mode is a hoot, which makes the terrible sound mixing all the more tragic. I can't even hear the backing music well enough to determine if it is, in fact, Nelson.

2. The last of my PAX East coverage is finally up over at Gamer Melodico. Here's the full rundown:
Against my better judgment, I also have at least two one other article in the works for other outlets; I'll link here when I can. If I'm not too busy getting my face eaten.

UPDATE, 4/26: And the first is now live on Gamers With Jobs! Read "Paging Dr. Schadenfreude" here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ab Initio

(Post contains mild spoilers for Chapter 1 of Dead Space 2. Abandon hope all ye, etc.)

When I taught high school English in a former life, I used to tell my students that if a book didn't grab them in the first 15 pages, it was probably the book's fault, not theirs. Unless it was one of the books I assigned in class, in which case it was definitely their fault.

A strong opening chapter is just as essential for a game with any pretense of narrative. Crafting a successful opening isn't an easy feat in any medium, but games have the added complication of needing to teach the player how to play in the first several minutes. I've learned to appreciate it when designers can insert tutorial elements into their opening moments with dexterity and thematic relevance, as opposed to the wanton extra-diegetic shoehorning most games make us endure.

Similarly, bogging us down in long cutscenes or copious text in the opening is an equally solid way to guarantee we won't give a crap about your game's story. We want to play right away. We want to inhabit the game world, not simply view it or read about it. This is especially important in horror games like the Dead Space franchise, where so much of the tension is dependent on the player's reaction to in-game sights and sounds. The backstory is relevant only inasmuch as it informs the conflict of the moment. (That's why I think the franchise masters have made the right call in shunting most of the series' lore to other media like novels and comics instead of burdening the games with it.)

So I was pleasantly surprised by the in medias res opening sequence of Dead Space 2. After a cutscene that establishes multiple conflicts in relatively short order—Isaac is still hallucinating his dead girlfriend, he's being interrogated in some kind of quasi-fascist insane asylum—we're thrust right into the action as an attempt to rescue Isaac is thwarted by a Necromorph outbreak. So we have an unreliable, possibly insane narrator, an implied shady government/corporate conspiracy, and an alien invasion. And who are these people trying to break Isaac out, and why? What's happened to land him in this facility? We're not yet five minutes in and already several conflicts have been established. So far, so good. But then things get interesting.

Once Isaac is released from the gurney he's been strapped to, he's forced to flee the ward as Necromorphs jump out from around corners and burst through ducts. Cue the frantic escape sequence. But here's the fun part: he's still tied up in a straight jacket. A prompt instructs us to hold down the left shoulder button to run. The straight jacket conceit makes this particular piece of scaffolding feel natural while also playing on that horror movie trope, the powerless protagonist.

I actually intentionally failed this sequence a few times so I could indulge my curiosity about the environmental storytelling in the surrounding area. Wheelchairs and debris litter the hallway. Other inmates in adjoining cells convulse in their straight jackets while the Necromorphs attack. (Mrs. JPG posited two good questions: "Can you save any of them?" and "Wait, why are they in straight jackets if they're already locked in cells?" The answers are, spoilers, "No," and "Beats the hell out of me.") Some inmates have scrawled cryptic messages on the walls (sigh); but instead of using blood, they've apparently used their own excrement (...yay?). Which, from what I understand from Lockup, is fairly realistic.

More remarkable than the fact that I could fail this opening sequence—I suspect few games in this genre allow you to die almost immediately after first taking control of your avatar—was that it was accomplishing so many objectives at once: Teaching the player a key ability; building a horror movie sense of powerlessness; setting up multiple conflicts; establishing setting; introducing enemies; and hinting at backstory. For a short sequence, it's quite elegant.

The rest of the first chapter contains additional flourishes, including some outstanding sound design and lighting effects, a couple predictable but effective "thing goes bump in the dark" scares, and a few nifty claustrophobic tunnel-crawling sequences. There's also some fun environmental storytelling to come across, like the interrogation video of another prisoner or the Marker made out of toothpicks in the arts & crafts room. The jury's still out for me on the newly-speech-capable Isaac—mostly because the things he's said so far are pretty generically action-movie dopey—but I am intrigued to see what happens with the "dementia" mechanic, if managing Isaac's growing insanity will become an Amnesia-like challenge.

What I'd really like to see, and what I'm sure Dead Space 2 won't give me because it's a big budget AAA title that needs to move lots of units, is a high-flying freak flag. I want the game to disorient me more, to be more Stanley Kubrick than Ridley Scott. The power of the in medias res device is that it forces the audience to play catch-up, to use their imagination to fill in gaps, make logical leaps, and interrogate details. With a well-designed world, that can make for a much more enjoyable experience. The horror genre allows for a lot of creativity in that sense. Here's hoping Dead Space 2 can deliver.