The Zero Hour

Reviews, rants and oddities on video game and film culture.

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Interactive Narrative In Games

I’ve been playing a little freeware game that’s a few years old now called Façade the past couple of days. Now, it’s pretty short and it’s not the most terribly exciting game on the planet, there’s no enemies, there’s no missions, not even very much gameplay and not an achievement in sight, hell it’s even debateable to refer to it as a “game”. So why have I just finished my 7th playthrough? Because, quite simply it’s fascinating. The site refers to it as the following; Façade is an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative – an attempt to move beyond traditional branching or hyper-linked narrative to create a fully-realized, one-act interactive drama.” And if you want it to, drama is probably the most appropriate word to describe this game. You  can move the story forward or not move it at all simply by typing in whatever you want and the situation of meeting some friends who are going through a rough patch can either simmer down to polite conversation or result in everyone having vile hatred for each other. It’s such a simple idea and it can lead to so many different outcomes that it makes you really consider just how interactive games can be with narrative.

It’s very common to see someone refer to a modern blockbuster game, especially, say… Call Of Duty as a cinematic experience, placing you in that lead role and living the film and whilst I like that it does offer the experience of being in a Michael Bay film and can immerse players within the story (Huh, I just used Michael Bay and story in the same sentence, somewhere my film lecturers are crying), it’s still got this fundamental aspect that cinema has, in that ultimately we’re still detached from it. If that didn’t make sense, I’ll try to explain it easier; When you watch a film, no matter what happens, you have no control over it. The narrative progresses in the way someone else has decided and you have no input in how it ends, that’s just how it works and in many ways, a lot of games are actually similar.

Now, you may think “But in a game, I take part in moving the narrative forward, if I didn’t play it, the story would stop” and yes, this is true, but long and short of it is, the story will be the same no matter how many times you play it, however long you wait to play it. Effectively most games still have a fairly linear structure where your actions will always lead towards a pre-determined event, when a game tells you to pull the lever to “Kill the space goblin” the story and the game won’t move forward unless you pull said lever, and this is my main point here; when you consider the interactive possibilities of games available, why do we have to follow this one story that’s put out for us? What if we decide to not “Kill the space goblin” and instead befriend it and take over the universe? Games should allow more player input into the narrative, According to *Woman from Smithsonian* [Quote=there are 3 major contributors to a gaming narrative. The writer, the designer and the player] and I think the former need to take into account the latter.

There’s a brilliant little flash game called One Chance that ponders this idea and I think some games should take note. In One Chance, you get the scenario in the end of the world within a certain amount of time and you’re given multiple choices and every single one leads to a different outcome at the end of the game, so there’s no way to play the same game twice…if you could play the game twice at all…and it just adds to the power of the game that if you get a bad ending, it’s YOUR fault.

A lot of games do incorporate this idea to an extent, where usually collecting certain items or doing certain things changes the ending, like in Bioshock for example (SPOILERS AHEAD) if you choose to harvest the Little Sisters to get more Adam, you end up with your character becoming corrupt and taking over the world with a splicer army and you sit watching the credits with an empty expression muttering “…Well, that sucks” but I’m talking bigger than one event. Changing the way you experience the entire game in each playthrough would only increase replayability and keep the game fresh every single time you play. A great mainstream example of this (and again, an old example) which I’m surprised more people haven’t taken a leaf from, is Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic where your actions can gain you light or dark side points, which will constantly effect your relationships with other characters, the big plot twists and obviously the ending. But it’s Façade that really pushes this to new levels (pun not intended), even if you come up to the same ending, it’s nigh on impossible to repeat yourself due to the amount of input you give on the game.

Of course, the downside is if this were to come into effect in more mainstream games, we’d get shorter games in the end because it would cost too much to develop a high graphic, voice acted 40 hour game where every decision changed everything. so maybe it belongs on the indie or flash market for those truly willing to see the interactivity games can offer, but the downside is obviously that they can’t reach the potential highs of a Triple A studio. So in a sense, as much as I wish for a game where little details change every aspect, it can’t exist, at least not while developers still think it’s wise to go down the cinematic route. I want at least one game where our actions have reactions on NPC’s and give us an experience that can’t be replicated by another medium. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back and see what happens if I insult Grace’s painting on Façade.

Façade can be downloaded for free at http://www.interactivestory.net/

Go Go Beckham! Adventure on Soccer Island

I don’t like football, I don’t care for the sport, I don’t care for the culture that surrounds it, and I especially don’t the people who play it, becoming millionaires in a few weeks by running up and down a field. I ran up and down a field and had a heart attack, not a grand and a supermodel girlfriend. I’d kill for a grand and a super model girlfriend…or just a few pounds and a regular girlfriend…or some company…WHY DOES NO-ONE LOVE ME MOMMY? WHY DOES NO-ONE LOVE ME?

Of course, because people like football and some people like video games, the scientmaticans people put the idea of “why don’t we make football video games?” NO, BECAUSE IT’S A STUPID IDEA! But of course, no-one listened to me and now we have a new Fifa game out every year. These, alongside football managing games are mostly wish fulfilment for children who always wanted to play for Manchester Rovers or Tottenham Hotplate or the Dallas Cowboys…wait, something’s wrong about that list, I don’t think the Dallas Cowboys are in the Premier League this year… and act as basic simulations and for the most part are fairly well made, simple to execute, blah blah. Now, Scottish developer Denki, had an alternative take on the football game.

Go Go Beckham! Adventure On Soccer Island is…wait, what? An entire game based on David Beckham? Why? Who would make a game like that? Even Michael Jackson didn’t have the ego to…oh wait, never mind. And there’s that title that screams both bizarre bad Japanese translation and cheesy 16 bit platformer, but if this is a David Beckham game, surely it’s not a cheesy 16 bit platformer…it is? ****.  To be fair, considering David Beckham is basically a brand now, like that rapper who keeps changing his name I think its P. Diddy Kong at the moment, so he has his face on most products and advertisements and charities to sell crap and aid, which brings in the mullah for him and his talentless wife and will allow them one day to buy their own country…which will be called Soccer Island.

Anyway, whilst I wish that was the opening of the game, we’re left with Beckham just showing up on said island and being told what to do by an elderly manager guy. I’m really not the biggest fan of David Beckham and was really not looking forward to playing as him, but I was quite pleased to see his little sprite pretty much looks nothing like the guy, he looks more like a combination of Bonk and Charlie Brown in a football strip and looks pretty cute and innocent, to be honest you could probably take Beckham out of the title and called him like, James or whatever and the game wouldn’t be any different, Beckham’s name is purely there to sell the game.

And then we move onto the gameplay itself, the game is a 2D platformer, but it mixes up the clichés of “move right, jump over pits, kill enemies, reach the goal” with the simple addition of having to carry round a football. You automatically carry it with you when you touch it and press B to kick it, which can collect you coins, jewels and kill enemies. How can it do that? Magic. No, that’s the explanation, talk about lazy writing… But that’s not the point, it helps the game feel fresh and gives it a more unique approach to platforming, in a sort way like Yoshi’s Island did by making the main character invincible, but not Baby Mario.

In fact, comparisons to Yoshi’s Island are validated here, Soccer Island very much feels like it, kicking a football is a bit like chucking the eggs, except with less control and the addition of headers and the graphics seem to be heavily inspired by it, except not as pretty. But then, no games as pretty as Yoshi’s Island. Except maybe Superman 64…I mean Braid. You could replace the soundtrack with that of Yoshi’s Island and it’d fit really well, not to say the soundtrack isn’t bad. It’s on the right side of catchy, it’s light and bouncy, but not annoying.

The real downside comes from its difficulty, it’s not a hard game, not by a long shot, but there’s enough extra collectibles to keep you busy after you’ve completed the story, which is a nice touch, especially when you consider a lot of easy shovel ware will just give you the bare minimum. But calling it shovel ware is an insult, this really isn’t shovel ware at all, it’s a surprisingly well made original platformer and ironically, I think the David Beckham branding probably hurt its sales more. I’m not saying that Beckham isn’t popular, he hardly plays the sport anymore and gets invited to royal weddings, but looking at the box, it really would turn off gamers from it; a cute picture, celebrity endorsed game wouldn’t be looked at twice, now if it was called something like “James and the magical rock” with a more Japanese anime style cover (bear in mind, a lot of posters will just outright lie to get your attention) It might have gotten some attention and people will see it for the fun game it actually is. If you hate football, a lot of the football bits can be glossed over anyway and doesn’t detract from this more original take on the platformer. It’s not amazing, but it’s really good fun.

Huh, a whole review without moaning that the game should be called “Football island” Guess I don’t get bothered by petty things like that anymore…OH GOD I’M SO ALONE, I’M GOING TO GO DROWN MY SORROWS IN WHISKEY AND COKE!

Moorhen 3: The Chicken Chase

So…birds. How can I begin to describe the effect birds have on video games? And of course, by birds I mean poultry and feathered flying creatures, not 90’s Manchester speak for women. But they’re importance is…ok, I’ve got nothing, I guess chickens appear in video games most, usually as characters like in Earthworm Jim 3D, weapons like in Earthworm Jim 3D or just targets for destruction like in Earthworm Jim 3D…ok, so chickens have mostly appeared in Earthworm Jim 3D…for some reason. I guess chickens eat worms, so it makes sense, kinda. There’s also parrots in Donkey Kong, eagles in Pokémon, Breegulls in Banjo Kazooie and evil turkeys in South Park 64. Yeah. But with all these feathered fiends, the only question on my mind is simply, where are all the Moorhens?

And this, conveniently segues us into Moorhen 3, I know what you’re think, yes, there is a Moorhen 3. What about Moorhen 1 and 2 and more to the point, what the **** is a Moorhen? Well, according to reputable sources, it’s a bird that hangs around in marshes, are a close relation to coots and despite the name have more in common with ducks than of hens. According to non-reputable sources, they’re “the shadiest of all birds if it was any more shadier it would be a shadow, these birds are not your average birds, these are your basic moorhens.” Is this why the purpose of this game is to shoot them out the sky? Because they look suspcious?

Well, Moorhen 3 allows you to do this. The aim of the game is simply to shoot birds, frogs, rabbits, even the occasional hot air balloon out the sky. What’s the context of this mad, mildly psychopathic rampage, I hear you ask. Well, it’s obviously a carefully planned metaphor on how games tell you to do certain objectives, then you realise that doing it questions why you enjoy playing a game that celebrates mass murder, you know like that bit in Bioshock where

Didn’t expect something like that from a GBA game…Ok, this has already gone too far. I’m bullshitting, there is no context to why you’re shooting hot air balloons and geese out the sky and truth be told, its game with cartoon birds, I don’t expect the storyline from Heavy Rain. Or even a storyline at all for that matter. This is fitting anyway, because the game isn’t long enough to have a story, being a scant 1 level game. Yep. 1 level. However, having said that, the level itself is surprisingly a lot of fun and full of replay value, you get scored based on what you shoot and sometimes get points deducted, so there’s always the attempt to better your high scores, its pretty good for quick bus journeys and more fun than the “counting the old people” game I usually do. But any longer and you’ll get bored very quickly. It looks very nice as a game with pseudo 3D and FMV sections that do show off the power of the GBA, but ultimately it just falls under style over substance, the 4 direction controls are a bit clunky for manoeuvring your cross hair and makes it feel more confined than it should be and it is still only one level. On the plus side, its 5 minutes of fun and it’ll curb your serial killer tendencies for a short time…not that anyone has serial killer tendencies…don’t you look at me like that, I’m coming over with my machete, I’ll show you what’s what…

Nightmare Circus

Clowns are scary. I know this because I played Ronald McDonald’s Treasure Island Adventure a few weeks ago and I’m sure I haven’t recovered, so when Nightmare Circus popped up in my “to play” queue, I naturally ran a ****ing mile all the way to Hull. Fortunately, Hull isn’t a very interesting place, so I came back and sat down to play it. The verdict? I should have stayed in Hull.

Nightmare Circus is a 1996 Sega Mega Drive game released just before the advent of 3D gaming, so by time of release, no-one cared about games like this anymore. And it shows here. You play as Raven, a native American man trapped in…wait for it…a haunted circus. Yes. It’s that simple. He has to make through the levels and escape the nightmare…or just survive it, it’s never made clear whether you’re supposed to just stay alive for a limited time period or try to get out. And that’s the games first problem, it plonks you down on the map with a choice of 4 levels and that’s it, you’re left to die, no explanation, no question.  Add to this, the enemies, which as far as I could tell were unkillable, I know this from repeatedly kicking some weird Neanderthal anorexic Einstein swordsmen repeatedly and them never dying and awarding me points (and we all know what points mean, right?). This isn’t too bad, because more often than not, you get the option to hightail the **** out of there, but sometimes you come across an enemy, and you can’t jump over it, you can’t go under it, nor can you go through it, and you’re just left to run into its attacks and hope it takes you out of your misery. Oh and sometimes the doors to the other sections won’t let you through, so you’re basically screwed.

It doesn’t help that Raven is impossible to control as well. The controls in the game are so sensitive, you have to gently tap the buttons to run or attack smoothly, which of course is easy when there’s an UNDEAD JANITOR SHOOTING AT ME! And of course, enemies don’t truly die, so it makes the bad controls even more infuriating and leaves very little time for error, effectively knocking away any form of difficulty curve and just making it more a difficulty mountain. Raven also has this super incredible roaring ability that does…well, it does very little.

The plus side is, the graphics look nice and easily convey the trippy nightmare aspect and the run down circus theme also does look pretty good, but everything else here makes it seem like a darker episode of Scooby Doo with all the things that make Scooby Doo enjoyable taken out. Some of the level ideas, such as constantly climbing a burning Ferris Wheel or running on a roller coaster track trying to avoid being hit by oncoming cars (you can’t) are good ideas, but executed horribly. In the end, it becomes a nightmare itself and I found myself blaring music really loud hoping I’d wake up. Zoinks indeed.

Milo’s Astro Lanes

Since the dawn of time, man has enjoyed sport. The Olympics, The World Cup, the ironically named World Series, the Superbowl. Man loves its sport, pitting its offspring in junior school boxing championships and encouraging teamwork, competitiveness and to quote (by this point, probably an already out-dated meme) Charlie Sheen, WINNING. But we’ve looked at the energy and competitiveness of sport and asked one question. Can I do this sitting on my sofa? Well, thanks to the wonder of video games. I can truly say you can. Now, sports games are generally good at adding hope for your favourite team, for example in Fifa, you can probably win football matches with Sheffield Wednesday against Real Madrid or whatever teams are good these days, but you can also engage your imagination and play sports in ways that are just impossible. I prayed and prayed, but Sonic didn’t show up to run the 100 metres at the Beijing Olympics, Peach isn’t going to score a Slam Dunk in the NBA Jam and Monkeys in plastic balls aren’t going to be playing at Wimbledon. But when video games allow you to do crazy stuff like that, I guess it’s refreshing…except now I can’t watch tennis without background music.

Milo’s Astro Lanes takes the concept of a fun sports title and just, quite literally torpedoes it into outer space. Here’s the pitch. A Bowling game, set in space imagined by 1950’s Americana. And whilst on paper it has “Greatest concept ever” the reality is…it’s just awful.

First of all, there are only 2 single player options. League and practice. No tutorial. Well, I guess we learn through trial and error then…To be fair, the practice mode allows you to get to grips with your controls, which aren’t massively difficult to master, A picks up the ball and bowls, the control stick can change direction of the angle and the C buttons move your player and L uses power-ups. Of course, you can pretty much just get a strike from pressing C down a couple of times then throwing it forward at full power, making everything else a complete waste of time.

The addition of power up doesn’t help this fact at all, you get a choice of offensive and defensive ones, including 3 balls, giant balls, bombs, rainbows, super speed and some other ones that you probably won’t ever use. The thing is, if you use the power-up offensively, the chances are you’ll get a strike or a spare (look at me with my sport knowledge…) and if you use it defensively, there’s a strong chance you’ll stop your opponent getting points. Now whilst you may think “Isn’t that the point?” Yes, it is, but computer players never use defensive items, meaning on single player, the game is really easy.

Now, this shouldn’t really be a problem, an easy games an easy game, you can complete it in a day, put it down and say you’ve had some fun and some laughs, but it’s nigh on impossible with Astro Lanes, each game lasts a standard 10 rounds in 1 on 1 competitions. Oh and you can’t skip your opponents go, which is increasingly tedious as the match continues. Now combine that with easy gameplay, predictable patterns and really dull repetitive music and voice effects and the chances are by round 4 you’ve fallen asleep.

The game also manages to combine this with some dire character designs, all the characters, from humans to aliens to robots (yeah, it’s that kind of game) have really bad pixelated square heads with little inspiration behind them, from 12 year old Bowlplex employee Milo to Ann, who’s possibly a robot waitress, but that might just be bad animation. Basically, they’re all bad, except Onuki, who looks a bit like Morbo and Elvis from Perfect Dark and he is awesome, although I’m not sure wether he’s evil or just very dramatic. He occasionally slips from British to Australian and his head ALWAYS collides with the camera when he gets a strike, but despite alien anatomy or robot autonomy (or whatever the term is) there’s a section between levels that gives you a choice of 3 lanes and the exit to the menu, showcasing sloppy animation, bad voice-over work and essentially, a pointless screen that serves no purpose. To make things worse, keep the sounds on default and you get the voice-over drowned out by the dull background music. Not that this is a big loss, the voice-over either sounds like a bored Duffman in the character select, or a campy reject from Super Monkey Ball, bizarrely that game, despite it being effectively a thrown in extra is infinitely more fun and replayable than this drivel, although that maybe because it genuinely takes some skill to master other than POWER!!!! And the characters were actually likeable, except Gon Gon. No-one likes him.

All in all, Milo’s Astro Lanes has this brilliant concept. I like the idea of a sports game set in a 1950’s inspired outer-space, but that’s all that’s brilliant about it. The graphics seem to still be in a beta stage, the characters look dire, the gameplays infuriatingly boring with no real effort put into it. The plus side is that is that everything about it is instantly forgettable, so…what game were we talking about again?