Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Survival Simulator 2029

The Terminator is a great science fiction film.  The sequel, while more of a remake than anything else, was good fun.  Sadly, pretty much everything after that has been garbage.  On the video game front there have been a lot of attempts to adapt the franchise with varying degrees of success.  Pretty much all such adaptations fall into the category of shooters with first person, third-person, side-scrolling or light-gun configurations.  One noteworthy example was the 1991 DOS game, simply called Terminator, in that it basically looked and felt like a crude version GTA.  Players could choose between Reese or the titular terminator and the game would end as soon as the terminator or Sarah Conner were eliminated.  It was even possible to play the game two player provided you could find a way to connect a pair of PCs together back then.  Sounds cool, but honestly I never really cared much for the time traveling, modern-day aspects of the IP.  Instead, my interest was, and still is, firmly set on the future conflict.

To me the war against the machines is where a video game adaptation could really shine.  There have been a few attempts, Bethesda made a game entitled Terminator: 2029, which obviously puts players in the boots of a future human resistance fighter under the command of John Conner.  Sadly, the game has the player running around in a super-suit (supposedly stolen from Skynet), that frankly gives players a mood-killing advantage.  You see...the most interesting part of the setting is being this relatively weak human having to scurry around the moonlit ruins of Los Angles, avoiding H-Ks (Hunter-Killers), just trying to survive.  Conceptually, swap out zombies for huge intimidating robots and you're halfway there.  The infiltrator units also bring up some potentially exciting gameplay in that the player might encounter what looks like other people, but not know if they are friend or foe.  Of course the T-600 series of terminators reveal their true nature up close, but a T-800 (aside from being on the big side) is anyone's guess.  Dogs could always spot a terminator, making them a valuable asset.  Weapons, whether it be plasma rifle, slug-thrower, or canister-bomb, are all important tools of the trade.  Vehicles, and vehicular weaponry (such as rocket launchers and mounted guns), are also extremely important for knocking out the heavily armored Skynet units.  Speaking of Skynet, it needs electricity, raw materials and industrial centers in the same way humans need food, clean water and medicine.  In some way there's almost a strategy element to the setting...

One question that I've heard bandied about regarding this Human/Machine conflict is the notion of biological and chemical weapons.  Specifically, Skynet doesn't seem to use them, but it's never explained why?  The simplest answer is that even though Skynet is self-aware, it may still be governed by certain basic functions of its programming (or "laws" if you prefer that term).  Hence, it might not be able to use WMDs aside from the nuclear arsenal it was provided with upon activation.  One setting which explores this idea in more detail is "Reign of Steel," a table-top RPG for the GRUPS ruleset.  In a nutshell, it's the Terminator circa 2029, except with the focus pulled out from southern California to a global view.  Depending on what part of the world you're in the robot conflict looks considerably different.  Local administrative AIs are given a degree of latitude as to how to deal with humans.  Some, such as the AI in charge of Mexico seek to destroy all organic life, while the AI in charge of England allows humans to live in a robot dominated police-state.  Others still allow humans to live so long as they keep their ecological footprint to a minimum (i.e. hunter-gatherer societies).  In essence it's a kitchen-sink for every robot apocalypse that has ever been created in entertainment media.  You could if you wanted have the computer game Earthsiege, the movie "Oblivion," the anime OVA "Casshern: Robot Hunter" and the short story "Second Variety," more or less all on the same planet just separated by geography and (to a lesser extent) time.

As you can probably gather, there's a lot of storytelling potential here.  Much like the blogpost I did recently on the Aliens franchise though, the games we have seen are surprisingly lacking in creativity.  Most are simply copies of the movies they were based on.  Then again, that's the basic problem with pretty much every film in the Terminator franchise after the original.  Rather than expanding on the lore of the setting, we get rehash after rehash of the same basic plot points and visual cues over and over ad-nauseam.  Still, given the choice I think I'd rather have more early access survival games where robots are the threat, rather than zombies, if for no other reason than a change of pace.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Duelology

For reasons I don't quite fathom (it probably has to do with money) entertainment media likes to do things in threes, or sets of three.  Video games are no exception to this trend.  Mass Effect, God of War, Gears of War, Dark Souls, The Witcher, they all have a trilogy associated with them.  However, this isn't always the case.  There are tons of games that never get a sequel, and there are also a lot of games that blow right on passed the number three mark.  Final Fantasy is up to its fifteenth iteration while Resident Evil is fast approaching it's seventh installment (and that's not even counting all the spin off titles each franchise has).  Considerably rarer is the duelology, or pair of games, so in this blog post I'd like to highlight one such example - Condemned.

Split between Criminal Origins and its direct sequel, Bloodshot, these two first-person action/horror games are a bit unique in that they are set in the modern era, but focus on melee combat.  The player takes the role of Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent attached to a special serial crime unit.  His assignment is to track down "Serial Killer X," a serial-killer killer operating out of the fictional rust-belt urban sprawl known simply as "Metro City."  While investigating the scene of a murder, Ethan's sidearm gets swiped by the lurking Serial Killer X, who then proceeds to use the weapon to murder two police officers, thus framing Ethan for the crime...I guess...I mean didn't they check trigger for fingerprints?  It's not like Serial Killer X wears gloves...that, and I'm not sure how Ethan is supposed to clear his name if it involves murdering a bunch of violent homeless people...

Glaring plot holes aside, Condemned does an excellent job of setting the mood.  Whether it be a subway, library, museum, burned out doll factory *shivers* or huge cabin in the woods (b-b-b-bear?), players will spend the majority of the game poking around abandoned, rundown buildings, mostly at night, while fending off attacks by deranged squatters.  It's never clearly explained in the first game why these individuals are so psychotic, the police dismiss them as being drug-crazed.  However, there are some subtle hints early on that it isn't a simple narcotics induced crime wave.  Dead birds turn up all over the city, and odd bits of metal can be found hidden everywhere.


During development, this game was entitled "The Dark," which is an apt name considering how many foreboding, poorly lit and claustrophobic environments there are in the game.  It also featured a much stronger supernatural element.  The player could even cast spells in the game that would open doors or steal a weapon out an opponent's hands.  A tiny bit of this made it into the final product in that Ethan seems to be gifted with clairvoyance, or some similar psychic power.  I kind of like how they ultimately chose to ground the setting though since, in my opinion, preserving the plausibility of the premise makes the experience a lot more terrifying.  It's a pity the developers backtracked on this when in came to the sequel.

As I said before, the storyline was not one of Condemned's strong points, but what it did excel at was the gameplay.  Guns are rare and have severally limited ammo, so the player has to depend a lot on improvised melee weapons such as fire axes, sledgehammers, crowbars, flat head shovels, chunks of rebar, locker doors, boards with nails in them and pretty much any other bludgeoning object you can possibly think of.  The AI is no slouch either.  Enemies will seek out ambush points, block and even feign attacks to throw the player off.  Breaking up the action is an occasional forensics segment in which the player must locate clues regarding Serial Killer X in order to advance the story.  It's fairly straightforward stuff since Ethan's lab partner, Rosa, does most of the analytical work, but it's a welcome addition nonetheless.  The sound design is also great (an often neglected feature in video games).  Here the incomprehensible ranting and raving of adversaries mixed with the sickening crunch of a lead pipe to the face add a lot to the already creepy atmosphere.  What little music there is in the game is also a perfect fit for the setting.

The now-defunct Monolith Studios was responsible for this duelology, and it's easy to see the DNA of their big followup franchise, F.E.A.R. (empty structors, clever AI, a gifted protagonist, and a mixture of action and horror thematic elements).  Unlike that FPS though, Condemned drew inspiration from movies like "Silence of the Lambs," "Se7en," and directors like David Lynch rather than "Ringu," "Akira," and John Woo.  Although...is it just me or does Ethan Thomas look Asian American?  I guess he's not given his appearance in the second game.  Too bad...it would have been a lot more interesting if he had been something other than yet another generic 30-something, scruffy white guy...

Friday, July 8, 2016

From Alien to Familiar

It can't be understated how much James Cameron's "Aliens" film has influenced video games.  Resident Evil 2, DOOM 3, and the original XCOM, all drew inspiration from the movie in obvious ways.  I've even heard arguments that it's directly responsible for the creation of the survival horror genre as we know it.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a large number of direct adaptations of the Aliens franchise with wild variations in quality (even between platform ports).  For example, the Amiga and Apple IIc version of Aliens are pretty different, as are the Sega Genesis and SNES versions of Alien 3.  As far as good Aliens-themed games go, the general consensus seems to be Alien vs Predator 2, Alien: Isolation, and the original DOOM total conversion mod.  I've also heard positive things about the Nintendo DS title Aliens: Infestation, but I haven't had a chance to play it myself.

When it comes to bad games, there are sadly far to many to properly list.  Part of the problem comes from unrelated games that cherry pick all the best bits of the Aliens franchise for use in their own projects.  Hence, when an actual licensed Aliens game comes out it feels derivative in terms of gameplay (take the old Mac game Colony, or Metroid and Contra on the NES for examples of games that beat'em to the punch).  Another, more fundamental problem, is a simple lack of developer creativity.  I'm probably a bit of an outlier here when I say that my preference is for the original over any of the sequels (yes, even the second one).  My reasoning is simple, the alien was far more mysterious in the original film than at any point after.

It seems that the aliens are a biological weapon of sorts, engineered by an enigmatic race of giants.  It makes sense, but what if the aliens were actually native to some planet instead?  What kind of eco-system would that world have?  An even more disturbing possibility is what if they're not the dominate species on their homeworld?  Another interesting corollary is what do aliens look like when they are devoid of human DNA?  Supposedly, one unique aspect of xenomorph physiology is their ability to take on aspects of the host species (incubator).  It's a sort of accelerated evolution through grave robbing.  Originally, the alien in the first film was going to be much more maggot-like with translucent skin and a clear domed head that held a humanoid skull underneath.  Unfortunately, the production crew couldn't get the lighting to work quite right so the idea never really panned out.  Still, it's interesting to consider whether or not the xenomorphs are even a species at all.  Perhaps they are the culmination of ever species they've used as breeding hosts up to that point?  In which case how would xenomorphs interact if they were from branching evolutionary paths.  Would the dog-alien in the third film cooperate with it relatives from the previous movie?  Would they fight like red ants and black ants?  These are interesting questions that nobody has tried to answer, which is a shame because it would make good fodder for a video game.

Another disturbing aspect to the xenomorphs is their ability to steal not just the DNA of their hosts, but their memory as well.  It would help explain why, at times, the aliens appear to be strangely clever, they know everything their host knew, it's just that most of the knowledge isn't pertinent when the mental faculties of a xenomorph are dominated by the three basic instincts: survive, procreate and kill.  To me, the weirdest part of unexplained alien lore has to be their feeding habits, or lack there of.  Xenomorphs don't appear to eat anything and yet they grow ridiculously fast.  My personal theory is that they are somehow able to convert energy into matter, kind of like photo synthesis except instead of sunlight and leaves it's their elongated head organ and thermal radiation.  At the very least this would help explain why aliens like to build their nests in hot places, and why they would be such desirably specimens for scientific research.

Regrettably none of this has been explored or even addressed in a satisfactory manner.  Instead we've only really gotten rehashes of the first two films (usually with more bugs and more guns).  Worse still the aliens continue to get less and less...well...alien.  They started off as a mixture of flukes and tarantula wasps, then became something akin to ants or bees, and by the third film the alien was basically a jungle cat.  Appearance-wise too, the alien design has migrated away from the original bio-mechanical look to something more insect or reptilian in appearance.  Even the space jockey race have had their eerie pachyderm-like traits reworked into something more recognizably human.

Incidentally, during the pre-production of  Alien 3, H.R. Giger did a bit of design work on the alien for that movie.  Not wanting to simply repeat himself, the artist added some new features to the creature such as a "finger brain," consisting of numerous tendrils along the top of the head that would movie in rhythmic patterns.  Additionally, his new alien design had hollow tubes that would emit haunting windpipe noises.  I don't know how scary this would have been on film (none of he designs were used because of concerns over production costs), but it's bizarre stuff, totally unlike anything found on the planet Earth.  Hence, "alien" in the truest sense of the word.  I can understand why filmmakers would be reluctant to take those kinds of risks, but if you're going to make a tie-in game you might as well try to make it stand on its own merits.    

Friday, July 1, 2016

In the Eye of Argon

The concept of a ferocious, half-naked barbarian is hardly new.  There are references as far back as ancient Rome that mention Gaelic and Germanic warriors who would strip down, paint their bodies and charge fearlessly into combat.  The modern version tends to be associated with the sword and sorcery.  Codified by Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, this subgenre is a mixture of ancient history and low fantasy.  Howard himself pictured the setting as the "Hyborian Age," a time after the fall of mythical Atlantis, but before the rise of Greece and Egypt.  So, what has any of this got to do with video games?  Not much until the 1980s...

After Robert E. Howard's death at the young age of thirty, sword and sorcery fell to the wayside.  When it finally saw a resurgence in the later half of the 20th century, it had changed a bit in terms of sensibilities.  The most obvious aspect being clothing.  It's true that Robert E. Howard would describe his most iconic character, Conan, wearing nothing more than a loincloth at times, but it's important to note that this was usually because the barbarian was traveling under a hot and humid jungle canopy or taking warm evening sojourn through a city in the desert.  On other occasions Conan would wear armor, furs or whatever best suited the situation.  In the 1980s though there was this thing called the nudist movement, plus painters like Frank Frazetta and Vallejo Boris, not to mention a pseudo-documentary called "Pumping Iron" staring none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Basically people were spending more time at the gym and they wanted to show off all their hard work.  In other words barbarians were scantly clad regardless of concerns like hypothermia or sunburn.  Anyway...on to the barbarians in video games!

The first sword and sorcery game I every played was Conan: Hall of Volta.  It was basically a 2D puzzle-platformer that little to do with the franchise it was based on.  Two things worth noting, this version of Conan always does front flips when jumping and throws swords rather than swinging them.  Another game to come out around the same time was Death Sword.  A one-on-one fighting game, it had a wide variety of moves including a slow decapitation attack that kills in a single hit.  Incidentally, there was this little green fellow who would would always show up after a match, kick the severed head off the edge of the screen (if there was one to kick) and proceed to mumble something over the corpse of the looser before dragging the body away.  To this day I wonder what that little guy said.  Was it a silent prayer?  A curse?  The measurements for the coffin?  We may never know...

On the arcade front there were titles like Rastan (a side-scrolling action game), and Golden Axe (a classic from the beat'em-up genre).  Obviously, a big part of these kind of games is the physicality of the characters.  Showing off precise muscle definition sometimes came at a price.  No steroids here, I'm talking about titles like Sword of Sodan, a game that has some of the biggest, most detailed character sprites you'll find on the Sega Genesis.  They look cool, but they come at the expense of fluid controls.  Ironically, there's a grain of truth here in that real life body builders sometimes focus on muscle mass and definition at the expense of agility, resulting in a strong, but somewhat clumsy individual.  The movie director of the original "Conan the Barbarian" noticed this when he cast Arnold for the role and asked the then seven time Mr. Olympia champion to do more calisthenic exercises (like jump rope and horseback riding) rather than focusing solely on weight lifting.  The results were mixed, with Arnold nursing a sprained ankle through the later part of the production shoot.  He really doesn't have that "panther-ish" grace that Robert E. Howard used to describe the character.

It's actually a hard balance to find, both in reality and in the world of video games.  Take for example the 2007 Conan game by THQ.  They copied the gameplay straight from God of War which resulted in an agile and responsive character that also felt a bit weightless at times.  I can't believe I'm saying this, but (purely from a physical performance standpoint) Jason Momoa is probably the closer to the original Robert E. Howard character than any other actor who has taken on the role.  Too bad the script and directing in the Conan reboot movie gave the actors nothing to work with.  This brings me to an important part of the sword and sorcery genre that's often neglected - the weirdness.  Hypnotizing wizards, eldritch horrors, esoteric cults, forgotten ruins are just a few examples, but some campiness is almost a requirement of the genre.  Sometimes it can get pretty bad in some low-budget films like "Deathstalker," "The Blade Master," or my personal favorite (the so bad it's good) "Barbarian Brothers."  Much like how DeCamp and Carter tried to emulate Robert E. Howard, these derivative works don't hold up well against the originals.  Sometimes knockoff adaptations can take on a style of their own though.  Such is the case with the animated film "Fire and Ice."  While not a good movie (mostly because Ralph Bakshi isn't good at telling epic stories) it is unique.  I want to say more but I think this snippet of a review by Micheal Seahorn sums up my feelings quite nicely:
Bakshi’s stylistic choices make it hard not to also examine the movie in a social context, and it’s pretty eclectic. For one thing, adherence to the Frazetta style makes this one of the few fantasy flicks I’ve seen wherein the male characters are almost as sexualized as the females, give the minimalist wardrobe. Hero Larn finds himself in need of rescue several times, and despite the ceaseless efforts of the screenplay to turn her into a damsel, heroine Teegra is a pretty resourceful character. Other depictions are less progressive, though. Ice lord Nekron is pretty unambiguously gay, but his implied homosexuality – specifically, the fact that he finds Teegra undesirable – is presented as an evil attribute. And what can be said about the dark-skinned, animalistic “subhumanoids” other than an acknowledgement of how clearly fantasy often caters to exclusively white audiences?
As odd as it might sound, the recently released Age of Barbarian: Extended Cut reminds me a lot of "Fire and Ice," except if it were CGI instead of rotoscope animation.

So, what is the future of sword and sorcery when it comes to video games?  Well...it's pretty hard to have a discussion about it without at least mentioning the Conan MMORPG.  I can't say I'm much of a fan of MMOs, and RPG gameplay inherently feels a bit too abstracted for what is supposed to be a very raw and visceral experience.  The new Conan Exiles game doesn't really appeal to me for similar reasons.  If I had to chose a favorite from all the sword and sorcery games that have come out over the years I'd probably go with Mark of Kri.  Although, I personally believe the best kind of Barbarian-themed video game would be something like Red Dead Redemption except with the old west replaced Hyboria, or the Witcher except everyone has less clothes and more muscle.  When you think about the original stories, they're really about one exceptional individual carving out their own destiny and what better way to express that in video game terms than with a open world setting?  Or perhaps I should say a sandbox from an age undreamed of?