Pounding against the Mirror: Breaking the Metaphorical Barrier in Games

As deep, serious people, who perhaps want to make deep, serious games, we appreciate the fine metaphorical meanings embedded in…

As deep, serious people, who perhaps want to make deep, serious games, we appreciate the fine metaphorical meanings embedded in works of art. We savor their skill and craft, swirling around possible meanings, trying to gather the full bouquet of delights. Then we spit them back out, of course, for we don’t have enough time to finish an eighty-hour campaign.

But these metaphors, commonly regarded in fiction as the sign of ‘literature’, are achingly rare in games. As English majors from time immemorial have learned, the value of a text can be deeply related to how many hidden layers it holds. Why is that car red? Was there a reason she asked for marigolds? Does this story have a perspective on life greater than the events it is conveying? Will answering these questions be enough to fill ten pages? The great canon of the English language is built around works that answer universal questions. So why can’t we get it in games?

Vanquish: Sliding Around Letting It All Hang Out

Note: Vanquish is not yet out.  I’m writing this because, after having played the demo, I feel Vanquish.   I feel…

Note: Vanquish is not yet out.  I’m writing this because, after having played the demo, I feel Vanquish.   I feel its movements, its pace – they’ve been running through my blood for the past few days.  In a sense, I feel like I haven’t stopped playing since I did my first rocket shin-slide.  And of course, making judgments about an entire game from less than an hour of play seems to be the purview of a game designer.

So.  Shinji Mikami, ex-Capcom alumnus, creator of Resident Evil, director of such action classics as Resident Evil 4, God Hand, and, um, P.N.03, decides he’s making a new game, and he looks to modern 3rd-person shooters for inspiration.  No – he specifically looks at Gears of War for inspiration, because it’s probably the most influential game of this generation (and Mikami, like all good designers, seems to be a fan).

Vanquish starts with Gears’ skeleton – snap-to-, vaultable cover, zoom-on-character aim, etc., and adds one new mechanic: extreme mobility.  Holding a shoulder button sends the player sliding on their knees at hundreds of feet through the second.  They can bypass enemy fire, get from point A to point Anywhere, and generally do whatever they want.  It’s ridiculous, it’s awesome, it’s sublime.  Every other aspect of the game extends logically from this one mechanic.

3D Dot Game Heroes

What do you get with a white-hot retro art style, an ethos of ‘classic gameplay’, and inspiration from game canon…

What do you get with a white-hot retro art style, an ethos of ‘classic gameplay’, and inspiration from game canon such as Dragon Quest and The Legend of Zelda?

Not a whole heck of a lot.

Game Characters be Crazy

One of the challenges in bringing strong narratives into games is the stubborn refusal of game characters to act with…

One of the challenges in bringing strong narratives into games is the stubborn refusal of game characters to act with any narrative realism.  Giving a player control over the main driving force of a story inevitably means that the story will operate in fits and starts, to the whim of a curious human.  Cutting off this freedom is a naïve solution; it means giving up the greatest strength games have, their interactivity.

Alan Wake

Remedy is a pretty small house.  Alan Wake is their third game, after Max Payne 1 & 2.  With each…

Remedy is a pretty small house.  Alan Wake is their third game, after Max Payne 1 & 2.  With each of their games they’ve shown a smart attention to setting, solid mechanics, beautiful tech, and a love of schlock.

Alan Wake is a piece of schlock.  It’s well-made, and affecting, but still schlock.

Soulcaster

Soulcaster is an Xbox Live Indie game that takes plays like Gauntlet and a Tower Defense game combined.  Monsters spawn…

Soulcaster is an Xbox Live Indie game that takes plays like Gauntlet and a Tower Defense game combined.  Monsters spawn from certain points and rush towards the player, whose only method of defense is to summon immobile warriors – a melee blocker, a powerful ranged character with many limitations, and a bomber with area-of-effect attacks.

It builds on that very human desire to build the most efficient killing machine found in tower defense games and adds the spice of direct vulnerability that a player avatar provides.  Monsters spawn unpredictably and the player is forced to react quite quickly, setting up hasty defenses from new angles.  It works well, it’s aesthetically exactly where it should be, and it’s a lot of fun.

So what would I play around with in the design?

Deadly Premonition

The console video game publishing world is no place for amateurs. Games cost tens of millions of dollars of other…

The console video game publishing world is no place for amateurs. Games cost tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. I’m killing myself right this instant to get the training to enter this workforce – to have the opportunity to play it safe, polish every last feature to the point of MAXIMUM BLING. With all the focus on polish, on cutting out the fat in the design, on focus-tested playability, we’re no longer trying to bring new experiences to players.

Deadly Premonition, an under-budget, over-ambitious, technically compromised 360 title, proves just how badly needed an amateur spirit is in today’s market.