As an introduction to this blog, the following are a collection of thoughts and tiny essays I've written on games and game design, transplanted from my personal writings and old blog posts.
Grand Theft Auto 4: Notes from the beginning of the game (written 5/4/08)(Warning: Very vague spoilers for the beginning of GTA4 and major spoilers for the end of Metal Gear Solid 3)
I played GTA4 for the first time tonight. I'd never been a big GTA fan, being put off by the whole gratuitously violent crime theme. However, I think the European immigrant story really drew me into giving this game a shot, especially considering the general acclaim that the series has received and hearing of the increased focus on atmosphere and story.
It's late, so I'll keep the general review for later when I get a chance to play more, but I did want to make a note on one particular section, right near the beginning. There is a certain mission where you have to make your first kill relevant to the story, where previously you only had to beat up a couple of thugs. When you make the kill, your main character Niko laments that he promised himself there would be no killing in this country (I subsequently crashed the getaway car and turned off the PS3).
I've played many RPGs where there would be some kind of choice at this point in the game whether or not to kill the man, yet I've also played plenty of games where I had no problem that I had no choice in the matter. Yet, this was the only situation where it bothered me that I did not have a choice, and the fact that I was forced to kill the person gave me a small emotional reaction.
I then suddenly realized something about the nature killing humans in video games (I say humans, because killing monsters and non-humanoids is a completely different discussion altogether that I'm not going to get into right now). There is exactly one other moment where killing a person in a video game has caused a such a strange emotion in me, and that was at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, I could kill nameless soldiers all day with little reaction other than amusement, yet the end was absolutely gut wrenching. There was no amusement in that death, no adrenaline rush, nothing macho or exciting about it, just grim reflection of the tragedy of the events leading up to the kill. This scene in GTA4 should have been fairly throwaway, but it made an impact because of the tragedy in the dynamic shift. Through the beginning of the game, Niko seemed a nice enough guy, a bit of a hard-ass but tempered by his desire to protect his bumbling cousin. In that moment, you see the facade melt away and see Niko as the monster he didn't want to become, and you as the player are forced to deal with the shift.
The other thread I lightly touched upon is the fact that there was no choice. The GTA series (or at least, GTA3+) is about freedom and sprawling environments, but at that moment you see that the story is going to play out how it will play out, on your character's terms instead of yours. This is not a bad thing by any stretch, but the contrast was a bit jarring.
I found it interesting the way in which the player is guided through the character's actions and choices, and how by giving the characters control instead of the player, we're forced into actions outside our comfort zone. This in turn causes an emotional reaction. By all accounts I'm a timid, peaceful person, so it will be interesting to see how playing through this game will turn out for me when I get this way over a single death in a game.
Music and Emotion in Games (written 01/18/09)
I've heard that for a lot of people smells often serve as triggers for memories, such as the smell of warm apple pie reminding someone of their mother's home, or the smell of Christmas trees can remind you of Christmas, etc. On the other hand, music is where I find my nostalgia. Certain songs will remind me of the memories and moments from when I would listen to those songs. Today a friend of mine was listening to the soundtrack of the game Final Fantasy 8, and as I listened to one song in particular I was hit with a wave of nostalgia remembering the time I spent playing that game.
Music has this way of capturing the moment and expressing it more powerfully than words or images can convey, for reasons that I cannot fully understand or explain. Maybe it's a conditioned response- over time we associate certain sounds with different feelings good and bad, and that over time the list of "desirable sounds" grows until we develop our personal tastes in music. Or maybe there is something inherent to the composition of the music itself that makes music powerful in its own right. Whatever the reason, it is my belief that if used correctly music can completely make or break the emotional impact of a video game.
The point I'm really trying to get to is that too often video games use music as an afterthought, something to fill the void of the background, when the best video games use music as a driving force, something which can set the tone and guide the emotional response of the player. My favorite examples for the potential of music in video games are Halo and the Final Fantasy series, each of which use clever compositions to manipulate and intensify the emotions expressed to the player. Intentional or not (I can't claim to have knowledge on the process that went into making these soundtracks), decisions such as whether to have music that is unobtrusive and quiet to draw attention to certain aspects of the scene or to use a song with a clear concordant melody to set a specific tone have a profound effect on the player's experience when playing the game.
It is important to try and analyze and understand the ways in which even the smallest detail in composition can affect the player experience so that game developers can better shape that experience in accordance with artistic vision. It is my hope that more developers will follow the leads of the games that do make use of music in effective and awesome ways, so that in turn games can become a more powerful medium in general.
A Collection of Other Thoughts (written 9/13/09)
One of the awesome parts of Super Metroid was the feeling of going somewhere the designers hadn't intended me to go, both in places where that wasn't actually true, and places where it is. At one point, you have to enter the lava world (Norfair) without the heat absorbing Varia suit in order to grab the High Jump Boots. However, Norfair is an advanced stage with rooms that lead to lava traps and barriers which require weapons far beyond your reach: try to explore the area and you'll get burned by a room which reduces your life purely by being in it. The only thing that propels you forward is the knowledge that there's no way to advance until you find what you're looking for, thus you feel as though you're "sneaking in" to a later stage. Additionally, there are certain parts of the game that can be skipped or gone to out of sequence by mastering the Wall Jump, a mostly optional skill that can help the player get around. Combine this with the "beat the game for the best ending" metagame to invoke feelings of creativity and ingenuity in the player.
On Shadow Complex and related games: What is it about double jumps that suddenly make the game feel much more open and free? Is it the feeling of control as you jump, being able to jump to places outside your sight range, or something else?
In Final Fantasy 7, Aeris' death was important because she stopped being a playable character. You could have invested time in building her stats and getting her abilities, to have that lost. You're supposed to be pissed, that's the point. The key is to make the loss make sense, and make the loss drive the player to play the game, not frustrate them into quitting.
Thats all for now, more blog to come!