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Opinion: Diamond In The Rough - 'A Body in the Dark'

In a new opinion piece, writer Tom Cross takes a look at the saving grace of the critically panned Alone In The Dark - how "...no other game available today inserts you so forcefully into the bod

September 5, 2008

7 Min Read

Author: by Tom Cross

[In a new opinion piece, writer Tom Cross takes a look at the saving grace of the critically panned Alone In The Dark - how "...no other game available today inserts you so forcefully into the body of your character."] When playing a video game, the physical presence of your character is often strangely difficult to get a visceral feel for. In first-person shooters, very few attempts are made to simulate mass, friction, or a feeling of the solidity of your character’s body. Games like Portal and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic use mass and momentum to attempt to create a virtual space that your body appears to inhabit (Portal does this well, DMoMM does not do it so well), but in general, FPSs avoid the question altogether. Third-person games must take an entirely different approach. Since the player is staring at their avatar’s front or back for most of the game, the developer must create a believable surrogate for the player, both visually and physically. This is a tough issue to get around, and most games don’t find a perfect way to solve it, but some are worse than others. Even major titles like Oblivion and Knights of the Old Republic have produced egregiously stiff and robotic character models. Games where the objectives involve physically interacting with the gameworld (Tomb Raider, Drake’s Fortune, Prince of Persia) tend to fare better, because, your character has to have a distinct mass and tendency to move in a certain way for the game to work at all. Still, even in these titles, you avatar’s body remains static. You may sway, swing, slip, and miss handholds, but your on-screen presence is still essentially unchanging—a placeholder for your point of view. A Shot in the Dark This is where the new Alone in the Dark game strikes out on its own. Edward Carnby’s body is a distinct factor in everything that the player does. Your inventory is carried inside Carnby’s leather jacket. To use, drop, or combine items, you must open it wide and look down at your own chest. The healing mechanic, too, reinforces the oft-forgotten fact that you have a body. To heal yourself, you must look at the parts of your body (arms, leg, chest) that are wounded, and then spray them with first-aid liquid. Likewise, when you equip an item, Edward reaches for it, palming it and then switching back to the stock third or first person view. Subtle touches reinforce Edward’s physical presence: if you are carrying a flashlight, and wish to hold a bottle of gasoline in that hand, you can strap the light to your shoulder lapel, thus causing it to shine at an angle. While the third person elements of the game are not perfectly realized, they still convey the weight and heft of Edward’s less than perfectly agile body. The effect of all of this is to ground you in the body of your protagonist. You must constantly check yourself for new cuts or bruises, sometimes eliciting a tired shrug from Edward when a visual check reveals no new blemishes. When blinded by enemies, blood, or water, you must blink Edward’s eyes to clear them. When entering a vehicle, you switch to an awkward first person perspective. From this view, you can interact with many of the car’s parts: ignition, lights, horn, glove box, cabin light, and backseat. When you exit a moving vehicle, Edward flings himself out the door. All actions you perform are animated, be they in first person or third person mode. These might seem like minor facets of a game, but taken together, they do something importantly new with in-game character presence. No other game available today inserts you so forcefully into the body of your character; no other game makes a concern for that body a necessary part of doing well in the game. In Oblivion, you can manipulate bodies and items, but in so doing you cause these objects to dangle eerily in midair. Additionally most doors and operable items in games swing on or open magically at a press of the use button. It’s not just graphical differences that set apart the level of immersion seen in these two games. Not only does Edward interact believably and compellingly with the world, it is necessary for the player to become familiar with these interactions. You cannot finish the game (not easily, at least) unless you have an extensive understanding, often attained through countless visual reminders, of Edward’s body and the ways it reacts to the world. You don’t have to do this in Oblivion—you don’t think to, even though you would in real life. What We're Used To This did not seem odd to me before. It was just the way FPSs were. To see Edward manipulate his world through his own eyes grounds the player in ways that relate to our bedrock experiences within our own bodies. It puts Half Life 2’s Gordon Freeman to shame. Even when Gordon is being forcibly held or moved in HL2, you never get the sense that the space he inhabits is quite as real as Edward’s. First person shooters are not the only games that could learn some lessons from Carnby’s jacket and body. Games like Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, and Splinter Cell all feature characters with bizarrely spacious pants, packs or pockets. These are conventions of the genre, of course, so we don’t think about it, but they’re also completely unrealistic. Habit makes us blind to the silliness of Lara Croft’s tiny backpack and hardly-there shorts being able to hold flares, skulls, and automatic weapons. Still, this disconnect between the reality of the game world and the way we interface with it is a weakness, one that, once we stop to look at it, does look ridiculous. Remember Guybrush Threepwood, the ironic protagonist of the Monkey Island games, getting some comic mileage out of how big his pantaloons would have to be to hold all his possessions. By far the worst offender is Resident Evil 4, which traded in safe boxes for a large “briefcase.” I would love to see its protagonist, Leon Kennedy, grabbing at his sides for different firearms or ammo, or looking along his body for wounds. The same could be said for Lara Croft, although this exercise would doubtlessly be tinged with the public’s desire to perform such actions on a nonexistent body. In fact, maybe Tomb Raider should stay how it is, given so many gamers’ childish habits. Obviously these mechanics cannot be applied to all games. Alone in the Dark’s inventory and interface are slow and clumsy. Even with modifications, they would still only be suitable to games that allowed the player enough time to perform such actions. There are some games that follow their own paths to convincing players that their hero actually inhabits space. Nathan Drake has more character contained in his movements and mannerisms than a hundred other PCs, and he keeps his weapons on his person, in plain sight. He flings himself at the world around him, and he is often brought up short or stymied in an appreciable way by environmental forces. Although not yet available, Dead Space appears to create a very believable hero whose body is viciously affected by his surroundings. Of course, when it comes to changing or injured bodies, Fable 2 has to be mentioned. Fable 2 lets you age, tattoo, and contort your body in a predetermined set of responses and actions. It may not be realistic in its inventory system (your character must have treasure chests for pockets!), but it creates a character that is an extension of the player’s will and intention, where you can write your desired character into the very body of your avatar. Was it Worth it? Alone in the Dark’s approach to this issue is fraught with missteps and errors. The beauty of the system I have described is marred at every turn by an extremely clumsy interface. Hopefully other games will find a way to take the lessons to had in Alone in the Dark and apply them elsewhere. Games need to present us with more lived-in, real, and believable representations of the player or main character. This will draw players into their new roles in a completely different way. It’s one kind of immersion that we should demand more of.

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