I spent my two pre-vacation weeks in California splitting my solo-gaming time between two Silicon Knights projects: the recent Xbox 360 RPG Too Human and the critically beloved Gamecube survival horror title Eternal Darkness. The juxtaposition was illustrative.
I'll begin with Too Human. Two hours in, I thought that Too Human had been unjustly vilified. Four hours in, I was dedicating a lot of energy to thinking of ways to wittily deride it. How did this happen?
As befits a developer whose last project was an adaptation of Metal Gear Solid 2, Too Human bears the unmistakable stamp a Japanese design sensibility. Potentially pathbreaking innovations in basic game design are offset by a barrage of minor, stubbornly inconvenient design choices -- cumbersome menus, lengthy and unskippable death animations, an unreliable camera, stultifying “puzzle-solving” elements. Though the novel control scheme and combat mechanics clicked for me, whatever enjoyment I got from them was progressively eroded by dozens of misfires on the level of execution. The reward scheduling is too dense for the menu system, which quickly becomes overburdened and serves as a deterrent to the enjoyment of loot. (And the since the enjoyment of loot is the game's raison d'etre this is a major problem.) Whoever decided to give the enemies powerful ranged attacks ought to be lashed to the mainmast and flogged. In Too Human, powerful ranged attacks beget frequent player death beget lengthy unskippable death animations beget frustration. I'm told the gameplay is satisfying as a cooperative enterprise, and this may well be true, but as a single-player experience it swiftly descends into tedium by the middle of the second level.
Unexpectedly, the cyberpunk-Norse-pantheon-cum-Michael Clayton conceit works. But there's a world of difference between having a good conceit and a good narrative, and Too Human is an object lesson in this distinction. While the plot is interesting, the characterization, dialogue, and acting are uniformly cringeworthy. The grunt soldiers of the game's first two levels are apparently graduates of the Halo 3 school of generic-sounding soldier-ey jingoism, and every time an Aesir spoke I began to feel a little embarrassed with myself for playing the game. The liberal mixture of mock-epic oratory and tough-guy posturing that pervades the narrative as a whole is grossly offputting-- it's as if you brought in the screenwriting team from Con Air to come in and punch-up your adaptation of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Too Human wants to convey these sweeping ideas about the way that technology shapes modern life and society, but every time it opens its mouth to say these things it becomes clear that its only means to this end is portentous speechifying. (Sound familiar?) After some time, it becomes apparent that Too Human's creators operate under the idea that the games medium is just one really badass cutscene away from new heights of artistic achievement, and this mistake casts an unappealing light on the deficiencies of its cinematic execution. Even if the narrative were more slickly executed, there would still be a deep disconnect between the gameplay and the narrative itself, and this essential heterogeneity made me question the whole game design philosophy as I questioned the game itself.
Playing the critically beloved Eternal Darkness in parallel revealed an interesting fact: it suffers from many of the same flaws. Much like its maligned cousin, it has pedestrian and repetitive level design. It has about four nearly-indistinguishable enemy types. (Excluding the camera. Zing!) It has a core mechanic (the rune-spell system) that is too dense for its menu system. Its narrative is wholly delivered via leaden portentiousness. It's the same game transposed into a different genre.
So why does Eternal Darkness succeed where Too Human fails? It has a few really great ideas. The nested, Cloud Atlasesque structure of the narrative was really refreshing, and the one-note (“Macabre!”) narrative tone works better in the context of Lovecraftian horror. (Hey, Lovecraft only has one narrative register too, and it worked out pretty well for him.) The spell system is fresh, and it is creatively integrated into the puzzle design. And the sanity-meter mechanic is really an inspired idea-- it creates all these superb moments that mirror nightmare-logic: “I was walking down this hallway, and as an enemy bore down on me, I suddenly couldn't speak. I was abruptly helpless, consigned to witness my own demise.” The novelty and freshness of these few, great ideas balance out the fact that the narrative is kind of dopey on the whole, and redeem the whole enterprise.
My takeaway from playing these two games in tandem is that games really walk a razor-thin line between success and failure. You can have some really phenomenal ideas (I really do get the sense that Dennis Dyack thinks big, and I root for him for this reason), but it all comes down to polish and execution. Making a few player-unfriendly design choices can ruin the affair, even if there are a lot of revelatory new gameplay ideas at work in the rest of the game. For every bad design decision you make, you are putting more stress on those innovative ideas to bear the load of keeping the player engrossed. We're often tempted to think of game design as an art, but it is more fundamentally a craft: games have to function correctly before they can do anything else. They have to be things we can use without frustration.
American design has outpaced the Japanese development community on this front for a few years now, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's cross-pollination from the productivity-driven American tech culture that's responsible. Though American developers are often unimaginative in comparison to their Japanese counterparts, they know how to make a functional product. I'm hoping this knowledge will work its way up to Canada by the time of Too Human 2, since it's a few smart design decisions away from being a consistently entertaining game.