Thursday, September 11, 2008

There's a Thin Line Between Love and Hate

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.


Anonymous said...

Three words...spawn, die, repeat... That's how I'd describe my Too Human experience. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the game, but boy does it have it's flaws. The unrelenting ranged attacks and the long lasting status effects are just down right evil. I can't tell you how many times I've died starting out with full health because I got too close to one of those exploding baddies. Another one of my complaints is how stingy they are with the health orbs. I almost never get one when I really need it and sure enough as soon as I die they start dropping like crazy. I just don't get it? On the up side, the co-op mode is fun. If you buddy up with a bio-engineer they can heal you which means you die much less.

Anonymous said...

"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."

What a great point! I'd been flirting with the craft argument for quite some time, but hadn't quite reasoned why I felt it was right. Thanks for articulating that so well.

Yegwa said...

I agree completely with mtvernon. Very well articulated point. It was also brought up in this post on gamasutra. Basically he likened game development to the tao. One of the commenters made a very interesting point about how on the path to 'the way' practitioners of most martial arts must master the 'technique' first in order to reach the enlightenment. Sounds obvious when it is written out like that, but I guess that is part of why it works.

That's quite interesting about your comparison between Eternal Darkness and Too Human. I haven't played the latter yet, and I am not sure I will now, but it is interesting that it seems like Silicon Knights hasn't learned much in the intervening years. Or maybe it is a victim of its own protracted development time?

Anyways, nice read.

Nels Anderson said...

In Yahtzee's delightful rant on Too Human, he says that the game "carries the stink of the auteur." At first I took offense, but then I realized he was exactly right. Too Human is so absolutely mired in the desire to be artistic, it forgets to be playable. The flaws with Too Human would have been quickly revealed with even a little usability testing (15-20 sec unskippable animation every time you die?), but it seems that The Grand Vision trumped everything else.

For whatever reason, Eternal Darkness managed to dodge this. Maybe its uniqueness (the unsanity mechanic especially) was able to buoy it, or maybe The Grand Vision emphasized interesting interaction instead of just creating spectacle.

Additionally, as cliched as the writing in ED might have been, Too Human is so much worse. It is easily as poor as dialog in the first Resident Evil. For a game released in 2008, by an English-speaking developer, this is simply unacceptable. "If that's your best, bring on your worst." That's not even enjoyable in a B-movie, campy sort of way. It's just deplorable.

P.S. Wouldn't Iron Maiden's cover of Thin Line Between Love and Hate be more appropriate for Too Human? ;)

Anonymous said...

@yegwa: Thanks for the link; I'll definitely give that a read.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@darius: I had much the same experience (I forgot about the long-lasting status effects, which are as much of a problem as the ranged attacks) Perhaps I'm just not playing the game right, but I just think the game kills you too often.

@mtvernon: I've been thinking about this art vs. craft thing for a while. Maybe I'll turn it into a blog post if you don't beat me to the punch.

@yegwa: good link, I had another metaphor in mind but I think it captures the idea I'm after.

@nelsormensch: yahtzee is my favorite! I had that same feeling that the game has this aura of Kojimaesque auteurism, the pursuit of the grand vision rather than attention to the make-or-break details. I just think regular people needed to play a near-finished version of this game and think seriously about its usability and it would have come out OK. Valve does this, and their games always come out great.

Anonymous said...

@iroquois pliskin: Can't wait to hear what you have to say!

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