Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Blinded by the WoW

Yes, the post is a day late. I was spending Memorial Day not working, doing some chores, and experimenting with new hairstyles. Turns out I look awesome with a mohawk. Who'd have thought?

Games Bought:

Total spent to date:

Things I'm Sad I Can't Buy:
Nothing new this week, but the urge to buy Age of Conan is still high. There's something about an MMO that allows you to decapitate your enemies and ride around on a war mammoth that's alluring. Also, there's a brothel called The Bearded Clam. That's comedy right there.

In order to fight off the desire to buy it, I did wind up resubbing to World of Warcraft. I joined a new server that work people are on, so hopefully having some people to play with will encourage me to play longer. I spent the weekend working my priest up to level 18, which is probably the fastest I've gotten a character up that high. I decided to start her as a blood elf instead of my traditional undead. I don't like the blood elves as much, but I didn't want to run through the undead content for the upteenth time, and I haven't done the blood elf stuff yet. I suppose I could have just run my undead over to the blood elf territory, but that's a pain. Also, I didn't think of it.

So yesterday was Memorial Day, which got me thinking about the portrayal of military conflicts in games. Games have a fairly unique ability to bring their subjects to life in a very personal way for the player. Since they require the player to make active choices, the player is immersed into the game in a way that the viewer of a movie or TV show isn't. This, of course, isn't saying that one is better than the other, simply that they can affect the player/viewer in distinctly different ways.

Because of games' unique ability to place the player directly in the shoes of a soldier of a war, they have the ability to provide a more visceral understanding of what it might have been/be to be a soldier in combat, with one exception: the permanence of death.

I'd like to talk specifically about two games in particular in this regard, Medal of Honor: Frontline and Call of Duty 4.

The first, Medal of Honor, is an older World War II first person shooter. You play as an effectively nameless grunt during the Allied invasion, and one of the major setpiece levels is the D-day invasion. The level is lifted almost directly from the infamous scene in Saving Private Ryan. Because of this familiarity, one would think that the impact of the level would be less. Strangely, it's not. If anything, the feelings the film evoked are magnified by the change of perspective and the addition of control. In the game, the bullets are flying at you, and they fly thick. Move in the wrong direction at the wrong time, and death is almost instantaneous.

While playing it, I found myself instinctively cowering behind any cover I could find. I knew that it was just a game, yet I simultaneously didn't want to move and risk immediate death. When I did finally make my way up to the bunkers housing the machine guns, it was with relish that I charged in and emptied a clip of ammo into the soldiers manning the guns, and with pleasure that I watched my AI buddies burn the enemies with flamethrowers. I was starting to get a hint of what the soldiers charging the beach that day might have felt.

However, even then, I knew that what I was feeling was distinctly different in one very important respect: the impermanence of death. If I moved the wrong way, I died, yes. But the next step was to reload the level and try again. Because of this, what was initially fear turned quickly to frustration as I tried to make my way up the beach again and again. Lack of permanent death changed what was initially a starkly terrifying experience to a more standard game level.

The second game I want to discuss is Call of Duty 4 (spoilers ahead). This game is another first person game, this time set in modern-day, fictional conflict with Russian ultra-nationalists that have control of a nuclear device in the middle east. Throughout the game, you alternate between controlling a British SAS operative and an American Marine, playing one level as the SAS, and the next as the Marine. This mechanic is standard for the series, and has been used in all their previous games.

Most of the game is a fairly standard, if very well-done military shooter. One level in particular stands out. Playing as the Marine, you find yourself searching a middle eastern city for the terrorist controlling the nuclear weapon. As the level progresses, it becomes clear that the weapon is in the city, he intends to use it, and your chances of finding it are very small. Finally, your unit is withdrawn from the city as intel comes in that the bomb is about to be detonated. You fight your way to the chopper, and it takes off, with orders coming over the radio for all American forces to withdraw, and out the rear door of the chopper, you see others lifting off behind you.

Then nuclear bomb goes off behind your chopper. You see the shock wave hit the choppers behind you, and then your chopper. It spins wildly, finally crashing to the ground. Fairly standard action-movie stuff at this point. Then the game cuts to an animated loading screen showing satellite shots of the bomb going off, and a list of the soldiers killed in the blast. Your name is highlighted, and then the game centers on your position, saying "...located". The new level starts. The expectation is that you have survived, and the next level is going to be your soldier heroically making his way out of the area, probably rescuing a buddy or two along the way.

This never happens. Instead, you find yourself lying on the floor of the wrecked chopper. Wind howls outside, and a strange glow from outside leaks into the cabin. You push the stick forward to move, but all you can do is crawl along slowly. You make your way to the door, and look out on a decimated landscape all around you. In the distance, the mushroom cloud still burns. You look down, and see a ten foot drop. With no other choice, you flop to the ground like a dead fish. You have nowhere to go. Everything around you is dead. You crawl forward with no destination in mind, but hoping for something to happen. Something does. You hear your heartbeat slow. You stumble, pick yourself up, and stumble again. The world goes white as your heart gives out, and you die.

As effective as this scene is, and it is terribly effective, the truly impressive part is that death, here, is permanent. For the rest of the game, you control only the SAS operative. It's a striking way to drive home the possibility for a soldier's life to be snuffed out. Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't bear this out, as every other death in the game can be safely recovered from with a quick reload.

Unfortunately for game designers, making death permanent is a very tough needle to thread. Making death permanent poses a number of design problems. If a player dies a permanent death, do they restart from the beginning of the game? A frustrating result more than an emotional one. Some games have dealt with the problem by killing secondary, non-player-controlled characters. The trick here is that the deaths must often occur at predetermined times in order to avoid breaking any of the game's other story elements.

Some of the more effective deaths come in games where the characters are created entirely by the player, and have minimal narrative interaction with the world. Diablo, for example, offers a mode where a player's death is permanent, and dying means restarting completely. This certainly produces a different style of play, and can produce an emotional response from the dying player. However, it is an optional mode, and only a very small percentage of players attempt it.

A more accessible example is the old game X-COM: UFO Defense. In it, you can recruit and train a squad of soldiers to fight aliens. A soldier's death is permanent, but you can always recruit another, so death doesn't stop the game, but can produce a setback as the new soldier is trained. What makes this game interesting is that you can name your characters and watch them develop personal histories. It's not unusual to get attached to a particular soldier organically. Maybe there's one nitwit soldier who you send in first because he's expendable, only to watch him escape death time and again. Seeing him finally bite it can be both amusing and sad at the same time. This is probably one of the better examples of death in a game being both unscripted and affecting.

Unfortunately, the technology needed to duplicate this result, while also producing in-game character interaction, doesn't exist yet. Until we've had some serious advancements in AI programming, deaths in-game will likely continue to exist as throwaway events, or will remain the realm of the scripted event. It won't be until the game exists that lets you forge a bond with a soldier next to you, and allows you to potentially watch him die at any given moment of the game, with no hope of saving him, that we will even begin to be able to approximate what it's like being a soldier in combat.

For an excellent example of experimental game design on the subject of permanent death, take a few minutes to go here, and download the game Exection: http://gmc.yoyogames.com/index.php?showtopic=375097

It's a very short game, but definitely worth playing. Don't read the posts below until after you've spent a few minutes with the game.

I seem to have gotten a bit off-topic and long-winded. Sorry about that. Next post, I promise, more light-hearted fun.

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