Archive for July, 2005

Interactive cinematics in Resident Evil 4

Tuesday, July 19th, 2005

I have been enjoying Resident Evil 4 for a few days now and it is a pure joy to play. The mood, visuals and gameplay is nearly perfect. So, what about the storytelling then? I am not entirely sure yet. I have played up to the encounter with the gigant cave-troll-like fellow so there’s still a long way to go. However…

I have thought a bit about the cut-scenes in the game. For those of you who have not yet played RE4, I must urge you to do so. I had a hard time with previous RE installments, mostly because of the controls (which I really hate). Interestingly, almost the same controls feel so much better in this game, due to the positioning of the camera. The cut-scenes in the game are fairly nicely done. They do nothing out of the ordinary – except that they add a moment of interaction.

For the game that I am currently working on, we are designing interactive cinematics. Our idea is that the player should have some control over the on-screen character at all times (I’ll dig into the philosophy behind that idea separately). In RE4, they have done things differently. My first reaction to the movies in RE4 was “Oh, my God. This is Dragon’s Lair all over again.” You see, without any prior warning, the game can suddenly urge you to tap the A button frenetically to run, or pull the shoulder buttons to dodge. And this can happen in the middle of a cinematic. For example, there is a scene early in the game where the hero runs down a path with a huge boulder chasing him (hmmm… familiar?). Here, the player must tap A to run and then perfom an additional maneuver to jump to the side and evade the rock. Fail to tap A rapidly enough and you’re dead. Simple and very much what “Dragon’s Lair” was all about.

So, Initially I did not really care for this stunt and though that it added nothing to the game other than a sense of sillyness. Besides, I wondered how much work that went into the production of these short moments of “interaction”. Then, as I played along, I began to notice a strange thing…

Now, every time the game starts playing a cut-scene, I tend to follow it very closely. I actually pay attention!!! And that is definitely not the usual thing for me when it comes to movie-sequences in games. So, there we have it: a seemingly brilliant and simple suspension-tool that actually makes it worth sitting through cutscenes. Or, like in RE4, punishes you if you don’t pay attention. Hmmm… There are obviously both likes and dislikes about this.

There are some slight annoyances with the RE4 implementation as I see it. For example, I tend to have a cup of tea besides me while playing and one in a while I press “pause” and take a sip. If a cut-scene is played, I also lean back and drink some tea, unless they are possible to skip. RE4 changes this totally. I am no longer free to do whatever I want during a cutscene. This means that such a scene must be possible to pause (when I come to think of it, I haven’t tried pausing a cutscene in RE4). Maybe this is not such a big problem then? But then I think about Final Fantasy X cut-scene orgy galore. If all those were itnteractive I’d pray for a pause function. Moreover, I think the game would be better off with some tutorial moment that tought the player the rules of interactive cutscenes. Now, you just get the whole thing thrown to your face as you play along. That is what RE4 does and it’s kind of cool, it works with the simple design they have, but how could you take this further? I believe that this is a one-game only design that needs to be altered to survive.

Overall, I am actually thinking that the team behind RE4 are on to a good thing that is worth investigating further. If you have to resort to cinematics, I think you should think about what they accomplish in RE4 and how they do it. There are probably ways to get the same results by other means. Better means? Perhaps even means that are cheaper production-wise?

Well, I will continue to play the game and think about how it affects me and what could be learned from it…. Resident Evil 4 is undoubtedly an interesting and thrilling ride…


Façade has been released

Friday, July 15th, 2005

According to Grand Text Auto, the much talked about interactive drama Façade has been released. Unfortunately it does not come in a Mac version (yet) so I have to wait to play it until I get back to work in about two weeks. I’ll return with impressions and thoughts on the game as soon as I’ve had the time to try it out properly.


Vacation

Saturday, July 9th, 2005

Yesterday was my last working day for the three upcoming weeks. So, I’m pretty much busy with having my vacation right now, which is very nice. I live close to a couple of excellent little lakes where swimming is good. I just returned from one of them. The water is warm and the sun is nice in the evening…

I’m not very fond of staying in the sun too much. Moreover, the last week’s been pretty much awful in terms of weather-conditions that allows oneself to feel comfortable at the office. It’s been about 30 degrees Celsius and no clouds. Quite nice if you can go to the beach, but not so nice when you stay inside the office sweating all day.

Anyway, I plan to spend my vacation mostly here in Stockholm. I’ll probably just hang around with friends, have a few beer at times, relax, read, play some videogames (I still haven’t played neither San Andreas nor Resident Evil 4 so I hope that’s gonna be a thrill) and do other things that I enjoy.

I actually hope for a few rainy days during the next few weeks (you can get hanged for making such a statement here in Sweden). Those days are extremely relaxing and I enjoy sleeping while it rains and staying inside and just watch a good movie or attend to one of my many unfinished projects. But who governs the weather? We’ll se how things turn out and I am definitely gonna spend each day just as it comes.


Narrative in games

Friday, July 8th, 2005

The last few years has been extremely interesting and stimulating. We released “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay” for the Xbox about a year ago and it got splendid reviews. A few months later we released the “Developers Cut” version of the game for the PC and it contains a commentary function that runs in-game. I think it is a pretty cool thing and as far as we know it has never been done in a game before (but I think we’ll see a lot more like that in the future).

Anyways, if you happen to sit through those commentaries, I am doing some ranting about narrative techniques and approaches used in Riddick and the effect we believe those had on the player. Since we started working on Riddick I have spent a lot of time thinking about narrative in games, and we have discussed it internally at Starbreeze. Some of those thoughts are reflected in the commentary. I’ll try to sum up the ideas here and expand on them later on…

The year that has passed since we sat down and did those recordings has brought a set of new challenges to the table. Currently, we are about halfway through the production of “The Darkness”, a game based on the Top Cow comic with the same name. “The Darkness” is in many ways similar in structure and narrative to “Riddick” so I see the game as the natural evolution when it comes to narrative technique.

Chris Crawford says in his book “Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling” that one of the most fundamental features of interactive storytelling is that it allows the player to make choices that has some sort of effect in the world they are playing in. Also, Chris Crawford dismisses the “railed shooter” (for example) with added narrative and sees a future in games that are truly open and where NPC react with emotions and such. I think Chris Crawford is wrong here, even though he has some valid points and has done lots of interesting research on the subject (and reached far beyond most academic attempts).

I believe that the experience of freedom and interactivity is the core, not the freedom or interactivity itself. Furthermore, I believe that there is definitely room for “railed shooters” (like “Riddick”) with a serious narrative effort. For me, the mechanics of the game do not necessarily have to provide what it wants you to believe it provides. In a sense, this is to say that it is okay to try trick the player to believe he is playing a game that behaves smarter than it really is. I believe that is true to some extent – but not for all types of games. Games that are meant to be played over and over again (like RTS games) have mechanics that are different and an effort to add narrative to such a game would probably need a different approach than the one we used in Riddick.

So, what did we do in Riddick? The game is a fairly linear shooter that adds gameplay elements of sneak, melee and “adventuring” (walking around talking to NPCs and solving simple puzzles). Also, the game is heavily story-driven and needed means for conveying story. Often, this is done by glueing parts of gameplay together with cinematic sequences that tells you what the happens to the hero next and after the clip, you are thrown back into the game. Of course, there are games that approaches the narrative problem far more interestingly (“Halflife” and “ICO” usually come to mind).

For Riddick, we wanted to tell the story and also to make sure that the main character has a really stong impact on the player. The player was supposed to be Riddick, not just control him. Also, it was very important that the Riddick character had a strong presence in the game. This was achieved by doing the following:

  • Have Riddick talk in the game. The voice of Vin Diesel is one of the Riddick franchise trademarks.
  • Show Riddick on screen as much as possible.

(I think a lot can be said about impersonation – the player “becoming” the hero on-screen – and strong characters with a unique personality and features. However, I leave that for a future entry.)

Having in-game dialogue, narrative cinematic sequences and short “action cutscenes” in third person (while climbing a box, for example) helped us fulfil these goals. The addition of the in-game dialogue also gave us a tool for dealing with narrative in a way that was in line with what our ideas for how narrative in the game should work. These were our basic rules:

  • Bring as much of the story into actual gameplay as possible. We didn’t want to bore the player with endless non-interactive cinematics. Here, the in-game dialogues came to play a big role. Also, in-game events, AI behaviours, voices and such is meant to add to the story experience.
  • Do not let the character on-screen make choices that the player can make. This means that Riddick should never be proactive in a cinematic. Instead, the story should happen to Riddick. All proactive choices should be taken in-game, by the player.
  • Don’t let Riddick know more than the player and vice-versa. The player is Riddick.
  • When we take the control away from the player (in a cinematic), we should never let the camera leave Riddick. This is because of the previous rule and also because I believe that it is important that we are close to our hero all the time (the hero is you, remember?).

Of course, we came to violate these rules in the end for various reasons. Making games is very hard and there are millions of factors unknown to you when you start the production of a game. For us, the whole movie-license thing added to the complexity of the production so some of the rule violations in the end product are because of this, but certainly not all of them. (maybe it would be interesting to go through the game and make a list of all these shortcomings and find the reasons for them?)

In the end, I believe that these rules helped make a more solid game. We did use a number of other design ideas to add to the overall experience. The things we did to try create a sense of openness and freedom, for example… But that requires a separate entry.


New website

Thursday, July 7th, 2005

Okay, so it’s time for a major overhaul of my site. I decided to switch to a CMS-driven solution and is currently testing Movable Type for the whole shebang.

There’s a lot of work needed to get things going with layout and getting all stuff I want to keep back into place so bare with me…