There has frequently been a tension in videogames which lacks proper definition, and renders criticism vague and at times unfulfilling. There are many moments when the action is intense, frightening, complex, difficult or exhilarating and the button-presses just don’t quite match. I’ll term this interconnectedness ‘gameplay weight’, and want to give a few examples of how it’s been done right, how it’s been done appallingly, and why and how it’s changing.
This concept didn’t require as much examination in the 80s and early 90s. Games were still for the hardcore, so gameplay being exhaustingly nerve-wracking the whole way through was common. Other games started slow and the gameplay just scaled up and up and up until you were finally defeated. No matter what your skill level, this game would always find the level of intensity in gameplay which matched your skill and push you just that little bit further. These games still exist today in the form of Doodle Jump, Lumines, Geometry Wars and many others, but they’re now considered small distractions, providing short bursts of excitement in contrast to the awesome scope and power of the big ‘AAA’ blockbusters.
Gameplay began to slow down and become more considered as cinematic prowess in games grew stronger. The advent of 3D, increased potential for emotional investment in characters, and the ability to imbue games with genuine fear brought about the ability for developers to consider a drop in the pace of gameplay where story was taking the fore. This phenomenon has left room for gameplay which just doesn’t belong with the action in one way or another as developers continue to explore this new world of cinematics clashing with gameplay. After all, games require established rules. A certain button-press must do a certain thing or the whole concept of ‘play’ falls apart (which can sometimes be a nice trick developers play, but that’s another story). However, repetition of animations or movements is hardly compelling cinema. So how do developers tackle this tension of establishing rules with unique results every time?
Assassin’s Creed from Ubisoft Montreal demonstrated revolutionary climbing mechanics at the E3 games convention in Los Angeles in 2007. The gameplay video which turned heads showed all four limbs on a digital character reaching for different climbable objects on the sides of buildings, and crowds were awe-struck as Ubisoft proudly proclaimed that the game recognised any nook, ridge or wedge in a wall. In a world where gamers were used to testing the climbability of a wall by jumping at it a few times like a dog trying to get out of a pool, the idea of a properly agile character was tantalising.
When the game released, it disappointed in a few key areas (most of which were addressed successfully in Assassin’s Creed II), the most notable of which spawned a meme. All the climbing in the game was realised by holding down a couple of buttons. The character made all these intricate and complex feats of agility with so little input from the player as to render the excitement limited. The revolutionary climbing ‘mechanics’ were merely revolutionary climbing ‘animations’. Ubisoft Montreal had shown a revolutionary use of 3D animation and pathfinding, but lacked the stroke of genius on the gameplay side of things to back it up. Even the spectacular jumps between rooftops were automatic, rendering the reward of a successfully timed press of the jump-button moot. These things were not all bad (in fact they opened successful play of the game up to a skill-level of gamer which would otherwise never be able to tackle such a complicated 3D environment) but the hardcore out there (which most game reviewers are) cried ‘Press X to Win’ from the rooftops (at least in game – game reviewers can’t climb rooftops in real life), lamenting the lack of difficulty the climbing provided.
The humble cut scene in games (scenes usually based around cinematic sequences where the player has no control) became huge in the late 90s, and has persevered through until today. Inside a game-world, animations were still too clunky and facial movements still too subtle (or sometimes too atrociously overdone) for story and gameplay to co-exist. Aside from in-game voiceovers, the main driver of plot was always in the cut scenes. As technology allowed stories to be told without the need to cut to pre-rendered videos in between levels, stories started to be told at all times during player-controlled gameplay. This brought about a new problem: how do you tell a convincing, emotionally affecting story while someone is busy repeatedly jumping in vain at a wall which looks like it should be climbable? Any impact your narrative may have will surely be mitigated by the borderline-retarded behaviour players exhibit when testing nearby boundaries.
The solution, so far, has eluded us. But there have been a few valiant attempts to infuse gameplay and cut scene, which I’ll list here. And each one has brought about some interesting developments in gameplay weight:
God Of War: ‘Quicktime events’ are events where the player is suddenly asked to break from typical gameplay, forget the usual controls and just prompted to suddenly mash a particular button, swing a thumbstick in a particular direction, or press a button within a certain fraction of a second. God of War popularised the notion of incorporating quicktime events into gameplay; each finishing move for larger enemies had intervals where the player was required to engage with a simple button press or two to keep the action moving. Failure to complete the assigned task would trigger an alternative animation where the hero Kratos fails his next act of derring-do and is thrown to the ground. The player must run back in and attack the creature again.
This meant that the player would go from frantically mashing eleven buttons-per-second in the middle of combat to triggering these finishing moves and entering a ‘safe zone’ for a few seconds; they knew they had a brief reprieve where they could just watch the first awesome stab or two at Monster A’s throat before the first quicktime event demanded their attention. This unusual rift in gameplay weight made the most intense sequences the least interesting in terms of gameplay. The reward for combining a few of Kratos’ signature moves to make a takedown of a particular enemy look exceptionally cool was gone. Every single time you killed a particular type of enemy, the end-result was always the same animation. And worse still, that good ole’ vocal hardcore out there didn’t feel like the quicktime events were an accurate measure of their skill, and were so frustrated by failing one of these sequences that many called for their removal.
Uncharted 2 Among Thieves: This exceptional contemporary action title by Naughty Dog contains great examples of how to use gameplay during cinematic action sequences, and how to do it right. In the grand finale, the hero Nathan Drake (voiced by Nolan North OMG!!!! <<sarcastic) is running along a bridge at full speed, escaping from a temple on a mountainside which is collapsing at breakneck speed. In Sonic the Hedgehog (all of them) as well as countless other games, the quintessential escape-after-beating-the-baddie sequence to mark the ending moment of a game is a simple cut scene. Sometimes it’s done so brilliantly it brings a tear to the eye (Shadow of the Colossus), and infusing the moment with gameplay would lose vital aesthetic appreciation of the spectacle. Uncharted 2 knew better. It was an unashamed Indiana Jones-style adventure, and wasn’t pushing for high art. It had an awesome action set-piece on its hands, and gave the player full control to capitalise.
During Uncharted 2‘s escape sequence, running was a simple hold of a button, but you had to manually aim each jump between unstable bridge fragments, and death was the result if you failed. A God of War game here may have been content with a scripted animation where the player continued to pass quicktime events to ensure a successful next jump, but Uncharted 2’s manual control made this one of the most tense and memorable moments of the game, following on from a similar sequence in Bungie’s 2001 effort Halo: Combat Evolved. In both cases, it didn’t ruin the story if the player failed the sequence several times over (and it was difficult enough that the player could expect a few missteps). It is this difficulty which makes the player sit up, re-focus and pay attention at crucial moments. Who wants to relax during the explosive finale after a huge boss battle anyway?
Heavy Rain: In 2005, Quantic Dream created a game called Farenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy), where they recognised the potential of quicktime events and decided to base an incredible cinematic experience entirely around them. During social, slow-paced scenes the player could control the focal character, but generally this was at little more than jogging speed. When the action kicked off, the player had upwards of 20-30 quicktime events to pass to see their hero narrowly avoid certain death.
Flash forward to 2010, and Quantic Dream had expanded on this concept with Heavy Rain, a serial killer thriller where the drama is propelled, again, by a series of quicktime events. This game perfectly demonstrates a consciousness of where gameplay weight counts. By using incredibly simple quicktime events to fuel the action, adjusting the speed of the demands and the tension to very specifically match the on-screen drama and excitement was easy, and Quantic Dream have demonstrated a keen understanding of tone needing to match ferocity of button-pressing for the truly exhilarating rush an action sequence deserves…
…while on the other hand completely failing to realise that during a player’s down time, when their character is brushing their teeth, NO ONE wants to actually shake their motion-sensitive controller in time to the toothbrush – ESPECIALLY not when failing to move the thumbstick means you have to start brushing your teeth all over again. Seriously, has anyone here ever accidentally flicked their toothbrush out of their mouth and re-applied the toothpaste to start again? Ridiculous. A wag of my finger to Quantic Dream – and yet, a tip of my hat for their attention to gameplay weight during action scenes. This developer hasn’t hit its stride yet. It has the potential to do great things though.
So there are many other examples of gameplay weight being done well or poorly and having it making or breaking a game I’m sure. There is definitely room for quicktime events in gaming. After all, that moment in so many action games where the burly enemy has you in a hold and you need to mash X repeatedly to represent strength and push him off is a tried and tested formula present in everything from Ninja Gaiden to Bully. Some of these concepts run the full gamut of action gaming, others like brushing your teeth in Heavy Rain we hope to never see again. Then again, Sony have just had Quantic Dream allow Playstation Move functionality (the motion sensitive controllers). I may just have to pick up Heavy Rain again and see if the change in gestures from wiggling a thumbstick have made a positive difference.
Stay tuned for my next rant about gaming, where I’ll be talking about modes of transportation in open spaces. The usual open-world mainstays will be on trial as well as Halo: Combat Evolved and a few other interesting ones.