i post a lot about small, free games, because i think they have good ideas and because i think those ideas are strongest when in the service of a small, self-contained story, rather than in big commercial games where competing ideas have to fight with and weaken each other. but contemporary commercial games have good ideas, too. on the borderhouse blog, today, i talk about how inclusive gender presentation is in saints row 2 – probably by accident. i also answer questions about games on my formspring – here are some things i’ve written recently about demons’ souls and deadly premonition.
on player-to-player messages in demons’ souls
the message system is exactly the sort of thing i like to see in games: each player plays the game alone, but has access to information from other players who have gone before. it’s like jesse venbrux’s DEATHS except that the players can choose what messages they leave – BEWARE OF AN AMBUSH, JUMP DOWN THIS HOLE – which means there’s a lot of potential for misleading other players. the game of course has to be super super hard to make gathering advice from other players so important.
here’s a story of when player-to-player communication really helped me: in the first area of the game, there’s a narrow path along the edge of a wall that’s guarded by a gang of soldiers, some with swords and others (in the rear) with crossbows. i fought my way through the swordsmen and was approaching the crossbowmen when a bunch of boulders came rolling down the path from behind me, flattening me and my enemies.
the next time i arrived at the wall, there was a bloodstain on the floor. a bloodstain allows you to watch how another player died, though not what killed her. i watched as the phantom turned the corner but, instead of charging down the path to fight the soldiers, she turned around and swung at the wall, then was knocked down dead. i did exactly what the ghost did, and hacked through the wood barriers that were keeping the boulders in place, which fell on me and killed me.
but the next time i destroyed the barriers from the side, and watched in satisfaction as the boulders rolled down the path and flattened my enemies. a nearby message from another player read “the next enemy’s weakness is not what it seems.”
it reminds me of something like druaga or the legend of zelda, where the game is so cryptic that players have to share information in order to survive. the message system in demons’ souls lets players from around the world guide one another, but only through short tips like “go left,” “watch out,” “there’s a valuable item here.” i think it works well.
on deadly premonition’s “hygiene” sliders
all the minutiae of eating and shaving and dry-cleaning clothes actually characterizes the protagonist, agent francis york morgan, really effectively. york is a translation of agent dale cooper from twin peaks. they’re different characters, especially morally, but everything in deadly premonition, including the protagonist, is a weird shadow cast on the wall by the candle swery’s held up to twin peaks.
dale cooper records messages for an unseen character named “diane” – for all we know, his own invention to help him organize his thoughts. that’s what he uses her for: to externalize his own inner monologue, to summarize and suggest and drive the story forward. york speaks to the player in asides, though he addresses the player as “zach.” these asides serve the same purpose as cooper’s, but what better invisible force to address in a game than its player? the player, after all, is the strongest force in driving the story forward – swery et al having already written the story. the player just sees it through.
this is a smart translation of a television device into a game device, and i think the food and hygiene sliders are the same thing. cooper is obsessed with minutiae: the names of local trees and animals, the experience of eating a donut or a cup of coffee, his own routines and rituals. on the tv show twin peaks, we watch cooper act out these rituals and obsessions. in deadly premonition, a videogame, we act out york’s compulsions ourselves through all the systems and distractions the game provides us: choosing a favorite food, gathering flowers, collecting trading cards, rotating york’s wardrobe to make sure his clothes are well-kept, shaving when his stubble gets too trubbly.
all these activities and routines paint a vivid portrait of a man so caught in his own world that he is a veritable alien to the people around him, someone whose obsessions make him eccentric to the point of being unable to empathize with others, but also make him a brilliant and effective profiler. far from being extraneous, i think these features of the game are part of the point.