|By Shamus||Mar 29, 2011||134 comments|
In my previous post I mentioned that the Crysis 2 story feels “clunky”. Some pointed out that a few of my criticisms of Crysis 2 worked equally well for Half-Life 2. This has forced me to go back and look at what really makes these two games so different. They really do have the same recipe, and I think the difference in quality is dramatic. So let’s examine the gameplay and see if we can nail down the problems.
One of the major problems with the game is your radio. It might even be the single most damaging aspect of the game. The radio is a magical mystery device. There seem to be no rules dictating who can speak to you or how it works. Sometimes people can see through your eyes. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they can talk to the other people watching. Sometimes they seem to be downloading stuff from your suit. Is there no security on this thing? Does the suit just auto-join all wi-fi networks and share all my data on a public drive?
You’ve got this chorus of chatty idiots in your head who come and go as the plot dictates, and almost everything they have to say is counter-productive to the goal of letting the player explore and experience the gameworld. When they aren’t screaming at you to hurry past all of the amazing scenery you’d like to take in, they’re over-explaining plot points or telling you things you could figure out for yourself. They talk during exploration. They talk in the middle of firefights. They talk over breathtaking set-piece events.
Often your current taskmaster will have ridiculously detailed knowledge of the gameworld. Keep in mind that New York is in the process of being torn apart by looting, earthquakes, an alien invasion, a plague, and warfare. This city is in complete chaos, and yet often the people talking to you will know where enemy forces are deployed. They know the inside layouts of all the buildings. They know which doors are locked and they know how to open them and which vehicles are working and where you can find stashes of explosives. There’s always a blue waypoint marker, showing you your next objective. It’s a nice tool for keeping players from getting lost, but it also wrecks the illusion that you’re finding your own way through a disaster.
In Half-Life 2, you spend much of the game alone. The game is broken into chapters, and each chapter generally begins with some sort of exposition to set things up and establish your long-term goal, usually in a (one way) conversation with one of the central characters. For example, the player is given the goal of “Reach Black Mesa East”. The enemy is introduced, the danger is made obvious, and the player is given the proper motivation for moving forward. From that point on, they are left alone. The conversations are memorable because they are:
1) Well written and acted
If Alyx Vance spoke every three minutes, I would be sick of her, just like I got sick of the numbskulls in Crysis 2.
At one point in Half-Life 2 you drive through the canals in an airboat. Challenges are placed in your path. You discover them. You figure out how to overcome them. You leave with a sense of accomplishment and the illusion that you made some interesting decisions. (Then you go back later and discover that your super-clever idea is actually the only solution to the puzzle, and everyone else in the world followed the exact same path. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take the illusion of choice over NO choice, any day.)
|Many of the canal puzzles in Half-Life 2 revolve around creating or reaching ramps in order to proceed.|
If the Half-Life 2 canals were designed by the Crysis 2 team, then Alyx would have been talking to you the entire way and explaining everything to you:
“Okay, up ahead is a sluice gate. It’s guarded by a force of Combine soldiers. Take them out, reach the controls, and open the gate so you can proceed. And watch out, I have reports of a hunter-killer chopper in the area.”
“Great work opening up that gate, Gordon! Up ahead they’ve set up an ambush for you, but my intel shows a weakness in their blockade. Look for a drainage pipe and go through it to escape the assault.”
“There’s a fence blocking the way up ahead, but there’s an old ramp you can use to jump over it. You might need a counterweight, though. Get out of the airboat and see if you can find something heavy to push onto the counterweight platform.”
Suddenly you’re no longer exploring, discovering, and solving puzzles. You’re just doing what you’re told and being bossed around like a child. Worse, having NPC’s notice and discuss these things just makes them stand out and causes you to question them. Hey, what the hell is this counterweight thing for, anyway? Is this something everyone else has to do when they come through here? And hang on, how the hell can you know so much about the road ahead of me? Don’t you have more important things to do than babysit me? And how in the name of Breen’s beard did someone get a washing machine up on this platform, anyway? And WHY?!? The illusion that you’re improvising solutions is ruined, and suddenly the world feels very contrived.
Both games are based on absolute nonsense techno-babble. In Half-Life 2, everything is about dimensional teleporter technology. In Crysis 2, everyone is gibbering about your nanite suit and alien DNA. The suit is always rebooting and downloading and scanning and assimilating. But how the two games handle the resulting gameplay is drastically different.
In Half-Life 2, Episode 1, there’s a sequence where you have to use the gravity gun to stop some alien reactor from blowing up. It’s a multi-stage puzzle with a dash of combat. When you’re done, Alyx congratulates you on figuring out how to fix the alien reactor. Of course, the science behind it is nonsense and the player isn’t expected to follow any of it, but the game used the puzzle as a stand-in for the science you were supposedly doing. When it’s over, the player is the actor who saved the day, and they actually did figure something out.
In Crysis 2, other people are directing your actions, looking at data, studying things, and figuring things out. You’re just acting as their heavily armed lab assistant. (And occasional guinea pig.) You don’t figure out shit. You just shove your nanite-clad ass into the alien machine when you’re told. Often you don’t even have any idea what will happen or what your taskmaster is trying to accomplish.
All of this goes back to the ongoing point that it isn’t good enough to simply write a “good” story for your game. The story must be in harmony with gameplay. The author needs to remember that the player is the star of the story, not just the camera man. They need to feel like they’re involved and they need to be allowed to contribute more to the story than violence. Treating the player like a stuntman observer will alienate them from the world.
Yes, your videogame story needs all the usual ingredients of a good tale. Likeable characters, a sense of revelation, an interesting twist, a climax, a denouement. But it also needs to involve the player and make them feel like they are moving the story forward, not just watching.
There’s a reason these things are sometimes called “ego shooters”.