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“WHEN WE HUNT, WE KILL. NO-ONE IS SAFE. NOTHING IS SACRED. WE ARE BLACKWATCH. WE ARE THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE. WE WILL BURN OUR OWN TO HOLD THE REDLINE. IT IS THE LAST LINE TO EVER HOLD.”

This haunting creed is the first node in the Web of Intrigue, a narrative device in Prototype that provides a secondary glimpse into the events of the game. Welcome back to A Narrative Lens, and in this almost-weekly instalment, we delve into methods of conveying narrative; in particular, how the employment of alternative narrative devices can influence the way a player perceives the events of a game's central narrative.

As any writer, director, developer, or indeed any journeyman of media will tell you, there’s a huge number of ways to provide a strong narrative than through dialogue and visible action alone. In fact, it goes without saying that the most powerful narratives of our generation use those two tools as a launc pad for all the dynamisms of their events and participants. To name an obvious example, the way Ico and Yorda hold hands, or the not so subtle passive aggression in GlaDOS’s commentary of Chell’s progress. These are more than just simple physical gestures or basic taunts, these are keys to their relationship as characters, windows into their strengths and weaknesses.

Other alternative methods to delivering narrative can offer a second lens into the events that surround the plot. These devices, called focalisers, are normally found in a character’s point-of-view. For example, Kat’s narration in Gravity Rush is the only point-of-view for the narrative, biasing players towards her emotions and beliefs when considering the conflicts she encounters.

One of these alternative methods is the Web of Intrigue in Prototype. Let’s take a look.

The key method of gaining information and skills in Prototype is by consuming individuals to acquire their memories. If you need to fly a helicopter, you consume a pilot. Want access to artillery? A base specialist is what’s on the menu. Even Mercer’s mutation abilities stem from his consumption of a Hunter-class infected in an early mission. The very first character Alex consumes is First Lieutenant James Goodwin, who gives him the creed I mentioned in the opening paragraph. From there, the player can expand the Web of Intrigue by consuming key individuals – doctors, military personnel – in both missions and free roam. These individuals unlock nodes in the Web; key memories that expand Alex’s, and therefore the player’s, understanding of the background behind the outbreak.

The introductory node sets the tone of this particular focaliser. Everything about the Web of Intrigue relates in some way to Blackwatch, its precursors, and the viral agents it fights.

This focaliser is important. Bar the occasional scene with General Randall and Captain Cross, we only witness the game through the focaliser of its protagonist, Alex, whose primary concern is not Blackwatch’s history, but with finding the cause of his infection and getting revenge on them. As far as Alex is concerned – at least in the early portions of the game – these memories are essential for him reaching his targets. For the player, they offer a glance behind the curtain, conveying an understanding of the context for the outbreak.

It’s clear that this glance was intentional on behalf of the developer, and not just a tool for the occasional piece of fluff or factoid. There’s a meta-mechanical incentive for exploring the Web, taking the form of trophies for discovering the truth behind two major events and one major character. All of these are references in memories Alex gains over the course of the story, but these are only piecemeal hints at a much larger picture; indeed, you only receive the trophy by completing that picture by consuming individuals found in free roam, and not just by completing the story. Further, as the player’s understanding of the context increases, so too does their scepticism for Alex’s point of view. Even before they discover the truth, it’s made clear that Alex Mercer is a priority target, for what appears to be fairly vague crimes. Uncertainty is an important aspect of the Web, as scientists, personnel, and Alex’s colleagues all note his erratic behaviour prior to the outbreak.

Uncertainty is a major theme in Prototype, and is emphasised in the Web of Intrigue. Only by completing the Web can a player fully understand the context of the game, but even then a doubt lingers in the background because of one or two nodes that suggest that Blackwatch has realized Alex’s methods and begun to counter him. It’s suggested in a discussion that they began constructing false memories in agents to distract Alex, but it’s never quite clear who is lying.

As our understanding of the context dispels that uncertainty, and as the truth comes to light, the way the player sees Alex begins to change. He starts to look less and less like a victim, as his point of view suggests, and more and more like the perpetrator that Blackwatch is hunting for. Thus, his search for the truth brings a revelation that sets up his fall at the very end of the game, as he revives and takes up his mantle as the Blacklight virus.

Whilst I must admit some disappointment in the Web of Intrigue, as some of the plot points that it hinted at – such as the enigmatic PARIAH – were not explored in the sequel, its efficacy in fostering uncertainty in the protagonist creates a unique effect. Rather than blindly trusting the protagonist of this game, as we are wont to do in other narratives, Prototype stands out by employing a protagonist who, due to his circumstance and single-minded motivations, becomes unreliable and antagonistic, generating a rift between himself and the player that frames the narrative of its sequel.

Thank you for reading,

WanderingWordsmith.

 

Tower of Heaven: A Descent Into Hell

"May heaven grant you fortune." This is a common phrase repeated in various forums throughout Tower of Heaven. At first it is seemingly random, but as the game goes on you start to realize how much divine intervention you’re going to need to get through it. Tower of Heaven is centered around retro mechanics that dominated the 2D platforming era. Mario would be proud of the spot-on controls, chiptune music, and monochromatic green visuals that help create a retro Game Boy vibe. The controls are just as old school, with only two directions and jumping.  However, Tower of Heaven's main hook is not the retro vibe, but rather how the game differentiates itself from the rest of the platformers out there with its unique rule set.

To quickly summarize the story (more depth later), the main protagonist is trying to climb the Tower of Heaven, but a deity at the top prevents him from doing so by creating laws which the protagonist must abide to while within the walls of the tower. If any of them are broken, the protagonist will be "smitten." Your job is to platform up the tower while following the rules of the so called god as he builds them up one at a time. The final book of laws eventually becomes:


(Not in the lawbook, but each level must be finished within a time limit)

1. Thou shalt not touch golden blocks.

2. Thou shalt not touch blocks or walls from the side.

3. Thou shalt not walk left.

4. Thou shalt not touch a living thing.

5. Thou shalt no longer check the rules.

The first rule gives the feel of how the game will dish out laws.  Strewn throughout the levels are spikes and buzz saws which are already deadly, so this rule just gives the player something else to worry about. Mastery of most other platformers involves the ability to control the character, and Tower of Heaven forces this upon the player quite early.  The second rule only reinforces this, requiring a whole new degree of precision.  Rule three is when things start getting interesting.

\

Well, crap.  Of course, there is a way around this rule, but what it does is add a level of frustration to the game.  Most of the levels after this rule is introduced do not have a bunch of leftward movement, so it’s easy to forget that pressing the left arrow key to reposition the protagonist before a jump will cause death.  Law four is pretty interesting as well, because now all the grass and butterflies that were just background eye candy before will kill you.  The final rule doesn’t really change much in terms of gameplay, since you’ll probably die so much that it’ll be impossible to forget what the laws are, but it is a bit of a smack in the face if you end up accidentally pressing the [SHIFT] key and explode.

Something very interesting about the laws introduced in this game is that they are all tropes that gamers may have seen before, albeit in a different context.  Deadly blocks are around in most platformers, but hitting the sides of blocks is oftentimes seen in side-scrolling shooters, where hitting walls meant crashing a spaceship.  Walking left can also be attributed to automatic side-scrollers, and avoiding living things is something we see in tons of games, including Super Mario Bros.  But, in this game the butterflies don’t kill you because they are evil, they kill you because the deity says they do.  These laws in combination give Tower of Heaven a pretty unique and difficult gameplay experience.  

Though these rules reflect many aspects of classic two dimensional games from the late 80s, they do so in a satirical manner. Because of the influx of ‘retro revival’ in indie games, Tower of Heaven decides to be different by taking these respected video game tropes and forcing the player to become aware of how arbitrary they can be. It leads them to think, “Why am I following these rules? Am I voluntarily following the rules or am I being forced?” And with these inquiries, the player breaks away from the any hard wired gaming ideas they may have. The game has both nostalgic and ameliorating qualities. Because of this, there so many things the player has to be careful of, that the precision platforming almost takes the backseat.  In the end, this game gets hard.  And you will die.  A lot.

As frustrating as the game can be, there are a lot of things that it does right which help make it less grating.  For one, the controls are great.  When playing a lot of Flash games, sluggish and clunky controls are almost expected, but this game has none of that.  It’s extremely easy to land jumps because of how tight the controls feel, which is necessary because of the type of precision the game demands in its platforming.  Each level is very short, and when you die you come back very quickly.  Any frustration is quickly relieved since you can get enough tries in on a particular level to finish it just as things start getting really irritating.  On top of that, the game itself is very short, so the player doesn’t have to endure that kind of torture for too long.  The speed run time above shows how short the game can be for a seasoned player, but the game will probably be around ten times longer the first time through because of how common death is.  Also, there were only eight deaths in that speed run, but a first play though can easily tally up over 200.  There is frustration abound in Tower of Heaven, but the game does everything it can to keep things feeling fair.


Instead of sobbing in a corner over the game’s difficulty, take a moment to take in the atmosphere of this game.  It’s well worth it.  The graphics have the same greenish hues to them as classic Game Boy titles did and some scenes have quite a bit of detail, and look amazing. The Megaman games released on the Game Boy had a very similar style, with a fairly large character compared to the world around them. This simple graphical style is also a great contrast to the gameplay, where much more is happening at once than the typical Game Boy platformer.  The music too, is comprised of old school beeps and bops, but it still takes tone and ambiance into account.  When platforming, a cheery (ironic), exciting tune plays.  When exploring the hidden parts of the tower, there’ s great background noise and no music.  Even though this kind of stuff is expected in games, the fact the the game is otherwise so simple really helps to set the mood.  Of course the graphics are more than just for nostalgia, they also help to set the tone.

The artists did a lot with such a simple artstyle, and it is extremely impressive.  There are eerie moments where the protagonist is exploring the shadowy, untouched areas of the tower, and the more bright but dangerous platforming sections.  Including grass and butterflies does more than introduce a gameplay mechanic later on, it also makes the tower feel like it has been on earth for an eternity.  Finally, the game runs these graphics very smoothly, which is also not always expected in a Flash game but makes Tower of Heaven a delight to look at and to play.

It is unfortunate that the story is not quite as fleshed out as the gameplay, art, and music.  As was mentioned before, the protagonist is a traveller seeking to get to the top of the Tower of Heaven, a tower which is so tall it seemed to be, “...an open seam before heaven and earth that eluded the eye of God”.  When the traveller enters the tower he is spoken to by some kind of deity, which thinks that the traveller is just another young adventurer seeking the tower’s reward.  Classically, the deity gets angrier and angrier as the protagonist ascends the tower against all odds.  Moreover, the deity has the power to alter the fundamental laws of the physical world in a single second. This authoritative relationship is similar to the interaction between the GLaDOS and Chell seen in the Portal games, and it works just as well here as it did there.

Most of this exposition is gathered from textboxes (seen in the majority of screenshots so far) of the deity talking to the protagonist. The gameplay also has a unique role in the narrative in that it both helps, and hurts it.  Dying so much in the journey up the Tower of Heaven acts as a trial, and rising up through the deity’s torment and disapproval can represent the protagonist’s faith in the heavens above. The deity says, “May heaven grant you fortune”, before almost every level starts. Ironically, the game is about the struggles of climbing the tower through trial and error... very little fortune is involved. The difficulty symbolizes the intense struggles which fill the lives of every human being, and the Tower of Heaven is a manifestation of them.  However, the narrative starts to break down because of all the death and difficulty.  You die a whole bunch in this game, so when the deity starts fuming over why the protagonist is still alive it’s pretty inconsistent.  Hundreds of deaths have already been tallied up, so why is the deity so angry?  It’s pretty strange, and would make a bit more sense if the deity were talking directly to the player - asking them why they’re still playing such a masochistic game.  Though, that concept isn’t ever expanded on in the storytelling, so it is hard to believe that it was what the writers were going for.

Another place where the narrative falls apart is the ending.  Plenty of games have multiple endings, but most serve as a ‘true’ ending and a ‘normal’ ending.  One is generally more satisfying than the other, but requires much more effort to obtain.  Tower of Heaven is a bit different.  There are two different endings depending on whether a secret was collected or not, and each ending gives the story a different meaning.  The ending where the protagonist has collected some secrets is fairly straightforward, while the ‘normal’ ending is much more philosophical.  This inconsistency is very irritating because it makes it hard to recognize what the unknown traveller’s motives really are.  Though there are some contradicting qualities, the narrative still gives an interesting tale about the struggles of the protagonist, and it is much more than what is expected from a short platformer.

Tower of Heaven an outstanding game for what it is.  Though it is often seen as a simple platformer, it has many hidden quirks that make it quite charming, and a difficulty that is unforgiving and addictive. But in the end, the game challenges many preconceived notions that push the player to question the nature of games while also giving difficulties that portrays the very idea of a tower to heaven.  Overall, this game is too good to pass up.  The gameplay is great, the art fantastic, the music addicting, and a story that will... make you think about it at least.  Thanks for reading, and may heaven grant you fortune in your adventure through akiisoft’s Tower of Heaven.
 



Tower of Heaven is an indie game made in 2009 by askiisoft, and re-released in Flash in 2010.   The Flash version of the game can be found on Newgrounds here:
http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/544332

 

Introducing a new segment on GRH.  This space will be for me to talk about games still in development.  Too often a developer will work tirelessly on a game only to realize when he or she is done that there aren't any places to show it off.  We think the key to this is getting the word out there sooner.  Most mainstream games are talked about years before they come out so by the time they do everyone knows about them.  Why should it be any different for Indie games?  If you have a project you would like to get some hype please shoot us an email (which is at the bottom of this page).  No matter how far along in the project we want to hear about it.  

As a disclaimer many of these projects will be incredibly Indie.  Meaning they might just be in development by one dude.  They may not get finished and what we show may look a bit… uh… rough.  Let's kick off this first segment with a game that was built by yours truly.

This game has a special place in my heart because I made it as a tribute to my cat who passed away in April of 2011.  The main reason for me claiming it isn't done is that it needs quite a bit of work in the visual department.  Also the audio department… and it could probably use some more interesting game play.

The game is called YS and you play as a test subject for a new type of brain computer interface project.  Not much is explained, instead a computer instructor who identifies himself as Broadus simply instructs you in how to play.  Yeah yeah, I know that is pretty much the exact premiss to Portal, but otherwise the game is absolutely nothing like Portal.  Because, you know, Portal was really good.

I actually put quite a lot of thought into the design of this game.  Each level represents a phobia.  Early levels are more primal fears (think bump in the night scary) and as you progress they become more abstract fears (think social anxieties).

There is also a hint that what your doing is directly effecting someone else.

Gameplay wise it is very simple.  You control a 2D avatar and navigate him through the maze using the arrow keys to move and the WASD keys for the direction you shoot.  All the levels are generated procedurally and enemies are distributed at random.  Each enemy you kill will add to your combo meter on the bottom right.  The combo meter empties if you take damage.  When the combo meter is filled you get a minor boost in your rate of fire.  You might not notice at first, but by the end of the game you surely will.

You also get stars for each level you beat without taking damage.

The game is for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android.  I had to come up with a funky control scheme for Android which makes the game much harder, but still beatable (I have beaten it twice).  Instead of arrow keys you tilt your Android and instead of WASD you touch the direction relative to your avatar to shoot.

 

Windows, Mac and Linux Version ( download )
Android Version ( market )
 

The Bundles just keep coming, and rightfully so! Prepare yourselves for another game compilation.

Indie Royale is proud to announce, the June Bug Bundle. That’s right, a group of titles have forged a union to meet the needs of good hearted, gaming folk, across the globe. There’s only one condition: You must decide the price of ownership.

This quad-plex of titles will surely tickle your gaming bone. First up, Pixel Junk Eden, the PSN hit that created its own genre - Silk Wire Action- has finally made its way to PC - featuring new content. Next comes, Escape Goat, a platforming puzzler ranked in the top 20 by XBLIG. Third is, Noitu Love 2: Devolution, an action-adventure point and click with a Mega Man esque look. Finally comes, the second best browser title to date, Auditorium, where players are placed in the unique position of turning light into sound.

It wouldn’t be a IR bundle without bonus content. JBB is offering a music bonus from the chiptune band, 8-Bit Weapon. Their album, Bits and Bytes, is available on the condition that purchasers pay a minimum of $7 or more.

June Bug Bundle is live and will remain open for the next 5 days and 19 hours (as of this writing). These titles are not to be missed, so stop-drop and get your bundle on. Support indie games today!

 

Hello hello, you're back with A Narrative Lens and this week we're looking at the morality system in Catherine, and how it deepens both the meaning of the choices players make, and the connection between them and the protagonist, Vincent Brooks.

The gripe with morality systems in games is an old, well-worn one. Extra Credits had covered it well before they were even on The Escapist. They're cursory, ineffective, and turn some of the most difficult choices in real life into simple, points-based calculations.

In games, morality is a two-dimensional, binary scale.

Except when it's not.

I recently had the immense pleasure of playing Catherine, a romantic horror puzzle game developed by the Atlus Persona Team. For those of you who don't know, the game follows the story of Vincent Brooks, a man who is in a steady relationship with his girlfriend Katherine. During a night spent drinking after she tells him about her possible pregnancy, he spends the night with a beautiful stranger - the titular Catherine. Throughout all this and the events of the game, Vincent suffers from nightmares where he is forced to climb towering structures and escape from horrific monsters.

Straight off the bat, we're introduced to Catherine's morality system, and there are two main ways to influence it - responding to Catherine or Katherine's texts, and answering questions after each stage of the nightmare, before proceeding to the next one. Both of these actions cause you to sway towards either end of a scale. The left hand side of the scale is blue, and the right side red. Depending on your position on that scale, Vincent responds to key events differently. Sounds like every other morality system, right?

Well, almost. There are three elements that make this morality system interesting.

First off, the binary scale is never named. In most games, you flit between Good and Evil, Paragon and Rengade, Fame and Infamy etc. In Catherine, the player is left to judge what it is they're choosing between. Their only indication is a little angel and devil on either side. Obvious symbolism, yes, but it becomes apparent later in the game that the core choice of the game, the choice between Katherine and Catherine, is not strictly about good or evil. Both characters have redeemable traits, damning flaws, and everything in between. It's not stereotypically good to choose Katherine, nor is it stereotypically evil to choose Catherine. This introduction of the grey area shifts the morality to a different subject.

I'd like to contend that the morality gauge is not flitting between good and evil. Rather, the choice is between the ideals that Katherine and Catherine represent. Katherine represents Vincent becoming the traditional family man; monogamy, a steady job, a stable relationship, and a family. Catherine, on the other hand, represents a much more hedonistic set of ideals - high sexual activity, personal liberty, free resources etc. These are both traits that people desire, as we all desire an amalgam of these traits from our relationships. In Catherine, these two sets are polarized, forcing us to choose and judge our own actions in relation to them. This, combined with the third reason I think this system is interesting, makes for some fascinatingly complex choices.

The second reason is a short, visual one. Save for the times that the gauge changes, and when a key event is influenced by your current standing on the bar, there is no way in the game to check your standing. When it's influenced, it appears for a short time, where the meter flicks in the direction correspondent to your choice. This puts the mechnical aspect of the choices behind the curtain, preventing players from thinking 'right, this choice moves me towards the red side'.

Finally, one of the most interesting parts of the morality system is the dichotomy between its two inputs; texting at the bar, and answering the questions between stages. When a player elects to respond to either Catherine or Katherine's texts, they compose a message based on a variety of different lines. By cycling through these line, the player can choose a response that best suits their attitudes, and the gauge shifts depending on the total value of the message, which is hidden from the player. This can lead to some surprises and a lot of uncertainty, as responses that the player expects to move the gauge towards Katherine might actually push them in the opposite direction.

In the nightmares, players are presented with a question and two responses that they must choose between. For example, one question is 'Does life begin or end with marriage?', with the player choosing either 'It begins', or 'It ends'. This is one of the more clear-cut questions, but some give responses that the player might not necessarily agree with, forcing them to weight up their beliefs and choose the one they feel best represents their priorities.

Combined, these two inputs put the focus solely on the player, presenting them with events and situations that are clearly designed to challenge what they feel strongly about when it comes to relationships. All of this adds a great deal of weight to each decision they make. Furthermore, the character of Vincent is forced to live out the consequences that we, as players, choose for him, fostering a far deeper connectoon than would be possible if morality was taken out of the players hands for this game.

So, it turns out that a two-dimensional morality system can be used to create depth. It just depends on what the player is choosing between.

'Till next time,

WanderingWordmith.

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