2016 is the dawn of consumer virtual reality, and Sony is in a prime position to dominate the early market. People who have tried the early prototypes seem enamoured with the technology, and if the price is right, VR will be much more accessible on PS4 than the competing devices from HTC and Facebook.
All the tech specs sound great, and I couldn’t be more excited to try the helmet on for myself. But, there is one huge thing that seems to be missing.
Where are the games I actually want to play?
At the Tokyo Game Show, Sony announced a list of PS4 games in development with the VR headset that include:
It’s a long list, but is it impressive? Take a look at the first game on the list, as an example. Among The Sleep is a horror game that puts you in the body of a toddler in a dark and scary house. Sounds like a pretty cool concept, right? But I’m willing to bet the whole experience will last an hour or two, at most. And don’t expect much in the way of actual gameplay either – these early VR games seem content to mostly just let you look around and explore their virtual worlds.
Maybe I’m wrong, but to me most of these “games” don’t look like anything more than extended tech demos. There are a few genuine games on the list (Final Fantasy, Thief – how did you get there?), but to what extent they use the virtual reality is unclear at this point.
While virtual reality is undoubtedly new, there’s an obvious parallel here. Both PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift are peripherals that will allow a new way for players to interact with games. One is for PlayStation, the other is for Xbox. There’s a lot of hype surrounding both products, and a lot of tech journalists and bloggers seem wowed when they try them.
It should - a few years back, Nintendo hit it big with the Wii. People went nuts, and the console sold like hotcakes. The other companies wanted to get in on the action - Sony developed PlayStation Move, which could be used in conjunction with the PlayStation Eye, and Microsoft developed the Kinect for Xbox. There was a lot of hype, and a lot of people seemed wowed by the technology.
But while motion controls were good for very specific types of gameplay, there were almost no quality, in-depth games that used them in any meaningful way. People bought these peripherals on the promise that they would revolutionize gaming, and they were left with nothing but a couple of (admittedly fun) party games and a sour taste in their mouths.
When the VR revolution was just starting to bubble, I thought companies were going to treat the new helmets like consoles. These are new pieces of technology, and all sorts of games and experiences could be developed specifically for them.
Because Sony is treating the tech like a peripheral, I’m wary. I’ve been burned before. If this technology is going to catch on, they need serious games developers to develop actual games (not just tech demos) that we can get excited about. More No Man’s Sky, The Last Of Us 2, Call of Duty: Modern Whatever – less Surgeon Simulators, please.
The promise is there, but I think unless someone decides to jump feet-first in, it will be awhile still before it feels like an actual revolution.
As I write this, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is still a few days away. Many people are treating this upcoming release as the unofficial end of the series. There will no doubt be more Metal Gears, but creator and writer Hideo Kojima has had a falling out with the studio and claims to be retired from the series. For all intents and purposes, this is the end.
So what better time to look at the beginning?
The first Metal Gear Solid game was released way back in 1998, and I still remember being blown away the first time I played it. What makes Metal Gear Solid special, in my opinion, is that it has the plot of a simple action thriller, but is actually about so much more. On the surface, the game is about a super spy breaking into a remote nuclear facility to stop a terrorist plot. Down underneath, the game is about nihilism, free will, predestination, and what it means to be human.
That’s right kids, we’re back in high school English class. Let’s pick apart the themes of Metal Gear Solid like it’s a John Steinbeck novel.
The big theme in the first Metal Gear Solid game is predestination – the idea that everything that will happen in the future has already been decided by fate. During the course of the game, this idea of predestination vs. free will comes up again and again. Sometimes it’s subtle, but more often than not Kojima will hit you over the head with it.
Back when I attended Catholic school, I remember being annoyed by the concept of predestination. I’d argue with my religion teachers about it. “So God creates a person out of clay or whatever, and while he’s attaching the legs he already knows this ball of clay is going to commit murder and then go to Hell for eternity?”
I struggled with the concept because it seems like a shady thing for an all-loving God to do. But a lot of people do believe in fate –they believe they are MEANT to be with someone, or do something specific with their lives. This idea is the main focal point of Metal Gear Solid, as almost every character in the game has their own personal struggle with their “destiny.”
For the main characters, it’s not God or some abstract version of fate they’re fighting - it’s genetics that represent predestination. Both Solid Snake and Liquid Snake are clones of super soldier Big Boss, and feel the need to fight because it is literally in their blood.
Liquid Snake, the evil, blonde, inexplicably British clone thinks he has been given all the weak, recessive genes. He wants to prove to Solid Snake that genes, and their representative predestination, do not shackle his destiny. He is an advocate for free will, and tries to prove it by besting Solid Snake mentally and physically:
You can’t fight your genes. It’s fate. All living things are born for the sole purpose of passing on their parents’ genes. That’s why I’ll follow what my genes tell me. And then I’m going to go beyond. In order to break the curse of my heritage. And to do that… first I will kill you.
Bad move – Solid Snake ends up foiling his plans and saving the day, of course. So is this a win for predestination? Not quite – a post-credits scene reveals it was actually Liquid who had the stronger genes all along, he just didn’t know it.
So if Solid Snake had the weaker genes, and still saved the day – score a point for free will!
The theme is echoed in Solid Snake’s character as well. As he moves through the terrorist base, he is forced to fight and kill enemies and soldiers. Liquid Snake calls him out on it:
Why do you continue to follow your orders while your superiors betray you? Why did you come here? Well, I’ll tell you then… You enjoy all the killing, THAT’S why! There’s a killer inside of you. You don’t have to deny it. We were created to be that way.
On the one hand, Liquid is right on the money. Solid does have a killer inside of him, put there by Naomi Hunter to kill certain people he comes into contact with (and eventually, himself). This is the ultimate case of being ruled by fate – Snake’s genes are literally killing people without him being able to control it. In this sense, he is not in control of his own destiny – score a point for pre-destination!
But does Snake really enjoy the killing because it is baked into his DNA? The game leaves this ambiguous –when Snake rides off into the sunset, we think maybe it possible for him to live a simple peaceful life with Meryl. Maybe his “soldier” genes don’t define him, and he can choose to “live” life like Naomi ultimately advises.
Then again, having played the rest of the series – maybe not.
Like any good theme, there are hints of it in almost every subplot the game introduces. Nearly every character is struggling with their “destiny” (aka what they’re supposed to do) and their free will (what they want to do).
“Meryl thought she had to become a soldier… thought it was the only way. She said she thought it would bring her closer to her dead father.”
“I finally understand. I wasn’t waiting to kill people… I was waiting for someone to kill me. A man like you… You’re a hero. Please… set me free.”
“The truth is… my grandfather was part of the Manhattan Project… Three generations of Emmerich men… We must have the curse of nuclear weapons written into our DNA.”
“Humans weren’t designed to bring each other happiness. From the moment we’re thrown into this world, we’re fated to bring each other nothing but pain and misery.”
“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate… to be ruled by your genes. Humans can choose the type of life they want to live. The important thing is that you choose life… And then… live!”
Let me take you through a scene in a typical survival horror game.
There seem to be monsters everywhere, but finally you’ve arrived in a quiet and dark hallway. You creep forward, and your footsteps echo into the darkness ahead. You know there’s something wrong - it’s quiet… Too quiet. You pass a doorway on the left and - nothing happens. You pass a doorway on the right and - nothing happens. Just as you breathe a sigh of relief, the music blasts and something shoots out of the door in front of you.
The monster claws at your face, and because you have little to no weapons, you die in a matter of seconds. The monster screeches and starts to eat your corpse, and the game fades to black.
Welcome to any survival horror game of the last ten years.
Don’t get me wrong though, I love it. They’re probably my favourite genre of video games, because they can pull you into the atmosphere and be unrelenting. In a horror movie, you get to watch as scary things happen to other people. In horror games, scary things feel like they’re happening to you.
But every survival horror game in recent years has had one major flaw, and it’s not any part of the scene I described above. The problem is what comes next - a monster will kill you, the game will fade to black, and you’ll restart within a matter of seconds, mere minutes away from where you left off.
The threat of a monster clawing your face off is only scary if it means something. For the first hour or two of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I was terrified of the beasts roaming the moody castle. The creatures stomped around the rooms and with no weapons, the only way to survive was to hide or escape from them.
But a few hours in, as I walked through one particular hallway, I was finally killed by a creature. It was a scary moment, for sure, but when the game restarted and I found myself in that same hallway a few minutes later, the fear was gone. I knew about the beast ahead, and I knew that even if he were to get me, I could try again.
In the back of my head, I probably knew this all along. But once it became a fact of the game, most of the tension was gone. Evaporated. I no longer feared dying in the game, and so I no longer feared the creatures.
Sure, there were still moments of terror. Moments of surprise, disgust, and yes, even horror. But during the first few hours, EVERY moment was like that.
I’m not suggesting we take things to the other extreme. Death in a game should have stakes, but make those stakes too high and you’ll leave players frustrated.
Take, for example, the early Resident Evil games, and how they gave players a limited number of typewriter ribbons to save progress. While this gave tremendous stakes to every enemy encounter in the game, it also made dying more of an annoyance than a dread. You could die - sometimes through no fault of your own - and have to redo an hour of the game.
So what’s the solution then? It’s actually already out there, just in a different genre.
From Software games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne have found a way to raise the stakes for players without going too far. Their “soul recovery” mechanic challenges players who die to make it back to their dead body to recover their “souls” in the game, or risk losing them forever. Players restart at checkpoints - sometimes far away - and need to decide whether it’s worth it to try and get those souls back.
These games are not survival horror, and yet use the stakes of losing your souls forever to make incredibly tense gameplay. The same idea can be applied to horror games - give players something useful but not necessary, and then threaten to take it away when they die.
With graphics getting better, and virtual reality on the horizon, the genre seems like it has a bright (or maybe dark?) future. But without proper mechanics to back it up, I fear the survival horror could become nothing more than a series of cheap thrills.
Some of the most critically-acclaimed and commercially successful games of the last few years have been produced by Telltale Games. The American studio has developed a niche hybrid genre they call “episodic graphic adventures.”
Telltale found success by licensing popular film and television franchises. Some of their most popular titles are based on Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones.
Each game is broken down into episodes, and each episode features three types of gameplay: dialogue trees, quick time events, and environment interaction.
The bulk of the episodes take place in dialogue trees. Interactive cutscenes push forward the game’s narrative, often pausing to give the player the chance to make a dialogue or physical decision for the main character. The plot can change depending on the choices you make, so the player is warned early and often about consequences.
Quick time events are simple reflex tests - usually reserved for action scenes in the game. On the opposite end, environment interaction segments usually involve moving the character around in a limited space to perform a menial task. All of these elements are packaged together to create an experience similar to an interactive movie, or a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.
That’s not a good thing.
In the early years of cinema, movies were often staged like plays. The director would set up the camera at the front of the scene, and shoot everything in one long take.
People back then didn’t think of film as an art form or even as something dramatically different from what they were already producing. Going to see a film in the cinema was just like seeing a play, only previously recorded.
Then, directors started to play around with camera angles. Close-up shots. Non-linear editing. These techniques became the building blocks for modern-day film, and helped develop the medium into an art form.
In the same way, games started out imitating sports and play, but have evolved into a powerful medium for storytelling. Telltale though, has approached their games much in the same way early directors approached cinema. Rather than take full advantage and push forward the interactive elements of video games, Telltale has resigned to imitate the film and television they license.
From my perspective, imitation is for children and monkeys. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by another piece of work, but outright copying structure and building blocks from another medium is lazy. It limits the way you can tell the story, and it makes for a lesser experience.
Don’t believe me? Take, for example, the all-important decisions you make in each episode. After each decision, you’re immediately hit with a message in the corner of the screen. “This character will remember that.” It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and highlights moments that should be able to stand on their own. Imagine if that message popped up during the actual Game of Thrones TV show. Ned is beheaded - “Arya will remember that.”
Games aren’t movies, and they’re not TV shows. And they shouldn’t have to try to be.
Let’s talk a bit more about the three types of gameplay in Telltale games.
There’s nothing new about quicktime events - they originally became popular with Resident Evil 4 and the God Of War series. I still have fond memories of that knife fight with Krauser in RE4, but too many games these days rely on them for cheap thrills. Because there are often no stakes in quicktime events (if you die, you’ll restart in mere seconds) there is rarely any tension. They’re amped up reflex tests, and frankly, I can have more fun banging a hammer on my kneecap.
Environment interaction segments are arguably worse. There was a charm to the old point-and-click LucasArts games, but more importantly there were puzzles. Sure, a lot of those puzzles were illogical, but they at least provided a challenge. In recent Telltale games, these segments do nothing more than slow down the narrative and give a small drizzle of exposition.
So lets throw those right out.
The bulk of these games are in the dialogue trees anyways, and the decision-making mechanic. The promise of video games lies in interaction, and decisions are a boiled down, pure and simple form of interaction.
But so limited.
Instead of actually trying to save two characters, Telltale games have you “choosing” to save either Character A or Character B. There’s an important difference here. Rather than actually DOING anything in these games, you’re instead CHOOSING for the main character to do something. You’re removed from the experience, like a passive viewer shouting at the TV.
When you strip out the DOING from games, what are you left with? You’re left with something that barely qualifies as a game.
Look, it’s not like I hate Telltale games. I get why people like them. But they’re a lazy form of storytelling, and do nothing to push the medium forward.
There is certainly a place for them, just like there’s a place for modern films made in black and white. That being said, colour is available… and I’d love to see Telltale expand their paint palette.