Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Making history (Part 1) ....

By Dave Johnson

Lately I've found myself playing a lot of historically set games, or games with "alternative timelines". By this I mean titles such as LA Noire, Assassins Creed Revelations, Wolfenstein : The New Order and Bioshock Infinite (again - second play through, enjoying it even more the second time around!). As a graphic / concept designer and illustrator I've found myself drawing and creating my own stories and ideas for these sorts of games a lot lately. I am intrigued by the idea of 'what would the world have been like if X didn't happen' or 'what if Y came before Z'? I'll probably be posting more of my ideas in future blogs, but for now I want to look and explore why I'm drawn to these sorts of games.

LA Noire

The first game I've been playing a lot of lately is LA Noire by Rockstar.

It's an action adventure game set in 1947 where you take on the role of Cole Phelps, an ex American GI who fought in WW2. Having left the army, we find him at the beginning of the game as a rookie patrolman in the 1940's LA police force who is facing the opportunity to rise in the rankings. When a spate of grisly murders by the "Black Dhalia" begin to hold Los Angeles in their grip, Phelps is faced with solving the case and unmasking the killer. However with drugs. corruption and gang warfare threatining to tear the city apart, the case quickly takes a turn for the complicated.....

I already knew a little about the real life "Black Dhalia" murders that the game draws inspiration from. So I guess that part of my reason for being drawn to the game in the first place was educate myself and learn more about the crimes and 1940's America. I believe that gamers are on the whole quite an open minded, inquisitive crowd and enjoy being told fresh new stories from time periods they probably hadn't considered. This is probably why I am more drawn to historical games, as they offer me a chance to learn more about the world and it's past. LA Noire is a great example of a game that surprised and captivated a lot of people for this reason upon it's release.

So what is it that I like about this game so much? I liked Rockstars' previous Grand Theft Auto
offerings but got a bit bored with the offensive content and the constant destruction, murder and mayhem. I also feel that Rockstar games are so big and so long that often the story struggles to fill the gap between missions and the duration of the game. I seriously considered quitting GTA V in its' middle third purely because nothing really happened. It's descent into meaningless side quests, and 'shock value' moments to keep the player interested was something that I nearly ended the game over. It's a big Rockstar criticism and I approached LA Noire hesitantly because of this, but I'm happy to say it's the exception to the rule. It's story is fleshed out, twisting and genuinely fascinating. I couldn't wait to see what happened next.

Some examples of the LA Noire performance capture technology

LA Noire is a game that rewards the player for thinking, rather than aimlessly killing. Sure there are moments where a car chase through LA or a gunfight is required but they are always integral to the plot and have purpose, supporting the story. The main standout moments of LA Noire involve good old fashioned detective work and a knack for reading body language. This is where Rockstars' incredible performance capture technology comes into play, realistically rendering motion captured faces and all their nuances. A raised eye here, a scratched head there, an uncomfortable shifting of feet or maybe a steely gaze - these are just a few ways that your suspects will react to your line questioning. It's up to you to read, analyze and decide if they are telling the truth or lying. It's a game where seemingly everyone has something to hide or a secret to impart - the trick is to know when to be subtle and when to go in heavy with them.

Interrogations fully utilize the amazing performance motion capture,
being integral to the game and not just a gimic

It's a fantastic achievement with great graphics and sound to back it up. The city seems alive, bought to life by the period tunes and believable voice acting and sound effects. The combat is something that I feel could be improved, being a bit clunky, but the focus seems to be on brain power rather than muscle which I rather like. Too many games these days require you to get from A to B linearly and destroy everything in your path. This logic based, socially aware take on gaming is a refreshing change of pace and style.

Similarly some of the driving feels a little wayward in a few of the cars and fluid in others. On balance though, I think that this is intentional as it makes you want to find and drive every car in town to see them (the Ford H-Boy was just one of the obscure, highly secret cars I uncovered with a bit of searching. Talk about attention to period detail!). I don't normally like collecting things in games as a lot of the time collectibles can feel a bit arbitrary. However, my wife and I are up to 75 of 95 cars now and we intend to find the lot. We really don't to see the end of the game, but we want to. We genuinely enjoy being in the games' company. This is testament to the world the developers have made. It's never boring, there is always something to see and the player is encouraged to explore every corner of it to gain some sort of reward.

So in summary LA Noire is action packed, engrossing and a good history lesson, even if it is a little light on detail in places. I genuinely didn't know about the social problems of ex American GI's or the seedy Hollywood of the period so I definitely feel like I've learnt something I didn't know. The game has cemented in my mind that when a good story, an unexpected setting and great production come together, amazing things can happen. I would much rather see more of this cerebral kind of game than another first person shooter or racer.
Wolfenstein : The New Order

I had high hopes for this, I really did. Partly because it caters to a very nostalgic audience (including me) for which there is obviously a large market. The Wolfenstein games are regarded as some of the best old-school shooters on PC, so this modern offering seemed like it was going to be really great game. An established franchise, a devoted fan base and the latest generation technology. All with an intriguing premise and a thoughtful story. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, quite a lot as it happens. For its' few standout moments there are a dozen emotional mis-steps, cringe worthy 'mature story' moments and some quite tedious game play. But let me start at the beginning and tell you why I personally got so excited about this game when I first heard about it.

Wolfenstein : The New Orders' premise is that the Nazis won WW2. It is a game that ponders over the implications of the Nazi party conquering the globe and spreading its' influence. As a big fan of alternate timeline games, I was keen to see a vision of the world where things have not quite turned out as we know them. There was an element of the interest in 40's nostalgia and 60's culture in me since the games story spans both decades.

It is a cliche but everyone knows even today that German engineering is amongst some of the finest in the world. To their credit, this is something the games art directors have captured brilliantly. Clunking metal, steam and lasers all find their way into the mix and blend well. What is perhaps not so well known that the game explores is Hitlers' real life interest in black magic and the occult. The Nazi party was covertly scouring the globe in the 30's in search of ancient artifacts to help secure victory and create the master race. Indiana Jones is probably the most successful franchise to explore this so I was keen to see these ideas and themes develop. The Indiana Jones world was a big part of my childhood too, being one of my main creative influences as a boy. The memory of being taken to see "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" in 1982 and being made aware of God, Hitler, evil, heroism and adventure cinema all at once in that dark auditorium will stay with me forever. After that, I was forever drawing Indy and creating my own adventure stories. It was one of the first films to inspire me to draw and create for a living. Because of this, I really, really wanted to like Wolfenstein.

Mid 2013 at the E3 show, things were looking good. From early videos and reports the game would seem to be musing on what might happen if the German victors fused science, magic and engineering together to rule the world. I fully expected to see some strange creations and to be fair when I played, I wasn't far disappointed here. There are some genuinely brilliant designs in there like the giant robot dogs :

and some of the creepiest robot / cyborg super soldiers I've seen to date :

The enemies are quite creepy and imaginative but predictable from gameplay point of view. When I completed the game, I was surprised to get the "Uber" achievement for beating it on it's hardest setting. I'd actually forgotten I'd set it to this, since it struck me as quite easy! Once the player figures out how to take on each enemy type, the game becomes formulaic and repetitive. The games' developer Bethesda have even tried to shoehorn in a leveling up system where you are granted combat perks for killing a certain number of enemies in a particular way. It sounds great in theory, except I discovered that you can acquire a good third of the perks just by replaying the first level. This makes you very handy in combat early on in the campaign, effectively making the rest of the adventure a very simple task.

The sound and voice acting are passable, but rarely go beyond very good. The characters speak some corny dialogue in some very cartoon accents and voices, which is mostly laughable. I can honestly say that my favourite part of the game was when a very modern rock soundtrack kicked in on one of the later levels. Being a fan of auditory surprises like this in games I felt it worked as the whole setting of the game is supposed to be an advanced version of 1960. Therefore, modern music seemed very appropriate and I did appreciate this. Unfortunately I was almost at the end of the campaign and it felt a lot like too little too late.

Without meaning to go on for too long, I'd like to come now to what I consider to be the games' two chief failings. Number one is the much hyped and anticipated version of a 1960's Nazi policed world. I was some way into the game when it struck me that the game could have been set anywhere at absolutely in period in history. There was barely anything in the environments that really gave off a 1960's vibe. It just felt like a wartime shooter and the story and concept was tacked on as an afterthought. If I'd have made the game I would have re written the story to take in actual 1960's events, retold through the games' narrative. From Cuba to Kennedy, the list of story possibilities is virtually limitless. The whole game clearly borrows heavily from the concept of the novel 'The Man In The High Castle' by Philip K Dick. That novel is realistic in the sense that it re imagines the outcome of actual wartime events that culminate in Nazi victory. The books characters are well plotted, sympathetic and believable. Wolfensteins' characters are poorly written, crass and ridiculous.

Not once did the game feel like an imaginative alternative version of the past, just a standard slightly old fashioned wartime shooter.

My second major complaint is the depiction of the German people. It seems that these days whenever anyone tackles the German war in games and movies, they always seem to depict the Germans as morally bankrupt psychopaths (see "Inglorious Basteurds" by Quentin Tarantino or the zombie 2009 movie "Dead Snow").

Yes, clearly Hitler and the Nazi party committed unspeakable atrocities in the war, but it's fair to say that many Germans was pressured into following a cause which they probably didn't believe in. With the exception of a few recent examples of the last few years such as 'Call Of Duty : World At War' game directors always seem to fall into the trap of presenting all Germans as madmen. From an ethical stand point, it annoys and upsets me that developers can't move on from this stereotype. Wolfenstein's many human enemies and chief antagonists Colonel Willem 'Deathshead' Strauss (a sadistic surgeon and doctor), Frau Engel (a toyboy loving Nazi commander and torturer) all suffer from this backward stereotype. 

I am all for education in wartime games, but I wish that a balanced view would be established. We do need to talk about the past as a society to learn from our mistakes - why can't we do it in a sensitive fashion? Game makers should take a lot more responsibility since much of their target market are our young next generations of society. It will be their inheritance one day, and we need to get them to understand just how traumatic the past has been for everyone.

To build on the this point, something else I noticed that irritated me was the music in the end credits. After launching a nuclear strike on Berlin and toppling the Nazi regime for good, we hear a very sentimental piece of music over the credits. It is admittedly beautiful, but misplaced. Bear in mind we have fought through Nazi zombies, robot dogs and mad surgeons to get to this point. The music lyrics seems to suggest a wistfulness about war that the rest of the game clearly reveled in. To me, it confuses and trivializes the whole issue of what the game developers were trying to say. Which brings me to the end of my thoughts on the game with a final summing up. Wolfenstein : The New Order never really becomes sure of what it is, or what tone it is adopting, ending up as an uneven mess. Mainly I worry about the lasting impression this will leave on gamers and their understanding of conflict. The only thing it did for me was to make me more sure of the kind of games I want to make in future and the growing need for responsibility in the medium. I have come to the conclusion that game developers have a great deal of power in that they can educate through a medium that many find fascinating. However there are still those who need to realize that certain subjects (such as war) need to be handled with a large degree of sensitivity, particularly where there is an important story or subtext. The danger is many will think the views games represent are ok to carry over into the real world.

In part 2 of this blog I will be looking at Assassins Creed : Revelations and the brilliant Bioshock Infinite.

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