Friday, December 30, 2005

Let Me Out. It's Dark, and There Might Be Spiders!

So I was playing Doom 3 today.

Let me sum up the story for the three people who have been living under a rock for the past year or so.

Basically, you play a space marine on your first assignment to Mars. Some creepy guy starts running experiments and, whoops, wouldn’t you just know it? A portal to hell is opened. Demons take control of your slain former allies, and big bad demons hunt you, while you just try to stay alive.

Got it?

Basically, it’s a First Person Shooter / Survival Horror. It’s also kinda scary.

Now the scares in this game run on the cheap Funhouse tactics. You creep along a dark corridor with the few paltry lights flickering, and suddenly a pipe will burst next to you, sending a jet of steam out at you. You open a door and a really ugly looking demon will jump out at you.

Basically, it’s jump-tastic fun.

The other thing is that Doom 3 is a very dark game. Oh, and I don’t mean dark as in dark and broody. Not Batman dark…just plain dark. The few lights in the game tend to be dim, flicker and go out unexpectedly.

Now on the one hand, this is great. You creep along and all the lights go out. There’s a flicker, and for a second you get a glimpse of a monstrous silhouette. You start to panic and spray bullets wildly in the darkness. Your muzzle-flash lights up the kind of thing you usually only see in nightmares.

However, there’s a snag that really bugs me.

You see, you have a flashlight. This is a good thing, and also ramps up the tension. Imagine walking around a very Alien (The movie) like environment, in almost total darkness, and all you can see is what your light illuminates. There are lots of “Arrgh! Evil Demon!!!! (Deep breath), no, it’s just a chair. Wait, what’s that? Did I just see movement?” Moments.

This brings me to the snag.

You can’t use your flashlight and your weapon at the same time.

This is obviously a deliberate thing. I’m guessing that the good people at Id Software decided that by giving you the option of being able to see clearly, or shoot, gives you more of a sense of vulnerability.

In one way, it works. You’ll be trapped in a room with two or three low-level enemies that can only hurt you by directly hitting you. You run around like a mad-man. Flashlight! There he is. Flashlight off. Spray bullets wildly in the general direction. Flashlight on. Shit! I missed. Shoot again.

Also, I’ve only ever experienced this level of foreboding and fear in two other games…Thief and Resident Evil. When all the lights suddenly go out and you’re faced with the choice of frantically trying to hit the flashlight button, or simply starting shooting, you actually panic a little. Also, when you round a corner and your flashlight suddenly illuminates the face of an ex-worker, with half their guts missing, an eye gouged out and covered in blood who’s only a few steps away…you damn near shit your pants.

It works except for one thing.

It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

You see, in that situation, if I was using a single handed weapon, like a pistol…I’d have the pistol in one hand and the flashlight in the other.

(Well, that’s not exactly true. If I found myself on a dark, creepy base on Mars that was over-run by Hell-spawn, I’d find a hole, crawl into it, and shit my pants until help arrived. Failing that, I’d shoot myself in the head. Better that than being disemboweled by an actual demon).

Anyway, I’m in a frigging Mars base. There’s loose wiring and offices everywhere. I’d take my flashlight and my assault rifle, and tie the former to the latter. That way, I’d be able to shoot and see at the same time, and even use the flashlight as an aiming aid.

This is the minor niggle that can absolutely ruin an otherwise good game.

You see, I simply don’t buy it. I can’t do something I should be able to do, because the programmers think it detracts from the game. It’s like having the veil suddenly twitched back, and it takes you right out of the moment. The game stops being a genuine experience, and becomes ‘just a game’.

Let me explain this concept to the non-gamers.

You know when you’re reading a book that is so well written and engrossing that you stop actually seeing the words on the page and just get completely wrapped up in the story? That’s what a good game will do. You forget about the controls in your hand and just fall into it.

When something like the flashlight in Doom comes along, it’s like the author suddenly decided to write “Did you like that bit? I worked especially hard on it!” in the middle of a paragraph.

It’s all about suspension of disbelief.

You see, for a long time (and in some cases today), games had to stop you from doing things you could do in real life because the technology didn’t support it. For example, in real life, if a burglar broke into this house right now, my options aren’t limited. I could run and get my rifle, I could pick up the chair I’m sitting on and throw it at him, I could jump through a window etc.

In a game, most of the time your choices are a lot more limited. In most games, you can’t pick up the chair and throw it because the chair is just scenery. The technology isn’t there to work out the physics, or work out how much damage the enemy would take from being hit upside the head with it. These are accepted limitations, you expect them and overlook them…in the same way you know that you can offer the characters in your book any advice.

However, trying to believe that a fully trained space marine can’t work out how to use a gun and a flashlight at the same time is ridiculous. Either this game is set in a parallel world where tape or any form of knot has not been invented, or this marine arrived on Mars on the short spaceship.

It’s sloppy, makes no sense, and really takes you out of the moment.

In closing, I’d like to send Id the following message:

Yes, we know that sometimes realism has to be sacrificed for the sake of gameplay and story-telling. Yes, I know that the Demons on Mars bit is a hundred times less plausible than the flashlight thing. But, and this is a big but, if you want to limit what the player can do in order to heighten the tension, do it in a way that we’ll accept. Don’t just think you can throw something in there and we won’t notice.

Why not give the flashlight limited power? The batteries are running out so you have to save them for when you really need them. You’d still have to do the same frantic search for the on button when the lights go out, only you’d be able to shoot to!

Failing that, what if your weapon-mounted flashlight was ‘damaged’ and prone to flickering or going out?

Why not, at the very least, put a laser sight on the weapon. That’s an idea, it could even cast a very creepy looking red or green glow, dim enough to still be scary, but the dot would give us just a hint of where the enemy is.

I mean, not being able to use a weapon and flashlight simultaneously? A retarded baboon could figure it out!

1 comment:

MC Etcher said...

Why don't Space Marines have night-vision goggles, that's what I want to know.