The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Audio Logs

bioshock audio diary

Audio logs. I’m sick of them. Stop using them. Tell the story through the narrative, or don’t tell it at all.

What is it with one good game using a mechanic, and every video game after it copies them, but totally misses why it worked in the other game. Not that it really worked in the other game. Okay, now I’m rambling.

Here’s why audio logs don’t work. First, they don’t make sense in the world. They’re ludonarrative dissonance. Those things have got to be expensive. Who the fuck is lugging around these giant tape recorders and record players, and leaving them there in freezers, bars, barrels, trash cans? Just to record thirty seconds of random thoughts? People don’t write journals/diary entries like that. I know the joke has been made before, but seriously, why isn’t anyone learning that?

And that dovetails into my next point: they interrupt the gameplay. I know the point of audio logs is that they’re not supposed to, but they do. You’ve got two choices when it comes to audio logs — listen or don’t listen. If you don’t listen, you miss the storyline, potential secrets, necessary hints. In Doom 3, most tell you the code to access whatever item cache is nearby. No medkits for you if you don’t listen to some technician complaining about lack of weapons or insane soldiers. If you’re that kind of person, you’re just going to blaze through the game anyway and miss half the content.  Not to mention the context of why you’re there in the first place. You might as well be playing a Flash game.

If you do listen to them, you have to sit there and stare into nothingness while you listen to whatever ninny is droning on about their scientific breakthrough or petty issues (that happen to conveniently relate to your situation). 

I know the point of audio logs is that you can keep playing while you listen, but that doesn’t work. Because if you get in a firefight or activate a cutscene in the middle of the log, you miss what’s being said. Or it gets cut off. And you have to listen again. So really, an audio log is no different than a cutscene. Worse actually, because you get no visual.

I’m not sure where they evolved from. Clearly Bioshock was the most famous for it (but maybe because it was the most ridiculous implementation). Maybe they came from the seamless cutscenes in Half-Life. You know what? I don’t mind cut-scenes. God of War did them well — short, poignant, meaningful, and content-rich. Why don’t video games duplicate that, instead of the quick-time events?

The Gordian Freeman Knot of Half-Life 3

half life 3 protest signs

People want Half-Life 3. They’ve gone past hoping, past pleading. At this point they are ANGRY at Valve for not working on it. There isn’t even a game made yet. There doesn’t appear to be plans for one.

At first people just wanted Episode 3 — a two hour add-on to conclude the story of Half-Life 2. Something to bring resolution to Eli Vance’s sacrifice and tie up the loose ends. Maybe even throw in a few Portal references. But that ship has sailed, and now Half-Life 3 is the only way to satisfy the fans, in return for the time spent waiting. It’s been nine years since it was released, but the desire hasn’t died down, surprisingly. At this point I wonder if Half-Life 3 will ever be made.

The thing is, Half-Life 3 is a no-win situation for Valve. Even if they made the best game they could, the fans wouldn’t be happy. There’s been so much time sink in wishing and hoping and speculating that people’s expectations have been raised so high.  Whatever they produce is guaranteed to fall short. Valve will end up sinking all those resources and money into a game no one’s going to like.

So there’s no reason for Valve to make Half-Life 3. They’re better off with what they’re doing now: Steam, Oculus Rift, improvements to online gaming, things peripheral to the gaming industry. Driving the direction the stream goes, rather than following on a raft.

Video Game Memories #30: Portal

portal box cover

Portal (2007)

After playing FFX-2, I decided to give up the RPG ghost. Games were getting too long, and they just weren’t fun anymore. Playing the New Game+ on FFX-2, and endlessly leveling up my characters so they had all the jobs, I realized that the cost of an excellent story wasn’t worth the repetitive gameplay. It’s either you’re leveled up enough to always win, or not leveled up enough, then you lose and have to start over. Which, with my dwindling time, was not an option. Plus the games had so much cool stuff in them, you could never get to it all – you’d have to grind and grind and grind to see some random cutscene or get some item you likely didn’t need anymore. So I decided to say “no” to my beloved franchise. Which was fine – I was looking to Square for that next Final Fantasy 7 or 8, but it never came, and it looked like it never would.

So goodbye to the 50-hour games. Goodbye to three-hour gameplay sessions. I would have to find shorter games. Games like Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, and Half-Life 2. Valve was a big player by this time, and the Orange Box had come out, so I bought it as my reward to myself for getting a new job. And with the Orange Box came Portal (which was the game I really wanted).

portal screenshot

Portal crashed onto the scene like ten-ton SUV through a concrete wall driven by the Terminator. Everyone was talking about it, every webcomic was parodying it. And I didn’t understand a lick’s worth. “The cake is a lie”? Blue portals and orange portals? “Weighted Companion Cubes”? I hate feeling left out. I knew it was a short game, but one that got a lot of Game-of-the-Year awards. So the natural step was to get the damn game.

I played it all the way through the first start-up. I heard it only took an hour to complete, but I took a little longer. This was good, because by this time, baby 1.0 was in full force and free time was at a premium. Once I installed The Orange Box, I skipped over Half-Life 2 and its accompanying episodes, which is unusual for me, because I always do everything in chronological order, and went right to Portal. I was surprised at what I got.

portal screenshot turret

It’s an action game! No, wait, it’s not. It’s a puzzle game. No, wait it’s not. It’s an FPS! No, wait, it’s not. It’s a platformer! No, wait, it’s not. It all takes place in an isolated test building. Maybe above ground, maybe below ground. But you don’t know where it is or who you are. You wake up in a bed in a tiny room. Then a computer lets you out and gives you some instructions (with heaping sarcasm). Usually, this is the point where I complain that I don’t know who I am, so what the hell am I supposed to do? But I don’t think the designers meant for this game to have a very rich background, so I’ll forgo my token rant.

portal cake

Why? Because the game is so minimalist. All you can do is hop, open doors, and shoot a portal gun. Besides movement, those are your sole controls. The sole character besides yourself is the narrator. And it’s hard to know whether to take the game serious or not. Oh, from the commentary, I can tell the designers put a lot of subtlety into the “story”, such as the red phone and GLaDOS’s design. But really, who is going to notice that sort of thing when you’re walking up to a giant Ghost-in-the-Shell computer matrix thing hanging down from the ceiling? I don’t know about you, but when I’m facing a Final Boss, I pay attention to the Final Boss, because I don’t know when he/she’s going to get done with the bad guy speech, congratulating me on making it this far, and pull out the rocket launcher.

portal glados

But that’s what makes the game so amazing. You have the opportunity to make your own story. It’s not like Half-Life 2 where you should know what’s going on or someone should be explaining it to you. The point of the game is to have fun figuring out portal puzzles. The game jumps from a a clean sterile environment, to having a dingy, horrific background seep in, then descend into a full-scale desperation a la the teenager trying to escape the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

What Half-Life 2 did wrong with storytelling, Portal did right. Well, mostly, there’s still plenty of stuff that the user needs to know, like your character’s name (Chell), her nature (clone), and what those things on her feet are (leg-stabilizers to hang a lampshade on the falling damage). But Portal got more things right than HL2, because they revealed what was happening and allowed you to explore it, rather than having chatty cutscenes or skipping exposition totally. What I do regret, and I hear this from others, is that they wish there was more. I do too, but not more game. That was hard enough. I want more world. And I especially want more world to bleed into Half-Life 2. An Aperture vs. Black Mesa crossover. Can you say portal-fight? Ah well, there will always be Portal 2. Or Episode 3, whatever comes first (at this rate, the sun exploding is going to come first).

This game is an example of what I now have the ability to express. Sometimes I have to wait weeks in order to play. That’s why I don’t get too many new games, or I get what I call “efficient” games. These are games that can be completed easily, quickly, but are still fun. I can’t spend time unlocking everything, buying every special feature, exploring every nook and cranny. But I also feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot. Efficient games turn out to be shallow.

portal screenshot blue

It’s kinda sad really. I don’t want to be condemned to a world where I’m only playing Mario games my wife can play, but getting something like an XBOX360 seems like such a waste of money, considering we have a kid to feed and another on the way. But I get in the occasional adult game. I bought Bioshock when it was $5.00 on Steam, and I recently hooked up a PSX emulator, so I can go back and play all those great games I missed, plus revisit some of the old worlds I’ve longed for in my mind.

So that’s it. Those are all my video game memories, at least before I started the blog. Of course, if you want more, you can read my diatribes on Shadow of the Colossus, Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy, and Bioshock. Until, then I’ll see on you boards.

So good fight, and good gaming!

Video Game Memories #27: Half-Life

half life box cover

Half-Life (1998)

Hopefully, you’ve all read my manifesto on Half-Life 2’s Storyline (and lack thereof). It’s like a premise with no plot. There were a lot of questions left in prequel, and even more provoked by the sequel that were never answered. It lacked the compulsion to care about what you were doing, and with the exception of Alyx (who doesn’t shine until the subsequent episodes). You don’t care why you do anything or about anyone, even yourself.

So what’s my take on Half-Life 1? Well, let’s see…

I first got the game for Christmas. My mom told me the guy in Best Buy recommended it, because for the first year, I didn’t ask for any video games (I think I had them all). I was busy with college, and finding much joy that my new computer could run an SNES emulator. I can’t remember if Half-Life was even on my list at that point, but it had already been named Game of the Year, and other prestigious awards so… can’t blame her. I think it was Xmas 2000, so Half-Life was well popular by then.

The problem was said dinky computer I got at Computer Renaissance could not run it – no 3D card, not enough memory, minimal network support. So I had to wait until I got my next computer.

half life screenshot vortigaunt

As it turned out, I bought one the next year, but I didn’t play it right away. I still wasn’t confident my computer would run it, and, again, college. But one day I was searching for something to do while in my dorm, and I installed it to see if it would work. It did, and it was quite fun. I distinctly remember playing it in the dark, and for the first time, getting motion sickness from a video game. The most memorable part for me was the opening tram ride. I love that it starts at the beginning of the day, you see all the sights of Black Mesa, get a feel for what they do, what sort of place it is, and your (insignificant) role in it all.

But mostly, it was long.

And unskippable.

half life screenshot scientists

In fact, all the cutscenes were unskippable. Because they all take place in game. So while Dr. Scientist is talking to you about Lambda complex, you’re jumping around the room, looking for weapons, bouncing off the walls, or staring at a mouth opening and closing. But you’re never taken out of the action. You never stop being Gordon Freeman. So it’s both ingenious and boring.

Not to mention that, because there’s no meta-game elements (tutorials, hints, experience points, fickle fingers of fate), it can be difficult to know what the game wants you to do. There aren’t enough hints, or you miss the hints. Or maybe I’m just stupid. I do have the habit of running into a room with guns firing repeatedly, even though I keep dying (hey, it’s a sound strategy, and eventually it’ll work). For example, when you run into the tentacles in the blast pit, you may not be aware that they’re sensitive to sound. So you end up saving 1800 times trying to get through without being smushed. No one lets you know to throw grenades to distract it. My plan A FPS strategy doesn’t really work in this scenario. It’s too much freedom and just enough freedom at the same time.

half life screenshot tentacles

Half-Life is a great game, but it’s really a game you can only play once. The first time you’re in awe and wonder about the spacious factory, the little touches (like scientists being snapped up by barnacles, or being sucked through a vent), and the big events like the satellite launch and Xen. The magic of Half-Life came from those little slices of realism that instill fear, despair, isolation, and anger. Valve did a really good job of putting you in the driver’s seat and letting you BE Gordon Freeman. The best part of Half-Life is making my own witty responses to all the scientists or yipping away at the Gargantua coming after me.

But the second time, you know everything that’s coming. Sure, you can try to hunt for Easter eggs, or see the things you missed, but if you just want to play a game where you satisfyingly shoot things with a shotgun, this isn’t it.

half life screenshot crowbar blood

But the important thing is it started Valve’s string of success, which went on to influence the way many games are made. Specifically, fully integrated cutscenes, games like Mass Effect where you are the player, and realism. I still like this game, but it turns out you can’t go home again.

Late to the Game: Bioshock: The First Impressions

bioshock logo

I bought Bioshock on Steam for five dollars a week or two ago. I remember it won the GameSpot story of the year award, so I thought “Hey, five dollars. Can’t pass that up.” (Portal was $2.99. Jesum crow, now you have no excuse!) Unfortunately, my five dollars only went so far, as I found out my computer was too old for the game. So I had to buy a new video card to play the game decently, which cost me as much as if I’d bought the game new. Oh well, at least I’ll be able to play new games as well (where’s HL2: Episode 3? Come on, I wanna see how it ends!).

First off, I love the sets (if I can call them that). I’ve never seen such elaborate decoration. Half-Life had detail, but a lot of it was outside. Bioshock takes place underwater in the 1950’s. That alone should be enough to suck anyone in, but these places have bathrooms, kitchens, shops, elevators, ashtrays, and searchable corpses. The enemy movements seem a little stilted – not as fluid as Half-Life, and I miss the ragdoll physics. But the world is rich and detailed. I wish I had the time to appreciate it fully, but the pressing nature of a family makes me feel like I have to finish the game as quick as possible to get back to my other stuff.

So far, the story-telling has its good and bad points. There’s virtually no intro – you don’t know who you are, besides a guy on a plane – but so far that seems largely irrelevant. It’s the “Trapped in Another World” scenario with a nondescript hero – a standard VG trope.

My problem is, because the world is so rich, and because it’s a video game, they move you along fast. You don’t have time to appreciate the fantastic stuff before you get to even more fantastic stuff. For example, your plane crashes and you swim to a menacing black tower, then down a bathyscope to the underwater city of Rapture, where humpback whales swim under the sign for “Dr. Morley’s Tobacco Emporium”. The guy who comes to get you out gets attacked by a Splicer (the common enemy grunt), and you’re on your own, except for a guy on a radio. He doesn’t explain what’s going on, he doesn’t tell you what you’re doing here, and he sure doesn’t help you get around much. The guy lives in Rapture, you think he could give you some directions.

The “what’s going on” is revealed from the advertising (great story-telling device) and narrative diaries (bad story-telling device). You have to basically wait and do nothing while you listen to the diary. This interrupts the experience. I guess the idea is that you keep playing while you listen, but its hard to hear when my shotgun’s going off. Or concentrate when I see a Nitro Splicer coming at me. And those diaries don’t pause.

Very shortly after the game begins, before you even pick up a hitscan weapon, you get your first psychic power. From a vending machine. And the first thing you do with it is inject it into your veins, without any provocation or instruction from your radio buddy. This causes your genetic code to be re-written and makes you black out and fall over a railing, leaving you cold on the ground while all manner of Splicers, Little Sisters, and Big Daddies come up to sniff your potential corpse.

Now, I’m operating on the assumption that this world is completely alien to the main character – there are no plasmids or ADAM on the surface, no one knows of Rapture, and Dr. Ryan (the head honcho) is dismissed as a reclusive Darwinian Mad Scientist. Granted, these are pretty large leaps of faith, but the introduction gives us no knowledge of the current environment, save the year. Therefore, I must assume that everything in the world is as it is in ours, with the exception of the game’s macguffin.

So if the idea is that I’m playing as myself (almost, at least), the first thing I do with a foreign substance I got from a broken vending machine is not to stick it in my wrist. Especially if no one tells me to. In my humble experience, playing god in a mysterious underground city where the people who did the same thing are now attacking you is not the best survival strategy. I’ll stick with my boomstick, thanks.

I’m not complaining about the plasmid game mechanic, mind you. I love setting things on fire. It’s just the way that it’s introduced to the player is implausible. And the fact that these things can be found in vending machines, dentist’s offices, and tennis simulators is a stretch too. In my world, this would be a valuable substance, not something to be doled out willy-nilly. Imagine the chaos if everyone suddenly became telekinetic, pyrokinetic, super-strong, super-smart, and able to shoot lightning. And for clarification, the problems down below came from people messing with their genes in the first place, not the powers they gained. Most people are attacking me with grenades and shotguns, not ice blasts.

In fact, nearly everything you do is via vending machines. It incorporates some more interesting play mechanics (hacking, money management) that you don’t typically see in shooters, but I find it more comically ludicrous than satirically plausible. Granted they sell iPods via machine, but not electric shotgun shells and genetic enhancements.

Finally, Little Sisters. Now, this is an interesting idea – it takes the concept of morality in video games to a new level. But what’s their role in Rapture? In one of the diaries, Dr. Ryan says that the Little Sisters are necessary to their way of life. This means they’re not a new thing. So what did they do before? Man the fry daddy at McPlasmid’s? Right now they have a symbiotic relationship with the Big Daddies – harvesting ADAM in exchange for protection. Surely they weren’t going around and doing this before. Not to mention that I find it hard to believe that ANY modern American society would allow experiments on little girls. They’re described as having a “terminal illness” and “they’re not little girls anymore”. Maybe the storytellers are being vague on purpose, to make them scarier, but I don’t see how declaring their role would take away from the fear.

As you can see from this, and my review of Half-Life 2, I don’t like being kept in the dark for the sake of gameplay or atmosphere. If the main character would know, then the player needs to know.

Nonetheless, I am enjoying myself in Rapture. I just think it’s moving a little fast, and some of the environment wavers between ridiculous and unrealistic. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

The Storytelling in Half-Life 2: To You I Say thhbppt

Let’s talk about Half-Life 2 for a minute, and hopefully its still current enough we don’t have to jump into the Wayback Machine. I bought The Orange Box as my reward for getting a new job. I really just wanted to play Portal, because the Internet community can’t shut up about it, and I know they’re offering the individual games up soon, but I didn’t want to wait (I couldn’t since I have a two month old and no time), plus it was a hell of a bargain – Half-Life 2 + Episode 1 + Episode 2 + Team Fortress + Portal. I just got finished playing all the Half-Life 2 content, and I’ve got to say, as far as storytelling, I’m not impressed. Why am I not impressed? Because not enough backstory is explained. Like I said in my essay about Shadow of the Colossus, if I don’t know why I’m there, why should I do anything. When you start Half-Life 1, you know who you are and where you are by the time you finish the tram ride. By the time you shove the crystal up the laser’s ass, you know who’s important and what’s going to be important. And by the end of the game, you know what happened, why it happened, and what’s probably going to happen next. I loved the sensation that you start as this genius MIT physics geek, hand-picked to work in the most advanced and secret scientific facility in the world, and you seem to be nothing more than a cart jockey. As the game went on, you were introduced to plot twists (the marines infiltration, the animal testing area) that kept the revelations going, while keeping intrigue (the G-Man, lambda complex) to have the character guessing what all this means. By the end of the game, I was satisfied, but eager for more. Not so with Half-Life 2. Half-Life 2’s biggest problem is that you’re instantly teleported from Half-Life 1 to 2. No explanation why, no transition from one to the other. The G-Man says some cryptic shit, then you appear on a train. Why am I on a train? Where am I going? Who are these guys with me and when did denim get so popular? Who’s that guy on the TV screen? Where did he come from? Am I in City 17? What happened to Cities 1-16? Not good enough for City 7, am I? Is the world in trouble? Where’d my guns go? Did I stop the Xen aliens? Where am I supposed to go? Who are my friends here? Who is the enemy? How long have I been out? What happened while I was gone? Will there be cake?Only half these questions are ever answered, and then, sparsely. Unless I looked on the Wikipedia, I would never know that Dr. Breen was the former administrator of Black Mesa, or that the Combine are here to harvest Earth’s water and change the chemical composition of the air. I would never know that the Vortigaunts are now friendly and why they are friendly. Yet the headcrabs aren’t. If this was real life, there’d be a lot of Vortigaunts limbs lying around City 17 right now. So all of this boils down to ‘what should I be doing?’. This is the first question I ask myself when I start a video game. When Cloud bounced out of the train, that was the first question I asked, and it was answered quickly (blowing up an evil energy reactor as part of a eco-terrorist organization). In Resident Evil 4, when Leon rolled out of the car into some Spanish villa, I knew where I should go (start exploring and discover the zombies). In these cases, there are clearly defined enemies, allies, and motivations. Unless I know what I’m doing and why, I just can’t get into the game. The other reason Half-Life 2 fails to produce emotional attachment is the lack of compelling characters (and this ties into the motivation for the player). You wanted to seek vengeance for Aeris. You wanted to save Rinoa from space. You wanted to see what Midna had to say. Half-Life 1 didn’t really have compelling characters either, but it made up for it with compelling character models, such as Barney the security escort, and the headcrabs. These didn’t become memorable because of who they were, but because of their behavior, which was part of the game mechanic. True, Half-Life’s audience isn’t the same as Twilight Princess’s audience, but at least Half-Life 1 had the newness behind it. In Half-Life 2, the programmers created even more newness, but didn’t exploit it. The Combine are little more than targets. The headcrabs have no new information revealed story-wise (besides they like watermelons). The ally characters are hardly more than background noise. Alyx is a memorable and popular character, but she’s not much more than a partner. She doesn’t initiate things, she doesn’t have a history, and her personality is the same as everyone else. Who else do we got? The bumbling Dr. Kleiner? The wizened Eli Vance? The Vortigaunts? They’re nothing more than rest stops to break up the action. They don’t dispense anything useful and they don’t move the plot. The only character I wanted to see more of in the future was Lamarr.Besides, the whole point of Half-Life is that you are Gordon and Gordon is alone. I should feel more alone, more empty, like in Silent Hill. Half-Life 2’s world is vast, but not empty. It’s detailed, but not thematic. I feel like they created this beautiful dam and then plopped some Combine soldiers in there for me to shoot, like Hogan’s Alley. So how do you tell back story well, without boring the player with ten-minute long intros or endless files to read? (I’m looking at you Resident Evil) Well, God of War put you right in the action, and explained Kratos’s backstory in periodic flashbacks. But this probably wouldn’t work for Half-Life because the nature of its storytelling was always from the perspective of the player, and it never deviates. God of War is all about high action, quick events, and visceral art. Half-Life is about life-like detail, realism, and freedom. Twilight Princess used Midna as a medium, as well as other characters. As the both of you confronted Zant, their dialogue revealed what happened to Hyrule. But the Combine don’t talk to each other, and Dr. Breen never calls to say hi. All you know is what the rebels know, and they always seem to get interrupted when they’re going to tell you something. That’s irritating to a gamer. Let the brother talk, man. Let’s see the seven-hour war. Let there be a few meetings to discuss the current situation. Let me pick up a newspaper and read it. That way you can allow the player to be Gordon (and never a movie viewer) and still keep the game consistent.I feel like Half-Life 2 didn’t capture the same spirit that Half-Life 1 created. It didn’t have the same zest, the same alien themes. It replaced the intrigue with unanswered hanging questions (the difference between the two is the desire to learn more and how much becomes revealed/resolved). Whenever you make a product based on existing material, such as a movie based on a book, you can basically do anything as long as you stay within the spirit of the material. That’s what Mortal Kombat (1) did. That’s what Silent Hill did. That’s what Batman did. Even Resident Evil 4, a radical departure from the gameplay, was still awesome because you were still fighting zombies in scary enclosed places. They kept the fans happy because they kept true to the spirit of the source material. They didn’t make Leon fight in an nu-tech industrial warehouse. They didn’t make Batman into a struggling teenager trying to cope with his identity as a superhero. So, despite it winning this year’s Gamespot award for best story (which I think was really for Portal, so I don’t know why they didn’t just give it to Portal itself instead of the Orange Box), Half-Life 2 gets a C+ for storytelling. Okay, not great. Now, I must return to my computer to catch the end of a thousand year old Final Fantasy rom hack.