Friday, 23 March 2012

Ridge Racer Vita and altruism in gaming

What the PlayStation Vita version of Ridge Racer asks of the player is something that few videogames prioritise; it's a facet of human behaviour that any self-respecting entry in Namco’s racing series - a celebration of life’s pleasures - shouldn’t really be concerned with: altruism. Isn’t personal gratification (read: selfishness) a core tenant of gamers? That said, it’s not altruism as a concept that’s the problem when starting to pick apart the new Ridge Racer, but rather Namco’s fundamental misjudgement over player motivation. After all, many games encourage the player to behave in selfless ways, whether overtly or otherwise.

Useful contemporary examples (i.e. games I can think of from the top of my head) include I Am Alive, in which you can help the destitute citizens of Haventon by giving them useful items such as first aid kits that would otherwise have helped with your own adventure. Then there’s the forthcoming Planetside 2, a blend of MMO and FPS where your online battles will affect the wider, continuously-developing galactic war, as opposed to simply serving an individual, self-contained record of progression as in Call Of Duty.

Both I Am Alive and Planetside 2 soften these gameplay devices in ways that acknowledge the player; the former rewards your acts of generosity with additional retries, while Planetside 2 – according to previews – does still allow for the development of your own character through experience points in the midst of the large-scale conflict. Ridge Racer Vita, on the other hand, lacks anything approaching these sweeteners.

At the game’s outset you’re asked to select one of four teams to join. Your role then becomes that of an employee for this team, with Vision Points – earned through victory in races – being added to your team’s running total. The idea of these teams perpetually trading positions, each consisting of thousands of real-world participants from around the world is an attractive one, but its execution is broken.

With only three tracks in the basic game, Ridge Racer Vita quickly starts to feel familiar. This repetition poses a direct problem to the player’s motivation; it turns out that being given a task no greater than simply amassing as many points as possible for a faceless corporation by racing on the same tracks again and again (and again) just isn’t enough to maintain interest. Compared to the fantastic Ridge Racer 3D, which had an extensive structure of tournaments, the paucity of content here is embarrassing.

But it gets worse. Namco could argue that to alleviate the tedium there is still the chance of personal progression, as races give you credits, which in turn unlock upgrades for your car. But for a system of persistence to work, surely the gamer’s aims should be clear? Ridge Racer doesn’t show how many points away from the next level you are, while the system of upgrades is fixed and often forces you to spend hard-won credits on blocks that are empty, just to get closer to the next actual bonus.

So there are little in the way of personal rewards, while there’s no wider framework to keep the player engaged. Asking players to be altruistic and leave aside individual gratification for a wider cause (whether it be for the survivors in I Am Alive, an intergalactic battle or, as in our Ridge Racer Vita career, Circlite Racing) doesn’t mean you can ignore a gamer’s base concerns. Grinding in, for example, RPGs works because it’s supported by a reward system and a narrative that often overrides the repetition of the gameplay; Ridge Racer’s cause, then, is lost the moment just a few hours in when you hit this wall of repetition - lots of play that feels pretty thankless and, crucially, not very fun.

The irony of all this is perhaps the fact that, back in 2009, Namco themselves published a game whose combination of altruistic philosophy and freeform game mechanics worked beautifully – Keita Takahashi’s Noby Noby Boy. In Noby Noby Boy, as in Ridge Racer Vita, the aim was to add your individual efforts to a wider cause. In Noby Noby Boy this amounted to points, accumulated by how much your character stretched in game, being added to a global online total. NNB was such a success because its reward was the freedom afforded to the player – it didn’t need many trimmings, while the playground given to the player was suffused with such randomness and colour that no two games were ever the same. As unlikely as it may sound, the developers of Ridge Racer Vita could’ve learnt a lot from Namco’s own downloadable gem, about a character called GIRL stretching through space, while on the ground BOY plays with cows, crawling through toy houses.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

I Am Alive

Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai
Format: Xbox 360

Score: 7.1

I Am Alive, an interesting (and quite literal) take on survival-horror is, much like its protagonist, somewhat lucky to even be here given the last four years of what we're going to rather predictably label Development Hell. There are two aspects I didn't discuss in this review, originally published on D+PAD Magazine, that are worth mentioning here. The first is the Survival Mode, which strips back the already small amount of resources and retries, casting the game in an even more gruelling light. Secondly, there are the many victims of the Event scattered across the ruins of Haventon, who you can choose to help. There's no morality system, so the decisions to assist rest purely on your conscience (if you ignore the rewards that are offered for helping, such as extra lives, which undermine this altruism). It's a good example of I Am Alive's sobering, unshowy look at what, again rather predictably, we'll label The Human Condition.

I Am Alive was first revealed to the world back at E3 2008. One magazine’s cover story that December hailed Ubisoft’s great new console hope a “groundbreaking survival epic”, with much excited discussion about its supposed reinvention of first-person gaming, of how – in the words of senior producer at the time Alexis Godard – “developing gameplay based around the concept of social chaos is, I believe, something really new”. Now, some four years later, I Am Alive is finally here – its’ title having taken on the mantle of a wry commentary on the game’s very existence, as well as being an overt nod to one of the key post-apocalypse works, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

Whatever the reasons for such a significant delay, the 2012 model of I Am Alive bears little resemblance to the game initially previewed. Gone is the first-person perspective, while any attempt at depicting overt “social chaos” has been jettisoned, leaving an eerie absence of much that could be described as, well, social. What remains is a third-person adventure notable for its emphasis on deliberation, isolation and dust. Lots of dust. The fictional American city of Haventon lies mostly deserted a year after a disaster, referred to throughout simply as the Event, wiped out much of the planet’s population. Your task is to clamber across the city to find your wife and daughter, who were evacuated as the Event struck (and yep, the Event merits its capital ‘E’).

Although I Am Alive is a third-person adventure whose core gameplay revolves around athletically climbing across the environment, the approach here is a fair distance from the likes of Assassin’s Creed 2. The key distinction comes in the form of a stamina bar, which governs your movement to the extent that even running depletes it; this in itself is fine, because the standard walking pace works perfectly with the game’s almost permanent atmosphere of instability.

Basic climbing slowly reduces stamina whilst more demanding actions, such as jumping from one ledge to another, burn even more energy. Because only resting can naturally replenish stamina, traversing the more complicated networks of pipes, slopes and ladders becomes an exercise in forward planning. It’s a subtle grounding in realism that also doesn’t detract from the fluid movement gamers used to, for example, the Uncharted series will expect. The big difference is that whereas ‘everyman’ Nathan Drake makes the big leaps without any effort, I Am Alive forces you to recalibrate your understanding of third-person platforming and the distances that characters can successfully traverse. The jumps in I Am Alive are often prefaced by a wincing button press, which is a bigger achievement than it probably sounds.

However, of all the surface similarities to more famous franchises, the game I Am Alive most clearly resembles is Alan Wake, Remedy’s pulpy 2010 psychological thriller. It’s there in the developers’ tight control over the player, the effective pacing and the tension between narrative and gameplay. Of the latter, I Am Alive is arguably more successful on one level. Whereas Alan Wake’s struggle was internal – and more effective for being so – I Am Alive uses the central narrative device of a camcorder carried by the protagonist to reinforce the eerie feeling that you’re both playing through and observing, at a distance, a story that has already unfolded.

Viewing scenes from the camcorder before returning to play out, in real-time, the moments that follow may undermine player agency, but in I Am Alive the effect is to justify the game’s linearity. The motivation becomes not the search for the protagonist’s missing family, but your desire as a player to find out how the story ends; the aforementioned design tension then, between narrative and gameplay, comes from simultaneously feeling every physical exertion of the protagonist, whilst realising that very few games feel so fatalistic and, if you think about it, this sad.

I Am Alive’s combat system meanwhile adheres to the same realistic emphasis as that seen with the stamina bar, albeit with less success. As there’s such a lack of resources – having two bullets in your gun is considered generous in this world – actions need to be measured and decisive. Faced with one or two desperate ‘enemies’ – gasp at how savage humans can be when society collapses! – you can often get them to surrender, even bluffing threats by pointing an empty gun as if you’re ready to shoot. With larger packs targets need to be picked carefully, given the scarcity of ammo. The problem is that, unlike with something as definite as scaling a wall, interaction with fellow survivors should feel a little unpredictable and, well, human. Instead, encounters with these aggressors lack flexibility and settle into a mechanical predictability. That’s not to say that such moments aren’t nervy affairs, and it is at least pleasing that developers Ubisoft Shanghai didn’t undermine the deliberate atmosphere elsewhere by heading in the direction of all-out action.

It’s hard to gauge how well I Am Alive would have turned out had it been pushed into the blockbuster mainstream that Ubisoft presumably anticipated all those years ago, given that many of its notable successes have been dictated by the creative freedom afforded to smaller downloadable titles (Naughty Dog’s forthcoming The Last Of Us may well be the answer to this hypothetical issue of what could have been, but that’s another story). It’s distinctly lo-fi in terms of visuals and environmental detail, and far from being either groundbreaking or epic, but the bold manner with which the aesthetic and set of mechanics support an overall theme of survival and hopelessness ensures I Am Alive is an experience worth undertaking. Though there isn’t enough distance from our time with the game to say for sure, I suspect that its atmosphere will linger long after many other, more instantly gratifying games, have faded from memory.