Friday, 6 August 2010

Now everyone will see why I needed a skull-gun.

We tend to take for granted the ease with which one can pick up a second hand copy of a 20-year old book or turn on the television to see a film that was released in 1973.

It's just not as easy to play a game which was released over a decade ago, simply because hardware and software developments mean that older games often need to be "patched" in order to function on newer machines. That said, PC gamers have it a lot easier than console gamers in this respect, and although older games frequently require some modification in order to run, it's actually fairly easy to get hold of and play a version of most games.

Because I am only a recent inductee to these hallowed halls, this is precisely what I have been doing for the last couple of weeks.

Because of the dizzying array of choice afforded me by the Oxfam book shop (yes really), I haven't actually made it past the first few levels of any of the games I have been playing. However, I have found that the experience of playing them all in 2010 extremely revealing about what technology can do for video games, and what it can't.

The games I played were as follows:
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) - Played for about 4 hours, completed several small quests but have not yet embarked on the main quest.
  • Deus Ex (2000) - Played for about 10 hours, about 6 levels in.
  • Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft (1998) - Played for about 20 hours, just over halfway through
  • Grand Theft Auto III (2001) - Played for about 4 hours, completed several short missions
As you might imagine, the first thing any gamer notices upon playing an older game is the quality of the graphics. These days, playing any recent release rewards gamers with dazzling special effects. Even though games haven't quite achieved photo-realistic in-engine graphics, astonishing visuals have become so de rigueur that I initially found the flat faces and sharp edges in these decade-old games quite jarring.

Here's a comparison between Lara Croft's in-game face in 1998 with her in-game face in 2009.


Glaring though the difference may be in these still images however, it only took a few minutes of play before I stopped noticing the graphical shortcomings of Tomb Raider III in relation to its snazzier successor.

You see, just as an excellent theatrical production allows the audience to forget that they are watching masked actors on a featureless set, so an immersive video game allows the player to see flat and jerky graphics for what they represent, not what they are. When you switch on a video game, as when you sit down in a theatre, you do so because you wish to suspend disbelief and surrender to the reality that the game or play presents for you.

Consequently, the success of a game is often determined by how easy it is for the player to do this. This is commonly known as "immersion", and it has got nothing to do with a game's age and everything to do with coherence. Rayman takes place in a magical world where entire cities are made out of cake, so it's easy enough to believe that the hero's fist isn't attached to his body. But a game like Tomb Raider III, which is supposed to take place in the "real world" (with a splash of the supernatural thrown in), it's more difficult for the player to overcome logical shortcomings.

In Tomb Raider III, Lara is equipped with a rocket launcher with which she can explode all manner of enemies. All very well, but the fact that this weapon can blow a tiger (hmm) to bits and yet cannot damage a flimsy wooden door draws far more attention to the limitations of the game world than even Lara's blocky face.

You see, although the convoluted series of tasks which Lara must perform in order to retrieve the key for the aforementioned door might be fun, they are overshadowed by the nagging thought that Lara should logically be able to blast down the door with her rocket launcher. Consequently, they draw attention to the fact that Tomb Raider III is, for all its qualities, still just a game. Interestingly, had Core equipped Lara only with pistols, this flaw in the game's logic would be avoided and the game would be much more immersive. It would also circumnavigate the logical conundrum of how Lara manages to fit an entire arsenal in a backpack no larger than a My Little Pony lunchbox.

At the other end of the immersion scale is Deus Ex. Despite being made two years later than Tomb Raider III, the graphics are noticeably less polished. Whereas Tomb Raider 3 features detailed textures, mist and water effects, Deus Ex features very little in the way of environmental ingenuity. Although character design fares a bit better, environments are composed almost entirely of right angles and plain blocks of colour.

The South Pacific area in Tomb Raider III, 1998

The Battery Park area in Deus Ex, 2000

And yet despite its inferior graphics, Deus Ex is by far the more immersive game. 

You see, Tomb Raider III may be a terrific game with some brilliant set pieces, but it plays rather like an obstacle course. You might be able to approach the climbing wall and the shooting range in a slightly different order, but you have to tick every box and check in with your P.E. teacher at the end. For example, although you can "choose" to attack the prisoners in the Nevada levels of Tomb Raider III there's absolutely no point. If you leave them alone, they will attack and kill malevolent guards for you, but attacking them just causes them to attack you right back, meaning that you have to expend valuable ammunition and medipacks in dispatching them. And because Tomb Raider is not a Role Playing Game (RPG) you don't even gain experience points for doing so. It's just a waste of time and (virtual) life.

This is not the case in Deus Ex. Although the player is at several points faced with a similar decision as to whether or not to let a potential enemy live or die, there is no one decision which results in the "best" outcome.
The player is often faced with a scenario in which several armed guards, a locked door and a set of security characters stand between them and their objective. Gunning down the guards, stripping the keys from their dead bodies and destroying the security turrets will get you into the building quite effectively. But you might try sneaking past the guards to a computer terminal, hacking it to find the password to the security systems before picking the locks instead. Both approaches will yield different rewards, and because many of the game's scenarios are dependent on the player's actions, it is impossible to view the entire story on a single playthrough.

Because of this, every decision the player makes is an implicit decision not to do something else. This is not unlike real life, in which people have to decide how best to spend the few brief decades they have on the planet. Fun though a career as a professional ice-cream taster is, it closes off enough other avenues (professional athlete, for example) that one would be well-advised to have a good think before handing in the Ben & Jerry's application form.

I'm not saying that the similarities between Deus Ex and real life make the game more immersive (see the point about Rayman, above), but that by giving your actions far-reaching implications, Deus Ex forces you to become more involved with the game in the way that the consequences of your "real life" actions make you more involved with the world than someone who can just do what they like. Such as Zeus, perhaps. Or Paris Hilton.

Someone with fairly Paris-like prerogatives over their universe is the user-generated protagonist of Morrowind. Unlike Lara, who has to fulfil a prescribed set of tasks in order to foil bonkers Scottish scientist Willard, Morrowind's protagonist can really do what they like. And although there are numerous ways of completing each quest, the fact that you can spend infintite time lazily bumping off Mud Crabs and amassing a vast bank of skill points before doing anything of consequence removes pretty much all suspence from the game.

In Deus Ex, opportunities for improving one's skills are extremely limited. Even spending a couple of hours sneaking your way into a heavily guarded warehouse at the expense of several lockpicks might only reward the player with just enough skill points to view any hacked computer for ten seconds longer. Consequently, the careful thought that they player must devote to proceedings in Deus Ex is rather wasted on a game as temporally and structurally loose as Morrowind.

This is not a criticism of Morrowind per se. It's a different kind of game to Deus Ex and judging them both the the same yardstick is pointless. If you want a tense gaming experience, you'd be well advised to give Morrowind a wide berth. Conversely, if you want a drawn-out gaming experience and a multi-threaded narrative about several species and cultures with a little spellcraft thrown in, Deus Ex probably isn't your game either.

For me, the choice is easy. These days, I increasingly find that I simply do not have the time to play games like Morrowind. To appreciate it at its fullest demands more time than I have available to me. Had I played it when it came out in 2002, I was 14 and would have been able to devote hours to reading the pixillated books scattered all around the world and holding detailed conversations with its inhabitants.

The thing is though, when I say "I would have been able to", that is precisely what I mean. I might have been able to, but I probably would not actually have done so because I would probably have been reading an actual book.

You know what I said earlier about having decide how best to spend the short amount of time that is available to us? Well I have decided that my life is too short to immerse myself in an imaginary world almost as detailed as the real one purely for the sake of doing so. For this reason I found The Lord of the Rings a real struggle. To appreciate these books at their fullest, one must read all those Elven poems that crop up every three pages, and wade through the incredibly detailed history that Tolkein presents in the footnotes. And in the last half of Return of the King. And in Tolkein's 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

It's not that I don't appreciate the achievement of Tolkein's creation, it's just that I don't feel fulfilled after getting my head around it. There is enough about my own real-life world that I do not understand and perhaps my time is better spent reading about that.

Or reading Tolkein's rather excellent and slightly grisly Father Christmas Letters.

(seriously, find a copy, it is a complete delight)

I know this assertion may seem like a contradiction from someone who devotes hours to exploring imaginary worlds. But the amount of time I invest in something (game, film, book, whatever) must be worth the emotional or intellectual fulfillment that it is giving me in return. Played quickly and without attention to detail, Morrowind is flat and lifeless. Played with purpose and care, Morrowind reveals its various mythologies, but it does so so slowly that the reward does nothing to quell the nagging anxiety that I always feel when I can sense my mortality draining slowly away in the pursuit of nothingness.

I have another problem with Morrowind. Like many games which assign the player multiple tasks at once, it has a contextually-appropriate directory system to enable players to work out what they are meant to be doing. I say "enable".

This is Morrowind's "journal". It is presented in the form of a book which one is meant to imagine the protagonist would have made notes after having a conversation with a merchant about the alchemist downstairs who is stealing their business. Something along the lines of:

"Miranda the cobbler is concerned that Galen the alchemist is stealing her business. I might try looking behind Galen's house when he is asleep"

So far so sensible. Except every subsequent update to any quest one chooses to undertake is listed in the journal in chronological order. So if you decide that you don't fancy poking around in Galen's dustbins right now and would rather go off chasing Orcs instead, trying to remember what you were meant to be doing about the alchemy/cobbler faceoff is going to be a headache. Having to flick through countless diary pages in order to find the relevant one is excruciatingly time-consuming and irritating. Oh, and don't think that places you haven't visited yet are going to be marked on your map.

Although these things perhaps make Morrowind more "realistic", they also make the game much more annoying and thus less immersive. You see, the irritation you feel in trying to navigate such a counter-intuative interface merely draws your attention to the fact that this was actually designed by someone why was paid to create a game with the sole purpose of being fun. Gaaaaargh!

Why don't they just group the notes according to what quest they refer to? Logically of course, this is because the journal is supposed to be written on parchment, and ink cannot just re-arrange itelf upon it. A shopping list written in biro on notepaper doesn't re-order itself depending on how the supermarket is laid out. But we wish it would. Or I wish I would because I actively look forward to food shopping. Never mind. Having to work out what a note written at 3am means is an annoyance that we have to contend with in real life and should not occur in videogames. Really, there is no excuse for it and I doubt I will ever get round to finishing Morrowind for that rather sad reason.

And what of Grand Theft Auto III, you ask?

Well it's pretty good fun, I reply.

I've heard that Vice City is the zenith of the Grand Theft Auto experience, and it's with some regret that I saw that this was not the version being sold for £1 in Oxfam on the relevant rainy Tuesday. But Grand Theft Auto III is brightly coloured, witty, silly, and easy enough to be played in the short bursts that one sometimes needs.

How does it compare to Grand Theft Auto IV? Hmm. Embarrassingly enough, my favourite aspect of Rockstar's 2008 behemouth was the excellent driving physics and the hilarious radio broadcasts. I enjoyed these so much that I would actually sit mesperised in front of the five-foot screen (long story) whilst in an imaginary traffic jam whilst I listened to a fictional phone-in show on the radio. The analogue trigger buttons on the XBOX controller so closely mimicked real car pedels and the graphics so beautifully rendered city sunshine that I remember spending Summer 2008 driving around in the sun. In truth, I spent the whole dismal, rainy summer inside.

That's how immersive a game Grand Theft Auto IV is. And because it is almost exactly the same game as Grand Theft Auto III, I'll have put the improvement in immersion down to the 7-year advancement in graphics which separates the two.

Well, that about wraps it up really. I lost this post a week ago (cue a picture of Lara's miserable face), and my angst-ridden attempts to recreate it have created a rather more digressive and inconsistant article but I enjoyed writing it.

Was it a trip down memory lane for anyone?


  1. Never mind the lost original, that was a great read. Some really good points about time and being able to dedicate yourself to a game. Im just the kind of person that finds it impossible to play through a game and not explore every option ... with so little time on my hands now as an adult, I find I just don't play games that require that amount of time any more.

    I'll pick up something like a FIFA or a Fight Night, that I can have dip in and out of and play for an hour or so at a time with mates.

    Those Lara pics bring back memories ... 2 was better than 3 though! :P


  2. Hi Mark,

    The time issue is certainly one which becomes more pertinant as I get older. Whilst I was doing my degree, I found myself playing through games on "Easy" difficulty (Mass Effect and Fallout 3 spring to mind) just so I would have time to finish them.

    But in doing so I fel that I was merely skating over the surface of detailed games which really demanded a lot more attention.

    I too prefer to explore every option. Consequently, I am playing fewer games these days but in greater detail. All I ask is that the games reward me for the time I spend on them!

    And you may well be right about Tomb Raider 2. Much as I love TR3 (especially the London and Antarctica levels), Lara's increased versitility (both in moves and guns) slightly dillute the experience and make it more clearly a "game". Tomb Raider 2 wasn't quite as beautifully restrained as Tomb Raider 1 (I'm thinking about the free diving episode here...) but the puzzles were perhaps the best in the series.

    Although after a lot of deliberation I have decided that Tomb Raider 3 definitely has the best main menu music.

  3. I've played these except for the Grand Theft Auto games. Those my son plays and likes for a variety of his own reasons, but it isn't for me.

    The Tomb Raider games are immersive worlds though they do take you through your paces rather than building a complex story.

    Deus Ex has story and world and lots of problem solving.

    Morrowind is a game that I didn't appreciate until after I had played Oblivion. I liked the factions and Great Houses in Morrowind as well as dungeon diving and character building. I appreciate the detail of the world and the busy lives of the characters. I love the music.

    While I'm playing any of the older games I don't think of the graphics. I like your comparison to a play where the real world falls away and you only notice what happens on stage. That is a fine bit of magic.

  4. Funnily enough, I loved Oblivion. I think the couple of bugbears I had about Morrowind - the complete unwieldyness of the journal and map - were completely rectified in Oblivion, making it easy to navigate and solve quests.

    Mind you, I think Fallout 3 is even better. I'm replaying it again at the moment, and it is continually amazing.

    And thanks for the compliment!