Thursday, July 03, 2003

Small World

Thanks to Raph Koster (who has a really interesting thing up at his site that further confuses simulation and reality) I know all about small world phenomena, and why it's no coincidence that I once met the author of this (also interesting) article linked to by Joel Spolsky (whom I've never met) here.

But as for small world phenomena, nothing beats the fact that my best friend from first grade, Jon Ross, turned out to be a long lost cousin of my college friend Peter Akemann, who later went on to found the company I now work for.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Notes on Silent Hill 2: Restless Dreams

Everyone I talked to told me that Silent Hill 2 was inferior to Silent Hill. They are so wrong. As (Falstein points out) what often happens with videogame sequels, it is much better. I beefed about my main problem with Silent Hill in the previous post. Silent Hill 2, as mentioned in the comments section, has a much better story than Silent Hill. Not only is it less complex and more clear, but it's also personal and human.

I admit I was more creeped out playing the first one, but I think that was just because it was my first experience of the Silent Hill universe, and if I hadn't had it spoiled for me, the second one would have been just as creepy. (Although there is no moment quite as creepy as the ringing telephone from the first one.)

Silent Hill 2 has an option where you can play it with camera relative controls rather than character relative. Character relative controls kill my feeling of immersion: when I'm steering my avatar like a truck and they're swerving drunkenly on the screen it's a painful reminder that I'm just playing a videogame. Konami calls it "2d type" controls, I guess because if you project the scene two-dimensionally you're pointing where the character goes. I think they should have made it the default control scheme, even though that violates the rule of "Don't change interfaces on people": the gaming world is supposedly used to the Resident Evil style of character control, so to change it would have violated all their expectations. We were under a similar restriction for Spider-Man: our improved control scheme was not the default, because all the people who played the previous game were used to something else. I think that was a bad idea, also. I agree you shouldn't change an interface just for the sake of changing it, but if you invent a better interface, make it the default!

One thing that one could complain about with Silent Hill 2 is that the pacing is slower; in Silent Hill they shoot their wad very quickly, introducing you to the full horror of the world early on. But I think 2 actually did it right, trying to save some of the creepier stuff for the end of the game.

Another thing one could complain about is density. To quote Ken Birdwell's theory of experiential density: "The amount of "things" that happen to and are done by the player per unit of time and area of a map. Our goal was that, once active, the player never had to wait too long before the next stimulus, be it monster, special effect, plot point, action sequence, and so on. Since we couldn’t really bring all these experiences to the player (a relentless series of them would just get tedious), all content is distance based, not time based, and no activities are started outside the player’s control. If the players are in the mood for more action, all they need to do is move forward and within a few seconds something will happen." The original Silent Hill had a good level of experiential density, but this one you sometimes have to jog a fair amount of time before anything happens. Certainly more than a few seconds. I'm betting this was an accidental byproduct of the more powerful consoles; we made similar mistakes when we went from Die By The Sword to Draconus and were suddenly capable of holding much larger levels in memory but without the bandwidth to fill those levels with stuff. At the end of Silent Hill 2 they even give you a scorecard where they tell you how many kilometers you ran. "Tell me about it," I thought. Still, I'm willing to forgive them those boring stretches.

This article on Hypnotic buying the rights to Eternal Darkness reminded me maybe I should compare and contrast those two as well. Eternal Darkness has better gameplay. Hands down. Three resources to manage instead of two, orthogonal elements, a spell system that encourages lateral thinking (borrowed from Dungeon Master I now realize after reading some of Ernest Adams' latest book), a wider variety of challenges, a larger gamespace to explore. The hardcore gamer in me respects that a great deal, and Eternal Darkness was one of my favorite games last year, but I have to admit that Eternal Darkness is not as creepy as Silent Hill 2, and its story is not as compelling, and I think that's what really matters for a horror-story game, so I'm going to have to give Silent Hill 2 the honors for best horror game I've ever played.

Certain types of stories are best expressed by certain types of media, by certain forms. Stories with lots of visual opportunities and simple character arcs make for a good movies or comic books. The "novel of ideas" is best as just that, a novel. And I think maybe stories with heavy backstory work best as video games, because then the "reader" becomes so engaged in uncovering the backstory.

Spoiler warning - read no further - play the game - it's only $20!

Although most videogames thrust the character into a situation where they know nothing, and therefore it makes sense that they are trying to learn, Silent Hill 2 is about a guy exploring his own backstory. The story is about denial: about James Sunderland's inability to admit his own guilt, to remember his own past. The hidden backstory becomes a metaphor for that, and as the backstory is uncovered, James overcomes his denial. It's really kind of cool.

Here's a question: was there a horror movie sequel that was better than the original? I'm not counting Aliens, because that was barely a horror movie.