Thursday, August 19, 2004

I haven't had a game post for a while, so I think it's time I did that. But first, let me say to all of my Stanford dance friends - and by "Stanford" I mean "Bay Area" - that I miss dancing with you. I miss dancing with Esther Selene and Alanna too, even though they're no longer in the Bay Area. I think they're the only ones though. Of course it is fun to spread the dancing fever to the gang down here, but I miss certain things about the social\\vintage scene up north. Things like tender nightclub two-steps, passionate cross-step, and redowa.

So, on that note, about Alien vs. Predator 2. I picked this up because it was $10 and had won a number of awards in its day, and I'd always been kind of curious. Then I saw AVP last week and it was fantastic (don't believe the reviews; it won't win any Oscars but it's a solid action movie and a good treatment of both franchises), and after that I required more alien vs. predator action. So in between my ambitious Phoenix Earth mapping endeavors, I've been taking breaks to play AVP2.

Except that they aren't really breaks, owing to the fact that the game is terrifying on the Half-Life scale of terrifying. I haven't played as either an alien or a predator yet, but I think I'm about halfway through the marine campaign and it's been fantastic. For one thing, as I said, it's terrifying. You really can't overstate the importance of that; I mean, the marine experience is supposed to be terrifying, and this game (like the movie) is one of those situations where you score points for meeting "supposed to" expectations. I hear the alien and predator campaigns have distinctly different feels to them, which I think will be great. I mean, come on, the predator experience is supposed to be scary, but not terrifying. You're a predator.

But actually that's one of the things I appreciate about this game: the fact that the marines know all about aliens (xenomorphs, they call them), and yes, they respect them as heartily dangerous and scary, but nothing that will keep them from doing their jobs. That hasn't stopped me the player from being terrified, but it's nice to see the military portrayed as decent, competent, and courageous. The marines in Aliens ended up coming across as decent enough individuals, but the overall portrayal of the military in that movie suffered a little too much from post-Vietnam syndrome for my tastes.

The other things I really appreciate about the marine side of this game are the movement model and the gear. As far as movement goes, there's just one big thing: you move at a realistic speed. Now, don't get me wrong, the movement model could still be better. No movement model that doesn't prevent me from running all the time, make my accuracy a function of being hurt or moving, and make my ability to move a function of my injuries, truly deserves my respect. But the fact of the matter is that those three factors, plus the speed at which you're allowed to move, are things that every first-person game gets wrong, and will continue to get wrong so long as market expectations are what they are. As a result, I appreciate the guts of any game developer who will fly in the face of what the market wants to deliver to me at least a semblance of the realism I crave.

Realism (== verisimilitude == immersion == assisted suspension of disbelief) is also the reason I appreciate the marines' equipment. Most games assume that proper weapon balancing follows this model: rate of fire, damage per round, and range/accuracy must all be balanced so as to equalize the overall firepower flux. Hence, in most games the automatic weapons are weak, inaccurate, or both - after all, they're automatic. If they were more accurate, more powerful, and faster firing than a handgun, why, what would the point of a handgun be?

But not in AVP2. In this game the marines' pulse rifles really are superior to their pistols in every respect - the only time you use a handgun, really, is when you're forced to do so. And the smart guns ... oh my. In most games the machine gun (which in real life is not only an automatic weapon but a long range automatic weapon) usually fires either paper clips or is hideously inaccurate. In AVP2 the smart gun is not only mightier even than the pulse rifle, it has a higher rate of fire and actually tracks your foes. It is, if you will, "smart." In fact, so far, every weapon I've seen in the game does exactly what it looks like it should. It's true that it takes a burst of rifle fire to put down a xenomorph, which in the real world would never be accepted for long. But on the other hand I'm pretty sure a single rifle round would do for a human being, and xenomorphs are supposed to be ridiculously tough. So if you assume that marines almost never run into them, even if they know the stories, then you can probably accept the lethality level of their standard weapons.

The weapons situation, combined with the notoriously buggy netcode, probably makes AVP a very unpopular multiplayer choice. But frankly that's okay with me, because I couldn't care less about the multiplayer community's wants. Having a machine gun that tracks you is not spammy, it's an obstacle. It's not a mistake; it's a challenge. But most multiplayer players would consider the heavy use of such a weapon "cheap."

This is the sort of attitude that turns me off to multiplayer. Basically, to me the appeal of playing computer games against human beings is the fact that the human being has the potential to be far more challenging than a computer opponent. If you will, the only way to develop (or experience) real skill is to play against a human being. Now, skill is not the only reason I play computer games. I play them the way some people go to the theater, or the art gallery: to experience art. But artistic experience does not require a human being on the opposing force. Only skill requires that.

The trouble is that I have no desire to develop or witness skill at a made-up game that isn't fundamentally different from chess or basketball. Now, don't get me wrong, if you enjoy chess, basketball, or Unreal, you're welcome to do so. Competetive sports are a good thing, whether mental, physical, or electronic. They just aren't my thing, and I resent the fact that market pressures have turned multiplayer computer games into nothing but sports.

The distinction between "sport" and "real" that I'm drawing here is this: do the constraints of the competition emerge naturally from the objectives, equipment, and human factors involved, or are they imposed from the top by a referree? For example, there is nothing inherent about a basketball court which forces you not to travel, or makes it a very bad idea to do so. That is a rule which some rulemaker imposed upon the game (to make it more fun and challenging, of course), which is what makes basketball a sport in my book. Another example, from the electronic world: in every Tribes title, the rates of fire and muzzle velocities are ridiculously low. There is nothing inherent in a spinfusor which makes it fire its projectile slower than a black powder pistol would (and I of all people should know). The performance characteristics of the gear in Tribes games are artificially limited to make the game more fun and challenging.

Now, if you like that sort of thing, and lots of people do, then that's fine. But developing skill at a game like that is equivalent to developing skill at a game like basketball, which isn't something I have any desire to do. I want to develop skill at a challenge whose constraints are emergent, which makes me figure out how to get past the computer-guided machine gun rather than eliminate it from the game because it's "too hard" - which, just maybe, puts me in touch with the brave men and women who do this for real, and the incredible mental skills that let them do it.

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