Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Nuggets of Wisdom: Zelda's Storysense

All right, I'll come clean: I've never finished a Zelda game. The early ones passed me by. I didn't own an N64 so I never played much of Ocarina of Time, the game everyone loves to remind me is the 'greatest game ever' (it's not, it's Half-Life 2). The ones I have played failed to hold my interest for more than a few hours.

But thanks to the plethora of articles available I've been able to learn a great deal about the design of the Zelda games and, because I have no personal attachment to any of them, I think I've actually managed to retain a somewhat objective view of the series. The latest essay I read was an opinion piece by Tevis Thompson about where the games went wrong over the years, notably how their stubborn commitment to convention hampers the very essence of exploration: a voyage into the unknown.

In many ways this statement (and indeed the whole essay) could apply to games as a whole when we examine how they have changed over the years. There is an ever-growing tendency fill in all the gaps, to tighten the designer's grip on the experience, to ensure that every secret gets discovered at just the right time and no one gets too far ahead of themselves lest they feel lost or confused. My goodness, what a terrible experience that might be in a game about exploration! There are certain kinds of games in which 'hand-holding' is appropriate, but there are other kinds in which it utterly undermines the central idea the game attempts to convey.

Anyway, this whole post was made to highlight one particular part of the essay which has little to do with any of the stuff I just said. But it is about story, which I find interesting. Enjoy.

The game mechanics of early Zeldas provided plot enough, the kind that is boring to tell (then this, then this) but thrilling to play. They required no narrative scaffolding to be justified; they justified themselves. And strangely, the iconic simplicity of early Hyrules fired the imagination the way a good map does, opening up story possibilities rather than narrowing them down to just one. Story flowed from world instead of world from story.

UPDATE! I'm now playing Ocarina of Time on the 3DS. Check me out.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Episode One's Place in the Grand Scheme of Things

I was off work sick today and decided to use to the time to revisit Half-Life 2: Episode One, generally considered to be the weakest link in the series and indeed earned the lowest Metascore of all the Half-Life games. I had a blast with it today, as I did when I first played it in 2006, and it got me wondering why it has earned a somewhat sour reputation among hardcore fans.

Friendly warning: this post is full of spoilers and intended for those who have finished Half-Life 2, Episode One and Episode Two.

Episode One occupies this strange transitory space between Half-Life 2's broad narrative strokes and Episode Two's relatively heavy-handed exposition. There is a great deal of foreshadowing of events to come: the transmission from Judith, the emphasis on Eli and Alyx's strong father-daughter relationship, establishing the Vortigaunts and the G-Man as key players in the greater conflict, and of course bringing the dreaded Advisors creeping into the limelight. Yet much of this foreshadowing can go unnoticed on your first play-through as we know very little about the importance of these elements until Episode Two, so your attention remains focused on the pressing urgency of stabilising the Citadel core and escaping City 17.

Given that Episode One largely takes place in environments familiar to players of Half-Life 2 it comes as no surprise that many felt it was too derivative of its predecessor. We return to the Citadel interior and fight through war-torn city streets much as we did in Half-Life 2, albeit with a far greater emphasis on indirect combat through use of the Gravity Gun, various inventive gadgets/weapons, and your trusty sidekick. Indeed, the vast majority of its art and sound assets are recycled and it features only two new enemies, one of which was present but posed no threat in Half-Life 2 (the Stalker) and the other being an amalgamation of two other enemies (the Zombine).

But one point that Episode One really nails is the sense of a world in motion (the storysense as Tadhg Kelly would put it). From the very beginning, we bear witness to world-changing events that affect the lives of every individual in the vicinity, be they fleeing citizens or desperate Overwatch soldiers. This is an area in which Half-Life games have always excelled in my opinion, ever since the series opened with the Resonance Cascade which still hangs heavy on Eli's conscience. In this particular episode we witness the changes brought about by our own actions as the Citadel reels from a heavy blow, eventually leading into a cataclysmic eruption that opens the gateway to vast legions of alien invaders.

At the end of the day Episode One functions as a great segue from the monolithic release of Half-Life 2 into the bite-size episodic format. It has some obligations to tie up certain loose ends (the fate of Gordon, Alyx and the people of City 17) which flow into subsequent events (the opening of the Combine superportal and the hidden transmission of the Borealis data packet) but it places such a firm focus on the immediate goals that I for one was swept up in the adventure before stopping to consider how it all fit into the bigger picture. I believe it is for this reason that replaying this - or any Half-Life game - remains such a joy even more than 5 years later.