Month: May 2019

The Ultimate Video Game: gameplay

image of an amusing puzzle dependency chart

An update on Question of the Month

So a few weeks ago it was announced that the Question of the Month/Ultimate Video Game collaboration has come to an end. It’s a shame, but totally understandable – I’ve found it a challenge keeping on top of these posts so I can only imagine what’s involved in running the whole thing! As such I’m really grateful to Later Levels and OverThinker Y for the opportunity.

That said, I intend to finish what I started! I’ve cultivated so many ideas along the way and there’s still more I want to explore from both a gaming concept and writing point of view.

So, on to the next element: gameplay.

(If you haven’t read the previous posts covering setting, protagonist, antagonist and plot, you might want to do that first.)

Gameplay and interface

Throughout this process I’ve been picturing the game as a 2D illustrated adventure, with an old-school LucasArts point and click interface (shocker). So there would be a pretty typical verb layout like the one in The Secret of Monkey Island – but with modern styling, a show/hide option, and slightly different verbs.

Image from The Secret of Monkey Island

Cut scenes would zoom in on the action in a more film-like way, with close-ups of our protagonists and the discoveries they make. Some of these would also be flashbacks, to tell bits of Earl’s story in the 1980s. Then as the player progresses there will eventually be a toggle button that allows the player to jump between 1989 Earl and 2019 Pete, playing parts of the game as each character. Which brings me to the next feature…

Puzzles

There will be a nice range of fairly typical puzzle types, including tile sliding, riddles, deciphering and inventory focused tasks – and maybe some mini games too.

As the game advances and Pete finds more clues left behind by Earl, a large portion of puzzle-solving will involve toggling between 1989 and 2019 – Earl and Pete will effectively work ‘together’, with the player bridging the gap between past and present. For example, if Pete needs to use a broken walkman in the present, the player can go back to the 1980s, play as Earl, and stop it from being knocked off the table in the first place. If he needs batteries for it, he can check where Earl hid them from his pilfering colleagues.

Towards the end of the game, there will be a significant puzzle that involves aligning events in the past and present in perfect timing (this will be the infamous difficult bit that YouTubers rage about).

The style of the game will change subtly when the player is in the 1980s, as both an atmospheric device and a reminder to the player which era they are currently in (since a lot of the scenes will take place in the same environment). For example: the verb selector will take on a more retro, pixelated look; artwork will be rougher; and the overall colour palette will be more restricted.

Depending on how, and how much, the player changes the past, this will be reflected in slight variations on the ending.

Structure and difficulty

The game will have three main chapters – the first is for exposition, story-growing and skill-building; the second introduces the back-and-forth time travelling; the third advances all those things and is much more frantic and potentially quite tricky. There are no difficulty settings and no hand-holding tutorials – you learn as you go.

But that’s okay because there will be infinite cloud save slots! There will be no dying, but the player may have to restart some puzzles if they fail. I’d also incorporate a checklist to keep track of important objectives and progress. Pete would view this on his smartphone; Earl on a hi-tech 1980s PDA.

Achievements, just for fun

80s raver: listen to 20 chart toppers
Bhaji barmy: eat 50 onion bhajis
Neon bangle-toots: collect all ten neon bangles
Pro Procrastinator: Complete Level 1 of Pipe Mania
Too kool for skool: spell ‘boobies’ on Earl’s calculator
Mind-boggling toggling: toggle between past and present ten times in 20 seconds

 

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What happens when an adventure gamer plays a first-person shooter?

I like to think I’m open-minded about different genres, but really I’m an adventure gamer at heart. I enjoy following stories, collecting things and solving puzzles. Anything that involves firing bullets just doesn’t appeal to me – I’m not talking about the odd kill, but where the main strategy is to blast everyone to bits.

However when it comes to food, I’ll try pretty much anything – and that mostly ends well. So I’m going to apply this same logic to gaming – the classic shooter is a category that’s eluded me for a while, and it’s about time I addressed that.

Doom_cover_art

I didn’t need long to decide which game would be best suited to pop my FPS cherry. Doom (1993) is the absolute natural choice – a trailblazer in the world of first-person shooters with its 3D graphics, multiplayer network and endless opportunity for mods. It has such a reputation among my peers – and it’s deliciously old-school.

Doom-quote

id Software was also responsible for Commander Keen, one of my favourite DOS games as a child. And, you know, since Doomguy is Billy Blaze’s son and all. So I hopped onto Steam and parted with the teensy sum of £3.99 (€4-ish) and only 28MB of storage (another reason why old games are great).

I’ve got my beer. I’ve got my volume up.

Here we go.

Image of Doom title screen

This looks delightfully classic. There’s my ammo, health, arms, armour (sorry, I can’t not put a ‘U’ in that), and various ammo counters.

And there’s a tiny, enraged Doomguy head, ready to FIGHT!

Image of Doom episode selection screen

Episode selection time. I’m opting for the first, in the hope that if it all goes tits-up I can hide among the bodies.

Image of Doom skill level selection screen

Choose your skill level. Well obviously I’m going for the easiest. Don’t raise your eyebrow at me Doomguy! This ain’t no Keen!

Image of first level of Doom
‘The pool is currently closed.’

It seems that some of my enemies have been killed for me already, which is nice. At first I thought that was a concession because I’m playing on the lowest difficulty, but apparently it’s the same regardless. On that note I’m loving the graphics – from my observations of modern FPS games I can totally see how Doom laid down the concept. I really like the music too. It’s spurring me on. Grr!

What I would’ve liked is a bit of story at the beginning. Sure, I don’t have the boxed version which probably had some lore in it. But on-screen would be nice, too. I don’t really know why I’m here – just that I’m in a nightmarish maze world, fighting zombie soldiers and pink monsters. I like to have a clear objective (I guess that comes from adventure gaming too).

But it’s nice how everything is contained – unlike the more modern fighting games which just seem endless and open-ended. This is quite arcade-like, which suits me.

Image of collecting health in Doom
On reflection, I should’ve screengrabbed the actual health

I’ve picked up some health. I guess that’s mostly intended for the harder levels when you’d need it after killing the guys that are pre-killed for me here. I’m a bit OCD about collecting everything, even if unnecessary. That might be my downfall.

Oh hey, my health status went up though, so maybe not so unnecessary. Perhaps this is hyper strength, like steroids (don’t look down, Doomguy). I suppose that means I’ll have more health to spare when I get a battering. I got some armour, too. The little helmets remind me of the TV show, Knightmare.

I’m using the classic controls, by the way. So the arrow cursors to move around, Ctrl to fire, Spacebar to open doors. It’s how I would’ve played it in the day. I could opt to override that with an XBox controller, but I won’t just yet. It’s nice and simple – not many keys to remember, and no double joints required. It’s running through DOSBox (via Steam).

Image of armour suit in Doom
ArmoUr

That looks useful! A neon green military vest. This puts my armour up to 100%, nice. A big boost like that is usually indicative of an imminent challenge, and I’m right.

Heeeeere’s Johnny!

Image of first enemy on easy level of Doom

The enemies are quite difficult to spot in some parts of the game, even when they’re ahead as opposed to behind you or to the side. There’s a bit of warning before they get too close though, and yes, okay, to get to the point that first kill was very satisfying. Is it too late to backtrack on my abhorrence of weapon-based games?

A couple of hours later…

I’m loving this game. The levels after that really open up, and I found myself really getting into it. I mean, really immersed in a way that I perhaps wouldn’t be with an adventure game. In a classic point-and-click where you’re exploring, meeting characters and scouring for inventory items it’s a much more laid-back experience. In a FPS you’re required to be focussed and alert the whole time, in case an imp or demon comes bumbling out of nowhere. There’s no time to admire some Caribbean scenery or amusing dialogue – it’s thrash or be thrashed.

Image from Doom showing Hangar level finish

And I can completely see how games like Doom are so addictive. I now understand my husband’s reluctance to be nourished and watered when in the midst of a killing spree. It’s much harder to find a stopping point than in a story-based adventure. There are few moments where it feels right to abandon a mission, apart from at the end of a level.

The progression feels really nice, too. It’s pretty easy at the start, but gradually increases in complexity with more weapon options, varying enemies and more labyrinthine environments (I’m too embarrassed to say how long I was floundering about in the Computer Station).

Image of the Computer Station map in Doom
The Computer Station level map

Everyone loves a good Help menu

I had a slight panic when I realised I didn’t know how to switch weapons then, hey, here’s a handy screen! In the days of yore we didn’t need any of your fancy tutorials, but a Help screen like this is actually pretty useful. It also showed me that there’s a map (not that it helped me in my Computer Station stumbling – some people just can’t navigate for crap).

Image of Doom Help screen

In terms of fun factor, my favourite weapon has to be the chainsaw. It’s not that practical since you can’t use it from afar, but it’s so delightfully gory. Speaking in 2018 at the WAD conference (Doom’s Development: A Year of Madness), Romero remembers that they had a chainsaw in the studio, borrowed from Tom Hall’s girlfriend, to use as a reference for the art.

Doom-quote 2

I love that. They simply made a chainsaw look like a chainsaw. It’s that simplicity that I love, and what I think is so appealing about the game. There are no complex side missions or things to piece together – just stages to progress through.

I guess the complexity at the time – for both the creators and players – was in the 3D format. Along with Wolfenstein 3D it cemented the 3D shooter genre for decades to come, and it’s still thriving. It’s so easy to overlook given how far game design has come since, but at the time it was pioneering.

It’s almost ironic that my preconceptions about not liking games like Doom probably came from what I’ve seen of modern FPS games like Far Cry – open-world, lifelike, heavy duty gaming that is far too epic for my tastes. It seems all I had to do was look to the past, to the origins of the FPS to find one that I’d enjoy. And who knows, maybe I’ll end up playing through the whole evolution until I become a fan of the modern varieties.

The gosh-darn-it verdict

So, I’m pleasantly surprised. In playing Doom I’ve made an unlikely addition to my list of treasured DOS games. I’m still playing while I write this up. Afterwards I might try my hand at Wolfenstein and Half-Life. I’d also like to sample some of the many Doom mods that are out there.

Adventure games will always be top of my list, but it’s fun exploring genres that are outside of my comfort zone – especially when they contain an important piece of gaming history.

And hell, it’s nice to find a chainsaw that can actually be used.