In light of my recent experiences with the lead character of Read Dead Redemption, John Marston, I've started to think about how hard it can be to create a character with a pre-defined history and personality that the player can really identify with. For example, I play John Marston as a good guy, as someone who will help people out, but still allow people to be responsible for their own actions. This is partly because of who I am as a person, and who I perceived him to be - a former outlaw looking for redemption. When he then starts trash talking people on the street, or starts associating himself with people who I wouldn't personally give the time of day to, it jars me out of my little fantasy and reminds me that I am in fact playing as a character with a personality other than what I thought it was. No matter how many good deeds I do, John Marston will always be defined by the path the writer has set for him. He will always remain conflicted between the actions that I choose for him to undertake and the actions I am required to undertake. Sure, I could just spend my entire time hunting animals and gambling, but that would deprive me of what I hope to be a fantastic story.
On the other hand, playing as a "blank-slate" character in games like Mass Effect or Fallout 3, I can define exactly how my character will interact with the world around them. They are a true extension of my personality. There may be an overarching story I am required to follow if I ever want to finish the game, but my character does what I want them to do, and has no personality outside my own. I can truly immerse myself in the game experience because it allows me to assume the role of the main character. At the same time, I little bit of excitement is lost, as I already know what the character will do in any given situation. The unpredictability in character interaction, and much of the drive in the storyline, is then transferred to the NPCs the game is populated with. No bad thing, but sometimes my interactions with those NPCs can feel quite shallow because game design limits the range of responses they have. Sometimes my intent results in something I didn't intend, because the game cannot account for the infinite ways in which any player can approach one encounter. I realise that MMOs solve this player interaction problem by introducing other humans into the game, but they do that at the cost of the story.
I guess I don't really know what's better. While I love to put my own stamp on the main character, I usually find characters such as John Marston and Niko Bellic quite compelling. I can identify with them and be alienated by them at the same time, which is something that happens a lot in real life. The scripted nature of those games also provides the potential of a tight, compelling storyline that blank-slate character driven games cannot.
The problem occurs when I am alienated by my character, as any immersion I had previously built up is then broken by the realisation that I am only playing as a character in a game. Or even worse, I end up disliking the main character (Niko Bellic, I'm looking at you), and eventually stop playing because I don't want to take actions that I disagree with.
Is there a solution? Probably not, and if there is it will probably involve advanced AI, and eventually our death to machines.
I recently finished my first playthrough of Eternal Sonata. It's a pretty good game, and I have decided to give the new game+ a go despite some initial misgivings. However I have one major problem with it:
I bought this game (cheaply) on the premise that Frederic Chopin and his music would feature heavily in it.
That isn't the case. Chopin is a playable game character, but he's a stereotypically Japanese character loosely tied to the real world Frederic Chopin. I can understand that the designers have taken an artistic license out on his life (or dying dreams, I guess), as a 39 year old Polish musical genius bed-ridden with tuberculosis is perhaps a little hard to design a game around. But to then extrapolate his dreams into a typical JRPG plot is a bit of a waste. They could have put anyone in the game instead of Chopin and it wouldn't have made much difference. His compositions don't even feature heavily - only a few well-known pieces are included in cutscenes involving what seem like someone's holiday snaps of Europe and highly imaginative explanation of what each piece might have meant to the composer.
I had expected this game to include a soundtrack gleaned from his best works, and perhaps an RPG involving the quest for Polish independence for the gameplay, but I was sadly disappointed. Perhaps I should have read the wiki entry on Giant Bomb first.
Oh yeah, and the girl, Polka? She was so annoying, I just wanted to inflict physical violence on her. The way she walked with her arms out like a pathetic aeroplane, the way she talked, aaaaah! I hate you!
On the plus side, I enjoyed this game to the point where I now feel I can tackle Infinite Undiscovery (seriously, what is up with Japan and game titles?). I'm still not a big fan of JRPGs, but I can't not play a game if I have it in my collection.
Anyway, I recently gave the following games a go, but they will fall by the wayside as I finish up my Eternal Sonata experience, and hopefully sink a lot of time into Red Dead Redemption when it comes out shortly afterwards.
In non-gaming related matters, I have been putting off booking any plane tickets to the US for too long now. I should get on to it or I will never make it to San Diego (or get a decent cowboy hat) in September. Also, now I don't know when I should convert currency. I thought the Aussie dollar would climb against the US dollar later this year, but what do I know? It just lost 2 whole cents recently. That's a lot. At the rate I'm going I will end up holidaying in New Zealand (which isn't a bad second option).
Thief 2 has been the best stealth game for 10 years now
I have no doubt that Splinter Cell: Conviction will be a great game. But I may never pick it up, because to me, Thief 2 is the be all and end all of stealth games.
I'm biased, i guess. I played Thief 2 when I had a lot of time on my hands and I was able to become really immersed in the Thief 2 world. I also prefer shooting arrows instead of bullets. In saying that, I think subsequent Thief games haven't been as good, although I'm still holding out hope for the next iteration that Eidos is currently developing.
Thief 2 is also the game that introduced me to the Splinter Cell series, and that is the only black mark I hold against an otherwise fantastic game. I have seen other people playing Splinter Cell games, and they always look pretty good. I also enjoy sitting in the dark, waiting for my next victim to come around in the looping circuit the developer has set for it. Who doesn't like feeling like a badass ninja? The thing is, when I tried playing the game for myself in Splinter Cell: Double Agent, about 5 years after playing Thief 2, I just couldn't get into it.
Maybe it's because I'm not a big fan of the modern military setting, which is also why I never got into the Modern Warfare games. Maybe it's because I spent about 30 minutes in the missile silo in the first mission, wandering around with no clue where to go. Or maybe its because the wide array of gadgets confuse me so much. In Thief 2, you douse lights with water arrows, quieten footsteps with moss arrows, and climb up stuff with vine arrows. It even has a fiber optic camera equivalent in a fancy fake eye. Simple right? I still think I stopped the launch of the missile purely by luck, as I still have no idea how the decryption tool works in Splinter Cell. Technology! Come to think of it, maybe I don't like Splinter Cell because of all the technology. Garrett, the protagonist in Thief, fought against technology, and this is what I do in Splinter Cell.
Ultimately though, both games are stealth games. And in my opinion, the stealth mechanic has not been improved on since Thief 2. That's 10 whole years of the same old sneaking around according to a light sensor.
Thief 2 got it right. If you're seen or heard by an enemy, chances are you're dead. The mechanic worked to perfection, with lots of sneaking around in shadows and avoiding marble or metal floors. You judged your stealthiness by a light crystal on the HUD, and shot moss arrows to cross noisy surfaces, or just crossed over in the eaves.
Splinter Cell Double Agent does all this, and does it very competently. But it doesn't seem to have brought anything new to the stealth mechanic. You still stick to the shadows, judging visibility by a light meter, and I don't know if it factors in footstep noise, but if it does there is certainly no way of lightening the sound. For those reason, all the Splinter Cell games are, are merely Thief: Modern Warfare in my eyes. They offer nothing in the stealth genre that Thief 2 hasn't done already.
Perhaps the stealth mechanic was perfected by Thief 2, but I doubt it. Surely there are ways in which it can be improved upon. Assassin's Creed had some stealth, but there wasn't much sneaking around in shadows. All the world's greatest assassin could do was blend into crowds and hide in haystacks. Sure, that's a new mechanic, but it's not really stealth.
I guess I just want to be able to hide in the dark and kill dudes without being reminded of what a great game Thief 2 was. Is that too much to ask?