Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Fight Club (BOOK)

So it turns out the Fight Club movie was based after a book of the same name, and books are generally supposed to be much superior to their movies counterparts, right?

Well, that's debatable, for Fight Club at least.

The book is surprisingly similar to the movie in almost every way, from the plot progression, to lines of dialogs, and to the way characters act.
The movie is surprisingly a very faithful adaptation of the book, but there are three major differences though that I thought were interesting:
1. Expositional Fleshing Out
Okay, so in most media including books and movies, the director/author reveals details about the character through that character's speech, actions, etc. Fight Club (the movie) did this with simple dialogue and mannerisms, and the book does the same. However, the book goes into more detail often describing a character's life with a whole page, while the movie just used a couple of lines of dialog, basically to the same effect. I thought about this, and it seems that the movie didn't really lose any of the expositional benefit of fleshing out the characters more. For this, I thought the movie was superior because it accomplishes the same effect in much less time.
2. Chronogically Confused
A very interesting matter is how the book is very, very, chronologically different from the movie. Many events happen in different order, and it's hard to realize the effect this has on the story. Also, the book would start off many chapters at the pivotal moment of a future scene, only to go back in time and explain how the characters got up to this scene, by using the rest of the chapter to do so. This is an interesting literary technique, but I'm not sure of its benefits.
3. Randomness & the Ending
When I watched Fight Club (the movie) I saw a bunch of stringed together scenes that at first glance, seemed totally incomprehensible to each other. The book also goes off into randomness a lot, except at times it seems like the author doesn't know what he's doing or how he wants the story to end. The movie went off into randomness, but it all seemed to come together by the end.
The end of the book is actually surprisingly different than the movie, and in my opinion, just worse.


The movie actually seems to improve upon the book by changing pivotal scenes and plot elements by consolidating them together. This adds more significance to each of the characters and prevents the movie from going off in too many directions.
The movie also seems to better chronicle the evolution of the main character than the book did.

So, I have to say it, the movie is better than the book.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

System Shock 2 (1999)

System Shock 2 is highly regarded as one of the greatest PC games of all time and for valid reasons. It is a hybrid of FPS and RPG elements, set on a somewhat non-linear space station, with an engrossing story, deep gameplay, and an all-around high degree of polish.

Here, I am going to do an analysis of what I think could be improved in this game.

Audio Logs
Once again, the audio logs from the first System Shock return. These are little items that you can find on the ground and listen to for various bits of story info, and sometimes vital information needed to progress the game. The game fixes one problem of the last game by deciding to include all the vital information in a NOTES tab, which is nice, meaning I don't have to sift through countless amounts of exposition in order to find the code to unlock this door.
However, there are still two main problems with the audio logs.
1) To serve as a story device - they don't really work. The logs provide bits and pieces of a larger coherent story, and each level you enter is like another chapter, with the logs being paragraphs of that chapter scattered throughout the level you're in. If you pick up the logs out of order, or don't listen to them intently due to fighting several monsters simultaneously, you don't pick up the full expositional benefit of the backstory.
2) There is a serious problem with picking up audio logs while trying to fight bad guys. Nobody wants to listen to people jabbering about their life story while the said player is fighting several mutants, dysfunctional androids, bio-mechanical mech-warriors, and aliens. It's just totally impracticable.

Level Design
Once again the levels are non-linear in this game. I don't have a problem with this--that is, when it's done right. I do have a problem with this when I am presented with two equal paths, I have no map to guide me, and one leads down the dark road to the end, while the other is a short dead end with much needed supplies, and I don't know which way to go.
This wasn't so much of a problem during the main space ship, seeing as how you could easily backtrack and had a map to guide you, but it was a HUGE problem during the end sections, where you had no map, and one wrong turn meant you may have missed a vital section of the game.
I think the correct way to fix this would be to tell the player either:
"All these paths are equal, and they all go the same way or loop back together, so have fun choosing!" (which is basically what the game executed in the space station, but didn't say it)
(OR) slap a dead-end sign on each wrong way so we know which way to go first. I don't want to be second-guessing myself every turn I make. (which would have helped in the end sections, ALOT)

RPG Elements
There are many ways role playing games let the player level up. One would be the way of KOTOR, where you level up after experience, and get several points to spend on new powers. Another would be in Final Fantasy, where the game automatically assigns points at each level up. Another would be in Quest for Glory, where by preforming tasks such as fighting, you unconsciously get better at them.
In System Shock, it's a little different. There are no levels, but you do receive points in order to level up different attributes of your character. However, these points are few and far between, but they can be spent on whatever the player sees fit at any time he can find an upgrade station.
This works for the most part, but I have one main gripe with it.
Using this system, the player can easily unbalance his character on one path if he sees fit, and never encounter any of the other skills of the game such as hacking, or psi-powers. Games like KoTOR let you choose your class and let you predominate it by about 2/3 of your points, letting you barely grasp the other sections of the game. In System Shock, you might never choose those other sections of the game and thus, you never know what you missed. I would've liked it if certain points could only be used on Psi Powers for example, so I wouldn't have to choose between getting force pull and upgrading my hacking skill. Then I would at least get a taste of the other aspects of the game, even if I don't get to go down that road.

Degree of Difficulty (and other nonsense)
System Shock 2--unlike its predecessor--comes with an in-game tutorial that takes about 30 minutes to complete. This is all well and fine, except for the fact that after the game starts, throughout the first level the game dumps paragraphs after paragraphs of more text information that you need to know in order to figure out what you are doing and how to play the game. I don't want to walk around each corner and then read another page of text explaining the game mechanics. It's boring!
The difficulty curve is once again somewhat odd. The first parts of the game are immediately challenging, where every swing of the wrench and every damage point taken is carefully observed. Then once you get more powerful weapons like LAZER SWORDZ the game becomes much easier until you run into the final stages where health, ammo, and energy is limited. So, I saved up tons of supplies for the final boss fight(s) which to my surprise, ended easily and quickly, with me still carrying truckloads of leftover supplies. I was then rewarded with a short cut-scene telling me I somehow won the game.
Which brings me to another nuisance I encountered in the game: the game lets you carry around "implants" which slowly drain energy (it's like health, but another meter). This is directly linked to the problem of having a limited inventory, since when one of my implants ran out (after about 10 minutes), I lost 3 inventory slots, and my much needed supplies with it. This made me play as if I was on a timer the whole time, as I had to hurry to complete each objective otherwise I would lose inventory items due to my implants failing.
I actually like restricted inventory screens when it's reasonable (see Resident Evil 4), but when my inventory capacity runs on a timer, and there are countless objects around that would double my inventory if I could pick them up (and I wanted to), the restricted inventory just becomes a nuisance.

In conclusion, System Shock 2 is once again a really, really, complex game. It's probably impossible to access all the gameplay functions in one run, since the game limits you to your class choice and then some. Because of this, you won't be able to acquire all the skills, or pick up all the weapons you find, or use everything you researched throughout the course of the game.
Still, despite its problems, System Shock 2 is a great game, and ultimately worthy of being called a "classic."

System Shock 2:

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Friday, March 14, 2008

System Shock (1993)

by Looking Glass Studios

Remember games that presented you with so many options and gameplay features and didn't have a tutorial to explain them all to you? Remember games that put you in a three-dimensional maze, barely navigable even while looking at your map the whole time as you tried to kill endless bad guys? Remember games where you saved as much as reloading, because every health point and every energy slice was so precious? You don't have to remember anymore, because that's what System Shock is.

It's amazing how different styles of games change over fifteen years, and what is considered accepted and "the standard." For example, System Shock is a FPS that requires you to navigate several levels of a space station, in a non-linear way. This means that you will have sometimes as many as five different ways to go, some of which may be dead ends, and some of which may lead back to your starting point. Many modern FPS games abandon this, restricting you to one path on the idea that freedom of choice confuses the player and makes him doubt whether he is going the right way, thus lowering his enjoyment (an item debatable for another time).
But one thing that compensates the non-linear level design in System Shock is that there is no real end for each level, so, there is no right way to go out of five different paths. This is also strengthened by the fact that the game allows you and often times requires you to revisit previous levels in order to advance through the game.

System Shock is an innovative game, a game probably about 5-10 years ahead of its time. As far as I can remember from Doom, that was just a (ARROW KEYS) controlled shooter where you go around stale and vacant arenas shooting endless bad guys.
System Shock on the other hand has numerous features that have finally started to become more prominent in today's games. These features include but are not limited to:
- the use of a WASD counterpart and mouse to AIM instead of the arrow keys.
- the idea of both a life meter and an energy meter.
- leaning (left and right)
- crouching and going prone
- picking up data logs
- real-time story goals ("blow up the reactor shields and reset the relay dish antennae" instead of, "get red key to exit level!")
- searching dead bodies for items NOT LIMITED TO AMMO.
numerous enhancements to your character, such as lanterns, jump jets, and shields.
- numerous 'stimulants' to give temporary boosts to your character, such as time-slowing, strength-enhancing, etc.
All of these features were light-years ahead of their time and many games today are still using them.

Unfortunately, many of the positive aspects of the game are undermined by several frustrating issues, including the awkwardly atrocious interface which also takes up nearly 40% of the screen. The interface is overwhelming at first and takes a long time to learn, but if you can get past it, the game is actually a lot of fun and quite addicting.
However, other problems include the games' pacing, which leaves you with the same 4 weak weapons about two hours in, then suddenly barrages you with too many weapons so you don't have a chance to utilize each one.
The game also almost falls into the 'dominant strategy' problem with its weapons. This means that you only use one or two weapons and leave the rest of them unused in your inventory. Luckily though, this is combated by some of the weapons' need for ammo and energy along with each weapons' respective weaknesses.
Another problem with the pacing is the lack of immediate goals. At the beginning of the game you are told you need to disable the mining laser aimed at Earth. I thought this would be the first of many goals and I would reach it within a few hours. In contrast, I was left wandering around five different levels trying to figure out what this laser was, where I was going to find it, and how I was going to disable it. This is actually told to the player through use of small items called "data logs" that you must find and pick up around the station. This is fine and well in theory, except for the fact that it's easy to miss these small logs and it's hard to tell which logs are actually useful. This is because some contain short conversations like "Oh dear. I'm being chased down by evil robots! Please help me!" while others contain vital information such as "Tom, the code to disable the reactor core overload function distributor ray analyzer function reset overload is 4-2-1-7-5-8. Have fun disabling it after our lunch break!"

In conclusion, System Shock is a game way ahead of its time with features that were sometimes too complicated for its own good. However, the game at its core is inherently fun except when its marred by the bad interface, tons of backtracking, and the somewhat odd learning curve.

System Shock