Posts Tagged ‘inception’

The Value of Cinematic Experiences

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

In its formative years of self-realization, video games have undergone constant reinventions and crises of identity as the industry and those who follow it attempt to give a concrete definition as to what games really, truly are. From time to time, games have been given the label “cinematic” or featuring “Hollywood blockbuster-scale action”. While this is certainly a telling indicator of how gaming has progressed, what’s more telling is how the term has almost evolved (or devolved, depending on your definition) into a slightly pejorative term that indicates non-interactivity or little to no player agency in a tightly scripted roller coaster of sights and sounds.

I don’t exactly like that Hollywood analogy, not so much from the fact that it seems more and more developers are becoming averse to taking risks and opting more to emulate the aesthetics of a non-interactive medium rather than incorporating those parts into a ludic whole; if anything, I dislike that analogy because it simultaneously glosses over a central rift between the two mediums and it sets up unrealistic terms for games in particular. As the cost of producing games and maintaining games as a hobby ramp up, gamers over the years have come to define their software purchases through pure value. Namely, if I pay $60 for a game, how many hours of meaningful playtime am I looking at?



This year, two of my more  memorable film-going experiences were Inception and Black Swan. One film is a cleverly plotted heist movie that challenges our perceptions of waking reality, while the other weaves a melodrama around the  fracturing sanity of an aspiring dancer dealing with pressure from all facets of her life. Inception has a runtime of 148 minutes, while Black Swan has a runtime of 108 minutes, or a 40 minute deficit compared to Inception’s. If we define these movies based on the value I procured, then Inception is hands down the better value. The action is faster, there’s more moments of interaction between the characters, more variety (a car chase, breaching a fortress, two stealth sequences, and gunfights peppered throughout), and it’s longer. And let’s not forget the winding plot, which brings more meaningful replay value (a second viewing to decipher all the hidden meanings).

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that any movie critic that quantified his or her review scores in such a manner would likely be out of a job.  On the same note, I’d guess that any respectable critic working in the field of any artistic medium wouldn’t dare offer a review based on such a rubric of value. So, if we’re insisting as a collective audience that games are, regardless of Roger Ebert’s opinions, indeed an art form, why do we fail to treat it as such?

The comparison between film and games is a bit lazy, but I think influence of Hollywood on game design and production isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, I believe that if gaming is to thrive as an art form on its own terms, developers are going to need to start redefining what it means for a game to have cinematic qualities. People showered praise and adulations upon Mass Effect 2 for its emotionally affecting, open-world gameplay and dialogue, but not all games can exist comfortably within this realm of open-endedness without feeling unnatural.  There’s still a great amount of potential in linear, scripted narratives in games, but I believe an equally great amount of creativity is required to reach this level of potential.



Narrative driven games are constantly striking the balance between story-telling and gameplay, with a caveat being the more immersive a game’s mythology is, the easier it is to see the cracks. Of particular note are games such as Uncharted 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV, two otherwise tightly plotted and well-written pieces of interactive storytelling that constantly break the fourth wall by reminding you that yes, this is in fact a game. GTA IV’s biggest flaw was the constant angel-and-devil-on-the-shoulder struggle the protagonist Niko Bellic was facing in terms of how the player played Niko versus how the designers conceptualized and edged along Niko’s story of revenge and redemption. Uncharted’s problem was also in the same vein; although the bottled animations and dialogue for Nathan Drake were superb and very naturalistic, the wholesale slaughter of literally thousands of mercenaries and treasure hunters at the hands of a supposed “everyman” made the game’s mythology that much harder to swallow.

A game like Ninja Theory’s criminally overlooked Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, on the other hand, is a step in the right direction partly because all the pieces and visible gears of the game are parts of a greater construct designed in deliberately in such a way so as to sidestep the traps of that disconnect between narrative and gameplay. All elements in the game, right down to the UI and mission blockers that serve to both pace the game and impede early progress are all explained in the form of the Slave Crown that the player character Monkey is affixed with at the beginning of the second chapter. The owner of the Slave Crown, a girl by the name of Trip, has her uses for Monkey and needs his agility and fighting skills to keep her alive. The catch is, if he wanders too far off or lets her die, the Slave Crown detonates, taking Monkey with him.  It is at this point a lively, fully animated HUD pops up on-screen; if you’re going to keep Trip alive, you’ll probably need to know how she’s doing health-wise.

Even the disembodied vertical camera shot that lays out all the traps of a room to the player is explained away as a mechanical dragonfly that scouts out dangers ahead for the player and his companion, while the robot sentries that are scattered about have one primary directive, which is to kill any bipedal organism with a pulse. The different enemy robot types that are encountered throughout the game are introduced within the first two or three chapters, and there’s little to no variation between them. There’s no difficulty ramp in terms of enemy strategy, but the combat does become more difficult due to the number of enemies fought in one segment and the size of the monster room. Awkward camera control not withstanding, the robots are pretty vicious, as each robot sentry the player comes across alternates between a series of attack combos and dodges, occasionally falling back to let his buddies step in and take a few swings. Early combat encounters are excellent; tough fights are overcome by controlling the tempo and rhythm of the battle. Later fights suffer from a tech tree imbalance, where putting all experience towards five or so specific attributes in staff and combat upgrades makes Monkey a counter-attacking, overdriving juggernaut, essentially negating any need to upgrade shields or health even a single notch. Many upgrades feel like a hanging afterthought. It almost feels as if the designers centered the majority of their attention on story and level design as a complement to story.



As expected, the most affecting part of the game is the relationship that arises out of the two main characters, Monkey and Trip, something potentially gimmicky that is handled maturely and with class. Enslaved writer Alex Garland takes the exact opposite of the Master Chief/Gordon Freeman school of character purpose; Monkey’s got a very distinct personality, as well as an unspoken code of ethics, and it’s clear he feels something for Trip. Moreover, the game’s script never takes the time to do lengthy exposition into Monkey’s past or set up scenarios rife with sexual tension or comedic mishap between the two characters so as to elicit some kind of response from the player. The player’s role in the game, then, is not so much an observer embodied by the avatar on-screen, but almost a silent guardian whose goal is to help Trip by using Monkey as a vessel. Because the characters are not so much likable or relatable as they are believable, the player’s motivation for seeing things through is more or less founded on a the level of curiously invested spectator; the motivations behind Monkey’s decision to help Trip even when she sets him free might not be one that the player shares, but it makes sense because it’s Monkey’s decision.

At the risk of succumbing to the “this-but that” formula of game criticism, I’m going to pull up the previous example of visible cracks in an otherwise spotless foundation. Many of Enslaved’s boss fight sequences require Monkey to chase down the rampaging berserk Dog enemy and get close enough to initiate a QTE-lite sequence to put the boss down once and for all. This is where Monkey’s Cloud device, a hoverboard-like tuft of matter that allows Monkey to jump, glide, and hover at increased speeds, comes in. Riding on the Cloud the first time is nothing short of a joyous affair: composer Nitin Sawhney’s wonderfully subdued score kicks in as the player discovers a new form of movement that provides even more freedom than Monkey’s normal Parkour-ish maneuvers. However, it is in providing the Cloud that Ninja Theory begins to pull down the tapestry around that fourth wall. The Cloud, as explained in the game, can only be called forth in areas without electro-magnetic interference. Fair enough. Also, because of its specifications and partly as a failsafe, the Cloud can only recognize Monkey’s weight and carry one person at a time, meaning Trip’s out of luck. Okay. That’s a good amount of mythology right there, but what the game fails to explain is the Mario Kart-styled “boosts” that are sprinkled throughout areas where the Cloud is available, giving a quick burst of speed when Monkey moves through one. Like waist-high barriers and walls in Gears of War that signal a firefight is about to take place, spotting a boost pocket is the surest indicator that a chase sequence and/or boss fight is about to commence.

It might sound unfair for me to nitpick on the game in this regard, because for the most part, Enslaved does what it does effectively, and with a good amount of heart. If anything, it’s yet another reminder of that rift I mentioned earlier. Cruise any movie’s page on and you’ll see posted under the “goofs” section countless anachronisms, inconsistencies, and otherwise blunders that keen-eyed viewers spotted or heard in their viewing of that movie. The closest equivalent in the games industry might be a bug, but going off that, what can be said about Enslaved’s glaring inconsistencies? In this case, it’s more an aesthetic flaw than a technical one. And although I haven’t talked to anyone who’s played Enslaved yet, I can imagine a possible criticism of the game’s seemingly obvious focus of putting storyline and character over gameplay is, “If I wanted to experience a good story, I would watch a movie.” That’s a very valid point that I can’t argue with. But, for me, Enslaved is more than just a story layered over a shell of mediocre gameplay (despite some of my nitpickings, the game is, for the most part, a fun experience).



In my humble opinion, good game design isn’t just about compelling rules, goals, and mechanics to push players forward in achieving these goals. The key word here is “interactive.” Games also have the power to stimulate and trigger responses from simple tics to empathy on a deeper, more buried level. Take Gears of War and its cover system for example. The player relies heavily on the cover system and never questions any potential over-usage because in the player’s mind, taking cover is an absolute necessity. And on top of everything else, it works well, too, as taking cover is highly responsive, intuitive, and fluid. In my first playthrough, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it didn’t just make sense to take cover, it felt good. Really good. More than just well-timed animation, snapping into cover creates a certain sensation in the player. Just the right amount of dust is kicked up, there’s a slight affirmative grunt from Marcus (or Dom), and there’s a tangible tactile weight that is subtly communicated to the player through light haptic feedback in the controller vibration and barely noticable screen shake. The cover system isn’t just a game mechanic, it’s stimuli and it, for lack of better description, feels awesome. Enslaved, in turn, has its own deliberate design that is not accidental. When I came to the realization that I vaulted Monkey across a chasm to pull Trip up from falling to her death not out of fear of repeating the sequence again from a checkpoint, but out of an innate desire to protect my companion, it dawned on me that Ninja Theory was doing something, and they was doing it right.

I think there will always be a place for cohesive, tightly designed single-player games that don’t require a multiplayer mode or artificial gameplay lengthening, but in order for us to have more games like Enslaved, developers need to be willing to focus on taking risks while acknowledging their output as an artistic endeavor first and a product second. I am confident that a great deal of developers do view their work as art, but I’m promoting this as a mantra that is constantly reiterated through competent story framework rather than as an afterthought or a bullet point that moves more units. Finally, I believe that as fans and enthusiasts, we also have a responsibility to propel games forward as an art form and start to challenge our pre-conceived notions of what “value” truly means.

This hazy definition of value I’ve floated around is not one of replay value or achievements, but of artistic merit or what a game, for all its flaws, does to push the medium forward technologically or otherwise. Based on my own experiences with literature, fine arts, and film, I’ve come to define artistic merit and value as a piece of creative work that is conceptualized and put into production as a means of entertainment, emotional gratification, and sometimes as an educational device. I think it’s entirely possible gaming will one day be the standard of which an emergent form of media or art is measured against.  For now, we have games like Enslaved, which I encourage everyone to play on a relaxed weekend. You’ll love it or even possibly hate it for the same virtues I’m extolling, but regardless of your feelings, it will garner some kind of palpable emotion that you’ll take with you. Isn’t that the purpose of good art?


Layers upon layers

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a continuation from my previous post on the upcoming game based on Christopher Nolan’s Inception. These are just some random scribbling on some things I would like to see and things I hope the designers will keep in mind when creating the game.

Player Character

Cobb works with a team of specialists that each have their own skill sets and contribution to the mission. However, the narrative is squarely centered on Cobb as he undergoes the biggest (and probably only) character arc on his team. In hewing with the structure of the movie, we won’t necessarily have to make each, individual member of the team explicitly playable. I’m thinking of something like Mass Effect, where squad abilities are mapped to an action wheel. Some of the roles in the movies aren’t quite clear, so I can probably only make educated guesses. The Point Man serves as the “second player”, or the player character that is statistically identical to the main character (Mario and Luigi, or for more modern examples, Marcus Fenix and Dom Santiago from Gears of War), but the other characters’ roles might be harder to utilize. The remaining members of the team are interesting in that their contribution is entirely behind the scenes, or on a very subtle level. The Confidence Artist has the ability to gain access through camouflage and subterfuge, the Architect creates misdirection by creating a sandbox from scratch, and the Chemist tweaks dosages that puts the target and team members under for however long needed.

I think it’s a fun challenge to come up with ways in which to successfully weave these secondary characters into the gameplay, but at the same time, I don’t think the results would be very fun. Nevertheless, the role these characters play is far too interesting to not include into the game somehow. Although it might be difficult to translate these character roles into something the player could tangibly use on the fly, it would be cool to see these as enemy types for the player to defeat. More on that in the next section.


Fischer and Saito presented obstacles  but could hardly be considered villains. In terms of the nameless projections, they’re mooks, grunts, and cannon fodder that are easily dispatched and impede the player’s progress on a short-term scale, but also not villain material. If anything, the one true villain in the film was Mal, or more specifically the projection of her in Cobb’s subconscious. The relationship between Cobb and Mal in the film was so affecting because even if the audience has never come across a personified force of nature like Mal, they’re empathic to Cobb’s plight and the recurring theme of guilt. Mal was such an effective foil for Cobb because he defined her and subsequently empowered her, so I’m not sure how the designers will incorporate this into the game’s overall narrative. One strong recommendation I can offer is: don’t reuse the wife motif. It’s an emotionally resonant one, which is exactly why it shouldn’t be abused.

I’d say the game can handle this in one of two ways. The first would be for the designers set a concrete projection of a loved one for the main character to struggle with; however, taking cues from Silent Hill 2, the shared history between the player as main character and the loved one as well as the extent of trauma inflicted on both persons is entirely defined retroactively by how the player perceives this projection currently and the choices they make when confronted with their loved one. The second would be for the projection to completely adhere to a preset, planned background on a set path and agenda. This hews closer to the film, and like Cobb, the player must ultimately find or not find closure for their character through their choices. Either way, I’d be interested to see how it’d pan out.

Also, as I said in the first section, while characters such as chemists, con artists, and architects might not translate well for the player, they would be interesting enemy types to tussle with. For example, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s multiplayer is a good example of NPC and player interaction that requires equal amounts of instinct and pattern recognition on the player’s part and I could see this mechanic working for stand-offs with confidence men.


One of the inherent difficulties in translating the story of Inception into a game is the fact that, unlike the protagonists of the movie, the player is not engaging an unaware individual in a masquerade of his or her own design; if anything, the player is the unaware individual in question, taking a tour of someone else’s illusion. Framing the narrative around the well-oiled machinations of one of these teams might be doable, if only on a very superficial level: Using maybe a series of complex Rainbow Six styled planning systems coupled with squad commands on top of dynamic, shifting terrain ala Fracture, the player would be in control of the illusion as it goes along. But that’s only to an extent. Inevitable cracks in scripting would rear their ugly heads, as the illusion set forth by the designers for the player to experience would ultimately fail to predict every which move the player makes. I don’t have any experience in this field, but I’d be willing to say that as of now, it’s technologically and humanly impossible to frame a tight narrative around procedural Minecraft-styled player-created content. If we’re going to follow the logic of dream construction in the film, exposing cracks in the foundation to players is a fatal shortcoming.

Using Path of Neo as an example yet again, it may not be best in this instance to emulate the narrative and structure of the movie. We’ve already established that a) many auxiliary characters’ strengths are played in the backdrop and b) the game itself is an illusion. As such, it would be not only difficult to pull off a game that follows the structure of the film, but it would feel forced and gimmicky if the game uses what I described above.

I think that in order for the game to maintain a standard of strong writing and characterization, the narrative should not be framed around an extraction (or inception) team. Rather, I think it would be much more interesting to play as a character who is the target of the grift, not the grifter. The only difference is, this character is fully aware of the fact that he’s dreaming. In fact, the character allowed himself to get caught and sedated by the team that’s now running the extraction operation on him. They know something he’s been fighting to figure out (murder of family member, who framed him, etc.) and in order for him to get to the ringleader of this detail, he’ll need to play dumb and run along with them for now. He has no idea what exactly the scale of this operation is; there could be literally hundreds of sleepers posing as projections for all he knows. But luckily, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to manipulate and maneuver the dreamscape and take out his enemies one by one.

Also, if Cobb’s foil is guilt, our character’s foil would be obsession. Just throwing that out there.


This section practically writes itself, thanks to the clearly defined “layers” presented in the movie. Without getting into too many theories centered around, “Cobb’s still dreamin’, yo!”, we’ll say that for the sake of the argument there are three unique environments that the player can interact with: the real world, dream layers #1 to infinity, and limbo. Each environment would ultimately have different rules and logic to adhere to, and the existence of all three presents yet another challenge: how does the game strike a balance between seamless transition between dream layers to real world to (possibly) limbo without letting the player lose grasp of his current environment’s parameters and rules?

A big mechanic that will have to be squared away is player death. As we’ve seen in the movie, violent situations are a quick ticket out of a dream state. Barring heavy sedation, the dreamer will snap back to “reality” or at least ascend one dream layer. The designers will be free to play around with this concept, on the same note, because as stated in the movie, Limbo is shared dream space. The player can ideally interact with Limbo in one of two ways: manually entering Limbo with the character fully aware of the fact that they are dreaming, or entering Limbo through forcible circumstances. I’m more interested in the former of those two interactions. While that separation between the mind and powers of perception is a strong plot device, it doesn’t exactly scream “fun” and wouldn’t be exactly easy to communicate. The player is constantly aware of the fact that they are willfully engaging in an illusion of someone else’s design. I know I’m stating the obvious, but I think one of the concessions designers have to make is knowing when to tastefully omit unworkable parts of the property in favor of tighter design.


The character’s abilities and interactions with the environment need to feel significant, but like in the movie, there should be a system of checks and balances in place to prevent over-abuse of powers. Some of the more interesting things seen in the movie are zero-gravity fighting in which we see a trained Arthur glide and shimmy across the ceiling like a monkey ninja against a hapless projection, the distortion of time when descending in dream levels, and Ariadne’s manipulation of architecture and paths on a gargantuan scale. If we’re using the set-up I wrote up in section 3, both the constant danger of exposing one’s self and angering local projections into action would be effective power checks akin to Assassin’s Creed‘s guard reaction to abnormal behavior.

The most obvious mechanic would be combat. Unlike the explanations offered in the Matrix, it’s never explained how Cobb and his team enter any shared dream already packing heat and gear. It might sound nitpicky on my part, but I’m actually saying this is to the designer’s benefit because they’re free to play around with this however they choose. They’re free to justify weapons as part of the dream-o-matic program, or why ammunition has the same lethal effect on dreamers as it does on projections, who are manifestations of the subconscious and logically should not perceive lethal damage as such.

One of the harder plot points in the movie to reconcile would probably have to be time distortion. Without cinematic framing devices, I can imagine it’d be quite difficult communicating simultaneous actions to the player without breaking some sort of fourth wall such as sloppy HUD notifications. I don’t think it’d be much fun or very original to justify the time distortion that happens when descending in levels as a time attack or imposition of a conditional time limit. Entering dream levels should serve the purpose of extraction, or mission blockers that require the player to find Key A and Key B before proceeding, only it’s more interactive and less passive, with the target’s mind serving as a type of dungeon that the player must clear before continuing with the story. Extracting information from a con man might highlight potential targets or personnel that the player didn’t know about, while extracting information from an architect opens up the map and points out locations of weapon and info pick-ups.

Another possible mechanic could be the manipulation of environment, but not on as large a scale as seen when Ariadne essentially folds a crowded Parisian street on top of itself. I’m thinking more along the lines of the Primrose steps that Arthur improvises and pushes the guard projection off of, or subtle visual and angular puzzles akin to Echochrome, where new paths can be opened and closed depending on how the player positions the camera. The player could wind corners down a bricked alleyway and create dead-ends for pursuers or use mirrors to create a straight shot down an otherwise labyrinthine hallway.

For the designers, they would have to come up with some way to communicate clearly to the player how many different types of interactions there are without making the player feel restricted or giving them too much sense of freedom. Using Assassin’s Creed as an example yet again, the strength and possible flaw in Ezio’s free-running ability is that it’s sometimes inconsistent; I can leap from walls to other walls of stacked height, but for some reason, this pillar of equal height remains inaccessible to me. At the same time, I’ll still experiment whenever I come across one of these obstacles, because I feel that based on what I’ve seen thus far, I should be more than capable of scaling this surface. I might get it the next time on a whim, but having me pick myself up and climb back up to my original position to try again dramatically slows the action down and is inconsistent with the parkour-godliness the game so very much wants to communicate.


Above all, a proper adaptation of Inception would need to incorporate the source material’s themes of perception and how our subconscious holds sway over us. This is something I’m least worried about, as I believe a strong resolution and methods of integrating said themes into the game will came naturally upon closer analysis of the design and narrative. As a virtual construct, the game world of Inception has serious hurdles to overcome in that it doesn’t have the luxury of winning over an audience that is participating in a sequential series of predetermined outcomes. Video games, in turn, are a puzzling beast in that they possess equal parts immersion and transparency based on the fact that they are interactive pieces of storytelling largely encumbered by the fact that they don’t want to hold the player’s hand, but ultimately have to if both parties involved are to reach a mutual desired outcome. Bearing that in mind, we can throw the theme of reality out of the window because I’m sorry to say, it’s a moot point in a video game.

Unfortunately, there might have to be glaring omissions from the film that won’t make it into the game. Chalk it up to lack of imagination on my part, but I’m having a hard time figuring out a way to incorporate totems into the game without ultimately falling flat of the profound thematic weight totems carried in the movie in terms of acceptance and letting go of the past. It worked in the movie because Cobb’s ties with his totem were twofold: it represented both his dependence and guilt towards the memory of his wife. What can be said of the player’s emotional bond to whatever totem their character totes around? Thus far, I think the only “totem” I’ve ever felt a tinge of emotion towards was the Weighted Companion Cube in Portal, but I have a feeling this was due to a combination of isolation and GLaDOs’ script.

The theme that I’ve been relying on to flesh out my ideas, as well as the theme I’m hoping the Inception game focuses primarily on is perception, or challenging the players perceptions of the game world as well as his interactions with NPCs. I’m really only scratching the surface of potential here. Having something like, say, Brink‘s competitive drop-in drop-out where actual players could jump into an existing campaign and essentially run a grift on the current player’s campaign progress while satisfying their own set of unique objectives and staying undetected would not only be potentially really fun to design and play, but it’d also be true, if not faithful to the film’s themes and plot points.


Those were just some random ideas and thoughts I had floating around. I have a feeling it’ll be a while before we hear any concrete details about this game, and I’m hoping it doesn’t become vaporware years down the road due to overly ambitious design that fails to fall within the scope of the game’s technical capacity (nothing like what I’ve just outlined, nervous laughter). Ah, well. Even if that ugly outcome rears its head, at least I’ll always be able to play my version of the game… in my dreams


Waiting for a game, a game that’ll take me far away

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

This isn’t new news, but Christopher Nolan’s more or less confirmed that an Inception game is in the works. Other than the upcoming Batman: Arkham City, I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a licensed game with this much eager anticipation and wary trepidation. Inception was one of those films that, prior to its release, I went out of my way to filter and ignore any pre-release or preview information in order to heighten my enthusiasm, albeit in a somewhat masochistic, demented way.

Unlike other games based on licensed properties, there are no deadlines that developers are forced to coincide with. In an ideal world, this means a lot more time to devote to design and presenting different dimensions of the film, as opposed to directly emulating it as many licensed games are aught to do.

I don’t remember how much buzz there was around it (I was out of the country at the time, you see), but Shiny’s The Matrix: Path of Neo was, in my humble opinion, one of the most underrated games of 2005. Although there were some problems I experienced with controls and frequent slowdown, I really admired the confidence the developers displayed in showing their familiarity for not just The Matrix‘s more memorable gimmicks, but also its themes, setting, and expanding on the mythology in a meaningful way that didn’t undermine the cinematic trilogy.

In my spare time, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’d design a game based on the Inception universe. I say “universe” because the film was never explicit on a lot of story elements: the year and setting, the actual technology behind the dream-o-matic machine, and just exactly how many teams like Cobb’s were traipsing about the globe. Moderate obfuscation works wonders in requiring an audience to subconsciously suspend disbelief and it leaves plenty of room for potential in developing a game, another medium that like cinema, requires the player to accept his surroundings, his identity, and game mechanics, otherwise known as unbreakable laws of nature and physics.

Stay tuned. Or don’t. The choice is yours!