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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.

Enemies


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.

Narrative


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.

Levels


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.

Gameplay


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.

Themes


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

BWWWWAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH

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!