Category Archives: Games

The Road to Dune

 

 

I still remember my first exposure to the World of Dune.  In 1998, I was reading a feature article on the video game magazine about the history of Real Time Strategy Games.  1998 was the year the first Star Craft game was released and the RTS fever was sweeping through South Korea; there were handful of RTS games which claiming to be unique and authentic (the most of which turned out to be another Star Craft clones), and PC game centres appeared here and there.  Star Craft supported LAN gaming so these PC game centres provided the environments optimized to play Star Craft on LAN, which attracted many kids including myself.  Anyway, that RTS fever was the reason why these game magazines started to examine the history of RTS.  There were some familiar names in the article.  I already knew the presence of War Craft 2 at the time, though did not know anything about the first one.  Command and Conquer (R.I.P?) series appeared several times in the article.  But amongst all, one game caught my attention more than anything.

 

Dune 2.

 

The article introduced Dune 2 as the father of RTS genre; you had to collect resources, build bases and armies, build according to the tech tree to access better weapons, and attack your enemies to win – these familiar formulas were completed in Dune 2 according to the article, and I was fascinated with this game.  I already was a bit of history geek since my childhood, thanks to the Romance of Three Kingdoms novel, so Dune 2 seemed to emit blinding aura on me with its historical significance.

I know that there were “Real Time Strategy” games before Dune 2, such as Herzog Zwei, but you have to admit it is the formula set up by Dune 2 that popularized the genre.

Blizzard Entertainment developed War Craft: Orcs and Humans, which exhibited Dune 2’s influence in its interfaces and the base building system (In Dune 2, you have to place building on concrete slabs, and In War Craft 1, you have to place buildings next to roads).  War Craft managed to have its own unique features such as grouping units, special abilities, and more story oriented missions.  War Craft 2 proved to be even more successful, and eventually this success led to the development of Star Craft.  And Koreans went wild.  Trust me, I witnessed the rise of e-sports in Korea with my own eyes, and it was insane.

Dune 2’s own developers, Westwood, started another RTS series, Command and Conquer, which retained some of Dune 2’s interface and system (they ditched concrete/road/ etc system though).  Other RTS games, such as KKND and Total Annihilation (the game which made Blizzard to basically ditch everything they worked on Star Craft up to that point after seeing it on E3 and start over again) appeared and they all tried to be unique.  But in the end, they owed their spirits to the conflict on Arrakis.  Look what that war on the desert planet led to.

For months, the name Dune 2 carried the mystical air in my mind.  Questions popped up in minds; what was the game like (the magazine only showed the cover with the soldier in front with the wind trap in the background)?  Why was it called Dune 2? And what was Dune 1 like?  What was the story? Etc etc…

Some of my questions were answered when Dune 2000, modern remake of Dune 2, was released.  The magazines did the walkthroughs of the game, as well as introductions on the series.  The story intrigued me; three houses competing against each other on the desert planet where the rare and important substance called “Spice” is produced – the story was simple enough but my imagination went wild with its world as I read about the Fremens, and Sonic Tanks.  The desert people?  The tank shooting soundwaves?  All these sounded too awesome for me.  I was only 5th grader at the time, so the world introduced in Dune 2000 was the first “unique” universe I have seen.  Oh, yes I’ve watched countless animes and movies and comics as a kid already, but Dune had very distinctive feel that differentiated itself from many other fictional worlds I had read about.

When I first came to Canada, my family often visited another immigrant Korean family.  In their house, I discovered Dune 2 on their computer.  The moment I was waiting for.

It was very different experience from other RTS games I’ve played till that point.  I could control only one unit at a time, and more strict restriction in constructions made me plan the base building more carefully.  Sandworms were pretty annoying.  But overall, it was pretty enjoyable.  I felt like an archaeologist finding a hidden relic he was seeking for years after finally playing Dune 2.

But Dune faded away, or was buried under the sand of mind for several years, mainly due to all the new materials I had to absorb as the new immigrant to Canada.  I managed to read Two Towers in grade 8, which made me sick of reading for a bit until I started reading other “manageable” books.

I eventually found a copy of Dune in the dollar store.  It was one of older edition which showed the desert illustration with what seemed to be two people in the foreground.  I believe it was supposed to show Paul and Jessica escaping from Arakeen.  Anyway, I was taken aback by the pure size of it(at that time, any book more than 300 pages seemed pretty overwhelming for me), but kept it anyway.

Some time in my high school era, I had a chance to watch Dune movie on the cable.  I was pretty hyped to watch it; for the first time ever, I will watch the story of Atreides and Harkonnens and others fighting for the control of Arrakis!

And I got something very unexpected.

Duke Leto Atreides dies early in the story, the house Atreides is destroyed, there was no House Ordos, and the movie focused on Paul’s awakening as Muad’dib, which was one element never mentioned in any of Dune 2 franchise.  It was not what I expected.  Only the scenery of endless desert and the worms were things I expected to see in the film.  Was I disappointed?  Not really.  I later learned that Dune movie was…more of cult classic than commercially successful movie, but I still liked the imagery and the distinctive feel of it.  I thought the introduction of “weirding modules” gave the movie interesting imagery because now the name of Muad’dib literally became the killing word and the Fremens looked more like religious fanatics.

This was the time when I started to suspect that Dune was nothing like I expected.  The only similarities between games and movie were 1. They were both set in Arrakis, 2. There are sandworms and Fremens.

It was only in this October that I started to read the book that started it all.  Reading Dune felt strange, because while I was familiar with some of the key concepts such as Spice, Sandworms, and the desert planet, the book threw unfamiliar concepts at me for the most part.  I knew the basic plots from the movie, but the movie missed out on many details, such as Paul’s internal struggle between his identity as Duke and his larger-than-life role as Muad’dib.  I have watched movie only once, and that was more than 6 years ago.  So the overall story of Dune was more of mirage than actual memory.  But this had unexpected benefit to my reading.  I realized that Princess Irulan’s historical account foreshadowed each chapter, so reading this book with the knowledge of its plot did not ruin it as much as I feared.  In fact, it felt like I was living through the events after seeing the uncertain future.  I knew what was going to happen, but how was the event going to unfold?  What were the characters thinking at the time?  I was fascinated with the characters’ psychology throughout the book and enjoyed complex plots involving political schemes.  What I loved the most was constant appearance vs truth; Yueh’s deception was the beginning, then Paul’s rise to becoming Muad’dib involved Paul and Jessica’s manipulation of the legend sown by Bene Gesserits to make the Fremens accept them as the saviours, and Fayd-Rautha’s plan to win people’s admiration by intentionally fighting the Atreides Gladiator are all fine examples of how appearance of the event can be deceiving.  The last duel between Paul and Fayd-Rautha was no longer simple good vs evil by the time I read it on the page.  Paul felt defeated because no matter what he does, he would not be able to stop jihad; if he dies, the Fremens will believe he sacrificed himself for them and start fighting, but if he wins the Fremens will believe Paul is invincible and start waging war anyway.  The Duke cannot stop the Prophet no matter what.  I will have to read the book again to be sure, but I had an impression that this duel was Paul’s struggle to remain as Atreides, and human opposed to Muad’dib who is the symbol of the Fremen jihad.  That’s why he had to fight Fayd-Rautha despite objections from his friends.  At least that was the impression I got.  This may change when I read this part, or whole book again.

After finishing reading Dune, I felt strange emotion.  I have finally read through the book that I was seeking without conscious effort.  Initially the name Dune attracted me for its influence on historically significant game, then I unwittingly drew closer to the point of origin.  It was little different from simply reading the book that inspired your favourite movie/game etc, because Dune and its offsprings surprised me whenever I was exposed to them.  Walking on the road to Dune was full of surprise and wonders.  I am not sure where I should go from here, whether to finish the rest of Dune series, or to read non-Dune books by Frank Herbert, but I am certain of one thing.

It will be full of pleasant surprises.

 

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec_Ops_The_Line_cover

 

Spec Ops: the Line is the military shooter game released in 2012 developed my Yager.  Although Spec Ops series had existed before, the Line does not share story with the previous games.

The story premise is as follows; Dubai was hit by the disastrous sandstorm, and Colonel John Konrad of 33rd Battalion refused to follow the order and decided to remain in Dubai to save people.  Dubai was buried in sand, and in the end UAE declared Dubai a no-man’s land.  But two weeks before the story starts, there was a radio transmission from Konrad, claiming that evacuation of Dubai was failure, and too many people are dead.  So the US military sent three Delta Force team, consisted of Captain Martin Walker (voiced by Nolan North, who participated in Uncharted series as Nathan Drake), Staff Sergeant John Lugo, and Lieutenant Alphonse Adams.  The Delta Force enters Dubai and faces not only physical, but psychological dangers as well.

This game was peculiar in many ways.  Although it is considered a military shooter, the gameplay itself does not stand out much.  It is a typical TPS with cover system and battle management system where you can order your teammates to perform certain tasks.  You carry two weapons, can attack melee or executions.  You can shoot glasses or barriers to bury your enemies in sand but you won’t see that often.  And multiplayer is terrible.  Even the developers said they did not feel any need to make multiplay but had to make one because of publisher’s demand.

But this game earned so much praises, because of its narrative.

At first, the game seems like a typical military shooter; your protagonist is a dutiful soldier, accompanied by cynical sniper and hard-working fellow soldier.  The game is even set in the Middle East.  But as the player progress through the game, it twists all the clichés.  The majority of enemies you fight are the 33rd Battalion, your fellow American soldiers.  They attack you on sight, and you cannot negotiate (like any other military shooters).  You will witness the atrocities committed by the 33rd Battalion throughout Dubai, such as massacres, tortures, and infamous white phosphorous usage.  Also, you will commit such atrocities yourself, not because you are playing as a villain, but because your protagonist Captain Walker wanted to help.

Yes, the Captain Walker is the stereotypical American hero type soldier – he is dutiful, loyal to his comrades, and wants to do the right thing.  He will explain to his teammates that they are in Dubai to do the right thing and make sure those who started the atrocity pay for what they have done.  But his actions make situation worse; he thought he was fighting the bad guys, but he ended up killing civilians in the most horrible way possible.  Walker helps CIA agent to steal the only water supply left in Dubai to force the 33rd Battalions to surrender, but in the end the water supply is destroyed and the people in Dubai will die of thirst within few days.  Throughout all the atrocities he commits, Captain Walker continues to justify his actions by blaming Konrad.  But in the end, Walker faces the truth he wanted to avoid.

The changes the Delta Force goes through are exhibited continuously.  In the beginning of the game, the characters communicate in professional language and tone.  No swears, no overt frustration, just plain and simple disciplinary languages.  But after going through several traumatic events, the characters will swear more often and yell in frustrated voices.  Their looks will become more scarred and behaviours will become more barbaric.  Their initially “heroic” attitudes will be replaced with violent and vengeful attitudes, but why are they being vengeful?  If Walker had walked away after seeing that the situation in Dubai was horrible, none of this would have happened.  And there were situations got worse with the lack of communications.  Walker repeatedly tells other characters that “there is no other way”, but really?  You have to wonder what could have happened, if Walker tried to negotiate with the troops at “the Gate”.   Lugo questions whether the use of white phosphorous is the only option, but Walker ignores Lugo’s opinion.

One change I found it ironic and chilling was Adams’; when Gould was captured Adams suggests that they should rescue the civilians.  Fast forward few hours later, Adams asks Walker’s permission to fire at the angry civilians.  These dramatic changes effectively portray how war turns people into monsters.

This game directly asks you the questions too.  The loading screen will continuously talk to you and it does not have much pleasant things to say.  After killing innocent civilians, the loading screen will ask “do you feel like a hero yet?” and mock your sense of heroism and escapism you feel from playing typical shooters.  How many times have you played as a hero who solves every problem with guns?  In pretty much every shooter out there.  Your hands may be soaked in blood by the end of the game, but no other games made you question your actions.  This game does.  Spec Ops: The Line asks you if all those bloodsheds were necessary by forcing you into the downward spiral, and mocking your actions.  Novels and other narrative arts have done similar things by constantly placing the characters in living hells, but this rarely happened in video games.

Spec Ops: The Line may not have the best gameplay overall, but it certainly shows how narrative can be used in the games.  It does force your decisions, but the game provides deep emotional impact to the gamers in the way only games can.  Simply seeing a character committing an atrocity feels different from you actually committing those atrocities, and because you “did” those monstrosities you may ponder about the matter deeper.

Thief series

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(image from wikipedia)

You are in the shadow.  You see the guard coming towards your direction.  He mumbles as he patrols the premise, and he is armed.  The guard comes very close and you can see his face clearly.  He turns in front of you, oblivious to your existence.  After all, you are the expert thief who mastered the art of stealth.  As the guard turns you grab his wallet and walks out from the shadow silently.  The idiotic guard does not realize that he is few hundred golds poorer now.  He does not even know who stole his wallet.  You move onto the next part of the building where more loots wait for you.

Thief series is THE classic in stealth game genre.  Not only it was the one of the critically acclaimed stealth game, it was the most influential.  Thief introduced the concept of light and darkness to the stealth which added more depth to the game play.  The guards cannot see you in the complete darkness so you can observe, attack, and sneak past behind safely.  The concept of light and darkness was passed onto The Splinter Cell, then to many other games like Dishonored or Mark of the Ninja.  Of course there are many dangers and obstacles lurking in dungeons or rich men’s mansions so you have to be careful while you are stealing.  The floor may cause loud noise as you walk, the brightly lit torch will give away your locations.  But you have many tools to help you overcome these obstacles.  You can shoot moss arrow to muffle the sound of your footsteps, or shoot water arrow to the torch to create shadows.  Even if you want to fight (which is not recommended since the game discourages direct confrontation.  Two or three strikes from even the common guards can cripple you in this game.  And the guards usually call for backups so it is pretty difficult to survive the direct confrontations unless you run away), the game gives you more advantage if you use more sneaky approach.  Nice blackjack on the unsuspecting guard’s head can knock him out for the rest of the mission, and you can steal without disturbance.

Thief: Dark Project initially started as fantasy RPG developed by Looking Glass; it was about Mordred fighting tyrannical King Arthur and stealing the Holy Grail.  But the game developers switched their direction to more sneaky type of game play.  The game was influenced by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, according to the developers.  In the third installation of the series, you get to sneak into the secret organization’s library.  The development was difficult for the team.  First of all, there were not many stealth games around that time.  Castle Wolfenstein, the original of Caslte Wolfenstein 3D, involved the disguise mechanism to help you sneak around the Nazi soldiers, and Metal Gear made you sneak around the guards instead of fighting them out front.  But overall, stealth game was almost non-existent in late 90’s when Thief: Dark Project was being developed.  The developers were not certain whether their game would be fun.  It was the era of Quake and other adrenaline-rushing FPS games.  The idea of FPS where you are to avoid direct confrontation would be unpopular.

But the team gained hope as the time passed by.  Two games that involved stealth as the main gameplay mechanic, The Commandos, and Metal Gear Solid, proved to be extremely successful.  The success of these two games encouraged the developers to continue working on their game, and Thief: Dark Project was released.  It turned out to be the most commercially successful franchise from the Looking Glass.

Thief: Dark Project was unusual in many aspects.  As I have already stated, this game was all about avoiding the enemy while the most, no, all of the FPS games at the time rewarded you for killing every living thing in your path.  The game manual and the game itself tell you that violence is for the amateurs.  The game tells you that avoiding violence was professional in this game.  Playing this game required different kind of strategy from other FPS.  The main character, Garrett, is noticeably weak compared to other video game characters.  Yes, he does wield his sword alright but he cannot overpower his enemies.  Few hits from a lowly guard will kill him.  In addition to this, he was a criminal without many evidence of humanity.  He was trained by the mysterious organization called the Keepers, but decided to use their stealth skill for the life of crime.  When Garrett breaks into the heavily guarded prison to save a fellow criminal, he does it not for the friendship, but for the sex with the fellow criminal’s sister.  Garrett does not have any family, and he steals for himself.  He never distributes his loots to the poor population.  He steals from the riches, and gives to himself.  This was clearly no ordinary main character.  Yes, he does save the world in the end.  But Garrett does it for personal revenge and his own life.  Do not expect any act of sacrifice or courageous confrontation from this guy.  He solves every problem by tricks and robbery.  Garrett’s cynical voice worked well in the world where the nobles are corrupted, the gods are evil, and the religious are zealous.

The success of Thief: Dark Project ensured the sequel.  Thief 2: the Metal Age, considered to be the best in the series introduced more modernistic environments (now you have to bypass the security camera and patrolling steam punk robots), and complex game design.  Garrett had to sneak into the heavily guarded bank, police stations, or building in the middle of the City.  New obstacles offered challenges to the veterans of Dark Project, and the fans developed their fan missions filled with new challenges.  One of such fan expansions, titled Thief 2X: The shadow of Metal Age, was praised to be the great work by fans; it offered new story, new protagonist, as well as new equipments.  When Looking Glass studio was bankrupt, the series was sold to Ion Storm.  Ion Storm developed the sequel, Thief: Deadly Shadow, which was the first Thief game to be released in console as well.  Deadly Shadow was not taken well by the series’ hardcore fans, but regardless it was a quality stealth game (compared to many others).

I have known this game even before I played it.  The PC game magazines talked about Thief, praising its creativity and innovations.  When Thief series was made available on GOG.com, I bought them without second thought and I was blown away.  First person perspective did made stealth experience different.  Unlike many other stealth games in 3rd person perspective, your view is limited.  In Metal Gear or Tenchu, you can see the location of your character as well the enemies.  You can watch the enemies walking by as you hide behind the crates, and if the enemy approaches you can see him coming.  That is not the case in Thief.  Garrett’s view is limited to his own eyes and you cannot see what is around the corner.  You have to listen carefully to your environment to locate possible enemy patrolling nearby and this raises the tension in the gameplay.  Listening to the footsteps approaching while hiding in the shadow without any visual on the enemies can be frightening.  When the game introduces supernatural elements it becomes really good horror game as you sneak carefully while listening to the moans and groans of zombies lurking in the forgotten city.

The story was another appeal of Thief series.  Garrett does not care about justice or social equality.  The game manual states that Garrett wants to be left alone so he can steal in peace.  The manual also states that Garrett wants to steal enough to prepare for an early retirement.  Garrett steals for living, not for challenges.  In this aspect, he is a petty criminal.  But Garrett always finds himself in the middle of conspiracies because of his skill as a thief.  He wants to steal in peace but the world will not let him.  The way this selfish thief interacts with the supernaturals and conspiracy hooked me instantly.  There was a huge catharsis produced by the fact that horrific creatures are tricked and the world is saved by a thief who happened to be really good at his job.  That irony makes Thief very unique, even today.

Overall, Thief is a connoisseur’s game; it provides unique fun which is an antithesis to many games out there.  Its distinctive charm comes from being the opposite from many popular games, and playing it gives you singular experience.  This is the must-play game for stealth game fans.  Plus, it is the best way to bring out your inner thief without getting yourself busted.

Stealth Game and non-lethal gameplay

Imagine this scene.

A character walks into a bar, then he starts to boast about his past exploits. “I’ve been in the field for more than 10 years,” the character sips his whiskey in front of youthful, eager faces waiting for the story. “I have never killed a man”. The youths are awed. Not a single kill in his career? He must be the master!

Such scene can only be seen in stealth games. While other action games characters may boast number of enemies they killed or beat up, the stealth game characters boast about all the enemies they chose not to hurt. It’s a complete opposite way of thinking.

Of course, stealth game can involve killing. Mark of the Ninja offers many creative ways to lethally remove the guards while remain hidden and I personally like such gameplay. It is a different type of empowerment; instead of competing in the same field as your opponents, you force them into your world and overpower them. But non-lethal way of playing has a significance in stealth game, because it is a sign of your skill.

Stealth game is basically a puzzle game, according to Extra Credits and other critics. The heavily guarded environments are puzzle problems and way to trespass the enemies is the solution you have to figure out. You need to observe the enemies’ behaviours and plan your movements.

This emphasis on problem solving is the reason why non-lethal is celebrated among the stealth gamers. If you kill the guards, it’s like you’re forcibly removing obstacles. It may be seen as a sign of ineptitude. Thief series emphasizes that violence is for the amateurs; the game will force you not to kill anyone on higher difficulty, and states that true thief does not kill. This perspective adds different significance to non-lethal gameplay; Avoidance of violence is not a sign of cowardice or inefficiency, but the sign of intelligence and skill. In this way, there is a very interesting reversal. Now non-lethal way is empowering(show off the skills) while killing is disempowerment(admitting your lack of skill to get through the problem).

Of course this does not apply to all the stealth games(remember, killing the guards in creative way can be a show off of your skills and creativity as well). But many stealth game uses that 0 kill stat as a sign of your competence. With different perspective, the same number means different thing.

But how many game genres celebrate non-lethal like stealth games? The most games actively promote killing as an acceptable(often the only) solution, and there are games that do not allow the gamers to kill in the first place. But stealth game? Yes, you can resort to violence if you want to, but it will mean that you’re not good enough. That’s the beauty of the stealth games – it shows that violence is not the only solution without being preachy and overly ethical. The developers of Mirror’s Edge tried to make a game that makes the gamers feel good for throwing away the guns. Not sure if that was successful because I still haven’t played it, but I think they will find stealth game to be the better medium for their idea. Stealth game gives you great satisfaction for avoiding violence. Unlike any other game genres, avoidance of confrontation is not the sign of cowardice, but of skill.

Sparing an enemy feels great in stealth game. Every single guard walking oblivious to your presence is the evidence of your skill. It makes pacifism stylish.