Saturday, October 27, 2012

Wear something fancy...

Hotline Miami is a very scary game.

Not traditionally scary. It isn't a game filled with zombies, ghosts, or demons. All your enemies are human, or canine. They have no supernatural abilities, and are found in regular everyday locations. Nothing ever jumps out at you. There are no bizarre camera tricks or sound effects messing with your perceptions. There is really just the blood to worry about.

(A lot of blood. Bucketfuls of the stuff. Perhaps the most blood yet seen in a videogame. Or, if not, then certainly the most blood you have ever perceived in one.)

Nor is it a particularly scary story. Or even, for that matter, a particularly present one. We are walking down well-travelled pathways here. Our nameless protagonist receives a phone call, detailing a job at an address. We go there, we go in, and we kill everyone on the premises. We never know why, or even who, we are killing. We just know that they all must die at our hands. It's hardly Frankenstein. The sequences between the assignments are a touch odd, in a Travis Bickle way, but never overtly so. Narration is absent, and reason must be entirely inferred.

It is not even the atmosphere which is scary. To all intents and purposes you are playing an extremely stripped down version of Vice City. The garish neon-tinged colour scheme evokes the spirit of the 1980's as completely as Rockstar's classic does, albeit in a heavily stylised manner. The two-dimensional top-down view is that of some very blocky sprites. The blood that flows is a uniform red, and pixellated to the extent that you will wonder if you are playing a 10 year old mobile phone game. Graphically lacking in detail, it looks more like a kids cartoon than the brutal journey you will experience.

You can't even blame the music. You have to talk about the music, because it is SO FUCKING COOL, but it is primarily used to set the tempo of the game. The kind that overpowers the nonsense in between the levels due to its sheer brilliance, but becomes your own inner soundtrack so that you don't even notice it driving you when the action heats up.

None of these things are scary. All of these things combined are not even scary.

What IS scary, and what makes Hotline Miami such an unforgettable ride, is two little slices of genius design decision making.

The first is that you are, quite simply, fragile. A single bullet from a single foe will end you. Even an unarmed thug can take you out with one hit. If they hear you, they come looking for you. If they see you, they come at you. If they attack first, you die. No second chances, no health pickups, no messing about of any kind. Death is instant. Your only hope when they carry a gun is that they miss with their first shot. Thankfully, the enemies are just as susceptible to punishment as you are, and can be put down just as quickly. A single bullet generally does the trick, although you also might miss, and then face the realisation that the rest of them probably heard you and are already on their way and OHSHITHESNOTDEADYET. Suddenly, decision making is paramount, as it takes precious time to finish off a body that is downed but not out. Kicking them in the head, strangling them, beating their head repeatedly against the floor; they get it done, but leave you open to attack.

You have to be quick. You need to know, instinctively, how to tackle the room. To measure the odds, have a plan for what EXACTLY you need to do as soon as you open that door, because as soon as you do the next half a second determines if is they who die or you.

A lot of the time, it is you. Death is not only instant, it is inevitable. Hotline Miami asks an awful lot of you, and carries within it a hefty level of challenge. You will retry levels countless times, refining your approach with every press of the R key. Getting slightly closer to your goal with every attempt, until finally you are the only soul left alive.

At which point, moment of genius number two makes itself known. The music, which you were barely aware of, stops. Suddenly, everything is silent, all is still. You are done, everyone is dead, and all that is left is to vacate the premises. This involves walking past the scores of dead bodyguards that litter the floor. 

It's eerily quiet now.

Are they bodyguards? I'm not sure, I've never been told. They just seem as if they are. I don't even know if they are bad guys. The only certainty I can cling to is - "I did this. I killed them", and all because a phone call, which didn't even mention murder, told me to come here.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is scary because it is insidious. The violence should be sickening. The aesthetic leans terrifyingly towards a celebration of murder, even going so far as to have you don an animal mask as you viciously assault identikit enemies over and over and over. Ostensibly, this is to endow you with abilities, but at the same time you feel that this is just because THAT IS WHAT PSYCHOS DO, HAHAHAH! The eerie calm after the storm gives you pause to reflect as you walk back past all those you slaughtered in their respective pools of blood, before the next tiny slice of cut-scene hints even more strongly that something just isn't right in this world. The world even twists ever so slightly as you walk, and everything external to your goal is indeterminate, as if it exists but is not worth you paying attention to.

It is probably as close as games have ever come to being a genuine "murder simulator", because it leaves no room to describe it as anything but. The bodycount is high, but it feels astronomical due to playing through each floor of each building countless times. The background nature of the story further erodes any moral high ground, and there are even questions to be asked before we can say it has a neutral morality. The counter argument is, of course, the extreme difficulty. There can be no doubt that, according to this game at least, murder is a dangerous and difficult career path.

Hotline Miami is a very scary game. It is also a very good one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Borderlands 2 is the best game available right now.

Borderlands 2 is my main contender for Game of the Year. I also don't see this changing any time soon. It is, in fact, so good that it may also be my Game of Next Year. To quote internet parlance; "GOTY, ALL YEARS."

Why would this be? What is so special about Borderlands 2, which is little more than a refinement of the first title? Aren't I the guy who keeps on banging on about "Let's have less of the same old stuff, and try new things", who has nearly given up on AAA altogether because they are just about "Bigger, faster, more"?

Yes, I am that guy. I do prefer it when games try and steer themselves away from what everyone else is doing.

The important thing with Borderlands 2, though, is that the word they have concentrated on is "MORE". And, the way they have concentrated on it is to make it more of a game.

There are more locations. There are more guns. There are more characters, more missions, and there will no doubt be more DLC. This is all entirely predictable, expected, and clearly does more than enough to satisfy the marketing men at 2K.

What is not so predictable is when you see some blocky scenery that looks like it came from MineCraft. And, when you hit it like you do in MineCraft, it breaks. What it reveals is an area that is populated by Creepers, THE signature enemy from MineCraft. The exploding bastards from a completely different type of game are in Borderlands 2, and there is no reason for it. It is a hidden Easter Egg, one which you need to go off the beaten path to find. No hints as to its existence are found anywhere in the game itself, it is just there to BE there, and be fun.

It's a magical moment. It would have been even more magical if I had not already known about it, but I at least managed to not find out how to get to it. It was during a play session with a friend who knew which zone we needed to be in that we got to it, and we both searched for it whilst playing through the game in a normal fashion. Not achievement-hunting (there is no achievement for it), not grinding for loot, just having a laugh shooting countless mobs and picking up even countlesser guns.

I still hate these guys even when I can shoot them

It almost felt like the days before the internet, where you might have come across one of these instances in a game, but were far more likely to have heard about it from someone else. It is so well hidden, in fact, that people playing without the aid of the internet could quite easily play the entire game through multiple times and never find it.

It is just one of many references to other games buried away in Borderlands 2. Actually, it is more than just the games that Gearbox refer to. What they actually do is take a look at the parts of games that reach outside the confines of the screen, and incorporate them into their own universe. Hence, there is a robot called Jimmy Jenkins, who charges into battle without adequate planning beforehand. Claptrap smashes the 4th wall by revealing that his stash exists "for twinking items between your characters". Frequently, it is confident enough to remind you that you are not just playing a game, but that you are playing one of MANY games.

And why shouldn't it? Many games have, through the years, stepped outside of the boundaries they were created in and crossed into popular culture. Some are household names. It is more strange to think that a game world where nobody know who Mario is would be more believable than one where Mario adorns a shop window. Movies, books, TV, and even pop music videos all pay homage to the greats, and I love that games are finally getting the balls to do it as well.

This is evidence that our hobby is evolving. It is standing on its own two feet, and is prepared to look to itself for support as it takes steps forwards. It may be finally about to cast off the shackles imposed by trying to copy other artforms, and is ready to emerge with its own identity. Its own frame of reference, and its own history. Because, until games stop trying to be interactive versions of everything else, they will only ever be looked upon as inferior to everything else.

Games can do things that other entertainments can't. A film or book would struggle to convey the same emotional panic that Heavy Rain managed to when trying to catch up to Jason. Or would be less impactful than climbing out of the helicopter, barely able to move, before succumbing to your fate as Modern Warfare was. Those famous twists at the end of The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects? As great as they were, they did not hit me with the same kind of sledgehammer blow that the ending of Braid managed.

So, game developers everywhere; Would you kindly do more of this sort of thing?