Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn't make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.
I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).
Technically, it's the first mission of the game, but it's still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.
We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.
But I'm going to add a little bit more here, a Quarries anecdote from the weekend. Minor mechanical spoilers.
For a few months now, I've been playing Quarries of Scred (Noble Kale, 2014) which causes me frequently to scream at the screen. Nowhere near as much as NaissanceE (Limasse Five, 2014) did, of course, but pretty much every time I die in the game it is because I am crushed to death by rocks. And it seems like it was my fault.
Quarries of Scred is a game that offers procedurally-generated challenge and if you die, just once, that's it for the level. No health, no extra lives. Just you versus the environment. Will you collect enough minerals to escape – or wind up dead after one wrong step?
When we talk about games that impose permadeath or similar aggravating conditions such as the sparse checkpointing of NaissanceE, we usually reference the power of consequences and how they make us feel. But have you heard of the “Peltzman effect”?
Game developer Erlend Grefsrud is working on Myriad, an abstract-themed shooter that I wrote about last year. But Grefsrud can also be painfully blunt when it comes to critique so I asked him what he thought of #warningsigns then hid under a blanket. Instead of a bullet point list of disagreements, he offered the following thoughtful response, published with his permission.
Back in 2010, I said we needed tools for the democratization of game development.
Those tools existed already, but many were in denial about it, including me. There were still questions about delivery channels (browser, mobile, console, PC?) since the whole indie thing was really born out of Flash games on Newgrounds and the more hardcore devs sharing stuff written in Allegro or whatever on TIGSource. One dominant model emerged: selling games.
The proof was in the pudding. By then, the first wave of successful indie games had already happened, with straggler Fez quasi-triumphantly emerging on the tail-end. This moment grew persistent thanks to Indie Game: The Movie and endless scribblings about how indies would change games forever.
I like to imagine legions of “art game” enthusiasts queuing up outside the metaphorical Steam store to get their hands on the latest graphically-gorgeous “walking simulator”, NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014).
Once they’ve got a copy of the game, they sit in front of their PC, grinning with excitement as the game installs. It runs – there’s a flash of the Unreal logo – and then it's time for a quick tweak of the graphical settings. Maximum resolution, maximum effects: these people want to drown in its abstract beauty.
And then the game opens... with a cutscene? Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) wasn’t exactly an overflowing cup of player agency, so the enthusiasts deal with it.
But then the brutality begins. And the arrogance of NaissanceE is both startling and traumatising.
It’s while I’m pacing through the haunting, empty megalopolis of NaissanceE (LimasseFive, 2014) that it occurs to me. I’ve had enough of the derogatory phrase “walking simulators” even though some are attempting to adopt the term as a positive label. Ya know... that doesn't mean I have to like it.
This kind of crap goes a lot further than “walking simulator”. Game have also been characterized negatively as toys. Or a theme park rides. It's all about the magic ambrosia known as “interactivity” which is as well defined as a drop of water in a puddle, because “sitting, walking, listening, looking, playing, just fucking being is interaction”.
Attempting to rigorously define interactivity is about as joyous as rigorously defining the word game into your preferred pigeon hole. You might see healthy debate in this conversation. I see a black hole event horizon through which my will to live is disappearing.
Anyway, that's enough of that. Especially as you've probably figured out that today I want to discuss “himitsu-bako”.