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Ketchaval

Making bleak / tragic games?

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Can we make bleak games that are also enjoyable? Ie. games based around the human world, where say, families are being senselessly slaughtered by a serial killer. Think the equivalent of a James Patterson novel. 1. A game where terrorists are blowing things up, and not in a 'action-movie' way, but in the way described by Ernest Adams
Quote:
http://www.designersnotebook.com/Columns/005_Bad_Game_Designer_1/005_bad_game_designer_1.htm Look closely at a picture of a place where a bomb went off. It’s a mess. A real mess. Things are broken into pieces of all sizes, from chunks that are nearly the whole object, to shrapnel and slivers, down to dust. And they’re twisted, shredded, barely recognizable. Things that are blown up by a bomb don’t fall neatly apart into four or five little polygons – they’re blasted to smithereens. I suppose for the sake of our stomachs we’ll have to preserve the TV and film fiction that people who die violently do so quickly and quietly rather than screaming and rolling around; but I don’t see any need to pretend that high explosives are less than apallingly destructive. Bombs ruin things – lives and buildings. They leave the places they’ve been shattered and unattractive. Let’s tell the truth about them.
2. What about games with a bleak endings. To quote Ernest again:
Quote:
http://www.designersnotebook.com/Columns/068_How_Many_Endings_Does_A_Ga/068_how_many_endings_does_a_ga.htm Artistically, my position was wrong: designers should certainly create the videogame equivalent of Kafka novels if they want to. But commercially, I think it's sound. This company had asked me for my opinion about a commercial game, and it's my opinion that the game-buying public is not yet ready to spend $50 on a triple-A shooter in which every possible ending is a downer. Winning and losing is a matter of definition, but a bad ending feels like a loss, and a happy ending feels like a victory. Over the years we have trained our players to assume that they will eventually win a long game sometime, though they may have to try repeatedly to do so. The longer a game lasts, and the more a player has invested in it, the less likely she'll be to tolerate an unhappy ending, as I told my clients. Adventure games or mysteries might get away with it, but if a game about survival doesn't end with the player surviving, she's going to be annoyed.
Any thoughts on implementing bleakness?

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I think the player should have some sense of victory, not neccessarily survival, revenge is a good example. In Max Pain, the players family is murdered, by the end of it he's gotten revenge and is surrounded by police, to be killed or arrested. Essentially the player looses, since he'll either spend years in jail or be excecuted, but the player feels a sense of accomplishment because he got revenge.

I think you could paint a rather bleak ending, such as the world being overrun or civilization being destroyed so long as the player gets that "last word", by blowing himself up with a nuke or going out with some kind of a bang. Sort of like in the first Predator movie, he lost but he nuked 2 square miles, so its ok. ;D

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The longer a game lasts, and the more a player has invested in it, the less likely she'll be to tolerate an unhappy ending, as I told my clients.

This is so true. In a movie you can tolerate an unhappy ending since you've only been introduced to the characters, world and situation an hour or so ago. But when you spend 30-40+ hours being immersed in an RPG you expect some positive closure for the protagonist.

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Well, positive results aren't really necessary. That's just kind of the stereotypes for games that really just gets in the way of cool ideas sometimes. The key to making a bleak game that has a maybe negative ending really has to do with one word "immersion."

Can you immerse the player into whatever role or task they are suppose to perform? Can you hook the players and make them become emotionally attached? Can you use the proper camera angles and imagery to push accros the emotional, psychological, and physical horrors? Then at the very end, can you make the player who is now in the role their playing, yell, "NOOOOOOO!!!!!"?

When done right, it may become a tragic experience for many players, and sometimes, just being able to pull that off is a laudable feat. Its one of those things where its the means that matter, and yet, you still want to make everything reasonable. A true tight rope act for game designers.

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I think you can have a bleak ending that doesn't feel futile. There's a quiet dignity to be derived from fading from the world at the right time. We've all seen Glory. Heck, EVERYbody dies at the end of that, and the notes tell you that Fort Wagner was never taken. I didn't feel despair after that. Nor did I feel bad at the end of Rocky. He trains and trains and cleans himself up and works out his personal problems and gets into the best shape of his life and steps into the ring for a chance at glory and fame and freaking loses. I'm okay with that.

I think that such an ending in a game could be good. What I wouldn't like would be an ending where I fight my heart out to beat the most super-tough boss ever, and then my hero dies in a cutscene after I worked so hard to win. I'd like to see a choice. I think it was Fallout Tactics that gave you a choice at the end to put a human brain into the killer machine and bring balance to the world. You can smash the machine, or put a military hero's brain in it. There are a few other options, and one of them is to put your brain in there. You die, but it's perhaps the best ending of all.

Player choice lends credibility to self-sacrifice. I don't want my character making that decision on his own after I've played for forty hours. Unless it's a party-based RPG. Then I don't give a rat's butt what happens to the characters. Except Tellah. Poor bastard. He tried so hard.

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As others mentioned previously, the loss, even for dramatic purposes, of your own character, is usually more annoying than anything else.
Tragedy usually works because it's happening to somebody else!
Because you can identify yourself with the person/character, because their humanity, their mistakes and failures, their successes and talents remind you of yourself, and despite the good points, it all ends in failure and despair.
But it's not you, and at the end of the show, you can walk away, hopefully having experienced catharsis.

The problem, then, is that you cannot have tragedy AND immersion/identification with the character. Having both only punishes the player : you give him control over his destiny, make him identify with the character, only to take all that away with a "dramatic moment"... that's bad DMing, period.
On the other hand, you can make the character be, well, a character. Separate from the player himself. Japanese cRPG tend to take that route more often, with the consequence that "proper" dramatic moments seem to be more common in those games (google "gaming saddest moment": there seems to be an innordinate amount of japanese RPGs in there...)
KotOR 2, for some mysterious reason, manages to be dramatic as a good japanese RPG, and yet, its ending manages to suck like a newborn on his mother's tit [sad]
So much f*cking potential, wasted for no good reason. It makes me want to turn to the Dark Side [wink]

But to stay on topic, I am not sure if creating a general feeling of bleakness would be very good for the game, though. Bleakness in a movie or theatre piece works because of the short time span. Bleakness over the course of 40 or so hours... well, I am not sure. I would be worried that the player just adapts himself, in which case you lose the dramatic impact, which is what the bleakness should be there for in the first place.
It's all about timing, I believe.

Max Payne, IMHO, got it right by being an FPS, with the cutscenes being clearly "film noir". The whole game has a dramatic vibe, but only unleashes the real drama once in a while, which is much better than being constantly reminded of the angst inside your character.

A low rumbling of distant thunder with the occasional thunderclap above your head, works much better than being in a thunderstorm for 40 bloody hours...

I mean, don't get me wrong, a game like Wraith : the Oblivion, or Kult (these are pen and paper RPG, btw) is absolutely and utterly bleak. Gee, the whole World of Darkness franchise is all about gloom and doom. So it can probably be done.

It just hasn't cos nobody has got the cojones to release an "artistic" game, nowadays. Here is wishing that somehow, the talent for drama of the japanese developers can be unleashed on something like the World of Darkness and made into a proper RPG.

Yeah, right... [rolleyes]

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Of recent games, I thought HL2 succeeded quite well in painting a bleak atmosphere. But after a short while, it gave you the usual tools to combat the oppressors (ie. guns & explosives) and that diminished the feeling of bleakness greatly.

Somehow the beginning of the initial post made me wonder of games that wouldn't do that, for example, you would only have your wits against the serial killer. And this, cliched as I am in my thinking, instantly made me think of a graphic adventure game :)

If thinking more of an action game, I guess it wouldn't be fun to just have to run away from danger all the time. The payoff should come eventually. But there could be ways to do this in less action-hero-cliche ways, like setting up MacGyver-like traps. It's just my guess, but if you'd feel less like a superman, you'd also identify stronger with the terror / bleakness / tragedy etc.

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Quote:
Original post by AgentC
Of recent games, I thought HL2 succeeded quite well in painting a bleak atmosphere. But after a short while, it gave you the usual tools to combat the oppressors (ie. guns & explosives) and that diminished the feeling of bleakness greatly.


What if even though you have all these guns, shooting the enemies doesn't solve the problem, because there are so many of them that you can never win by force alone?

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I think the pen and paper rpg "Call of Cthulu" manages this great, and I would like to see the same thing in a computer game. You can shoot cultists and other humans, but don't even think about going after the big guys.. If you see something slimy or big then RUN LIKE HELL!!! Here you'll have to find other ways to beat them. You'll have to do research, search for scrolls, artifacts or things like that to find a way to send these demons back to where they come from. So it's a mixture of things you can kill with a gun and things you'll have to run from until you've got the proper means to get rid of them..

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Well in my opinion ... if a player is killed or arrested the game isent over.
You might make a cenimatic where the player is getting killed/arrested, but the
person whom is playing the game will think " Man, if I could move him and shoot/runna away from them I might have a chance "

I think it is bad to hold down a player to a decsion a developer made...

So is a happy ending bad then ( Because the dev decide ? ) ? No because it feels like " I am done, I am truly free ... " no npcs treathing you !

Lets take some example ...

Would golden eye have been so good as it have been if Bond was arrested and held in the cell until he died ? Nah ... instead you get to escape IF you gamabilty is good enough ... ( which in many cases players are :-) ) but it lets the player decided what to do Stay die || Try escape ...

A good ending can only be found by someone that is great enough to force enemies
your way and make it a happy ending for you, by either killing them all or
completing tempels. Or if your not intrested in victory you will not make it.
Its as easy as that, meybe turing off the game should be more disaisfying for the player instead of stealing his goal.

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Quote:
Original post by pim
I think the pen and paper rpg "Call of Cthulu" manages this great, and I would like to see the same thing in a computer game. You can shoot cultists and other humans, but don't even think about going after the big guys.. If you see something slimy or big then RUN LIKE HELL!!! Here you'll have to find other ways to beat them. You'll have to do research, search for scrolls, artifacts or things like that to find a way to send these demons back to where they come from. So it's a mixture of things you can kill with a gun and things you'll have to run from until you've got the proper means to get rid of them..


Yep.. would work also in a scifi-themed game, for example the HL universe: make the player feel very small in the gigantic otherworldly structures, where undescribable things float and utilize mind control, paralyzing "abduction" white light & other nasty tricks. Guns & shooting the ordinary troops mean in the end nothing then, since these are the source of oppression.

I think HL2 sort of went for this "otherworldly menace" approach in the Citadel levels, but still made the player far too powerful to convey this effectively, except for the excellent prisoner casket rides. Well, maybe in HL3...

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Personally, I feel that most people are too used to "Hollywood endings" There's always something positive, even if its open ended. Self-sacrifice is positive in some ways too. However, life isn't like that.

There are situations where there is not win-win solution. In the end, all you can do is minimize your own losses. In the big picture, you may very well still lose. Sometimes, it is false hope that drives people to attempt and try what they can. However, to a certain extent, in the end, everything may still turn out to be futile. Its really just one big moral dilema.

I think it would take some guts and skill to properly explore some of these things in games. You can have situations where you have to make choices between bad outcomes. For example, in a war torn region where food is scarce even to yourself, do you save a kid from starvation by taking him back to some military sponsored orphanage where you know he'll just be sent out to fight and most likely die on the battle field? Or do you share you food rations with him, knowing that you may both die anyways eventually, just from lack of food? Or do you let him just die there and move on with enough food rations to maybe make it across the border to where there is food. And realistically, this can actually happen.

Of course, the challenge is just how much of this can you put in a game without turning people away. It may turn out to be a rather morbid game concept, which probably won't fly in the majority market. But just the brutal realism, to a certain extent, may find you a niche. It'll probably be a bit more intense and nerve racking than survival horror, since, its pretty much just survival, mentally and physically.

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I think the pen and paper rpg "Call of Cthulu" manages this great, and I would like to see the same thing in a computer game. You can shoot cultists and other humans, but don't even think about going after the big guys.. If you see something slimy or big then RUN LIKE HELL!!! Here you'll have to find other ways to beat them. You'll have to do research, search for scrolls, artifacts or things like that to find a way to send these demons back to where they come from. So it's a mixture of things you can kill with a gun and things you'll have to run from until you've got the proper means to get rid of them..


Martian Gothic was very similar to this. There were zombies that "Wake up" after a short while, and though the player can mow them down with guns, ammunition is extremely limited AND they get back up again afterawhile anyway. There was also these big Tri-thingies that would mow you over if you got in their way, so you had to find a way to get rid of them later on. The only problems with the game was that it as abit to linear in its thinking, so you had to pretty much follow a walkthrough-like path to get anything done.

Theif also did an alright job of feeling vulnerable as well. The player wouldn't last long in combat at all, so he was more motivated to get the f**k out of there and find another way of dealing with opponents. ;D

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Interesting. There are many questions raised implicitly.

One and the first I'll tackle is: do you really want a bleak game? I know I want, but let's go into detail a bit.
Movie comparison: Seven.
Now, I saw that movie, and after that ending, I left the theather very mad and depressed. Never watched the movie again. The ending really got to me. Yet, to whoever asks, I tell the movie is great. It achieves exactly what it set out to achieve.
If I was to play a game with a Seven-like ending, I wouldn't replay it. Not a happy thought.

Second: In a game, as someone said, we're talking 40 hours of bleakness. If you manage to make it work, you'll have one helluva depressed player. For more bleakness (and the explanation to tragic RPGs) check out some Japanese movies. As Hollywood has a tradition of happy endings, Japan (and China too I believe) has a tradition of bleak endings.

Back in topic, One game I found achieved this is Silent Hill 2. Spoiler warning! When you find Laura the knife girl, and you realise the monster you save her from, to her looked like her father trying to rape her, and then everything lights on fire and she goes "you see it too? it's always like this for me". (to whoever didn't get that, she lit her house on fire after the fact and in the process killed her mother. In the graveyard at the beginning she's looking for her.)

Now that is some bleak stuff. The endings have the same tone. I really liked that, but the more you enjoy it, the more it brings you down. Maybe you could have a bleak game and a cheer up ending? or a cheer up post-ending? Bleak endings do not always seem like a loss (specially when you see character growth), but leave you missing something. Then again maybe it's just a cultural trait.

BTW I totally agree with the explosives thing. They need to be taken more seriously. Also, grieving people in games (and irl) give me the creeps every time. I have no point anymore so i'll end this post :)

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FOr a bleak ending that didn't quite make me hate it the way Seven did, take a look at Colossus: The Forbin Project. Awesome.

The new Dawn of the Dead remake had a neat double-ending, where you go into the credits with a sail-into-the-sunset ending, and during the rolling credits you get glimpses that show it to be a sail-into-peril ending, with a very tight spot at the end. Evil Dead managed something like this.

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Quote:
Original post by Madster

Back in topic, One game I found achieved this is Silent Hill 2.


I was about to say Silent Hill 4. It's also very bleak; the main character is basically trapped in his apartment the entire game, and can only crawl through a hole in the bathroom into a weird nightmare world, or bang hopelessly on the door and walls trying to get people to hear him. Plus every level of the game is about some tragic event and usually ends with one of the few nice people in the game getting slaughtered. A lot of "survival horror" games maintain that feeling of helplessness and bleakness the whole time; games like The Suffering and Fatal Frame, for example. Most of them also have unhappy endings, though there is usually some kind of resolution: even if you don't "win", you should get something, like finding out who the killer really was, or what was really going on, or what the strange runes in the book really meant.

However, I think the audience for really bleak games is less than the audience for bleak movies/music. If you're watching a depressing movie, you usually feel like you have to sit through the whole thing to see it through to the end, which is an hour and a half. With a game that you have to play in multiple sittings, if you end up getting depressed every time you play, you might just give up. For instance, Requiem for a Dream is a really depressing movie, and I watched it twice, but if it was a game, I don't think I'd have the will to play through the whole thing if it just kept getting more and more miserable.

But of course there's the idea of moderation. Just because you're making the game "bleak" doesn't mean you have to strive to make it the most depressing, agonizing, heartbreaking event in the world. I think you can be very bleak and intersperse it with some dark humor and romance and come out just fine.

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Interesting, you mentioned bleak music and that made me think it over.

I know several people who listen to bleak music ALL the time, and love it. So I guess... why not for a game?

about the tone, yeah you could keep things interesting by making it a little light-hearted at times (not funny ha-ha but smallish grin funny), or having good things happen once in a while (the kind that gives you fuzzy warm feelings)

Silent Hill 4 was bleak too. If the voice of Harry T. was a bit less whiny I would have felt quite sorry for the guy. And his constant mumbling.

Oh something else! this might sound silly but if you think it over it makes sense:
The bigger a character is onscreen, the more you relate to it.
(of course, there are other factors too)
Simple!

because in our 3D world this relates to distance, and if you constantly see someone close to you, you wind up relating. Even if it's in a negative way. Remember that thing psychologists say about the size of the people in children's drawings? :)

So in order to develop attachment, you need the characters to stay close and figure a way to have them zoomed up. I've noticed that whenever I bring non-gamer friends to my place and there's a game with a character up close, they ask about it.
You gotta be able to make out their face at the very least.

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Probably some mechanics that would help....

- Close-ups of detailed facial expressions, which means we'll need expressive faces in game
- zoom outs that are just enough to see body language....something that requires good acting as well
- the proper camera angles can also show a persons emotions and inner turmoil (something like how hitchcock always uses a slanted camera angle when something weird is about to happen)
- being able to hear internal monologues or stream of thoughts of the character, if done right, can put you further into his mind set.

Just some common things to throw in. Bleakness isn't something that should just be in the script, its something that involves the entire atmosphere to be done right. Sometimes, even if the script isn't dark, the general atmosphere can drive the whole tone. Its kind of like how a good actor can protray a dozen different emotions just by saying the phrase "Thank you." in the proper fashion.

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Maybe you should wipe out the whole family of the alter ego in the course of the game and let the player die too after defeating his evil. Or let his girlfriend, or long time friend die in the end.
I like those endings which leave you in a dark and heavy mood.

But letting the player die before he can finish his mission is really senseless because i probably do so 10 times in 5 minutes when playing ;)

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Excellent point, hoLogramm.

Maybe one of the reasons we react so poorly to our character's death is the fact that his death has never meant the end of the game before. We've thrown him down holes, impaled him on spikes, fed him to monsters, riddled him with bullets and burned him to a cinder time after time after time. He always gets up, and he always tries again. It's the standard FFVII question: Why didn't they just toss a fenix down at Aeris? She'd been killed more gruesomely than that before.

So killing a player character as though he was an NPC (read: permanently) drives a real wedge between the character and the player. The second time through FFVII, did anyone get close to Aeris? No. She was meat on a stick from the moment you met her. Don't waste money getting her gear, don't waste time levelling her. She isn't really part of the team. She's a plot device.

If you let the story eclipse the player's role in a game, then the player will begin thinking like an audience member, and only identify himself with the characters that are going to see it through to the end. After all, I'm going to be in front of the TV all the way through the game. A character who won't match my endurance is not fit to be my avatar.

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Quote:
Original post by WeirdoFu
Bleakness isn't something that should just be in the script, its something that involves the entire atmosphere to be done right.


Absolutely right! and you can even take that and apply it right to gameplay. For example, take your standard healing potion. Prince of Persia would have to stop and drink water from whatever.

What if, in order to regain health, your character would have to sit... and weep?
just sit quietly, leaning aganist a wall... and cry in silence, uninterrupted.
After a short while of this he/she would be okay to continue.

now that tells you something about the feelings of your main character towards what's going on.


Edit: if you think that would unbalance a game, check Halo's shield. Same deal, only halo is faster.

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It would be interesting to see some games involve you in a cause more than in a character.. that is: you've got a task to complete, but you're not controlling "yourself". Perhaps you're a ghost that wants revenge or have to save his/her former partner/lover/whatever. Now you need to get people in the mortal realm to perform tasks for you. Their death might be a big setback and also a personal loss since you might be using an old friend or you've grown attached to the person, but you'll keep on going.

Another interesting take on this is the thought of the cause being greater than your own life. In an adventure game you might sacrifice yourself (the character) for a greater cause. The game might then continue with another character in another place. The player might have become attached to the character, but sees that the sacrifice had to be made.

Edit: It could also be possible for the player to choose whether to sacrifice the character for the cause, or save him and suffer the setback for the cause.

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