Agatha Christie triumphs over Snow-Eater, Mario and Final Fantasy

I was clearing a part of a cupboard so my brother could store his collection of Agatha Christie books. I thought I might as well let you see what kind of junk I had… Among the contents were my university prospectus, game cartridges (from Sega and Super Famicon), comic book sword collectibles and tons of game guides and manuals.

Emotions, storytelling and Heavy Rain

I wept. A few times in fact. Before I get there, let me bring you to the beginning. No, not so far as the Big Bang…

[Note: Strictly speaking, this is not a game review. Go somewhere else if you are looking for that. And there are spoilers ahead…]

Curiosity brought me to YouTube

I was browsing the racks in a game store. Even though I’m not a game fanatic anymore, I like browsing to see what kind of games there are. I believe game development (and the demoscene) pushes software development to the extreme.

So. I saw this game called Heavy Rain. Hmm… multiple endings, multiple story branching. Interesting. But it wasn’t “I must buy this game and run home so I can play this game for the next 72 hours!” interesting.

I was sort of in the middle of playing another game (Bayonetta if you must know…), and I kind of suck at it. I mean I completed the game on easy mode, but really wanted to do more in it. Then I remembered YouTube might have, uh, playthrough videos of the game. So I surfed YouTube.

Anyway, I found someone who totally pwned that game, and finished watching the stuff I had missed out in the game. Then I looked at what else he created. There it was, a Heavy Rain playthrough. But it wasn’t complete. So I looked and found another YouTuber who did complete the game and uploaded the entire video series.

Where the horror and sadness started

It was a Saturday early afternoon. I sat down comfortably in front of my computer, and proceeded to watch the game playthrough. And the story unfolded…

About 95% of the game occurred in the rain. And the rendering was exceptional. You could see the spattering of rain drops on top of the car, on rain puddles on the road, on the human characters in the game. There’s a sinister link of the wet weather to the story (hence the title).

What I was also amazed with, was the human facial expression. During loading screens, the face of the character you’re about to play was on screen. I mean the head fills up the entire screen. You could see the pores on the face. What’s more awesome than the realistic facial texture, was the realistic facial animation. There was cheek twitching. The head turned left and right seemingly spontaneously. The eyes wiggled this way and that.

How far had game development gone in terms of motion capture?

So with realistic human body movement and facial expressions, the game creators went on to create the most compelling game story I had ever experienced. There were no stats such as your strength, your health points and so on. You had no inventory. You had no need of skills such as climbing, swinging, jumping and other acrobatic manoeuvres.

The game started out slow, with simple tutorials to teach you how to play the game. You perform actions such as brushing your teeth, showering, turning on radios. It was your main character’s older son’s birthday, and you played with your two children, and helped your wife in setting the table. It was like a crash course in family bonding.

And I had no idea how insidiously deep I was in the clutches of the game creators and storytellers…

there are some things which just have to happen even if you don’t want them to… – Ethan Mars

That quote by your main character was like a foreshadowing of how the entire game was like. *sniff* I’m, I’m sorry.

In the video above, the sequence on the playing with your son also trains you when future quick time events, in particular fights, occur. In the later part of the video, your son got separated from you. The music turns sinister. The crowd keeps bumping into you, keeping you away. It’s like the worst thing ever. Note the frantic search for the red balloon.

And at the end of that video, a most tragic thing happened.

I wept.

A game that made me cry. Because I identified with the character, and his loss somehow transferred to me.

Now I have to say, I’m already susceptible. I’m enamoured with Caucasians, have a predilection for the Western culture, and have dreams of building a family. If I didn’t know any better, I would say the game creators were out to get me. Making me feel for the character and then take away something so important to him (and thus me).

Entrepreneur support

One cannot underestimate the amount of support and encouragement an entrepreneur needs.

Then there was my current situation. I had a lot of conflicting constraints. Emotions run high. Doubts surround me. My mind was in turmoil.

I mean, I’m working out to gain the physique of a Calvin Klein underwear model, then I have to eat more to gain muscle mass, but I have to be careful of my food and other expenses, which is hard because sometimes I need to invest in business education, which means I have less time to do the things I enjoy, but I freaking quit my job so I can enjoy them…

Uh, what was I talking about again?

So, I want you to take note of how differently the game creators wrap you into their story. Broad generalisation, typically games allow you to control something or someone. They give you a rich environment to explore, hoping to cloud you from realising the illusion that there are limits to the game world, terrain wise or action options wise.

They feed you nuggets of information such as the type of guns available, types of magic, any special items to boost your abilities, the little pieces of conversation from non-player characters (NPCs), the realistic rendering of foliage, the uncannily true physics of a car crashing. All to take you away from the “real” world and into their world. That’s what games are supposed to do, right?

Heavy Rain makes you perform activities that you normally do in your life. There are no immense environments to explore, because you’re exploring the character you’re roleplaying. You’re immersed in the game, you’re invested in the game, you’re totally and completely and absolutely dying to know what’s going to happen next because

The prison of the mind is the strongest prison of all

The game creators made you feel for the character, and thus captured your mind.

And you know what else? There’s no inventory, no stats to optimise for, no weapons, no armour, and minimal world exploration. What’s left? Choices. Your choices. You are keenly aware of your choices because they are about the only thing you can do in the game. And your choices sometimes affect the story so much that consequences are huge. Characters can die. That’s what your choices can do.

To quickly run through the story to my next point, the main character Ethan’s other son was kidnapped by the Origami killer. The Origami killer only kills boys, and there’s always an origami figure and an orchid on or beside the body of the boy. And the killer only kills in the fall, when the rain is falling *cue sinister music*

During story splitting to cut into another character’s event, there would be some text such as “Tuesday, 9:52 PM, 1.394 inches”. I could understand the purpose of the date and time. But the length escaped me. Until an in-game character, an agent from one of those American agencies (I can’t state the 3 letter acronym of the agency because apparently there was some law about the use of the 3 letter acronym. I’ll give you a hint: Mulder and Scully used to work there.) figured out that the victim died when the rainfall was about 6 inches. As the story progressed, that length (or more correctly, the height) kept increasing. And my sense of urgency kept rising.

“Please, please, please let them be in time!”

I mean, of course you’ll be in time. All the feel-good movies end so. But this is a story branching game. There is most probably an ending where Ethan’s son was never saved. *sniff*

So the Origami killer gave Ethan 5 tasks. If he could complete them, Ethan would know the location where his son was kept. I’ll show you the video for the 3rd task, because… I’ll just let you judge for yourself.

[Warning: the event in the video might be upsetting to you. You’ve been warned.]

I wept.

After I saw that happen, I had this intense urge to find the Origami killer, jam my hand into his throat and rip his heart out. While he’s alive. That scene tore me up at a fundamental level.

I know it’s a game. I know it’s fake. But the game creators really messed me up badly with that. And thank goodness I’m not playing the game, because I might be torn up by the choices I had to make. Yes, I know it’s a game. Yes, I know it’s fake. *deep breath* I’m fine. Really.

The moral of the story

What have we been talking about? A game. Fundamentally a program with text, graphics, music, and a whole bunch of polygons moving around.

People crave stories. Whether it’s real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes they want an improved version of whatever life they’re leading. Sometimes they want to be in a world where it’s nothing like their life. Books, movies, and games allow people to escape. Exchanging stories with friends and family allow people to step into other people’s lives.

Programming a game has gone up many levels. You need the art of storytelling.

And the theme music haunted me for days after…

Obsessive character sheeting

So I was alone and bored of creating perfect characters. Tired of flipping through the rule books, I returned to my other hobby: playing video games.

At this point in my young life, I was also mildly fascinated with notepads. Small booklets, large A4 sized pads, lined pages, blank pages, thick pages, recycled paper. I was itching to write something on a piece of paper.

And I started “documenting” my games.

[Warning: What follows are some drawn out descriptions of games long past. You may or may not be interested in the relevance. Read on at your own risk.]

There was this platform game called Mappy Kids. You took the form of a mouse travelling through the levels, acquiring cash. Your goal was to acquire enough cash to buy stuff, to build a house, so you could win the heart of the female rodent of your dreams.

Your main form of attack was the kick. The power ups altered your kick. The normal kick sent an enemy straight horizontally away from you. A lightning kick sent an enemy flying away in a zig zag manner, bouncing from the bottom to the top of the screen. The loop-de-loop kick sent the enemy rolling in a wide circle.

Well, the kicks were fascinating, but they really came into play when you’re in 2 player mode. In 2 player mode, both of you compete to build that dream house. When you kicked an enemy into the other player, the other player would lose a stash of cash. If you’re quick, you could grab that stash. The various power kicks made it hard to avoid the enemy, who’s flying in a certain pattern. The fun multiplied when the other player, when timed correctly, kicked the kicked enemy again, sending the enemy flying back towards you.

What’s this got to do with character sheets? And programming? Well, I started jotting down notes on the power ups. And health bars. And the cash value. And items bought. To do this, I needed to understand the game play, not just as a gamer, but as a programmer. The programmer in me started translating game elements of that mouse I was controlling into representable code elements, namely variables. Not so much on game/code logic. I didn’t know about programming or even have a computer back then.

And I started on a rampage to turn every game into representable character sheets, even action games. Do you remember Super Mario Brothers 3 (which incidentally started me on the path of self-learning Japanese)? The game had the novel concept of storing power ups. Stars (for invincibility), feathers (for that tail for whacking), flowers (for that fireball throwing ability) and others. There wasn’t much to document, just power ups and the level you were at and stuff.

Then there was “Hitler’s Revenge”, based on the Chinese game book manual I have (yes, I still have some of those game manuals). It’s titled “Bionic Commando” in America due to it’s controversial name.

I played the version in the earlier parts of the above video (click through to the post if you can’t view it in your feed reader). The main mechanism of play is the hook. You use it to hook onto something, usually as a means of moving from one place to another. I’ll let the video show you what I mean.

There were others. I managed to distill the game elements onto paper. I learnt to store game statistics. How do I store this item? How do I know if the character has that power in the game?

As I tried my hand at game development, I asked myself questions such as, “Do I use words, or numbers to represent them?” or “Should I use int or byte?”

With a little more data (such as game progress), a character sheet is basically the game data. What do you need to keep track of when the player saves? The character sheet. When the player wants to resume game play, just load the character sheet. Because it contains everything you need to continue the game.