Heya Space Cadets,
I know I had said I’d probably do a big info-drop today and show the document I’ve been working on, but with Valentine’s Day having absolutely creamed my time last night, I didn’t have enough time to get stuff cleaned up and ready to be published. Part of what caught my eye and distracted me from my appointed task was the hilariously bad launch day of the Aliens: Colonial Marines game. Why did this catch my eye? I read several articles, some by people going so far as to say that it is impossible (or nearly so) to create a game based on the Aliens franchise that doesn’t suck. I take issue to that, but I’m a sucker for an obvious fix, especially when its the whole fun aspect that someone misses.
Colonial Marines is going to need a really long postmortem, and I haven’t even played the game so I’m not going to criticize one element or another from a personal perspective. What is clear is that the game suffers from a few big problems:
First, its buggy and unfinished. This much is clear from a lot of problems with the AI, the animation, and so forth. This isn’t really a criticism about the developer, its just a problem when a project changes hands so many times and endures such a lengthy development. It would have been really nice if the game hadn’t been buggy, but it was. Let’s move on.
Second, it set expectations way too high by putting out a demo that over-delivered on the final product. I’ve talked about demos recently, and I like the idea of the ‘vertical slice’ demo that shows different events all crammed together in order to give players a tantalizing glance that leaves them wanting more. Someone must have put a lot of work into that demo though, because they made a demo that seems to have been dramatically stronger than the actual game. How did that happen? Did assets get cut to make them work on consoles? I know that happens quite a bit, and it is probably the biggest, most inexcusable travesty I can think of, but for it to go from well thought out to poorly thought out seems to indicate that there was a substantial bit of work on that demo on an intellectual level that never made it into the game.
Third, it fails in the most fundamental level, Tone and Intention, and that’s what I wanted to touch on today and then expand tomorrow.
Nothing about this will be surprising. When you make an Aliens game and market it as the sequel to an incredibly beloved Action/Horror/Suspense movie, players assume that what they’re getting is an experience similar to what the movies created. Right? Okay. So how is it that so little of the game focuses on the Marines struggling against this alien menace? The game went to great lengths to brand itself as a sequel to the Aliens movie and to use settings, storylines, and even characters from the Alien franchise as a foundation for the game. This sets it apart from an Aliens versus Predators game that is very willing to get a bit goofy with the situations to make it work.
Now, normally I’d say being forced to play nice with a setting hamstrings good development, but Aliens is really the perfect setting for making a great game. It plays to all the strengths of an interactive medium, far more than the original Alien did, and a lot more than most of the Survival Horror or just plan Horror games out there. Conventional wisdom is that making a movie adaptation results in a watered down experience, often with an uninteresting game that gets battered up and fried in the style of the original as a blatant fan-service cash grab. You do see that a lot, but it isn’t the fault of the IP that is is taken and used poorly, but the fault of the people creating the game.
Just like how I defend narrative from bad games, I will defend the idea of making a movie adaptation game by saying that movies and games have very different benchmarks for a successful experience, but most games based on moves tend towards the action, adventure, or horror genres. These are genres filled with situations that excite the viewer and make them want to enact those experiences on their own, which makes them marketable as a game. I’m surprised there was no game tie-in for 300 that I can think of, or for the Avengers, at least not yet, or maybe only on a handheld or something similar. I didn’t hear about it so it can’t possibly exist. Things like this mean that that a game based on that franchise generally has two main draws.
First, the appeal of the action. If you’re playing a game based on Aliens, you want to endure the same kinds of harrowing situations that they did in the movies. You don’t want to gun down legions of aliens because they didn’t do that in the movie and it would be counter-tonal in a very obvious way. Similarly, if you’re playing an Indiana Jones game, you’re not looking to spend a lot of time hiding from monsters or monitoring a sanity gauge. You may not expect to gun down hordes of Nazis in an Indiana Jones game, but Indie usually kills around 20 or so people in his movies, and that’s a decent bodycount for an Adventure Game don’t you think? It would also be against the tone to show Indie cowering from monsters–he’s a man of action in a lighthearted film that has only occasional dark turns. When people make games based off of movies and they fail to appeal to the same sensibilities as the movie, its no wonder it comes out poorly.
The second main draw from a franchise are the franchise accouterments, like the characters and settings and iconic gizmos. It would be hard to make a game out of a movie with no great stuff to show off, which is why I think a lot of the very ‘samey’ modern combat games end up having to go nuts with the plot-lines. There’s nothing else to show. But if you have a strong enough character or a cool enough device you can really go with that. The Batman Arkham games may not be amazingly complex in a lot of ways, but they nail some of setting elements that people really like, which does a great job of putting you into that world. It also doesn’t feel the need to duplicate the same Batman as any other source that I can point out, and that lets them make a tie-in or licensed game without it being just a “Dark Knight Rises” game or whatever.
If they end up wanting to make a good Star Trek game, they may not want to set it either in the Shatner-Kirk or the Young-Kirk worlds, but take an Arkham approach and just put their toe into both worlds and create their own. Using the iconic characters, taking a good deal of the stylizing from both depictions, and being able to use iconic settings and gizmos like The Enterprise would make for a very interesting proposition. Now, how do you make that kind of a game?
You would want to stop and ask, hey, what’s cool about this, and go from there. We can talk a bit more about that tomorrow, let’s get back to Aliens. In Alien and Aliens, that appeal is terror, suspense, the horror of the unknown, and a little bit of girl power. How do you mess this formula up?
1) You take out the terror by making the enemies stupid and easy to kill. In the first movie the crew had no real weapons and almost nothing to defend themselves with against an unknown monster that is killing them off one by one. In the second movie they had lots of people, they knew what they were fighting, and they had a ton of firepower. The protagonists still ended up getting overwhelmed and outmatched up until the very end. Both of these situations depend on giving the humans an advantage (in the first, numbers and size, in the second, planning and technology) and then yanking it out from under them. If your game is just going to spoon-feed the player a series of corridor shooting sections against a fairly standard foe you’re draining the terror out of it.
2) Removing the surprise factor and repeating the waves of aliens too often. Suspense is a big part of generating fear, and games have a hard time with it. How do you generate proper suspense in a game that doesn’t let you pull the kinds of point of view tricks that a movie does, or mess with the audience? First, the player knows the situation, they know there are going to be aliens. But what they don’t need to know is when and where you’re going to start dropping them. The use of monster closets and enemy waves is detrimental to the design because it treats the aliens as an environmental menace rather than an opposition force. The terror that the aliens cause by exploding out of ducts or sneaking into dark corners or running around the walls and ceilings is lost on the players if all you do is spit them out and launch them at the player. If you can find ways of showing the player signs that they are being tracked without making it a pre-scripted event, go for it. That’s actually not as hard as you think.
3) Horrors of the unknown are pointless unless we have something yet unknown. Sure, one of the ways to do that is to throw in some new critter designs, but of all the pillars of the movies, I’d say this is the least important. I love watching Alien and Aliens now even though I know everything there is to know about them. I don’t always want to see a new design, I love the iconic original and I have no problems keeping with that one. What the designers could do to create an unknown horror though is to make it difficult for the player to know where they’re going and what they’re doing. Many people have said Amnesia in Space. What about Far Cry in Space? Sure, an open-world Aliens game might sound entirely cliche, but if you mix the game up enough that there’s no obvious way through, you’re taking away a lot of their ability to plan, predict, and prepare for the enemy attacks. You have to make it unpredictable in a broad strokes way, and then you’ll get a lot more Horror bang for your buck from every little thing you add in.
4) Girl power nowhere to be seen! I’m not saying you need to make another Ripley, but there’s nothing wrong with trying to add just a drop of a feminine protagonist appeal when games are mired in a debate about their sexist depictions of women and the game you’re making is based on one of the big name-brands to feature strong female protagonists. Hell, the second move was even heavily invested with female themes. Want to know a good one that even a non-gamer picks up on really fast? Newt in Aliens is an instant, powerful reason for Ripley to risk everything. Threatening children? Absolutely no good. How about if the character in Aliens wasn’t just some space marine woman, but maybe a colonist who has a family? Maybe part of what you’re trying to do is get out of whatever the hellish environment you in without losing your three kids? Can you imagine trying to keep three kids from getting eaten by the Xenos? I swear, people are going to pull some seriously crazy stuff to do that, especially if you make damned sure those kids are never an escort-quest style burden. If one is young enough to carry in your offhand and another is old enough to fire a weapon, I think you have the makings of a pretty intense Last Stand moment right there.
Yes, it might be controversial, but I also think it’d be powerful. Better to court a bit of controversy and make something that actually tells a story, but this would need to be very well written to make it both not-annyoing and not-forced. Plus, it is an Aliens game, and these themes have existed in the franchise for many installments.
The last thing I want to get to before jumping onboard a bigger-picture element tomorrow is an idea I’ve seen a ton. It’s not surprising that people, having seen just how badly the game is handling the source material, come back instantly and say “Why not just make Amnesia in Space, with Xenos instead of the monsters?”
This is honestly not a terrible idea, and I think it highlights one of the weaknesses of approaching an Aliens game like a shooter. I heard one commentator say that the Aliens franchise is unable to produce good games because the Xenomorphs are, as a rule, not well suited to a campaign. They say the aliens would be too powerful, that the sense of terror entirely lost because the player has no sense of the unknown, and that the effectiveness of seeing a squad of soldiers torn apart would fall apart because the player would be immersed in this situation rather than horrified at seeing it happen going on around them, powerless.
That’s kinda bullshit. Tomorrow, I’ll explain a bit more why I think so.
Spacelab Signing Out
Late entry here, coming in at close to dinnertime. Hope you all are having a great weekend, and stop by tomorrow!
Neil Wickman now really wants to make a Star Trek game.
He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.