Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Good Game's Ghost

In last week's podcast, Jorge and I tried to wrap our minds around examples of "B," kitsch, and camp games. It started me thinking about games that, while not necessarily "bad," try to do some interesting things and wind up coming up short. It seems that the middle ground between Broken Pixels and GOTY is a sparsely populated one, so I wanted to elaborate on one of my favorite "splendid failures:" Geist.

Three big concepts that Geist swung at...and missed:

1. The Story

The Swing: The game's silent protagonist, research scientist John Raimi, suddenly becomes embroiled in a sinister plot in which secret scientific experiments are being used to unleash demonic beasts from another dimension into our world. Raimi battles his way through extra-governmental troops as well as creatures of the occult. It is refreshing spin on the traditional "space marine in an alien universe" story.

The Miss: Unfortunately, Gordon Freeman robbed the game of some of its novelty in 1998. And again in 2004.

2. The Possession System

The Swing: After an unfortunate run in with the game's mad scientist/resident occultist, Raimi becomes separated from his body, turned into an ethereal being invisible to the naked eye, and gains the power of ghostly possession. This ability opens up intriguing and novel gameplay scenarios: Raimi can posses people to glean information from their memories or employ their skills. Animals can also be possessed and utilized in solving puzzles or navigating environments closed off to humans. Possession of inanimate objects is also possible, and over the course of the game Raimi possesses everything from an shower heads to turrets.

The Miss: The possession mechanic becomes its own undoing by fostering the player's imagination. While the player seems to be in command of a possessed person or object, the effective control that can be exerted over the host is extremely limited. When possessed, most humans have similar skills and identical controls. The prospect of possessing a rat is fun initially, but the sheen wears off when it becomes apparent its main powers are to run and squeak; no biting or clawing for these gentle rodents. Because of technical limitations, Raimi can only possess certain objects in any given room. While it is neat to take control of an old TV and blow it up, the game's narrative suggests that Raimi could just as easily take control of the coffee table holding it up. Unfortunately, only certain items seem susceptible to Raimi's ethereal powers. It was a noble attempt, but the hardware running the game (and the GameCube was no slouch!) simply did not have the power to convey the interactivity necessary to back up the game's concept.

3. The Identity Crisis: Shooting or Sleuthing?

The Swing: The game alternates between standard first-person shooter gun battles and adventure sequences in which the player must determine how to use the environment to scare someone, thereby making them vulnerable to possession. The gun battles range from fighting human military forces to hellish monsters and include a variety of fps tropes like turret sequences, escort missions, and timed battles. In the possession sequences, the pace is slowed and the player must determine how best to terrorize potential hosts by utilizing objects in the environment.

The Miss: While finding objects with which to scare a person is fun, it soon becomes apparent that there is only one solution to each puzzle. As discussed in the aforementioned section, a very limited number of objects can be possessed. Even if it would make logical sense to scare a person by possessing some books and hurling a few at them, if the books are not the key to the puzzle, they are not interactive and the player is out of luck. While inventive, the limited puzzles are jarring since they exist in what seems to be a perfect environment for testing the ingenuity of the player. Instead of fostering creativity, many challenges degenerate into using the "examine" command on every object in a room until the glowing one appears.

The shooting, while serviceable, does not set the game apart from high budget smash hits like Half-life or Halo. Some wonky aiming, cheap AI, and questionable frame rates add frustration to mundane missions and inspires more longing for non-existent in-depth possession puzzles.

Despite all of its shortcomings, or more accurately because of them, I admire this game. The sci-fi story, possession mechanics, and gameplay variety all show that both N-Space and Nintendo were looking to put out a bold, inventive title. The game provides fun in the form of short bursts of ingenuity. There are some gruesome monsters, and playing poltergeist is entertaining.

The game fell victim to bad timing. It was just released before the developers could sort out the balance between adventure and gun play, before Nintendo could provide the audience necessary for a new intellectual property to succeed, and before consoles could make possible the kind of interactivity necessary to support the game's story.

With Geist, it is clear that the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.


  1. Ghost Hunter - awesome game, totally campy, and I don't think it failed to deliver in any way.

  2. I've never played Geist, but it looks like it had real potential. Too bad it didn't come together just right. I like the voyeurism of being an invisible spectre and I love the idea of being able to possess people in a game. I think you could do a lot with that feature... in fact, you could make a game where your character's only ability is to control other people's minds. If your character was powerless outside of his ability to control others minds and had a control scheme similar to Robot Alchemic Drive, you would have an excellent game on your hands with a mechanic that could provide an opportunity for both interesting puzzles and strategic acction based on the unique characteristics of the enemies you possess.

    It loosely reminds me of one of my favorite Shmups on the Genesis-- Gaiares. In that game you had a weapon that would lock onto enemies and steal whatever powers they had so that you could use that power instead.

    The innovations in Geist also remind me of innovations in the underlooked games Second Sight, Psychonauts, and Psi Ops for the PS2. All of those games gave you a litany of different psychic and paranormal abilities. Playing them made me wonder why more games didn't incorporate psychic/paranormal elements because it was so fun to be able to use telekineses to throw your enemies around or astral projection to spy on them. Everybody loves the old question "if you could have any super power, what would it be?" so it seems strange that more games don't have characters with these superpowers.

  3. Do you recall the 'possession' gimmick in Nomad Soul?

    You could swap bodies throughout the game - either when you died or when you wished. However, the implementation was poorly thought out.

    As an example, I decided to swap my body for that of a nubile 17 year old student. As the game required you to level up your skills, I then put her through her paces in the training and arena areas, until she was a nubile 17 year old who could also kill you with her bare hands.

    I then ran up against a quest where I had to entice a shopkeeper in order to learn the location of the secret entrance to an enemy base (which is plainly visible in the nearby river but the lever to open the grate won't work until he tells you that's how it works, but that's another issue). Except, my perky young lady somehow couldn't charm him - only by possessing the presumably more weathered 38 year old escort nearby was the sexy dialogue enabled and access to the base granted.

    Fuming as my old body (which I'd grown rather attached to) faded away (once you left a body, it vanished) I made my way into the base only to find that fighting skills didn't transfer bodies, and I was now in the middle of battle! ARRRRGH!

  4. Man, you all made me do some serious Googling to keep up with those references!

    Looks like there have been quite a few ghost/paranormal games over the years.

    I've been thinking about why it is difficult to implement psychic and supernatural gameplay. It's a bit half baked, but my working theory is that psychic ability is something seen as innate, something that does not have to be learned; you either have it or you do not.

    We often think of telekinesis or mind reading as effortless, so when we come across it in a game (something with technical and arbitrary constraints) it often feels "off."

  5. I clawed my way through about half of this game before the linearity, much like you point out, finally just ruined it for me. It would make a fascinating mod for GTA or some other sandbox game but as a linear shooter the mechanic did not match the overall design.

    Still want my Quantum Soldier video game too damnit...

  6. @L.B.

    Hmmm...a ghost-mod in GTA. When Jack Thompson finds out about the secret "Swayze" scene, it will be "hot coffee" all over again.

  7. Nice one! I think I need to try this. I enjoy those half-baked games.
    One comment:

    ... the hardware running the game (and the GameCube was no slouch!) simply did not have the power to convey the interactivity necessary to back up the game's concept.

    I think there were similar misconceptions with the "Scribblenauts" game. The kind of interactivity you are talking about is not depended on hardware specs! The limitations are 100% on the budget side: you need to define and produce all the possibilities. You need to create animations, cut-scenes, voice-overs for every possible combination. Afterwards, you need to test it, localize etc.. Each additional element increases the amount of content exponentially while the perceived length of the game for the player remains the same. That's why game developers usually stick to linear puzzles with one given solution. Getting that content running on a GameCube would be no problem though. I presume it would be even possible on a PS1.

  8. You definitely know way more about game design/tech issues than I do, and it's nice to hear from people that can explain the technical issues to us laymen. However, I'm still having a hard time shaking the feeling that hardware never matters.

    For example, remember the expansion pack for N64? Games like Zelda: Majora's Mask couldn't run without it and games like Turok 2 could run in 640x480 with it. As far as I remember, it was basically just some extra ram. Is this an example of the hardware acting as a limiting factor?

    Of course, I think your point is right on: with enough time, resources, and money, developers can make magic on any hardware!

  9. Actually, I never owned a N64 but keep in mind that it was the very first 3D console so basically even having the simplest of graphics on screen was already pushing the system to it's boundaries. Also the N64 still had cartridges which had small memory and so content-heavy games were more difficult.

    Since the Dreamcast, technical limitation almost only apply to graphical things such as how much polygons you can display at any given time or how big the resolution of the textures is. At least for the stationary consoles.

    The weird thing that as soon as a technology gets that kind of muscle, the power overhead is often not used on better in-game features (graphics, ai, etc.) but on features that make developing games easier and less expensive - like less optimized one-size-fits-all third party engines or flexible and comfortable high-level programming environments.

    It's pretty funny how we have these computers that are so much more powerful that - say - 10 years ago. Yet we are pushing them to the limits by launching some flash games that do the same kind of graphics that were available 10 years ago already. The difference is that a 14 year old kid can do now what a high-end programming genius could only do back then.