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The Wow Factor

The Witcher 2 - widely acclaimed as one of the most graphically advanced games of the current generation

The Witcher 2 seems to be everywhere at the moment. It sounds like a hell of a game, and I wish I had the hardware to play it. But alongside how great everyone is saying the game is to play, I keep hearing also how good it looks. And that makes me at once strangely wistful and nostalgic, and yet filled with excitement and anticipation. Because I remember that feeling, way back down in the dim, distant, murky parts of my gaming history, that feeling of being blown away by the visual impact of a game. And I really thought it had gone forever.

I was never a console boy. My first encounters with video games was on the 8-bit computing platforms of the ’80s, from the awful graphics of the ZX Spectrum with its eight shade palette and colour bleed to the much more advanced Commodore 64, the graphical powerhouse of its day. The games were new, thrilling, breathlessly exciting things to my virgin generation, unused to technological toys, and for the most part they looked like shit. But we didn’t care: this was the birth of the home gaming movement, and we were too busy being joyously carried along on the crest of a new wave to think about the future.

But the future came, nevertheless. It came in the form of 16-bit computing. I can remember still, with extraordinary vividness for a day more than 20 years ago, coming home from school and having my parents ask me to quickly run an important errand in a forced manner that seemed odd and noticing behind them on the kitchen table a large box swathed with towels in a futile attempt at disguise and knowing, knowing for certain that my Amiga had arrived. I ran my errand as quickly as I could and spent the rest of the day totally absorbed in video games, barely pausing even to eat, as they knew I would. It was on the Amiga that I first discovered the extraordinary potential shock value of updated graphics and sound, the day I shoved Shadow of the Beast into the hungry maw of my machine’s disc drive.

Shadow of the Beast on the Commodore Amiga

By most objective standards Shadow of the Beast was an awful game. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up/platformer hybrid it was tediously derivative, stupidly difficult, repetitive and driven by an incomprehensible, meaningless plot. But in spite of this, and an eye-wateringly high price tag for the time of £35, the game received critical acclaim and sold by the bucket load. It managed this feat purely because of its graphics and sound. With an enormous colour palette, crisp, fluid sprites and an unheard of 12levels of parallax scrolling powering a stunning piece of visual and audio design Shadow of the Beast looked better than anything else in home computing, like something that should be running on a Cray supercomputer and not the little gray box in your living room. Like almost every other gamer I broke my teeth on its difficulty level and resorted to cheat codes, enduring the dull gameplay for hour after hour just to feast my eyes and ears on the smorgasbord of delights that the game offered. It was wonderful, the attainment of a nirvana that my fifteen-year old self had never dreamed existed.

I can also vividly remember, for entirely different reasons, a conversation I had with some friends around this time about the quality of graphics in video games. We discussed, and agreed, that further advancement in graphical technology would be nice, but was hardly necessary, because 16-bit games looked so good and that it wouldn’t be much longer before we had video quality graphics beyond which any improvement was impossible. I remember that because of the way that later years demonstrated it was a grandiose, naive, ignorant and stupidly arrogant and statement to make. But if you can’t make statements like that when you’re 15, when else can you do it?

And over the coming years, as hardware was upgraded and replaced, it was proved hollow time and time again. On my first PC the game that floored me with its visual was Ultima Underworld. On the next rig, a 486, it was Doom. On my first Pentium machine it was Quake. But each time there was something of a law of diminishing returns. Each time the impact was a little bit less, my reaction a little bit more jaded with experience and weighted with the cynicism of the passing years.

All that changed with the next upgrade though. When Quake II came out I bought myself a brand new PC with a hot graphics card just so I could play that particular game. The guy that built it for me slung a copy of a game I’d never heard of, Unreal, into the box for me to boot up when I’d got the machine installed. And this I duly did, and such was my astonishment that I called my non-gaming wife in from the living room to share the moment with me and she, normally totally disinterested in my hobby, sat in open-mouthed wonder, desultorily poking at the mouse from time to time just to make the viewpoint change. I was so overawed by this, my first ever experience of a game properly rendered in 3D polygons with full lighting effects, that I spent that whole first evening just wandering in circles round the lake in the opening scene of the game, looking at the crystals on the ground, the water in the pool, the stars in the sky, discharging my weapon into the distance just to watch the bolts fade into obscurity.

Of course, I eventually got round to doing the proper thing and venturing deeper into the environs of the game to kick some scaly alien buttock, but there were repeated occasions when I’d be absorbed so totally by the visual design that some enemy or other would walk right up and blow me away without my noticing until it was too late. It was wonderful to have that feeling again, dragging me right back to those first moments in front of Shadow of the Beast, the ultimate digital nostalgia trip.

Unreal - the most graphically impressive game of its generation

But that was the last time.

Bigger PCs with beefier graphics cards didn’t reproduce it, nor did the first console I ever owned, the Xbox. Halo and Half-Life 2 are probably the most graphically advanced games I’ve played extensively and even though I took the time to sit back and note the resolution and the detail in those games and nod in satisfaction, appreciating the effort that went into the design and development, that wow factor seemed to have gone forever. Why? Partly, and in danger of replicating my teenage hubris, I feel that while photorealistic graphics are still a ways away in video games, once you’ve got to the point of realistic physics and lighting effects, all there is to do is to increase the resolution and add detail. And while that helps things look pretty, it’s not the sort of earth-shattering advance in visuals that we’ve seen in older iterations of hardware development.

I suspect this may also be part of the reason why Sony got trumped in the current generation by the Xbox 360. The previous console generation may well have been the last one where there was a genuine quantum leap in terms of graphical processing power, and because of that gamers were still drawn towards the superior hardware of the original Xbox and some people bought one over the PS2 on that, and that alone. Sony must have known this, so for the next generation they pulled out all the stops to deliver the beast of a machine that is the PS3, not realising that in this generation, graphical power was no longer going to be the hot selling point it had been in the past, because we’re in a place now where all designers and developers can do is tweak the resolution and the details that’s on offer.

Another culprit in decreasing appreciation for video game graphics might have been the advent of genuine photorealistic computer graphics in films. We’re still a step away from genuine lifelike movement and expressions, but it’s hard to admire the visuals of a computer game when computer effects in Hollywood products you can see every day on your TV have become so common and so detailed that you barely notice them anymore.

It made me sad to think that those moments, those few precious moments of wonder that I’d shared with my computer games as we’d grown up together, were something that nascent gamers, born into a world where visualising dreams had become commonplace, might never experience with their own PCs and consoles. And now we have The Witcher 2, and that’s the first time in a long, long time that I’ve really noticed games journalists writing about the graphics in a game with anything like that childish tinge of astonishment and appreciation. It’ll be awhile before I get the chance to play Witcher 2, and then there’s a new hardware generation to think about, but it seems as though there’s a little spark of hope that I, and millions of others, might not have seen our last “wow” moments after all.

Can Survival Horror Survive?

Survival Horror is gone now - Silent Hill 2

When Brian recently flagged up Lone Survivor, I was intrigued, not only by the game itself but by the thought that I hadn’t seen a survival horror title gain a lot of press attention in recent years, and that the genre was on something of a downward slope. A quick google search later I discovered that I’m very far from the only person to have been struck by this observation. Other commentators have put out some well constructed arguments blaming the evolution of intuitive gameplay and the fashion for action shooters, or the ascension of western-style horror over the Japanese version. But those are slightly out of date now, and, inevitably, I had my own opinions that I felt the need to share. And seeing as it’s Friday the 13th today, it seemed a good time to do it.

I can’t claim to be a genuine survival horror fanboy. Of the classic games in the genre I have only played the first two Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles. And I have to admit that I was always slightly surprised that Resident Evil got quite the plaudits and success that it did. Not that it’s a poor game by any stretch of the imagination, rather that its subject matter and shock tactics were so very well-worn from horror films and books even by the time it came out. Zombies as a byproduct of bioweapons research was a dreadful cliche even in 1996. Mad scientists and tyrannical corporations even more so and it didn’t help that the game did cringe-worthy things like using the acronym STARS for a special ops team and naming a female character Valentine to further cheapen the mood. But whilst the basis for the scares of claustrophobic environments and things jumping out from dark corners was equally unoriginal that aspect was pulled off with undeniable skill and made the games well worth playing.

In most respects I was rather more impressed with Silent Hill. I’m not sure there have ever been games that messed with my head in the same way that those first two titles in this series did. In the first one, the simple but extraordinary emotion of a father’s’ love for a helpless, suffering child is leveraged with uncanny brilliance to make the player care in a way that I don’t think any game has managed before or since. The second was less intense but more intimate in the manner in which it cast the player as a person who had committed a terrible, and yet entirely sympathetic, act, forcing you to confront the complexities of morality and human nature. I’m not the only one to have been deeply affected by the content of Silent Hill. The team behind it released the extraordinary Book of Lost Memories to detail, in appropriately artistic terms, their creative process while even more bizarrely one fan was moved to write a 130,000 word analysis of the series, which actually turned out to be a lot more interesting than you might expect someone deranged enough to write it would have managed.

And yet in terms of pure gameplay, I have to give Resident Evil the edge. It was simply more thrilling, more focussed and it lacked the kind of frustrating sequences that I alluded to a couple of weeks ago where you ran around a monster-infested town looking for things that could be, well, anywhere at all. Basically, killing grotesque things with heavy weaponry pushes at your primal excitement buttons rather better than complex plots involving syncretic religions and existential guilt. Developers and designers know this: that’s why so many modern big-budget games have heavy shooter elements, because the big budgets mean that studios can’t afford to fail with their designs, and they know from experience that extreme violence sells. And because those top-dollar designs can’t afford to fail, they can’t afford to be difficult, which is another vital feature of the survival horror genre, because without difficulty, you’re going to have trouble generating an appropriately fearful response in the player. And so in Resident Evil we see a gradual shift in this direction through the course of the series, culminating in Resident Evil 4 which was more of a shmup with horror elements than a proper survival horror game, but which was brilliant nonetheless. And that brilliance sowed the seeds of destruction for the genre because if you can have a great game that looks like a survival horror title but can guarantee top-grade sales, why bother making proper survival horror for an increasingly niche audience any more?

Cliver Barker's Undying screenshot - atmospheric and unsettling
At least this is the way the conventional analysis goes, and it’s hard to argue with its basic tenets. However the presupposition seems to be that you can’t build a game that combines exciting combat sequences with genuine horror: offer the player too much firepower, too much capacity to deal with and control the hostile environment in which they find themselves and they won’t get scared. This is the bit I don’t get, because I’ve experienced otherwise, in at least three games.

Exhibits A and B are relatively obscure shooter Clive Barker’s Undying, and Half-Life 2. Both are in most respects fairly standard, if well above average in terms of quality, first-person shooters. Neither has a clear connection to survival horror, having bountiful levels of ammunition and nothing more than the occasional set-piece scare to keep you on your toes. And yet both feature what are, to my mind, some of the most extraordinarily memorable horror sequences of my gaming career. Undying featured a level set in a snow-shrouded ruin, through which the ghosts of monks flitted in the eerie half-light of a full moon, another in a hellishly bizarre otherworld, Oneiros. It also featured a “Scrye” mechanic in which you could look through the real world into the supernatural one to uncover clues and often, rather horrific surprises into the bargain, giving the player the constant sense that there was a whole gallery of unseen menace lurking just underneath the veneer of normality. In Half-Life 2 it was the intense feeling of sympathy the game generated for the appalling fates of the residents of Ravenholm and Nova Prospekt. In both cases, I was genuinely horrified. In both cases all that did this was carefully crafted environments and emotional responses. That’s all it takes to introduce horror into an otherwise standard action game of extreme violence.

They Hunger Survival Horror mod for Half Life screenshot
Exhibit C is a series of free mods for the original Half-Life called They Hunger. It’s you against the zombies again, that same tired old formula but I challenge you to play one of the games and and tell me that they’re tired, or in fact that they’re anything other than a living example of exactly what’s commonly held to be impossible: a survival horror game in the guise of a shooter. Ammunition is so dreadfully scarce that it got the point where I hated finding new weapons because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it supplied and would be worrying constantly as to whether I dared use it now in case something even worse was round the corner. The game rejected set-pieces scares and closed environments in favour of simply being overwhelmingly, oppressively dark. Not the pointlessly impenetrable blackness of Doom 3, but a perpetual inky twilight through which you could see half-shapes, suggestions of creeping movement that would have you desperately blasting with your limited ammunition at harmless bats while what was groaning in the blackness would suddenly come upon you from behind. And yet for all this disempowerment and terror it was still a shooter. Combat was fluid, skillful, exciting and satisfying. And it had the standard open-ended save model of old first-person shooters, so as long as you saved your game frequently, success was assured. Yet the game was so utterly emotionally gruelling that in some respects I couldn’t wait for it to finish, and what surer sign of a genuine horror experience is there than that?

Survival Horror as we knew it may be dead for good. But just as the best writers continue to find ingenious ways to keep our favourite horror villains coming back from the dead for installment after installment, there’s no reason why, with a little more vision, talented designers and developers couldn’t perform similar necromancy over the corpse of this seminal and much-loved genre.