Secret Secrets Are Real Fun
Our current Special Topics In Gameology series continued this week as Patrick Lee turned an eye toward the deleted world hidden inside Shadow Of The Colossus. Crafty explorers have found loads of land that is thought to be the intended stomping grounds of the eight additional colossi Team Ico cut during the game’s development. Patrick noted these sensitive secrets are a truer breed of secret than we normally see in games, and despite any developers’ protestations, they hold a beautiful mystery and significance for a work’s most ardent fans. Accessing these unfinished areas often involves breaking through the game world’s boundaries, and ItsTheShadsy recalled a similarly meaningful escape:
I have never known an intentional secret in a game with the same sense of transgression and voyeurism as creeping outside the boundaries like this and seeing what rests a little bit further. There’s an oversight in the Master Chief Collection’s version of the Halo 2 level Metropolis, for instance, that lets you climb over part of the stage and run into the distance. The further you go, the closer you get to the background scenery. As is true for many games, the distant buildings are just flat images, like a Hollywood backlot.
It’s all fake—so glaringly, disappointingly fake in a way that you can’t see for yourself in other media. You might notice a bad matte painting in a movie, but you can’t walk up to it. One bug or mistake lets you behind the curtain in ways the developers probably hoped you couldn’t. But a self-guided behind-the-scenes tour is also a chance to appreciate the expert stagecraft that went into the game.
These cases remind me of that story from a few months back about the two friends who snuck into the staging area of Epcot’s Horizons and documented all the machinery and details you can’t see from the ride. It breaks the illusion forever, but it reveals the care taken to make the illusion possible.
Elsewhere, discussion turned to the Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus HD collection that Sony released for PlayStation 3. Regarding Ico’s update, needlehacksaw noted one change that had an artistic drawback:
While I liked the remastered version of Shadow, I switched to playing Ico’s original version on PlayStation 2 before long. The drawing distance on the HD rerelease was greatly enhanced, but much like in Silent Hill, this was not only the result of technical limitation on the original game but also an aesthetic choice. Ico’s novelization is called Castle In The Mist, and there is no mist left in the HD do-over. That’s an interesting situation in itself: a novelization getting less accurate because of technical updates to the version of the text most people will encounter nowadays.
TheSingingBrakeman commented on this dilemma as well:
Fog is one of the most fascinating aspects of preserving and emulating early 3-D games on newer hardware. How much fog contributes to the atmosphere and how much is just a relic of draw distance limitation? Like the greatest work in any medium, designers of the best early 3-D games tended to use fog as an aesthetic choice, like Ico or Silent Hill. Along the same lines, it’s worth noting that recent builds of the Dolphin emulator for GameCube and Wii include a feature to implement fog in a game or disable it, per the user’s preference.
One of Shadow’s more traditional secrets is the garden at the top of the game’s central tower. It’s accessible by players without going through the absurd hoops it takes to find the deleted content, but you’ve still got to work damn hard to get there. Cyanotetyphas broke down the process and theorized about its significance:
You have to follow a particular route to get to the top of the Forbidden Shrine (beat the game three or four times and squeeze in a run where find and eat every lizard), and then your reward is classic Shadow: a garden to nowhere, devoid of significance other than any you bring to it. Maybe you could infer this is a new Garden Of Eden that somehow leads to Ico.
It’s interesting, then, that the fruit you find there are poisonous. Wander consumes literally every living thing on the ground in his quest, but this quiet garden abode is harmful to him. At this point you’ve already sucked down 30 or 40 colossi and a million lizards. Here’s an alternate take: Maybe the fruit up there isn’t harmful. Maybe it’s purifying Wander, releasing that harmful need for power.
Also this week, William Hughes took the release of Christine Love’s latest game, Ladykiller In A Bind, as an opportunity to look back at Hate Plus, one of the designer’s most popular games. Specifically, William keyed in on a moment that presents a more honest simulation of romantic relationships than most games ever do, since it asks the player to take some actual time and effort to step away from the game and do something nice for the character you’re wooing. It wants you to bake a cake. BadNflu3nce thought, when compared to the Japanese dating games Hate Plus is riffing on, the demands it makes on players aren’t all that special:
I would disagree that Love’s game is the best at asking “Is your virtual relationship worth the bare minimum of effort from your actual, physical self?” as opposed to one of the “tacky ero visual novels” it pokes fun at. The best visual novels that I have played do a great job putting you, the player, in the character’s shoes and making you care enough to devote serious effort to your love. In Steins;Gate, getting the “true ending” with Kurisu Makise is quite hard. You have to devote effort to answering your phone (which doesn’t play out with automatic conversations like in Grand Theft Auto IV), putting the main game on pause, and talking back and forth with her. And after getting the Normal Ending, where Kurisu is very sympathetic and important to you but not saved, you want to go back through the entire game again and do it right this time.
Then there’s one like Muv Luv Alternative, which challenges you to go through an emotional gauntlet of stomach-churning events. You’re basically watching some of the characters that you have spent hours and hours getting to know and like get ripped apart by aliens. You’re taking on a serious emotional toll in order to get together with Sumika, your love, in the end. I had to get up and go away from the game—not to bake a cake—but to emotionally process what just happened. To crawl back to the game was serious effort in my book.
Another issue that this moment faces is the potential separation between player and character. Poot argued this makes all the difference:
But the romances inserted into games are romances between a non-player character and the player’s character, not the player themselves. Both of those are characters, both exist outside of the real world, and both are severely limited by all manner of omissions, shortcuts, and abstractions. I don’t want to invalidate the idea of breaking the fourth wall to make an artistic statement, but let’s not pretend like it would be perfectly reasonable for Liara (from Mass Effect) to stop the action and ask the player (as opposed to Shepard) to go bake them a cake. If instead we retreat to the more reasonable and consistent idea of Liara asking Shepard to bake her a cake, well then, that sounds an awful lot like a loyalty/romance mission, doesn’t it? And we have those all over the place.
What’s missing most of the time—but, notably, not all of the time—in BioWare’s games is a sufficient punishment to hammer home the significance of the time spent fulfilling a special request or the choices made to make the person happy. There is one character in Mass Effect 2 who demands you make a stark and obvious choice to gain his loyalty. If you stick to your goody-two-shoes ways, then that’s it. He’s not loyal. You failed the loyalty mission.
The challenge is making sure all of the game’s punishments and tradeoffs feel legitimate rather than arbitrary. That gets really tough to do when you, the player, are stuck with a set of extremely limited choices already plotted out by the writers. You have to choose not only your actions from their list, but also (usually without as much advance warning) the reasoning behind the choice and the explanations your character offers up to the NPCs. That brings us back to another of Hate Plus’ conceits, and I think it makes the game a much more trenchant critique of the limitations of current gaming technology rather than the human element the player is bringing into the mix (or can’t bring into the mix).
points out, as William did in his essay, one of the game’s biggest focuses is a blurring of the lines between the player and their character:
Love’s games—at least the ones I’ve played—are pretty deliberate about blurring the distinction between the player and the player character. There’s a world of difference between sitting at your computer and using it to move around in third-person and sitting at your computer and using it as a computer to communicate with servers and AIs through a diegetic user interface. So it’s not terribly jarring when the game addresses you, the player.
That said, it seems like Love’s goal isn’t to admonish people to pursue “healthy” relationships with fictional anime characters that involve baking them cakes and so on. It seems much more clear, especially considering the dialogue, that the event is meant as a provocation. It’s meant to shake players out of the common pattern of the facile, gross “dating sim” genre and prompt them to think a bit more about the differences between real-world relationships and the kinds presented in those games.
It’s kind of like the post-level sequences in Hotline Miami, where you wade in silence through the piles of corpses you’ve created as you leave the level. The game isn’t telling the player to literally kill a building of people and wade through the gore to become a more empathetic and human person. It’s appending a reflective, provocative element to a common game situation to make you think a bit more about your actions within the game and draw connections outside the game.
That’s all for this week, Gameologians. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!
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