Monday, 24 August 2009

Babysitting in games

If you think that looking after children is a pain in the backside, then you have clearly never tried to looking after Ashley Graham, or a scientist, or any other mission central character who is about as useful as a lead buoyancy aid covered in anthrax. I am of course talking about sections in games where you have to defend someone or something from someone or something else intent on killing it.

The really annoying thing about protecting these critical persons is that they never seem to value their own life as much as the player is told to. If there is a situation in a gun fight where you have to stand stationary, then at least try to protect yourself a little bit. Don’t just stand bolt up right and assume that the bodyguard you have assigned to protect you is your guardian angel who can guarantee your safety. At times it would be nice if the character could at least pretend that they valued their life.

Case in point, the aforementioned Ashley Graham. She is the president’s daughter who you have to find and rescue in Resident Evil 4, but when you finally do find her, you would wish the zombies had killed you first. She seems to have some kind of sick voyeuristic fetish of watching you getting mauled by monsters and then getting herself captured. At least, I assume she does, because whenever there is imminent danger in close proximity, she doesn’t make any attempt to preserve herself, but instead stands directly behind you and sometimes even in front of you, right where the bullets come out.

Surely killing her would be natural selection at its finest, but instead, it is game over, making the player look stupid, rather than the ally who starts screaming your name because she stood somewhere long enough to be captured. Okay, I don’t expect her to be Hulk Hogan, but even insects have some sort of instinct to hide from potential danger.

These baby sitting missions as such are never fun because you not only have to worry about your own health, but someone else’s as well. It’s not as if they make any effort to care about you either, they just assume that you are okay with gunning down hordes so that they can complete a menial task. If you die in a game, that is frustrating, but you can get up and try again. If what you are meant to defend dies, it is clearly their fault and they should have made more of an effort to do what they were doing in a more subtle way.

It was one level in Goldeneye on the N64 that I remember with great hatred and bitterness. You and a rather clumpy, pixelated Natalya had just gotten through to a control room that she could use to do something bad to the antagonists. Of course it is a lengthy computer process that she has to do standing right in the open and she does not react to gunfire at all unless she dies from a bullet overdose.

She could have at least crouched down. Or maybe she could have used one of the other five identical terminals that were not necessarily smack in the middle of the room, begging for crossfire incidents.

I know that such things are in place to challenge the player, but personally, I think looking after someone else in a game does not carry the same thrills as self preservation.

When you run down a corridor, bullets flying all around you and you just make it through a door or behind cover by a whisker of health, that is thrilling and exciting. You have usually got there by a series of sporadic movements, pulling a complete fluke and always remembering that section of the game as the difficult one that you might not be able to pull off again on the next run though.

Of course AI buddies in your care do not have such luxuries as free will available to them, usually taking the same path as most of the flying ammunition does. It is because they do this that I believe they are not allowed to be surprised that they are dead, and that removing themselves from the virtual gene pool in such a manner should complete a secondary objective or maybe even give you an achievement.


Unknown said...

I guess it's a matter of making the player feel heroic for protecting someone rather than making them feel like the person they're protecting is a burden. I'm like you, most times it feels like that latter. With Ashley Graham, it didn't help that she was annoyingly whiny.

The only example that comes to mind that I liked was A Link to the Past, when you helped Zelda escape from the castle. There was something simple yet beauitful about the way Zelda implicitly followed you as you led her to safety. I think it helps that Zelda as a character has become quite strong over the course of the series, making it easier to think of her in a positive light compared to other Nintendo princess characters

Anthony said...

I suppose a good narrative can help set the mind set of wanting to help someone if they need it. The Legend of Zelda series does build you up as the hero and sole saviour of the princess, which I suppose does fuel the eagerness to stay heroic.

One example that I can think of in a more positive light is Alyx from Half-life 2. The reasoning behind it? She can look after herself. She is a very capable fighter and has a lot of health meaning you don't need to constantly make sure she isn't going to fall down a hole or place a headcrab on her face.

She is a mission critical character that you don't feel like you are defending, and most of the time, you don't have to. Maybe that means she doesn't count in this context?

Unknown said...

That's why I didn't mention Alyx. I think there's a point where you have to save her, but there was never a feeling of protection. I think maybe she comes to light because Gordon is the hero, and Valve do play up the romance between the two, so it can be easy to think of her as "the girl" as in "the guy saves the day and gets the girl". But I think of her more as a companion than someone I ever had to protect.

Anonymous said...

This is an irritating feature that's all too common in games. Granted, it harks back to the damsels in distress of Hollywood: your post put me in mind of a scene from Moonraker in which 007 is hanging from a cable car while trying to fight Jaws, and Dr Holly Goodhead's only contribution is "hang on, James!"

Speaking of Bond, your Goldeneye example is particularly frustrating because the level before, Natalya is not only headshotting commandos beyond your field of vision, she's even chipping in with macho comments.

I think the most frustrating element is that you're alone. If Obama's daughter was kidnapped by Spanish zombies, you'd be one of a battalion of highly-trained soldiers tasked with rescuing her. It's the equivalent of being given several people's workload, half the time to do and then being reprimanded by the MD for slacking in your duties.

Anthony said...

I'm happy with the damsel in distress formula staying as how it is in Mario. She stays safely locked up and out of harms way until everything is dead so she no longer needs protecting.

But it is frustrating when characters who appear to be capable before hand end up being very good at dying when you are charged with looking after them.

It is especially true when you get to see the character being amazingly skilled at killing everything in a cutscene, only for the gameplay to start and them to be as useful as a soggy loaf of bread.