Well, like clockwork the change of seasons brought the usual throat infection, and like clockwork the entirety of the Alice: Madness Returns review’s comments consisted of people talking about how I sounded different. Remind me to ask for that to be a banning offense if it goes past the first page. Well, if you’re not willing to discuss anything important, I’d better do it here.
I took up Madness Returns on its offer and downloaded the original Alice for a waltz down memory lane. I still think it’s a better game than the sequel. The environments are packed with detail, characters and imagination, and it feels a hell of a lot less padded. But that said, the weapons really are as horrible as I remembered. Enemies don’t even seem to react to being stabbed, most of the projectiles you can launch are so small and dark that they get lost in the murk of the graphics (what with everything being so dark and edgy and everything) and the sounds they make are pathetic and get lost in the ambience. It’s like a crash course in how-not-to-do-it.
Madness Returns does show an improvement in this area, especially with the pepper mill weapon. It hits with a satisfying thud and big red splashes appear on enemies if they cause damage, white splashes if they don’t. I ended up using it a lot more than the allegedly more powerful teapot cannon because that had an obnoxious firing delay and enemies didn’t seem at all put out by the hits.
So what is it that makes a good weapon? It’s not enough for a weapon to merely be effective – it has to feel effective, too. A game with dissatisfying or ineffective-feeling weapons carries a heavy flaw, because firing your gun is the one thing you’re going to do more than anything else.
In my frequent championing of balls-out fun-shooter Painkiller I’ve often made the point that part of the game’s effectiveness is that the weapons are basically fun to use. The mere act of firing them gives a slightly Freudian sense of satisfaction. The weapon I’ve frequently been quoted on is the Electrodriver, the gun that shoots shurikens and lightning, but really I only focussed on that one because it sounds the funniest on paper. Truth is, the shurikens feel a wee bit flimsy. My favourite weapon in the game is the stake launcher, which sounds a hell of a lot less interesting. How can lumps of wood compare to shurikens? Well, it’s the ‘plunk’ of the launch, the obvious recoil, the way it ploughs straight through an enemy’s midriff, hurls him off his feet and nails him to a wall like a tummy Christ.
A lot of it’s in the sound. Another weapon I like is the shortbow from the Thief series, and that’s all about aural pleasure. The creak of tightening wood and bowstring right beside your ear, the THWOOSH of release, and then the impact. The satisfying fleshy sound that signals a direct hit, the less satisfying but still encouraging hollow boioioing if the arrow hits wood (and can be recovered), or the heartbreaking clatter of an arrow shattering against stone like a premature ejaculation. Then there’s the double-barreled shotgun from Doom 2 – no-one within your entire household could be of any doubt that it’s been fired because it sounds like God slamming a door on his fingers. Compare that to, say, the sawn-off shotgun from Blood, which feels like it’s blasting puffs of talcum powder.
There’s the aftermath, too, such as how the enemy reacts to the hit. The Card Guards in the first Alice game won’t even react to your stabs until they die, whereupon their entire torsos bisect. Oh, would have been nice to know I was making an effect, game. Compare that to the cannonball launcher from Serious Sam. It doesn’t matter how many big lads are bearing down on you, it only takes moments after it’s been fired to know that the situation just took a U-turn. And a smaller but still important part is the follow-through, which can be a sound and/or animation that makes the weapon seem to say “I’m ready for round two, big boy.” For many guns an appropriate pump action or shell case ejection is like the sigh that follows the orgasm. What would the rifle in Resident Evil 4 be without Leon’s little bolt-pulling animation after every shot? Or the Doom 2 double-barrel shotgun (again) without the cheeky little chock-clack of two fresh new shells being welcomed into that whorish chamber?
Please don’t consider this a phallocentric topic (might be a bit late for that), I’m just trying to illustrate how many little details have to go into a satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay experience, many of which we don’t even notice. Look at Fruit Ninja on the Iphone, which I once described as being akin to popping bubble wrap. It seems like a simple concept, just chopping up fruit, but play that game and try to count how many different processes go into a single bisected kiwi. There’s the streak of the blade, a splatter animation, a juicy sound effect, a lingering juice decal on the backboard, the two spent halves dropping out of sight … they all fire off together in such a brief moment you don’t even acknowledge them, but you’d notice if any of them were to go away. Oh yes. They’re what make it fun.
This has been at the forefront of my mind because of a hobby game I’ve been working on. A 2D one this time, using Game Maker, something more within the limits of my programming skill. The main character’s primary weapon is a shotgun, so at first, I added a little black ball that spawned at the gun’s barrel and flew across the screen. And it looked like absolute pants, like the ghost of a dung beetle fleeing from the protagonist’s body odour. Here are all the things I had to add to less than half a second of gameplay before I was happy with it.
- A calculated instant-hit rather than a moving bullet object, with a spark appearing where the shot hits.
- A bit of debris bouncing off the spark when the shot hits a solid wall.
- A one-pixel line leading from the gun to the hit spark for one frame only.
- A shotgun blast sound effect like the explosive death cough of a killer android.
- A muzzle flash, also illuminating part of the player’s sprite.
- A frame for the character sprite in which the entire gun is pushed backwards by recoil.
- A spent shell object being ejected from the gun, marking the half-way point of the firing delay.
- A “clack” sound effect marking the shell ejection.
- A “plink” sound effect for when the spent shell object bounces off a solid surface.
- Enemies exploding into sprays of blood that spawn two giblet objects going off in opposite directions, spawning and hitting solid surfaces with appropriate sound effects, created by searching freesound.org for foley recordings of someone sorting through a bucket of chicken giblets.
- A steel brace added to my chair to prevent my hips reflexively thrusting forward every time I pressed the fire button – NNGH OH GOD
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games and writes the back page column for PC Gamer, who are too important to mention us. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.