Tension Does Not Equal Fun

Ringing Phones, Clawing Hands and A Game I Can’t Stop Playing

Creative people use experiences and situations from their daily lives to inform their art. To wit: Writers have been known to cut characters whole cloth from people they know. In some cases, as in the case of the creator of Popeye, this can lead to alienation from one’s friends, but on the whole it’s generally the only way to create living, breathing worlds full of interesting and realistic characters. After all, we are often told to “write what we know.” What do we know better than the people and places around us?

Artists generally do the same thing, using their own visual vocabulary to create believable works of art. Students of art will typically spend time studying the human anatomy, for example, in order to be able to create life-like humans. And knowledge of things like how certain kinds of light cast certain kinds of shadows is generally considered useful in the art field.

One must assume then that those who make games follow a similar path. While very few game makers can be assumed to have experience as Special Forces commandos, space marines or zombie hunters, one can nevertheless see how a game writer, game designer or game artist will utilize his knowledge of the actual world to create a more engaging and realistic game.

Well-written game dialogue, for example, will generally be crafted by a game writer who is not only good at writing, but also understands how real people speak. “Someone set us up the bomb,” for example, was written by someone with a poor understanding of how humans use the English language. While the writers of games like Psychonauts and the more recent Dead Rising get significantly more points for applying some common sense to the dialogue in their games.

On a purely artistic level, I think Mr. Schaeffer comes out slightly ahead, considering that writing a believable and fun story involving mind-reading children may have a slightly higher difficulty level than aping B-movie zombie horror flicks, but that’s beside the point. Said point being that those who create works of art and/or entertainment (let’s also set aside the point of whether or not games are art) tend to do so around the nucleus of their own experiences.

Using the two previously mentioned games as examples then, one could safely assume that Mr. Schaeffer has had some experience with human interaction (and perhaps children) and that the creators of Dead Rising have watched a lot of horror films. I think it’s also safe to say that the creators of Dead Rising have a lot of phones in their office and that the ringing of these phones cause them some stress. Why else would they then decided that the one thing an already difficult and frustrating game would need is a ringing phone that has no off switch and can only be silenced by answering it, which then renders the player completely defenseless as he stands out in the open, in a mall filled with zombies, holding a phone to his face?

One imagines the scene at Capcom thusly: It’s early on a weekday morning. The latest build of Dead Rising is still testing with multiple bugs and the game has already missed the launch window for the Xbox360, and been pushed back to Summer 06 – just a few months away. As our intrepid crew of designers, coders and artists hammers away at the seemingly endless list of fixes for this already late game; pizza boxes pile up in the corner; soda cans drift across the room like tumbleweeds; wives – one-by-one – take other lovers; children forget their fathers’ faces; bills go unpaid; once-healthy men with ruddy complexions start to look more and more like the zombies they’re creating in their games and somewhere, in the distance, a god-damned phone won’t stop ringing.

Who is it? Who’s calling? Is it the publisher wanting to know when they’ll get their hands on the gold disc? Is it Microsoft wanting to know when they’ll be able to announce their killer-app? Is it a reviewer wanting another look at the preview build? Or is it mom? Did I forget her birthday?

Whoever it is, don’t they know that we’re busy here? Don’t they know that our very lives are at stake? My god, won’t someone please turn off that damned phone?

Mein leben!

Cut to: This intrepid editor playing the product of those sleepless nights. He enjoys the developers’ attention to detail in regards to the countless ways in which the zombies can be mutilated. He appreciates the homage to zombie horror films and is thoroughly – aside form a few annoyances with saving and whatnot – enjoying the experience.

Then he meets Carlito for the second time.

Carlito has a gigantic gun. Carlito wants to kill this editor and his A.I. partner, the thoroughly worthless federal agent named Brad. Brad cannot shoot to save his life, so it’s all on this editor. He sneaks across the mall’s open spaces, dodging Carlito’s bullets, using columns and window displays as cover. He gets closer, taking some damage, but still confident that a sustained burst from his machine gun will silence the boss dude’s gun if he can just get a little bit closer …

He takes careful aim, finger on the trigger. He unloads on Carlito, causing the latin stereotype in the fancy shirt to stagger backwards in pain. Carlito makes a dash to the left, our hero attempts to adjust his aim – and then the phone rings. Otis, the guy on the other line, who’s watching security cameras to look for survivors, and can see everything happening everywhere, decided that now is the time to chime in with news that some lady is holed up in the record store across the park.

This, naturally, distracts our hero, who then gets shot in the face. He is not dead, but he is close. He takes aim again, ignoring the shrill ringing of the phone, gets Carlito in his sights … and a gigantic block of red text appears on the screen. It’s the only readable on-screen text in the whole game and it completely blocks his sight, distracting him once again and he dies.

Our editor is defeated, killed by a combination of bad A.I., ridiculously difficult level design and the assumption on the part of out dear friends at Capcom that tension equals fun and that all flavors of tension are the same; including the kind caused by annoyances such as ceaselessly ringing phones, repetitive distractions and incompetent associates.

And yet, as before, I’m still playing the game.

I tremble with terror at how mighty and wonderful this game might have been had the people responsible for these insanely ludicrous design choices been sacked. The world would have perhaps ended. At the very least, I would not have had to remove all throw-able objects from the vicinity of my sofa, and all breakable objects from within throwing distance of said throw-able objects. And I’m having a hard time understanding how this would have been bad, but I’m going with it.

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