Monday, April 21, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Condemned: Criminal Origins

For this week's lesson I played Monolith's first-person horror game, Condemned: Criminal Origins. I learned a lot of things, including that I am really bad at playing horror games. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack during most of the game. In the future, for the purposes of this challenge, I am going to avoid horror games mostly. I have a hard time pushing myself to beat them in a short period of time, due to the intensity horror games produce. I also have a hard time not wetting myself. That's more information that you probably cared to know. On to this week's lesson.

Design Lesson: Combat in an action game should compliment the atmosphere and feel of the game being created.

Combat is the core of an action game. This fact necessitates the need for the combat in an action game to be the most important part of the game. The combat style alone can completely change how a game feels. Imagine Doom, but instead of futuristic shotguns or plasma cannons, you were using old-time muskets and black powder rifles. It would completely change the complexion of the game, just by the nature of how long it took to reload the weapons and how inaccurate the weapons would become. Not to mention, there would no longer be a rocket launcher. Doom is about fast-paced action, so the weapons support that style of play with their rate of fire, damage, and ability to kill multiple enemies at once.

In Condemned, the player uses melee objects that inhabit the world. You can rip pipes off of walls, pick up wooden boards with nails through them, and even use the back end of a shotgun to kill your opponents. There are pistols, shotguns, and rifles in the game but they have extremely limited ammo. I would estimate that you spend a good 85% of the time swinging melee weapons at your enemies over shooting guns at them. All of this is done in a first-person perspective, which is very different from most games.

What this does is create a very personal and visceral feel to the combat of the game. You must get close to your enemy to kill him. You must be able to see his eyes, touch his skin, and hear his breathing if you wish to kill him. The game creates a horror atmosphere by playing spooky sounds, putting you in low-lit, tight corridor areas, and having enemies sneak up on you. By making the combat primarily melee, Monolith reinforces that atmosphere by making sure even when you do meet an enemy, you must face him up-close and personal.

Being this close to an enemy has two major effects. First, your field-of-view is obscured more by the enemy, which potentially allows other enemies to sneak up on you to attack without you noticing. The fact that the levels include many tight corridors, make it difficult to maneuver and difficult to escape. This leads to very tense moments when you suddenly realize there is an enemy behind you. The second thing the close proximity of combat does is magnify mistakes made in combat. There is very little chance an enemy will miss in combat in Condemned if they swing at you and you are standing still. The player must then learn to block and counter attacks reliably, lest they die consistently. The result of this is that mis-steps in combat can have greater ramifications. There are many times where I was one-hit killed, with half health left, due to my inability to block the first attack against an enemy with a powerful weapon.

Both of these make for a more tense game. Constantly I was afraid of enemies and afraid of dying in the game. I would enter areas slowly, to draw out only a couple enemies at a time if possible, rather than a larger, unmanageable quantity. I would stop and turn at every little sound, fearing it was yet another enemy that sneaked up on me. The interesting part is that the game isn't that difficult. I didn't die that often, yet I was constantly afraid of dying. This fear of dying is more important to the game than actually dying itself. It's also far less frustrating. Had Monolith went for traditional FPS combat in the game, it wouldn't have been anywhere near as scary or tense (See F.E.A.R. for an example of that in action). The fact that the combat was melee made me feel the effects of combat, which were brutal, which helped reinforce that sense of fear within me. It reinforced the horror elements of the game consistently, which led to an enjoyable horror experience (If one can enjoy horror).

Bonus Lesson: Even if you call a key a crowbar, it's still a damn key.

Condemned has many infuriating parts where you must have a certain melee weapon to progress. You will walk up to a door, it will say "fire axe required" and you'll be forced to go find the fire axe in order to progress. This leads to "fetch quests", where you go down some random corridor, because it's the only other way to progress. Once you fetch the axe from that corridor, you have to drop your current weapon (as there is only one weapon at at time in Condemned), pick the axe up, and go back to the door that requires it. This is the same as "find the blue key" from Doom. Except, now you can use your key to attack enemies.

The reason this isn't very fun is that you end up on a hunt for an obscure item, which must replace your current weapon, in order to progress. It forces back-tracking, which can be difficult with the game's level design at times, and doesn't provide the player with a very interesting goal. The weapons that unlock areas are also some of the slowest weapons in the game (but strongest), making them very difficult to use. I didn't want to replace my weapon often times, but was forced to thanks to the mechanic. Overall, having locked doors and just calling them something else doesn't solve the problem. They are still locked doors, that require keys. They still have all the same flaws as key cards did in the 90's. It's unfortunate, because they weren't necessary for the game at all.


  1. Haven`t played it, so it that sense no comment. I can however imagine the fear of dying, as I had it with RE4 on my first play-through. Like you say, even without real added difficulty it brings interesting tension to the game...

    I like these posts, keep up the writing ;D

  2. You should check out the Condemned sequel, many of your gripes (specifically the "key card" fetch quests) are addressed.

    They lose their focus in the latter half of the game, focusing on gun play a little too much for my taste. Still recommendable.

    I have a terribly difficult time playing through survival horror games. I can only immerse myself in these dark and morose universes for so long before I start to feel it affecting my mood. It takes me weeks just to beat a 10 hour game.

    Keep up the posts, they are an entertaining read.

  3. I bought Condemned 2 but it may be a bit before I play through it.

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