Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - God of War: Chains of Olympus

God_of_War_Chains_of_Olympus_psp.jpgThe God of War series is known for its massive scale and fast paced, adrenaline fueled combat. When Sony announced a version of the series would be coming out for the PSP, many fans were worried. Luckily, the developer Ready at Dawn has done a great job of keeping all the core elements of the God of War series intact, and the series' antihero Kratos is back once again.

One of the core elements of the series has been the interactive events, where the player engages in scripted sequences by pressing buttons on the controller when prompted. Some of these sequences rely on timing (quick-time events), where one false move will force you to start over or die.

Other sequences allow you to interact at your own pace. For example, one sequence has the player make clockwise circles with the analog stick in order to pull down a statue and progress. You do not have to do this immediately, but you won't progress forward until you do so.

It seems that these events are either loved or loathed by most people. While they allow for scripted, specific events to occur within the game, the interactivity is limited to binary input (you either hit the button or you didn't). There is also the issue of the button to press appearing on the screen, something that can pull the player out of a state of sensual immersion. Even so, these events are capable of still drawing the player deeper into the narrative, thereby becoming effective plot devices.

At this point, I must mention that the remainder of this column contains a major plot spoiler for the game. Please do not continue reading if you would get upset at having major parts of the story revealed.

Design Lesson: Using interactive events at the climax of the game allows God of War: Chains of Olympus to create a closer, more emotional bond between the player and Kratos.

The set-up of the situation is rather simple, yet effective. In the first game it is revealed that Kratos unwillingly kills his own family. His entire life is spent trying to forget that atrocity. In this prequel to the first game, Kratos' family is already dead. As Kratos nears his end goal, he ends up in the underworld. There, he sees his deceased daughter, Calliope. Once reaching her, they embrace in a cutscene. Kratos promises Calliope he will never leave her again.

Kratos is told by Persephone, queen of the underworld, that if he wants to be reunited with his daughter, he must give up all of his power. At this point the player must remove the abilities, upgrades, and items from Kratos, by following a sequence of button presses that are displayed on screen.

This, in effect, makes the player feel as if he is choosing to remove his powers. This easily could have been a cutscene, but instead the designers allow the player to actually remove all of the abilities they have been working towards all game. This isn't done with just one button press. A series of prompts occur, making the entire event feel like a very deliberate choice, even if the choice doesn't actually exist in the game code.

Once the player is weakened another cutscene begins. Here, Persephone reveals to Kratos that it was all a trick and that while he weakened himself, she has set forth to destroy the entire world. At this point Kratos realizes that if he stays with his daughter Calliope, the entire world will be destroyed and his daughter with it. However, if he pursues Persephone to stop her, he will never see his daughter again and go back on his promise of never leaving her.

Just a child, Calliope hugs onto her father's leg, begging him not to leave her. There is but one choice for Kratos, unfortunately. However, again the game does not just have Kratos push away his daughter via cutscene. Instead, in-game it prompts the player to push the circle button over and over. As the player presses it, Kratos pushes his daughter further and further away from his leg.

Once he pushes her far enough away from him, she screams and latches onto his leg again. The player must once again repeat the process of pushing Kratos' crying daughter away. The sequence is repeated a third, and final time.

The emotional impact of such an event can be staggering. Kratos is a sympathetic antihero in gaming. You like him, even though he is deeply flawed and troubled. The reasons for liking him are that, deep down, he is human and has human emotions, such as love for his family.

By forcing the player push Calliope away multiple times, God of War: Chains of Olympus is able to forge a deeper, emotional bond between the player and Kratos and remind them of his humanity. Instead of the aggressive, bitter man, you see a saddened father for a moment. Kratos ceases to feel like a 2D caricature, if only for a moment.

In fact, I felt an amount of sadness pushing the crying little girl away. Soon, this sadness was replaced by anger. Anger at Persephone for making me forsake my daughter (I even thought in the first person, as if I were Kratos).

In fact, I was angry enough to make sure I beat Persephone, the game's final boss, the same night. Even though it was 2:00 in the morning, I had work the next day, I had died dozens of times, and the game forced me to watch the same cutscene every time I retried, I played for an hour to make sure I beat Persephone. I didn't want to wait until the next day. I wanted to know if Kratos would be reunited with Calliope somehow in the end. I wanted vengeance... just like Kratos did.

Both the losing of power and the pushing of Calliope away could have easily been cutscenes. By making them actually interactive, even if only on a simplistic level, God of War: Chains of Olympus creates an empathetic response to its story, during its critical climactic events. This creates a smaller gap between the player and Kratos.

When the player thinks and feels like character on screen, then there is a sense of being fully immersed. It may be impossible to ever get players to fully think like the characters on screen (at least in games with well-defined characters, and not empty avatar such as Gordon Freeman), but the closer we get the more we utilize the narrative power of this medium.

God of War: Chains of Olympus may not be ground-breaking in any way and may even be criticized for other ways it reminds the player that they are playing a game rather than being immersed in the game. However, for a short period of time it shows how to make the player feel empathy and emotion in what is otherwise thought of as a nothing more than a testosterone-fueled male power fantasy.

9 comments:

  1. Howdy,

    I know I'm probably in the minority opinion, but even the Quick Time Event button prompts don't shock me out of the God of War 1 and 2 immersion for the following reasons:

    1. They have a specific timing and rhythm at which they appear on screen which sort of makes it flow with the sequence (well, most sequences anyways)
    2. They appear with a purpose; that is, even though there are random button inputs, the successful input instantly leads to a Kratos action
    3. For the most part, the QTE button prompts try to match form and function as closely as possible; for example, when Kratos is ripping the heads off the Medusas, Analog swirls appear attempting to simulate the twisting of her head
    4. The button prompts have a subtle texturing that matches the look and feel of the God of War universe as well as their shape and size and the actual design of the button symbol

    Of course none of this is scientific in terms of my research, but I think the combination of the reasons I listed above masks the suspension of disbelief ever so slightly.

    Then again, I could be over analyzing, because they're just plain ol' freakin' button prompts. =)

    But I understand what you're saying though about being removed from the immersion of its universe whenever a game refers to itself that it is a game or some kind of hardware element such as a button prompt in the middle of an intense action sequence or emotional spike.

    However, I come from the philosophy that if the game's core mechanics are fun and well-polished, that is enough to keep me in the "zone" throughout the entire experience.

    Anyways, good read...

    -jdh

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  4. The graphics in this game are amazing!

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