Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Design Reboot: Clive Barker's Jericho

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 35
Note: To clear up a common confusion to newcomers to the site: I did not work on Clive Barker's Jericho; this is the hypothetical/speculative work of an outsider to the game's production, as are most all of my posts.
 


Arcade Fire - My Body Is A Cage


Jericho was good enough to get itself into trouble. Most people seem not to take issue with unremarkably bad or uninspired games, but games with enough good ideas to spark a wistfulness for what could have can be upsetting. Glancing blows with greatness--really, it's these sorts of games that inspired this site.

We might not care about Jericho, had Clive Barker (an admitted non-gamer) not first lent his ideas and name to Undying, a horror FPS that found a cult audience following initially poor reception. Jericho may share some elements of the game's atmosphere, but the inspired mechanical depth of that title is unfortunately lacking with Jericho.

Peruse the rather over-detailed wikipedia summary for a plot synopsis: Jericho is about a supernatural SWAT-team of seven characters out to re-trap God' first creation, the Firstborn, in a sort of time-anomalous ruin in the middle east called Al Khalil. In order to do this, they travel back through dimensional pockets back through time.

To say the game doesn't live up to it's potential is facile to the point of meaninglessness, despite how oft-repeated the criticism is of games it's applicable to all but the most perfectly scoped and executed titles; rather we will point out the major issues, and more importantly the kernels of good ideas and expand upon them.

Problems

Jericho's largest faults lay with the dearth of challenge in uniquely videogame terms. Yes, some of the fights are difficult, but all puzzles are solved for you (anything blocking your passage will prompt you immediately which team member is needed to clear it), and logistically the game is lacking any depth with the employment of both regenerating health and regenerating ammo.

There are absolutely no items, power-ups, or collectibles to be found in the environment and very little to interact with. This makes the straightjacket-linear levels, convincingly rendered as some of them are, completely dead to the player; much player involvement is lost when there is no need to investigate surroundings.

Level layout typical of the original Jericho. Linear, with nothing to collect.

There were bright spots however--the early game twist of your stalwart, generic white male hero player character getting killed and becoming a ghost is one of them.
From that point you can possess the remaining team members at will, imbuing them with the character's own healing powers.
There is one other character (Father Rawlings) capable of resurrecting characters so there is a reasonable depth to battles where you must ensure that the squad stays alive by way of resurrecting fallen teammates. With no one left alive you lose and must restart to the last checkpoint.

Resolutions

This gameplay concept is what's worth expanding on, with the attendant hooks in the world fiction. The most obvious problem solving would be to re-activate the world in terms of interest. The player and his squad need to be able to look for supplies and feel rewarded for it; the player also could use level layouts that actually provide some tactical depth.
Longer engagement distances (allowing the player to set up and use Black, the sniper character, effectively), and more varied enemy attack patterns other than straight forward suicide charges or stand-and-fire would also be important additions.

Proposed level layout style: multiple approaches, some which require certain squad mates to still be alive to access, items/collectibles, differing engagement distances.

As covered in the redesign of the game's characters, I think an essential element of a horror atmosphere is the vulnerability, humanity of the team themselves; introducing ways in which they might deteriorate in a decidedly un-videogame-like fashion could be very interesting.

There was an Apple II game, the name is lost to me, that involved rescuing hostages. There was a "practice" and a "for keeps" mode--if you played in the latter and lost a hostage, that hostage's profile was deleted permanently off the 5¼-inch floppy disk.

I thought about this in combination with an element from Hitman: Contracts. In that game, there is a collectible weapon in plain view behind a locked door, the key to which is only acquired in the second to last level. The player needs to get the keycard and then re-play the first mission to get the gun, which like any of the collectible weapons, can then be used in any other mission.
This may just be an aspect of the game's fiction setting up most of the missions as being replayed in 47's memory, but I don't think the framing device is necessary; these sorts of things keep to game-logic, and that is enough. It is unique to the medium and therefore should be used freely, as it is something that is ours alone.

Where I'm going with this is a change to the core mechanics of Jericho that would follow, in terms of achronological game logic: we'll say that characters can be resurrected, as they could be in the original game, but with a price.
There is some toll extracted, shuttling to and from the mortal coil such that after a certain number, teammates will become listless and withdrawn, though their combat effectiveness stays roughly the same. I am thinking of the slow graying, darkening of Wander, the player character in Shadow of the Colossus.

The "death counter" increments regardless of save state, the only way to reset it is to start a new game. This means that together with some more conventional restorations to the gameplay--more interesting levels, item collection, non-regenerative healing/ammunition--the game takes on longer-term ramifications. After say ~20 or so deaths (the threshold number would change based on chosen difficulty), a team member is no longer themselves, a short of walking shadow of their previous selves--so you have the option of leaving them to die permanently. Final team makeup and their death counters figure prominently into what kind of ending you receive, but also the choices the player makes in the narrative.

The idea being that as you progress in the game, there are real cost/benefits to how you fight the battles, who you use or push harder. You can rez your teammembers indefinitely if you don't care about them as characters, but at the end of the game you end up with a set of shadow-men, ghostly revenants. There might be inherent conflicts of interest--unlike the original game we'll say that the Priest and the guy with the fire demon possessing his arm don't exactly get along.

You might let a few of the squad members take more hits than others, and sacrifice them later in order to smooth out team dynamics--say I don't care for Church's ninja-style abilities or how she bickers with Black, so I use her as cannon fodder until late in the game at which point I let her die.
Like the original game, there would be roadblocks that would require a specific teammember's abilities to pass--but they would either be alternate paths/shortcuts/access to secret caches instead
A sketch of ending patterns as follows, many of them can be achieved simultaneously:

  • Shadow King: all teammates revenants (50+ deaths) at end
  • Alive Alone: all teammates dead save one at end
  • The Vocation: Father Rawlings (not player) handles all rezzing; no revenants at end
  • Rude Mechanicals: only Delgado, Black, Cole alive at end
  • Get Behind Me: Delgado survives fire demon exorcism
  • Preservation Society: End playthrough with all original squad weapons intact
  • The Loss of Ross: game ends with team leader's ghost lost forever
  • Sun King: No revenants, all teammates survive end
  • The Story is the Same: team agrees to sacrifice themselves containing Firstborn
  • The Story Changes: team defeats Firstborn
My only nagging concerns with this concept is that they fall into the same traps of other titles with multiple endings, being that one ending above all others is considered the "best" ending, whereas others are "bad" or less preferable. I'm more interested in games with narratives centered on player actions, holding a mirror to how the player makes sense of the world and their choices, rather than stale, one-dimensional moralizing or cheap counterfeits of storytelling in other media.
What, dear readers, do you think are ways to resolve this issue?
 
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