Monday, April 12, 2004

Game :: Eternal Darkness

Originally posted: Mon, 12 Apr 2004 09:23:31

Eternal Darkness

I mentioned a while back that I've given up fiction in favor of video games. Basically, I read enough already, and I find ethnographic studies more interesting than literature. But I'm intrigued by the mix of puzzle solving, action, and complex narrative in video games. For me, this trend started with the venerable The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, the Nintendo-64 game that changed the face of console gaming.

Eternal Darkness is a bit different. Inspired by gothic horror such as H.P. Lovecraft's work, Eternal Darkness takes itself very seriously -- too seriously for my tastes, actually, especially given the over-the-top story and characters. Any game that prominently features zombies should crack a smile every once in a while.

In terms of story, ED comes up with an interesting, fairly complex treatment that spans 2000 years. In a nutshell, three Ancients -- nightmarish beings with godlike powers -- are continuously trying to enter our world, dominate it, and destroy the others (bringing on the "eternal darkness" of the title). We learn of this ongoing, secret conflict through the eyes of Alex Roivas, a young woman in 2000 AD who inherits her grandfather's mansion after his untimely and gruesome death and discovers the Tome of Eternal Darkness. ("Roivas" backward is "savior" -- get it?) Each chapter she reads tells of the adventure of another person who has worked to save the world from eternal darkness. The clever thing is, you play the character in each chapter. You end up playing 12 different characters, each with their own attributes. The characters visit the same places, but in very different states: for instance, a Persian underground temple visited by a Roman soldier in the first century AD is later visited by a firefighter trying to put out Iraqi oil fires in 1991.

Each character learns things, including spells, that can later be taken up by other characters. The spell system is the most intriguing part of the game, at least for me, because it involves a very basic grammar. Each character picks up runes. You create spells by assembling runes in a basic grammar (noun + verb + alignment). You can pick up spell scrolls that describe handy spells or you can assemble your own. Later, you can power up spells by adding power runes. The spells become very important in combat, but also in puzzle-solving.

Combat bites. The targeting system is clunky; you can't target and move at the same time. The joystick seems less responsive. Also, some of the characters have poor stamina. I'm used to Link in the Ocarina of Time -- that guy will run and run without breaking a sweat. In ED, though, many of your characters are in poor shape and can't do much jogging before they start wheezing. I guess this is more realistic, although realism in a game that features zombies seems a bit much. As you accumulate spells, fortunately, hand-to-hand combat becomes far less important.

Puzzle solving is uneven: sometimes it seems far too easy and sometimes it's unreasonably hard. The first puzzle you have to solve, for instance, involves setting the hands of a clock to a specific time. Not much setup for that, especially because you have an entire abandoned mansion to wander before finding it. At other points, you'll find a spell scroll immediately before encountering a puzzle that can only be solved by that spell.

Even with these limiations and the inherent corniness of the game, though, I found it to be fun and interesting. Many of the scenes and environments are arresting, including beautiful carpets, imaginative room designs, and everywhere the breathtaking illusion of depth. The monsters are suitably horrible, as is the gore and the fate of your characters should you lose. I sort of got tired of being told "I spit at thee!" in the final scene, though.

The game is designed so that you can play it three times through, defeating a different Ancient each time, and I actually did exactly that. Each time through was a chance to use different strategies. Now that I've finished off all three, I have the option of playing in "eternal" mode -- invincible, that is -- but what's the fun in that?

If you're interested in gothic horror, this game is for you. If you're more interested in thoughtfully constructed puzzles, one of the Zelda games might be a better bet.

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Reading:: The Substance of Style

Originally posted: Mon, 12 Apr 2004 08:45:37

The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness

by Virginia Postrel

Early in The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel tells a story about a panel of designers at a conference being confronted by a man who objected to their profession. Why did they spend so much time trying to differentiate between nearly identical products such as Coke and Pepsi? Wasn't their profession a sort of lying, trying to manufacture differences where there are none?

That's the key question Postrel tries to answer in the book. It's a good question, one that parallels accusations leveled against rhetoric for the last couple of millenia. Unfortunately, Postrel's attempt to answer this question doesn't take the form of a coherent argument. Instead, she deploys a seemingly endless series of anecdotes about how design has changed our lives and perceptions. The anecdotes are often entertaining, but they lack precision and often Postrel doesn't seem to get anywhere.

Maybe in part that's because I am a rhetorician and am familiar with this basic argument. Maybe as an introduction to the value of design, this book is valuable to a general audience. But then again, compare it to marketing books such as Jack Trout's Differentiate or Die, which provides a surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical explanation of product branding in language that the lay person can easily understand.

Postrel's book is a quick read -- one afternoon for me, even with the TV on -- so it's not a huge time investment. If you want access to lots of anecdotes about product design or a primer on the style/substance question, by all means take a look. But don't expect sophisticated argumentation here.

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