Probably by now, everyone has seen the new Gears of War trailer.
With apologies to the gang at Epic (without whose engine I would still be an unemployed writer), I'll be the first to admit that I've had some doubts about Gears. It's not that I don't think Gears will be a top-notch adrenaline-pumping shooter with probably the best visuals we will see on 360 this Christmas, and maybe this year. I know it will be that. In fact, I think it will be more than that.
I think the emphasis on using cover and out-maneuvering the enemy will be exceptionally well balanced, and will open the door for casual players to better appreciate some of the thrills of more tactical combat; combat that is as much (if not more) about movement and position as about circle-strafing and twitch-reflex head-shots. I think it might be the game that bridges the gap between Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms, opening the door for players in each niche to crossover, broadening both markets. At least that's how I've interpreted the promise of the game since I first saw it at E3 last year.
So what the hell am I talking about when I say 'I have my doubts about Gears'? Sadly, what I mean is that I'm getting bored of this game. Gears has the potential to be huge - drawing in the combined audience of Halo and GRAW with a perfect mix of run-and-gun and thinkin' man's combat. But in the end, I've played this game before. I've played it dozens of times. And while Gears promises more, the 'more' that it promises is more refinement.
Then comes the trailer.
This trailer promises something totally revolutionary. It promises me that in playing Gears of War, I will experience something meaningful, something that is unique to Gears and that is not promised by any other shooter ever made. Specifically, it promises me that between iterations of the main gameplay loop (combat sequences) there will be a second gameplay loop in which I will feel an overwhealming sense of loss. I will interact with the ruins of my world and feel what a terrible shame it is to have lived beyond the end of a great culture that has accomplished so much. It promises to put me in situations where I will be tempted to indulge that sorrow and slip into self-indulgent melancholy before yanking me back into what might be a pointless battle for my own survival. Will it deliver on that promise? Well, I'm willing to shell out my eighty bucks to find out. At very least, I expect to get the refinement of shooter mechanics, and maybe I'll get more.
Now - some of you will say 'all that crap you're asking for is a waste of time - Gears will move 4 million units and make 150 million dollars without it, so why should they bother?' Others will say 'the kind of emotional connection you think the trailer promises is impossible to acheive'.
You'd be wrong on both counts, I think. To respond one at a time:
It's a waste of time becase it will sell without it.
True - it will sell millions. But to whom will it sell millions? It will sell millions to the same old collection of 18-34 year old males that every other great shooter has always sold to. I'm 34. I'll buy it. But as I said, I'm getting bored of it, and likely a year from now I will have just given up completely on these games. And millions of guys my age are probably in the same boat. And millions have been in the past, and millions more will be in the future. If Gears delivers on the promise of this trailer, it will not only move 4 million units to the 18-34 market, it will move another million to to the rapidly swelling 35-45 market, who have been blowing away aliens with machineguns for like 15 years. We still like blowing away aliens with machineguns, but we want to experience something more than just that. We want to experience what this trailer promises, and we will line up and give you money for delivering that experience. And we have a fucking shitload of money. I, for one, would pay twice the price for that kind of experience - yet at the same time, I'm pissed that I have to pay 10 bucks more for the same old experience I was getting 5 years, 10 years, 15 years ago.
That kind of emotional connection is impossible to deliver.
Wrong again. All it takes is to systemically enable the same interactions that make me feel these things in the trailer, give the player goals that push him into using those interactions, and then give the player feedback through Marcus that embodies those interactions with meaning.
From what I have seen, I am certain the player will develop a powerful empathic connection with Marcus. The way he is animated into the world makes him a strong bridge between the player and the virtual world. Because of this, the player will feel a powerful psychosomatic connection to Marcus. I know this because I've seen it happen to players playing Splinter Cell. The accuracy and quality of Sam's animation glues him to the world, physicalizing the player's intent and generating agency. When the player presses 'A' to open a door, the door doesn't just swing open magically. Sam grabs the doorknob and turns it, and swings his arm forward - with the entire kinetic chain of his body movement driving the motion. Pressing 'A' becomes a physical action that bonds the player to the world through Sam, it is no longer merely a conceptual action that abstracts the world and allows the player to experience it mentally.
If the player has a powerful empathic connection with Marcus because of a psychosomatic link created by the animation, then the designer can make the player literally feel what Marcus feels. How do we make Marcus feel? And how do we show the player what Marcus feels?
We make Marcus feel by giving him objectives and interactions that draw his character into emotional spaces. Interactions like picking up a piece of rubble and revealing that what used to be something beautiful is now destroyed. Of course, to make him do that, you have to give him objectives to do it, or reward him for doing it on his own. From what I know of the story, Marcus lost his father. If there was a mystery around that event that Marcus was trying to solve in addition to saving the world, then we'd have a motivation to have him interact with small objects that could be representative of that theme of wasted beauty. Give the player side-objectives to solve that mystery - forcing him to interact with the clues in the mystery, and then you can make Marcus feel (generally you'd do this with authored content so that when he interacts with object X at story beat Y, he will be feeling emotion Z, but you don't have to - you could make Marcus's emotional space dynamic, taking constant low-level feedback from the game and using it to generate his emotional state at any given time, so that any given interaction with any given object is going to reflect the players experiences more than the authored emotional state of Marcus).
Once you make Marcus feel, you show the player what he's feeling by placing those objects in front of mirrors - or in the case of the trailer - reflecting pools. Facial animation shows how he feels, is reflected back to the player, and made real through the psychosomatic bond. Circle complete.
If you really want to deliver the promise of trying to draw the player into self-indulgent melancholy, then jerking him out of it, then you only need to layer in a few mechanics. Gears already offers a damage power-up if you 'hot-reload' (I think it's called) - where a successful micro-game performance during the reload animation makes the bullets in your next clip do extra damage. What if instead of putting that mechanic on the reload, it was put on the interaction with these objects. Marcus can dwell on the tragic loss while trying to figure out what happened to his father by looking at bits of ruined junk - but in the facial animation there is a 'sweet spot' - drop the object just at the right moment when Marcus is angry, but before he slips into melancholy, and now he does extra damage because he's pissed. Same mechanic, just transposed onto different objects where the player will be constantly having to confront Marcus's emotional space, and experiencing it himself due to the psychosomatic bond.
You could even put different power-ups on those emotions that Marcus is feeling... maybe under certain curcumstances the power-up the player gets from allowing Marcus to drift into melancholy is more valuable than the power-up he gets from being angry. Maybe there are increasing or diminishing returns in the nature of those power-ups over time - baiting the player into self-indulgent melancholy by proxy.
Of course, I'm pulling this mechanic out of my ass. Just as any other mechanic, creating compelling dynamics and using them to deliver meaningful aesthetics is a question of constant tuning and balancing. It's nowhere near as easy as this... but the notion that it's impossible is complete and utter bullshit.
Next-gen is here. All that remains is for someone to make a next-gen game. Hopefully Gears of War will be the first one.