Monday, 27 February 2012

On Defense Grid: The Awakening

I thought I knew tower defence: that gooey little sub-genre that flows perfectly into the mould of short-term-addictive, long-term-disposable browser games. That guilty pleasure that I can dip into when I want something nerdy and satisfying, but that I'd never write something about. Something fun, but never deep or amazing. That's what I knew about tower defence.

67 hours and counting in Defense Grid: The Awakening says that I didn't know tower defence.

It wasn't meant to be this way. This was a little foray in between "proper" games. Something that I picked up in the Potato Sack (I think), that I could put a few hours into and then move on and forget. Even if it did get addictive I certainly wouldn't be raving about its inventiveness and - am I really writing this - story and character.

Even before devs Hidden Path got snugly with Valve and released the GLaDOS themed You Monster DLC, the big touchstone for me has to be Portal. Two closely related reasons, and then one separate one: firstly, both are rare examples of games that had no absolute need of a story, but are - quite astonishingly in the sphere of game narrative - not only home to a functioning yarn, but greatly enhanced by its presence. They both advance from the level of polished competence to the realms of real brilliance due to well written and engaging story-lines that complement and play off the games' mechanics and progression. Given the utter crap that goes into so many story reliant games, to include a story that wasn't strictly needed but that works so well is a remarkable achievement for both titles.

Forgive the gratuitous alliteration, but the shared secret of the stories' successes is the second striking similarity in evidence. We've known Valve are masters of this since Half Life, but it's a lesson ignored by an infuriating majority of developers: where the story isn't the main event, don't let it get in the way of the game. Make our interactions fun first and foremost and then, if you must, put in a narrative that works around this. Yes Mr and/or Ms dev, if you're making a game - almost any shooter, strategy or sports game to name a few relevant genres - where satisfying mechanics are the key to said game's success, it's important that our satisfying mechanical interaction is not interrupted or pissed all over by the hubris of your cack-handed attempt at a plot. That way, the worst that happens is your car crash of a script and horrible voice acting is an optional, skippable sideshow and we can still enjoy your game for what it really is.

But I think there's even more to it than just being able to avoid the bad examples. I'm a great believer in the theory that great culture - be it high art, the poppest of pop-culture or anything in between - comes out of compromise and struggle. Given carte blanch and a free reign, humans will invariably make something bloated, overblown and without worth. It's when forced into constraints that we sometimes - not always, but sometimes - produce great works. I'm sure there are better examples, but off the top of my head: George Lucas, a relative unknown struggles to get funding to make Star Wars Episode 4, resulting in three decent, fun sci-fi adventure movies. George Lucas, widely respected legend, makes Star Wars Episode 1 with a huge budget, resulting in, well, Star Wars Episodes 1-3.

Within the realm of games, having to work your setting, characters and narrative around the constraints of not interrupting, contradicting, dictating to or otherwise spoiling your gameplay can, I believe, result in some of the best game stories. If this means your story is subtle and light-touch, has few characters, employs a lot of show-don't-tell elements with little exposition and can even have chunks of it skipped entirely, then, um, well I actually think that those are key ingredients of some - some, not all - of the very best stories I've experienced in- and out-side of gaming.

Note that I'm not advocating all games and all game stories take this approach - I don't think point and click adventures should start with great puzzles and work their stories around them, for example, and on the other extreme some games need no story at all - but I do think, in my very own unresearched, inexperienced, armchair general way, that this is the approach a lot more developers should to take.

So, er, Defense Grid. Both it (in the original Awakening campaign) and Portal (the first game), have a single speaking character and a mute player character - if the player character can even be considered a character at all. Both employ zero exposition or narration, forced or otherwise. Neither tell you much about who you are and why you're doing what you're doing, and both have elements where you learn about the nature and past of your environment through your present interactions, taking the storytelling just a little beyond simply a linear narrative experience. In both games, the single character is memorable and charming - though in very different ways. In neither game are you forced to pause your interaction with the game mechanics for any great length of time to engage with the story; it's simply there for you to take or leave. And in both Portal and Defense Grid I think the characters and stories are really rather good, and fit perfectly with and play expertly off the game and the way you interact with it.

Now I've built up my point I want to knock it down a little. Defense Grid's plot isn't as big a part of the game as Portal's is a part of Portal: there will be people that talk about Defense Grid without talking about the "Entity" character, whereas few would mention Portal without GLaDOS. Also, during Awakening at least, Defense Grid doesn't quite hit the high notes of wit and humour that Portal does, although it comes closer than most.

Of course, the counter argument to my counter argument is the brilliant You Monster DLC and the extent to which it mirrors Portal 2, but we shall come to that later.

The third, separate similarity is something less specific and special (shit, those Ss still), but remains something worth noting and applauding. Originality is of course a wonderful thing and no one doubts that some of the most memorable games are ones that throw the new and the unfamiliar at you repeatedly, loudly and when you least expect it. Now, again, I wouldn't want all future games to take this tack, but there's actually a lot to be said for taking something that already exists, examining it very closely indeed, and make it as good as it can possibly be.

Wait! What's that I see there? That familiar face, that deja vu inflicting countenance? Would it be "brilliance created due to rather than in spite of constraints"? Yes, it is! Welcome back, friend, good to see you again.

Originality can be wonderful, but I believe it can also be the doorway through which balance, polish and coherence can escape and bugs and feature creep can enter. Sometime I crave a flawed gem whose ambition outweighs its execution, but sometimes I want something tight and perfectly executed, with all the necessary elements, but no bloat and nothing half baked. When your goal is to take an existing idea and polish it until it shines, then it's easier to have the restraint needed to achieve this level of execution.

Portal took its spiritual predecessor (Narbacular Drop) and did this, while Defense Grid took a genre. Within the constraint of tower defence, Hidden Path saw exactly what to leave or cut out, what to improve, what to expand upon and what to leave untouched. Experience points, RPG like abilities and level ups left out, graphics enhanced so that they at least belong in this millennium, map complexity and size and clever, deep possibilities for pathing incoming mobs taken to extremes and the careful, intricate, satisfying balance of different tower and enemy types executed traditionally, yet near perfectly.

What results is something near the pinnacle of a genre. It wont change your world, but it's hard to imagine something so tight and satisfying that wasn't the refinement of an existing concept, and I think the nous involved in this refining process deserves real recognition.

All of this is true of the original "Awakening" campaign. Had that been all there was to Defense Grid, all the praise above would still be warranted. But aside from the bonus modes and map packs for those who want to pursue high scores and challenges, there's something else very special available as DLC, you monster.

Awakening, with its well judged difficulty curve and careful introduction of all the necessary tower and enemy types, is near perfect traditional tower defence. So what do they put in as major expansion content? More maps, enemies and towers would have been the obvious and acceptable answer, but Valve and Hidden Path had a better one: get GLaDOS in and let her mess with stuff.

It's genius. There's now a hilarious conflict between the game's existing character and everyone's favourite psychotic AI, with the Portal antagonist full of her usual quips as she messes just enough with your game to make things interesting, while still giving you an almost fair chance. Nearly all of the eight expansion levels have some excellent twist that plays with your assumptions or existing plans, without ever being so brutal about it that you feel cheated or hopeless. Of the You Monster levels, only the first and last maps of the campaign fall a little flat (especially the finale, which was great in principal but much too easy in practice).

It's a real credit to the devs that instead of just piling more stuff into there game, they integrated something that messes with the formula in subtle but entertaining ways, while not breaking anything or getting in the way of what made the existing game-play fun and special. Kudos.

And I thought I knew tower defence.

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