Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Cybernator: A 2D realism... game

at 12:16 PM
Another main thing that is oh so fucked up in oh so many games of the '80s and '90s is that the player is made of glass, i.e., touching ANYTHING kills them. This is the most frustrating and almost game-ruining aspect of Contra. The screen is so littered with deadly hazards that the player feels trapped and the course excessively linear (why does bumping into an enemy soldier kill me, but not him? Maybe Bill should've put on a shirt, since his adversaries are apparently sporting lazer-armor). Compare this to Metal Slug or Shock Troopers, wherein only bullets (or tanks/planes) are dangerous, and the player has bucketfuls more freedom. 
Ram into things to your heart's desire! Also, this box-art is weird/terrible
As one may or may not have guessed, Cybernator belongs to the latter category, in which enemies need to attack you to be dangerous. Seems like the game would be totally fucked were this not the case, considering the molasses-y rate of movement discussed yesterday. This allows cleaner offensive prioritization - since foes are not immediate deathtraps, the player can ignore the weaker and slower ones while focusing on the most dangerous. It gives personality to the enemies - a cannon emplacement doesn't function at all similarly to an aggressive mech. As a matter of fact, the ability to 'defeat' cannons simply by getting so close that you're inside of their area-of-attack is so realistic that it makes you shake your head that other games don't do the same. It gives a sense of real space without resorting to 3D gameplay. Further contributing to the sense of location is that enemies do not respawn (except in places where logically there would be multiple waves).

You know, I think that may be my big problem with Contra and similar shmups (R-Type, Gradius). Not specifically that touching enemies is damaging, or that they respawn, but that there is no sense of a realistic space. It just fails to make sense on such a basic level that I can't immerse myself in the world. I can't connect to the avatar (as much as I should be able to connect to a sentient space-ship or submarine) because the world is brimming with nonsensical rules. The more rules you need, the less natural the experience becomes, and the less natural the experience, the more time I spend thinking about the meta-game - dealing with the limitations of the rule-set rather than the opposition to the goals as defined inside the game. There are players that thrive on this (see just about any speed-runner or high-scorer), but it's the exact opposite of what I want from an engaging experience. I want to interact with the world from inside the world, to, heh, beat the enemy at their own game.

Back on topic, Cybernator's stages feel genuinely mission driven. The plot, asinine though it may be, sets us up to expect a military campaign. The first stage sees the player infiltrate an enemy colony, a mission corroborated in the stage design by broad spaces and patterned defenses. The subsequent flight through an asteroid field is accordingly frantic, blasting off at exponentially greater speed, then slowing back down as the objective shifts to a search for an enemy weapon among the "roids" (seriously, that's the word the game uses). Though progress during this mission remains linearly left-to-right, the environment stretches for multiple screens vertically, giving the player a sense of exploration. The inertially-driven zero-gravity navigation lends the appropriate tension to this search, as the player never knows whether they'll careen into a friendly power-up or a nest of turrets. Even the boundaries of the screen add to the realism, as they subtly suggest (or at least comply with) the limited visibility created by the splay of asteroids. The boss eventually bursts forth from the surface of one such body, terminating the search in a pitched showdown. 
Yes, let's!
From there we take to another infiltration, this time through the claustrophobic corridors of a space-battleship (I think? story not real clear on that one), followed by a meteoric decent to Earth, a land-battle against wave after wave of tanks and bombers, and much, much more. Much, much, much, much, much more. But you should play the game instead of listening to my description. The point is that the goal of each mission is reinforced by the gameplay - you don't get to the end and say "oh, right, I was rescuing a princess all along". You're reminded at each turn that your immediate actions are part of the overall strategy, instilling each move with purpose. And you can even fail the mission while still moving past the level!

Between its limiting controls (the robot feels like a robot), cogent interactivity (absence of excessive meta-rules), and synergistic level design (objectives and stages harmonize), Cybernator begs to be classified as realism. Uh oh. We're on thin ice here. As usual, the culture of gaming has already stolen and misunderstood this term, trying to purpose it equivalently to film and literature. "Realistic" has come to mean "looks real" (Modern Warfare), or "has a lot of characters that do their own thing" (Skyrim). Get me any mainstream gaming journalist in here and they'll assure us that "realism" wasn't invented til somewhere around the turn of the millennium, and certainly not until 3D became the norm. While I won't make any attempt to deny that 3D and world-building can be major factors in realism, what makes games unique is their interactivity, so the key element to examine is the reality of this interactivity. Not how real does it look, but how real does it feel. Not whether this world feels inhabited, but whether the player feels like they are inhabiting it.

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