Monday, May 9, 2011

killer7: Linear Movement, and Why it Works

(Originally posted on December 12th, 2010 at my personal blog.)
I was talking with enigmaopoeia yesterday or the day before. I was going off of this formspring question I answered recently, about the divide between mechanics and narrative in games. I mentioned Suda51 in there, and I started thinking and talking with her about whether or not killer7's mechanics--things like "hold X to move forward in a predetermined path, hit Triangle to turn around"--serve its story well. killer7 is a great game, but a lot of people who played it seemed to struggle with it adopting such unconventional movement method for a reason that wasn't immediately discernible. Couldn't you just make it a free-roaming control scheme, maybe with a fixed camera, like Resident Evil?

Personally, I think killer7's movement scheme is meant to be used because it is simpler. Instead of having to find your own way around, all you have to do is hold down one button to smoothly go where you need to be. This accomplishes several things: first of all, it gives Suda51 and his developers control over the placement of actors, objects and camera angles (the mise-en-scène, to use film terminology) at any time. This allows the game to look more like a movie. That is, it allows for sequences like this:


Watch closely the first 35-40 seconds of this, and particularly the stretch where Harman is rolling along this corridor towards Kun Lan. If this were free-roaming, the player might choose to explore the entire area first, seeing if there's anything else to see, instead of just heading straight for Kun Lan himself. This would illustrate a gap between the player's goals and the character's, though: people who play lots of video games tend to want to explore everything, while Harman Smith himself is here for only one reason, and that reason is not to look at the scenery. Not to mention that this sequence creates a real feeling of tension: unable to do anything else, the player heads Harman towards his enemy even as they're not sure what's going to happen. There is no sound except for the quiet squeaking of Harman's wheelchair.

(The effect actually reminds me most of the Mega Man 2 sequence between Wily's Castle and the actual final battle, that cavern area where, for the first time in the game iirc, there is no music. There is only the sound of water drops in the cavern, and it not only creeps out the player, but creates a really wonderful feeling of tension and uncertainty.)

There's another reason this works for killer7 where free-roaming wouldn't: it fits the kind of game killer7 is in the first place. There aren't lots of secrets or collectibles in killer7 the way there are in, say, Resident Evil 4: everything you find in the game is scripted and important, and therefore if you ran around examining every nook and cranny for stuff, you might get disappointed when you find out how empty the game is. Of course, you'd feel really silly too, because the graphic style emphasizes blankness and negative space, meaning that yes, the game is indeed as empty as it is deliberately made to look. Look at the sequence below, for instance:

Skip to 03:20 or so. Although the houses in this area certainly look like houses, complete with balconies and windows and doors, there's nothing in those to invite the player in to explore. There's no glimpse of anything inside them. They are black. The only decoration you can even see on the windows is bars. The player is not meant to go in here. Instead of letting the player free-roam and bump up against all this stuff, frustrated that they can't enter any of these areas, just take away free roaming and direct them in a straight line instead. Everything in killer7 is deliberately crafted to create a certain effect. Nothing is superfluous.

Compare this to one of the big, big flaws in Suda's later game, No More Heroes: the overworld is fully explorable and Grand Theft Auto-inspired sandboxey, but there's almost nothing interesting to do in it! They aped Rockstar, but without Rockstar's budget and attention to detail, the overworld feels barren and uninteresting. The graphics used look like killer7's, but when you're actually called upon to explore it for things like Lovikov balls, that simplicity is exactly the opposite of what you're looking for. It's boring! No wonder they changed it in the sequel. Here, just imagine exploring around all of these big grey/reddish/white boxes on foot:

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