Plants, zombies, and a SWAT team

All games are based on you knowing something, and then acting on that knowledge. Board games such as Chess and Go give you all the information you need to make an educated decision; you can see every piece, you know all the rules, and you can predict the outcome of any given decision. Within reason, of course, but you could if you really wanted to.

Computery video games are generally the same. Not all of them, of course; some RTS games employ the “fog of war” effect so that you can’t see what your enemy is up to unless you’re right next to them. This creates tension, as you don’t know exactly what your opponent has up their sleeve until it’s out of their sleeve and shooting your army in the face. Generally speaking though, most games don’t really blindside the player. You tend to know what’s coming.

Plants vs Zombies is a very simplistic RTS game from Popcap. You get six rows, and in each row you can put down plants. Some plants are offensive (they shoot peas and the like). Some are defensive (they block the rows, or squash approaching zombies). Zombies come from the right of the screen, and you put your plants down on the left, and try to stop the zombies from getting past you. This all takes place on one screen.

What has really impressed me with this game is how Popcap have managed to make this an RTS game that can be played by pretty much anyone with working eyes and one hand. They’ve taken out the usual frustrations, and gone right to the meat of what makes an RTS game great. RTS games can blindside you (either by using the fog of war, or a line of sight system, or just by the enemy maneuvering behind you without you noticing). This can be frustrating, as RTS games tend to take place on massive maps, and you can’t be looking everywhere at once. Popcap’s solution to this is three-fold. First, you get to see a brief glimpse of the zombie types that you’ll be up against at the start of each battle. The zombie types are all instantly recognisable, so you can quickly size up what you need to deploy throughout the battle to counter them. Second, the battles all take place on one screen. And in case you get complacent, Popcap have implemented a third solution which is a slice of genius. The currency you spend on plants is sunlight. Sunlight is collected by clicking on it as it appears randomly on the maps, as well as being created by the sunflowers you can place on the screen. This all means that you’re constantly glancing round the map for sunlight in order to be able to buy new plants; the game forces you to keep tabs on everything. The game plays at a slow place to accomodate this and also has a very shallow difficulty curve, so you don’t feel too pressured by this until the later levels. How Popcap have managed to make the player absorb the gameplay information as you they play it is a neat trick of design, and an effective one too.

SWAT 4, rather obviously, is a bit different. It’s an old game from the makers of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite and System Shock 2. SWAT 4 is about playing as the leader of a SWAT team. The levels are individual crimes that the SWAT team has to attend; your job is the same as the real life SWAT teams – get in there and make it safe. The game is donkeys years old now, and runs on what can feel like Unreal Engine version 0.001, and yet it can still get under the player’s skin. And it does this in a way familiar to anyone who has played one of their previous games; it supplies you with tons of contextual information. Before each mission, you can hear a briefing from the officer in charge, a recording of the 911 call that got you into this, reports on the suspects, and reports on the hostages. When you’re actually playing the game, you’re also given the opportunity to gather information as you play. You can equip an optiwand, a remote camera which you can stick under doorframes to see who is behind them. As you approach doors, you’ll sometimes hear the criminals bickering amongst themselves, or threatening you with a bullet if you try and get them. You’ll hear hostages begging for rescue, and injured hostages will moan and cry. All this compels you to get through it. You can’t quit a mission halfway through, you need to see it through to the end. You need to rescue everyone. You need to arrest all of the suspects.

There’s one trick that SWAT 4 employs that was taken even further in Bioshock, and that’s environmental information. Stuff you see as you go through, that clues you in to what’s happened, and sometimes why it’s happened. There’s the obvious stuff; if you go round a corner and see a big pool of blood on the floor, you can guarantee there’s a wounded hostage somewhere nearby and a suspect with a gun and a hair trigger waiting for you. Then there’s the subtle things. You go to a suspected serial killer’s house, where he lives with his gran. You realise his bedroom hasn’t changed since he was a boy. You find newspapers piled up at the front door of the house. You find the gran, screaming about protecting her little baby boy. You head to the basement, and you find cages of dead mice and CCTV cameras pointed at you along the way, dismembered mannequins line the walls, and there’s a tunnel cut into the basement floor. You know this will not end well.

Two games that treat information differently; one that makes you constantly re-appraise the situation, and one that makes you work for it. The most tenuous link between two games I’m currently playing. Sorry. I tried.

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