August 18, 2009
Lately, I feel very small. If you follow this space, you know I've recently been smitten by two very different games: Little King's Story and Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. On the advice of a friendly reader, I've also been looking at Deadly Creatures, a game in which you're a scorpion and tarantula bent on survival against all sorts of gnarly bugs, rats, and reptiles.
Deadly Creatures suffers from some design issues that weigh it down - heavy reliance on QTEs, overly complex controls - but I'm attracted to each of these games, and when I reflect on my experiences playing them, I realize they share one distinctive feature that sets them apart: POV. Aside from their other virtues, all three games adopt a playful approach to point of view, positioning the player in relationship to his/her avatar in ways that enhance gameplay and encourage a perspective that feels different from most other games.
In Spider and Deadly Creatures, the difference makes all the difference. Both employ mechanics based on the characteristics of being an arachnid, which provides fun movement and skill deployment. Spider uses a 2-D framed portrait perspective, while DC relies on an over the shoulder (if arachnids had shoulders) 3-D perspective. Spider conveys a split sense of inhabiting and tactilely controlling a spider; whereas DC communicates the feeling of being a scorpion on the ground in 3-D space. In this game, climbing a wall can make your head spin.
In Spider, POV provokes you to think strategically and offers the possibility of constructing a narrative from a separate player's-mind POV that's always running parallel to the spider's. DC's POV, more than anything else, delivers a powerful sense of danger and brutal combat. Survival of the fittest takes on a new level of urgency when you experience it eye-to-eye with an angry arthropod.
POV in Little King's Story is more subtle because it's not so much about shifting the player's visual perspective as about redefining genre expectations and repositioning your avatar's view of the world and people around him. LKS tricks you into thinking it's an isometric RTS dressed up in cuddly clothes. Looking down at the world from this perspective, we're conditioned to assume a cavalier attitude about life and death, tolerance, and morality.
The game even gives voice to this approach in the form of the King's main adviser, Howser. Rule your kingdom from above; expand it, take no prisoners; fill your coffers and dominate the world. The genius of LKS is the way it upends these familiar genre formulas, mainly by altering the player's POV as a child-king who must go to battle literally surrounded by the families he helped bring together.
I wish games played with POV more, well, playfully. Consider some of the most highly-regarded recent games: GTA IV, MGS 4, Bioshock, Gears of War 2, Fallout 3. Mostly guys with guns in that bunch. Don't worry, I'm not about to launch another "give us games without guns" plea, and I'm not suggesting these aren't terrific games in their own rights.
But there's an unmistakable sameness about how they deal with POV. When you consider the power of games to create virtual environments and define unfixed perspectives - 1st-person, 3rd-person; 1st-flower, 3rd-katamari (The Darkness is especially notable in this regard) - it's a shame they so often limit themselves to the standard playbook. Maybe game designers assume we don't want them to stray too far with POV. These three games make me wish they would stray even farther.