Thursday, January 18, 2007

Space Marines Can't Jump

Yesterday in Slate, Chris Suellentrop analyzed the popularity of Gears of War for the Xbox 360. He offers some interesting ideas (mainly by looking at the comments of Cliff Bleszinski, the game’s lead designer) about how gamers appreciate pacing and how this can substitute for plot in a narrative game.

But Suellentrop oddly singles out one aspect of Gears gameplay, the inability to jump, for special consideration. Now, I find it just as frustrating as the next gamer that in Gears a player cannot leap over a low obstacle without first ducking behind it to seek cover and then mantling over it. But no-jumping doesn’t strike me as a noteworthy mechanic. Maybe you could discuss it at length if it was 1988 and you were talking about Bionic Commando. But, while I acknowledge that it is not a path that many action games take, no-jumping has an established history in gaming.

Just look at Resident Evil 4, a game that Cliffy B acknowledges as the prime gaming influence on Gears of War. Just like the earthbound space marine bad-asses of Gears, Leon in RE4 only jumps with the A button—the Park Place of gamepad real estate, as Cliffy B calls it—in some very specific contexts.

While I really like Gears of War, what I would love to see discussed more is its almost monotonous linearity. A lot of the game environments are sprawling, but the paths available might as well be the spaceship hallways of space marine adventures past. Is this what we want from a next-gen shooter? How much linearity is necessary to achieve the pacing Cliffy B wants? If there is a trade-off between freedom and pacing, as it seems there must be, what kinds of balances between the two work well, and in what kinds of games?

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