One more step and its knee-popping time, creeps!

With the new Judge Dredd movie looming, I’ve been finding myself submerged in the comic. A weird sequence of events brought me to the Steam store and spending $8 on Rebellion’s “Dredd vs. Death” game, from 2003. What is odd about this is that I’ve already played it twice and wanted to again, despite trashing it on first blush and constantly describing it as a lackluster shooter to anyone who’s asked me about it. So why play it again?

Well, like many video games today, I feel they got a few things right and the rest not so much. Most of the games features were standard for the time: aiming, shooting and general gameplay did the job but not much else. The design had cool ideas but never tested the player or presented situations where their proficiency was tested and those cool ideas were missed by the average player. I can sympathize with the devs, since it is very hard to get the things that matter into a game at all and even harder to polish them – nine times out of ten they are not the things the publisher values (and shame on them!)

Simply put, I was drawn back to the game by its character. And I don’t just mean Dredd himself, as relating to the franchise, but the flavour of the game itself, its je ne sais quoi.  The game nailed the whole idea of the comic: it’s pointed sarcasm, politics, it’s citizens’ grungy fad-ridden existence, all spot on as far as I’m concerned as a fan. A lot of these points have no connection to the moment to moment gameplay and sadly, probably went unnoticed by the average gamer.

Some examples:

A “fattie” (one of the fads of Mega City one is a community of compulsive weight gainers) rushes up to Dredd: “Zombies! Vampires! We’re doomed!” then runs away, over the edge of a suspended walkway. Dredd continues, apathetic, there are more important things to deal with. Though I think the comic book Dredd would have called in a Med/Meat wagon to pick up the body.

Dredd comments while in a zombie infested shopping mall: “All this rampant consumerism makes my skin crawl.”. Then, as ambient dialog, a PA speaker says “all that consumerism left you drained? Relax in the food court”. Later, a rescued citizen says thankfully “I thought I was going to die in this consumerist hellhole!”. It’s a little pointed, but remember this mall is infested with zombies, so which is the real horror here? Yes, the allusions to “Dawn of the Dead”, the ultimate comment on both zombies and consumerism, are obvious, but I feel they are inverted here.

Spoken ad copy: “With a snack this delicious who needs nutritional value?”

From these examples, it’s easy to get the impression that it’s just the writing. In my experience, dialog is never experienced just by itself, but also when, where and who is saying it. In a video game, the experience of hearing it is a lot more immediate and personal than in a book or on a movie. It’s sometimes about you, even when the main character is “putting words in your mouth.”

The role of narrative design is to bring the player into the game; to grab their interest and ride it, bronco style, toward the exciting and interesting things in the game. It does not just connect level 1 with 2, and so on, but needs to be so embedded with everything else that is cannot be perceived by itself. It needs to be invisible, in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but like sauce (I do a lot of food analogies…) it should never be the reason you’re eating food, never overpower the other parts of the dish, but make it that much more enjoyable. Seems simple enough, but many games eschew its value, or slap it on like so much thin hot sauce?

In “Dredd vs Death”, I was Dredd – the quips came at the cues they should, as I blasted and arrested my way though Mega-City One, immersing me in what was otherwise a marred experience. You can’t help feel a connection to an NPC when you arrest, sentence and hear them say “I should have stayed in school”. You might even be encouraged to shoot to disarm them, which exposes you to extra danger, but gives you a better law rating/score, which is where the depth of this game is, in my opinion.

Bottom line: the game is stronger for tying its dialog not just to the source material (for adaptations) or the themes of its world, but also to game mechanics, environments and ideas behind the game in order to tie the player’s own actions, desires and opinions into the gameplay experience.

It might just make keep people coming back. Even if it is a “bad” game.

Update: It occurred to me that I was amiss in mentioning the Judge Minty fan film. The guys behind this project have been working hard for many years bringing a very old Judge Dredd story (The Long Walk, Prog #147) to life, putting tons of $$$ into it and getting nothing but kudos out of it. From what I’ve seen, they’ve done an amazing job making the comic real and the uniforms are amazing. (Full disclosure: I can attest to the quality of the Judge’s Helmet, as I have one of them from Planet Replicas.)

You can check out the project here:  http://judgeminty.blogspot.ca/ and the Trailer on YouTube .

Screenshot credit: FPSTeam.it / Rebellion Studios