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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Is Lost Failing ... As A Game?

I have bemoaned the sorry decline of Lost over the last season and a half (or so - Season Two started out strong enough) quite a bit ... and for now I'm willing to see if the producers took any notes with them when they started shooting the second half of Season 3 (which I think by the break, they were about half done).

However, there is another angle. Lost has been compared to a new wave kind of game - the marriage between television elements and in particular, Alternate Reality Games (like Jaime Kane or I Love Bees. The fact that the show begged viewers to watch, record and rewatch for various hints and clues as to the mystery of the island is similar to web users pouring over HTML code, decoding images and watching videos for hints.

So if the television critics have turned on Lost - what might a gamer think?

No Wocka-Wocka
No, I don't mean Lost needs a talking bear. One of the first things I ever read about game design talked about how Pac-Man's "wocka wocka" was a kind of instant gratifcation for the player. A simple and pleasing sound to indicate that points were being earned. Think the "bling" noise of Sonic.

Lost, on the other hand, is an exercise in delayed gratification. You'll see a flash of a tidbit - and then it's gone. Sometimes for many episodes ... or even a season or more. Remember Adam & Eve, the mysterious bodies in the cave? Yeah, neither do I. No, I'm not expecting a Pokemon style call-out for every important facet shown on the island - but when episode after episode fails to reward for paying attention to detail ... it doesn't make the details any more noteworthy or desirable to chase after.

In an ARG - attention to detail is usually rewarded quickly with new information. Clues cascade into each other and build into a revelation. On Lost, they often just dwindle away. Even more frustrating is the complete seperation between the show and ... the show's ARG, "The Lost Experience." Knowledge of one isn't particularly relevant to the other, and this lack of synergy feels like a missed gaming opportunity.

No powerups
In games, powerups give players a brief feeling of power. They can quickly change the fortune of a battle on the screen. They might take the player into completely new directions. On Lost - upgrades are fleeting and random. The characters get dynamite - but use it only to blow up the hatch. They get a radio - but it does them little good. They find a plane - and it kills one of them. They build a boat and ... well, you're seeing the pattern emerge here. The island giveth and the island take twofold away.

Locke is about the only exception to this rule. When the guy saddles up, the viewer feels like someone is going to get their ass kicked. For most of the other characters - when they try really hard, it almost makes you cringe in fear as to what might happen to them next. Most characters who go through any kind of empowerment on the show just end up dead.

No Boss Fights
Some designers would say this is a good thing - that boss fights are a throwback to coin-op evolution that we haven't figured out how to shake just yet. I like them plenty ... if they're designed right.

So far - big confrontations have been short on the island. We had Ethan - and it was good. We had the polar bears - but they were brief. We've got the Smoke Monster - but that's pretty one sided. In fact, the Smoke Monster is turning into the kind of boss fight that designers love to hate - overly convenient, mostly specially effects and ultimately meaningless.

Wrong Genre
In general, Lost seems to be more modelled after old school adventure games than ARGs. In lieu of meaningful clues, there are object hunts and location finds. Poke around the jungle enough and find the hatch. Go to Dark Terrority and get dynamite. Use dynamite on hatch. Open hatch. Enter Season Two.

ARG? I think the best format for a Lost game might be a text adventure. Seems like a pretty straightforward translation to me. And I don't mean that as an insult - I love me text adventures.

But a warning to the producers - it's very hard to make them commercially viable.

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