Friday, March 26, 2010

Style Points

Apologies for the absence, March moves faster than I could believe possible.

We know artists have a particular style, from Picasso's abstraction to Andy Warhol's consumer commentary to Van Gogh's impressionism. We can pick out, or give a pretty good guess, who did these works almost immediately. The same applies to books, from the minimalist works of Raymond Carver to the Dickensian way of using tons of intricate characters, and movies (Tarantino, anyone?).

In gaming, who gets the style points?

Hideo Kojima is known for his really detailed, long stories and attention to plot. Will Wright makes social simulators, but can I look at the Spore and The Sims and know it was designed by the same person? How many others can we name, and how tenous are the connections between their games?

Games are not created by a single person. It's easier to reflect a certain style in your work when you are the only one doing it, but if a director of a multi-million dollar movie can do it, why can't a gaming designer, or at least, why can't more?

We may be able to point to certain studios for elements they tend to continue to emphasize in their games: Bethesda and open worlds, Bioware, moral decisions and polished and traditional RPGs, but there's no real style yet established, just reoccurring game devices.

First Question: Are gamers buying titles based on the designer responsible?

My guess is, for the most part, no. Aside from some of the bigger names I've mentioned earlier, I would argue the majority of game purchasing is determined mostly by the reviews/trailors/marketing campaigns of a particular game (assuming the game isn't a sequel).

Second Question: Do we need this?

Do we need designers we can look to for distinct styles? If you're talking about industry recognition, by all means I say yes. You want more games to start getting pointed out for their artist merits and liberties, or creativity? Designers and style need to start becoming distinct. I don't know if this will sell more games, but I think it changes the cultural view of games in a positive way. Genre-blending is getting more popular, making it harder to differentiate games in terms of categories, so distinct styles and designers could be the next way to go.

I do think we are starting to get on the verge of distinct styles, Heavy Rain seemed to open up the door for commentary on this; the story was too controlled and carefully managed (each moment) for an overarching designer to not be in the discussion. Someone brought all the pieces together and made the game he had a vision for, and this is something I see more of in the next ten years.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why (most) Fantasy Sucks

As my return to this whole internet thing (I am back from real life, rejoice), I was writing about New Vegas. Unfortunately it was some questionably-interesting wanking, and really what we're trying to do here is be interesting while wanking. So I'm shelving that in favor of a simple proclamation: fantasy games are largely shit.

Now let me clarify. I like fantasy. A number of my favorite RPGs (which I was quantifying as part of my New Vegas wank) are fantasy. I do not hate fantasy. However, fantasy as a game genre is being shit upon every day by designers who have no imagination, publishers who won't give money to people with an original thought in their heads, and research/assumptions about the audience which are completely fucking wrong and anyone can prove them wrong with half an hour's investigation.


Let me tell you a story. Long ago in the dark days of the early 90s, some game designers played D&D. They enjoyed the setting they'd come up with for their campaign and thought it would make a great computer RPG. So they stripped out the D&D and made a game out of it. It was a good game, people enjoyed their world, and it spawned a sequel. Then another sequel.

This third game took place in a particular part of their world that was different. Very different—this sort of setting had never been seen before. It was still fantasy, but didn't rest on cliche. The wildlife consisted of giant insects. The land was dominated by blasted volcanic moonscapes, with patches of plains and grassland, swamps and forests of giant mushrooms. The locals were xenophobic assholes who never really accepted you, even if you were of their race. It was a great game.

This land was part of a big empire, and the capitol province had always been a looming presence in the lore. It was based on Rome, but only sort of; it was a jungle, full of ziggurats. The capitol city was like this, pyramids in a jungle with rope bridges strung about, combined with a Roman imperial culture. It seemed pretty interesting and everybody wanted to see it. The fourth game in the series would be set there.

And they retconned it into a whitebread bog-standard medieval fantasyland, stripped to the bone with every bit of imagination forcibly extracted, probably with pliers and a rusty steak knife. It was still well done, but it made me wonder how they'd gone from such an interesting setting to something so mundane.

Those of you versed in RPG lore know I'm talking about the Elder Scrolls here, and the bizarre transition from the alien landscape of Vvardenfell in Morrowind to the remarkably unremarkable Cyrodiil of Oblivion. Somewhere between the two, Bethesda decided that an interesting setting was somehow a bad idea and they would be better served by going back to the well-trodden land of elves and knights and thatched roofs. What the fuck? It's not that Bethesda can't do interesting. Morrowind proved it, then Fallout 3 proved it. Admittedly they were building on Black Isle's work when they did Fallout 3, but it still takes talent to pull that off—they could have very easily lost sight of what made Fallout interesting and shat all over the property. But they didn't. Fallout 3 isn't perfect by any means. However, as far as understanding the setting, treating it with care, and producing the proper atmosphere and feeling in the player, they did it perfectly. They know how to avoid boring.

It's not a Bethesda problem. Bioware promised us a George RR Martin inspired dark fantasy, a different kind of world, which at first looked like it owed more to the Arabian Nights than Tolkien. Then Dragon Age actually came out and proved they were full of shit. Again, it was well done (and it portrayed a medieval England-esque setting better than most do), but it was the same old shit. There are hints of more interesting places in the setting; only hints, we never see them. The cavalcade of Forgotten Realms games have the same problem. Yet again, the Realms have interesting locales, but mostly we stay to the more traditional, approachable areas of the Sword Coast. The most interesting of this field, Mask of the Betrayer, takes us to the rarely used and exotic lands of Rashemen and Thay. World of Warcraft did the same thing as Oblivion, wrenching every bit of interesting out of the Warcraft setting. Think through the fantasy games you've played recently. How many of them had a really different, compelling setting? Ten percent?

Why is a fantasy game with a good setting such a rarity?

The answer I always hear is that it doesn't sell. People are dumb and like familiarity. Look at Planescape: Torment, they say. The best RPG ever made, it should've sold billions, but the Planescape setting was so alien that it drove everyone off. If you want to move copies, you make Tolkien.

This explains why Morrowind sold approximately a bazillion copies. The Xbox version's sales were comparable to Halo, eliminating another possibility—that console gamers aren't sophisticated enough to handle interesting. The fact is people can handle an interesting setting. Somehow it's become common sense that the opposite is true.

Laziness is a possibility. As obvious as this sounds, it takes more effort to make an interesting setting than to regurgitate another pseudo-England sorta-medieval thing. I find this explanation very unsatisfying. Mostly because of things I've already discussed; many of these companies who make shitty generic fantasy have also made better products with better settings. Bethesda did Morrowind, Bioware did Mass Effect. Does it make sense that they'd spend a lot of effort on one game and then turn lazy for another? I suppose it's possible, but eh.

The other big possibility is it's not the fault of the developers. Publishers take the "weird doesn't sell" dogma to heart and won't fund a game with giant bugs instead of horses. Again, possible, and there seem to be examples of it around, but it's also a little convenient. Publishers get a ton of shit. Many of them deserve a ton of shit, however it doesn't change that people are a little too quick to blame everything on the publisher. It's the boy who cried EA. Sometimes publishers do fuck up a good thing (see: Knights of the Old Republic 2), sometimes the developer did it (see: Oblivion).

Thus the anti-climax: I don't know why fantasy sucks. I don't know why developers feel compelled to make something interesting and then shit on it in the sequel. I don't know why you get a game like Planescape: Torment, with nearly universal acclaim and a presence on every "Best RPG" list out there, and then no one ever tries to do anything like it again. Shit's all crazy.

I do know one thing: I want all you risk-averse developers to start challenging yourselves. You're not always going to succeed, but the successes are well worth the failures.

And for christ's sake make more non-fantasy RPGs.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Exposition & Objectives

One of the real advantages movies and games have over books is in their power to quickly explain character background without, well, explaining it. It can be enough to pan over a character waking up and showing his room to give a lot of backstory and character: is it messy, clean, full of collectibles, full of hot girl posters, does he slap the alarm or throw it across the room, does he sleep with a brother, in a bunk bed, a race car bed...all of this information is given during a very small period of time and it is something that just can't be done as easily in a novel.

I was thinking about dialogue-driven exposition, especially in novels. We are told that this is generally not the way to expose what needs to go on, because it feels unnatural: If John and David are needing to go to the store, it doesn't sound natural to have the conversation sound like:
John: "Hey man, I need to go to the store."
David: "Oh yeah? For what?"
John: "I need to get some bagels."
David: "Okay, let's go."

The conversation fits for functional purposes, but in terms of developing character, it does absolutely nothing. It can be easier and a lot more effective to restrict dialogue to character (and a small bit of exposition) and leave other clues for exposition:

John stands up and grabs the list off the fridge. A big red "Do this TODAY, John" is written on the bottom.
John: "Shit. She always makes me do this crap."
David: [glancing at the list] "Mom's really have no idea what's important."

We get basically the same information, minus the bagels, and we also get bits of each character. John's mom is clearly annoyed, or controlling, or tired of John never doing anything. John is tired of running around doing her errands, and we get a taste of the way he talks and thinks about his mom. David, in the same way, tells us that he thinks like John in not understanding his mom. We know so much more about their character.

I think games can get the movie-style of exposition down, in terms of placing helpful clues about background in the scene, and dialogue that reveals character, but when it comes to game objectives this almost entirely flies out the window. I understand, games, that you need to tell the player what to do, but surely there is a better way than just telling the player what to do every single time. Find 10 fairies, destroy the water silo, infiltrate the base and take the doctor's uniform.

Games should be turning, in a lot of areas, to letting the user do more work, or even less work. A quest-giver can be more character driven, only mentioning in passing that the house he has been staying in his haunted, and leave it up to the player to figure out the rest, or explore there if he wants to explore. It doesn't count if you do this and then it pops up in your journal "Go to the Haunted Westing House," either. Oblivion was pretty good about journal entries and quest-giving. On the flip side, I liked the ability Wolverine had, where he could turn on his feral senses and then see the direction to an objective. Army of Two had this as well. Why jerk the player around by making them switch to a map screen and seeing a bright "Objective!" marker on one end?

So I want either a very direct-press a button and follow this line-objectives or very vague, player driven options. Or, do both: Why highlight the movable statue in blue when you could drop a dialogue hint a mission back where a native mentioned how the ceremonial statues were often moved to create complex rituals? And if the player doesn't get it, let them push a button to see exactly what they need to do. This doesn't hold back from the gameplay, and it allows dialogue to be used for more detailed and character-driven exposition. Why throw players right in front of the door they need to kick down (with objective "breach the door!") when you could have the player wander around the town, full of tension and not sure which door has all the baddies behind it, and if they don't like this, give them the straight line to the door. Just don't waste dialogue on it.

Certain games work differently, and the way I'm suggesting is not entirely conducive to an action-packed get-me-to-the-next-thing-I-can-kill game, but designers really ought to be playing around with the way they expose objectives and give players direction. What if you were told by your commander your primary objective, but only by looking at the papers on his desk when he walks away do you discover some secondary objectives, and less clear directions on how to achieve them? What if you weren't told to "Head to the Science Building to Rescue 5 Captured Soldiers" but heard their screams over the comm as they were ambushed, and you were only aware of where they might be, and

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Less is More-derlands

I like Borderlands. I haven't finished it, but each time I played I had a great time, and I think this is mainly due to its simplistic nature and its quirky in-your-face approach.

The game is as addictive as Diablo when it comes to loot dropping-there is always a better gun or set of armor, and it's never that far away. This triggers every wonderful gaming endorphin I've collected over the years and keeps me sated.

I don't want to start slipping into a game review here, so I'll keep things short and classy: I like Borderlands because it's simple.

The story is simple; characters are introduced quickly, the plot falls out of the picture for long periods of the game, and I am left in a desert filled with mad-max road punks looking to take me out. I can get lost in the game because the game allows it. This is all survival in the wasteland really needs to be--finding the next gun, and being able to kill the person or mutant that tries to kill me. Maybe stopping for a breather now and then.

The characters that populate this place are vivid and eccentric--see first boss Nine Toes (Also, he has three balls) and come and go quickly, but remain memorable. It's a funny game, but part of what makes it funny is that the jokes it attempts are spaced far apart, and never come forced. This game never tries to be anything it isn't, and that's why I like it so much.

The core mechanics work and the loot system is powerful, what more do I really need? This is a great way to kill time and play with a friend, because Borderland provides a platform for running and gunning, and just enough juice to get you to the next boss.

Designers can learn a lot from the appeal of a game like this. What Borderlands does is not necessarily brilliantly innovative or outstandly technically perfect--it just does everything in a very solid way, and it never takes itself too seriously.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Defense of the Ancients

For those who haven't heard, Defense of the Ancients (or DotA) is a custom map for Warcraft III.

If you have heard this, you may not know that this custom map is played nearly as often as Warcraft III is.

If you have heard this, you may not know that DotA is so balanced and competitive that it has become an official game at the World Cyber Games.

If you have heard this, you may not know that professional companies are attempting to use a similar formula to create a DotA-like game they can sell for profit.

Heard of Demigod, League of Legends, or Heroes of Newerth? All inspired by DotA.

This game is so popular and has caught on so effectively for many reasons, but I think it comes down to balance, simplicity, and replayability.

In Warcraft III players did typical RTS tasks, from gathering resources to building a base camp. DotA gives players only a hero, and the game becomes, for most purposes, an RPG. 5 players square off on each side, with nearly 40 heroes to choose from, each with four nearly-unique abilities. There are three "lanes" per side, divided in half by a large river. The objective is to push through any lane to get to each side's final tower, and destroy it.

For me, this is characterized by variability. The game offers an endless amount of combinations, while always starting in the same way. I'm reminded of chess, with more complexity. Each game involves different heroes, uses of skills, item purchases, and the matchups of heroes in each lane. The goal of the game is simple, but there are multiple ways to push towards the final tower and this is what really fosters the sense of replayability. I've been playing for five years now and haven't seen the same game twice.

This is a game that has infinite combinations, but like any lasting sports game, the core rules are very simple. It's what a player, or coach, or team chooses to do that makes the game extremely complex. A hero only has four skills, and a maximum level progression to 25. One of the four skills is an "ultimate" that typically has a longer cooldown but does more damage/chaos/anything than a normal skill. Each hero may also carry a maximum of 6 items to give various bonuses. There are only three lanes, and some woods, that make up the map. Push to the other team's tower, destroy it, and win. The end.

The heroes are divided into strength, intelligence, and agility heroes. Roughly stated, intelligence heroes are the best initially, with powerful damaging spells, agility heroes are the most fragile but offer some of the most potential for late in the game, and strength heroes are a decent hybrid, with additional survivability but also late game advantages. Heroes can be ranged or melee, chasers, support, stunners, damagers, tanks, summoners, crowd controllers, AoE, snipers, and it's all balanced. There are millions of hero and item combinations, going across 10 different players on a single map, and the game manages (for the most part) to keep balanced. Every hero has a downside. Every hero has a counter hero, or counter item. Each item has a cost, with better ones costing more, that require a stockpile to build up. If you die, you lose part of that stockpile. Risk/reward for better items.

This reminds me too much of chess. It establishes an early game, a mid-game, and a late game. It has pawns (AI controlled "creeps" that give money on death and encourages players to stay in lanes to defend against the creep push, and gain gold from killing creeps) and pieces that are useful early, and some that gain their power late in the game. It has a piece that can't move, but on destruction that's the end of the game, and it doesn't matter how well you did otherwise. Every game starts the same, with players at their home bases, and then with each decision a thousand different games are spawned. There is attacking, defense, and counterattacking. It flows as much as any competitive sport or game, and it does it in such a highly polished and well established way that it makes it easy to come back to.

I really think that DotA is a fantastically effective game due to these above traits, and its what is keeping this game afloat and spawning so many other copies, some (Heroes of Newerth) is very nearly a direct clone with enhanced graphics.

The only real problem this game has is its extremely steep learning curve. If you are new to this game, you will be destroyed over and over and over again. Then you will start to figure out why you died, and then you will die over and over and over again. Only when you learn which items to buy, and what every hero can do to you, and what you can do to them, do you have any sort of chance. And then you will still die for a while, but you may start getting some kills while you're at it.

But if you can get past this, you're looking at a very detailed, complex and balanced game that is consistently challenging and entertaining. I've played a whole lot of games over the past five years, but I'll always come back to DotA for a few sessions, and I don't see myself stopping any time soon.

Curious? Heroes of Newerth is a near-perfect DotA clone, lifting the same balanced heroes and items from the original Warcraft III version. Right now it's in open beta, so grab a key and hop on.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Make With The Funny

To me, the most egregiously overlooked aspect of gaming is humor. Funny games are a rarity; games that attempt humor and miserably fail are a bit more common. Still, typically the only attempt at humor in any game is an easter egg or reference to something funny that already exists outside the game. Yet, for something so neglected, humor is one of the most effective writing tools available to designers.

I think there are two basic reasons why humor gets so little respect:

A) Writing humor is surprisingly difficult. A little quip now and then isn't too hard, but consistent humor is. There are only a handful of real humor games, humor books are extremely difficult to do well (this is why most break the material up into small chapters that aren't related to one another—that's easier), and comedy movies have a huge failure rate. It's a tough subject. Yet, for some reason, people tend to view humor as much easier than it actually is.

B) Writers are afraid that humor will undermine the rest of the story. This is a legitimate concern; badly done humor can kill the seriousness of the subject matter as well as pulling people out of the world, and it's easy to fuck up humor. On the other hand, well-done humor can actually enhance both of these. The paper shortage joke in Battlestar Galactica was probably the funniest part of that dark, ultra-serious series, but I bet all of you remembered it verbatim when I mentioned it.

This topic came to me because of, surprise surprise, Mass Effect 2. It's a very funny game, much more so than its predecessor, even though the subject material is quite dark for Bioware. And I think it shows the main reason humor can be so effective: it makes characters better.

This is exploiting a basic psychological phenomenon. We automatically like people who make us smile and laugh more than we would otherwise. It's the difference between the guy you know who's just a dick and the one who's a lovable rogue. Both of them can be bitter assholes, but the one who's a bitter asshole in a funny way will be likable in spite of it.

Other genres have understood this for a long time. Mal Reynolds in Firefly comes to mind—if you look at his character objectively, he's a terrible person. But he's funny about it, so everybody loves him. Meyer Landsman in The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the same way. These principles apply to games just as easily, making the player remember the character and empathize.

Let's go back to Mass Effect 2. The consensus I've seen is that the cast is strong all-around, but everyone's favorite character is Mordin. Purely on character merit, he's a good choice. He's a Salarian scientist and commando with plenty of depth, backstory, complex motivations, unclear morality, all the good stuff. That alone would make him a solid character, but Bioware also made him the funniest party member, elevating him above the rest in most people's minds. His combat shouts are funny, his dialogue is great, he makes quips at characters during other scenes, he has a few amazing bits where he's giving sexual advice or doing opera.

This isn't the first time Bioware's made a character stand out with humor. HK-47 is everyone's favorite from Knights of the Old Republic (and in KOTOR2, even though it's a much better game, HK-47 isn't as funny and people didn't like him as much). Baldur's Gate 2 had enough potential party members to have an entire comedy team—Korgan, Edwin, Jan Jansen, Minsc. Then there are the rarest of the rare, actual humor games. Anachronox is the shining example; a serious story, with excellent writing and character work, while also being the funniest game I've ever played. No one's ever mixed it as well.

By the way, if you've never played Anachronox you've missed out. Go find it.

The lesson in all this is developers should not be afraid of humor. If you can't do it well, then by all means leave it out—no humor is better than bad humor. But a little bit of it, used properly, can elevate any character and, by extension, the game as a whole.

There is one caveat: humor has to fit into the game. If you just throw in a joke that doesn't work in the setting, it will undermine the character and story. It takes some effort and care to craft humor that is as internally consistent as everything else in the game's story, but it's absolutely necessary to make it work. Writers should know this already, but if you've hit bad humor in a game that pulled you out of the experience, more than likely they were violating this rule.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Smarter Better Faster Stronger Mini Games

J's post made me think about mini games in most games now, especially RPGs. I used to be a huge advocate for them; back in the days of Asheron's Call I longed for a crafting system that wasn't click. click. click. fail. click. click. click. succeed. Mini games, I thought, were the way to go.

But as games are starting to implement these things all over the place, it seems like all mini games are doing is breaking immersion. The pipe game in Bioshock wasn't terrible, as far as mini games go, but it didn't really enhance the game in any real way for me.

Crafting in particular seems to be at an impasse. No mini games means a whole lot of mindless, boring combinations (Oblivion uses this and so does WoW) and using mini games can be annoying and especially painful when you fail. They keep you better occupied than watching a progress bar, but not much.

I think one possible option to improve crafting is to establish a meta-game, where the real game is in researching and discovering where rare plants or minerals are located, as well as inventing the combinations for them yourself. Oblivion does this pretty well, and I think there is a certain pleasure in discovering your own recipes (until they are all posted online). To keep this method interesting, the progress bar needs to be axed, hard. There's no use putting your players to work finding materials and researching recipes only to have them wait patiently. Oblivion removes the progress bar, and is a good poster-boy for a crafting meta-game. Kudos.

But I'm not ready to pull the plug on mini games just yet, especially for crafting. Consider these options:

1)A crafting game, nothing mini about it.

In this system crafting could be just as involved as actually fighting. Crafters could have spells and abilities hotkeyed, and need to press them to successfully create an object, with each spell or ability allowing different traits to be passed on to the creation or keeping negative things from occurring. As an example, what if...

...a game's setting involved manipulating some magical forces in the air, creating order out of chaos (etc). The actual finding of materials involves things that allow you to better do this, and the game sets up a good way to "fight" you as you craft; the sword you are trying to make starts to pull apart, it starts to rust (as the horrible forces of chaos move to keep you from asserting order!), and you use your abilities to both improve the sword and to prevent these negatives that occur. Hit it with an invulnerability shield just before you add the lifesteal. "Heal" the sword as it starts to break apart.

2)A mini game.

Something simple, with timing: I'm crafting a sword, a mini hammer zips back and forth over a -------- 0 --------- line, and I have to time the hit to get it as close as possible to the 0. The closer I get, the better the item, or the better the chances of it creating with some extra bonuses. If I want to add more bonuses, I can do this again, but the hammer moves faster, or my sweet spot is smaller, or if I screw up I lose the original bonuses. Done. Next item.

Either way, I think it's important to never, ever destroy the materials on creation. Nothing frustrates me more than failing on a craft and losing all the stuff I worked for. I think a player needs to come away from crafting with something, even if it's a plain old sword. At least I can sell it back for 1/25 of the price of the materials for a small piece of my pride.

Mini games need an overhaul, and I think crafting is a great place to start. Either make things way more engaging, or use a mini game to allow a small advantage. Either way, keep me from getting frustrated and bored. But honestly, I'm just happy the industry is experimenting with mini games. They'll get better.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Vegas this year!

New California Republic scouts, hell yes.

Sorry for not embedding it, but it refuses to work.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Mass Effect 2

I threw a guy out of a building.

He was being a dick. He said he wouldn't answer any of my questions and happened to be standing in front of a huge plate glass window, so throwing him through it seemed like the best option. Fuck that guy.

I said before that Bioware has lots of unrealized potential, and that I thought Mass Effect 2 might be the game to bring it out. I'm happy to report that I was mostly right.

I'll have more complete thoughts after I've replayed the other path and had more time to reflect. For now, I can gush a little; this is their best game to date. They're slowly unshackling their writers. Mass Effect had hints of it, Dragon Age had more, and Mass Effect 2 is a nice hop out of their comfort zone. Not to say they've entirely changed course, as this definitely still feels like Bioware. However the formula is getting cracks in it.

You're still saving the galaxy, kind of. There are still ancient evils at work, sort of. There are still planets to go to and get ancient artifacts/recruit help, in a way. Instead of throwing out what works, they've put up new curtains. I talked a while back about how Deus Ex is a linear game that doesn't feel linear because of how well-designed the sections are. Mass Effect 2 similarly takes the successful Bioware formula and adds enough new stuff to hide it well. It's much more like Baldur's Gate 2, where the various sections often have ill-defined borders.

They've also made the game character driven. Bioware games typically have some great characters mixed with a lot of decent ones, and a nice sprinkling of uninteresting, interchangable characters. Here we have one boring character (Jacob), another who's okay but suffers from the first game—he's replacing Wrex, and you just end up wishing Wrex were there instead. Not that Grunt is bad, but up against Wrex? Please. All the other characters are strong and far more central to the story than any previous Bioware game. Garrus exemplifies this well; in the first game he's Generic Space Cop and I never used him, in the second he is a total badass who I kept in my party most of the game.

Self-awareness is everywhere. Both games steal liberally from numerous sci-fi works, sometimes in subtle visual ways, others as blatant as the geth/quarian backstory being Battlestar Galactica. But it works, as the game constantly hangs lampshades on references, gamey parts, ridiculous nonsense, everything that could pull you out of the setting. It's also much funnier than the first game, including lots of mockery of the obsessive fans as well as shots at itself, at Bioware, references to old Bioware games and jokes that fit the lore.

It's not all sunshine and unicorn farts. Some of the design decisions are truly stupid—RPG gameplay has been almost completely extracted. Character customization is a joke since you only have four skills, there's little in the way of equipment to deal with, and levels seem meaningless. The minigames are bad, like every single minigame in every game that has ever had them, including the first Mass Effect. Stop it. Thief 3's lockpicking is the only one that worked, and only because it had complexity to it and lockpicking makes sense as a piece of the gameplay in a thievery game. And the resource mining is terrible. The mouse sensitivity is ridiculously low (you can't adjust it, though you can research an in-game upgrade that makes it a little better, none of which makes any sense), so you have to throw the mouse around like a madman. And in order to move the mouse in those exaggerated ways, you have to hold it at a strange angle which causes hand pain. I hope whoever put this together was drunk. There are also some distracting visual oddities, like party members who run around shirtless—but with a breathing mask—in space while you and your other party member are in full pressure suits.

The good thing is none of these complaints are anything close to game killers. They've outdone themselves and I hope they do it again with the final game.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


First, I'd like to apologize to everyone for using "good" five times in the first seven lines of my last entry. I will refrain from posting at 3 AM from now on.

Fallout: New Vegas

I've already given Obsidian a blowjob in the last entry, so I'll keep it down here. I like Bethesda well enough, I didn't mind them getting the Fallout license, and I enjoyed Fallout 3. They do atmosphere very well; all of their games are immersive and fun. Their weak point is writing. In Morrowind it was terrible, in Oblivion it was slightly less terrible, and in Fallout 3 it had upgraded all the way to serviceable with moments of okayness. Perhaps some day they will hire a couple of writers. A man can dream.

However, Obsidian is the opposite. Of the three surviving major RPG companies, they have by far the best writers. They take risks, they expect a certain level of engagement from the audience, and they're willing to overreach. They often don't quite make it, but I respect the attempt. Knights of the Old Republic 2 was the best thing Star Wars has ever produced (yes, including the movies), and if they'd had more than a four-day weekend to complete the game I think it might've even knocked Planescape: Torment off its throne as the greatest RPG of all time.

The other thing Obsidian has going for it is the team. Many of their people came from Black Isle, who made... Fallout! And Fallout 2. And the original Fallout 3, which was sadly killed when Interplay went bankrupt and got rid of Black Isle. Fallout: New Vegas is being designed by JE Sawyer, the man in charge of that original Fallout 3, and Chris Avellone is writing for it. He did New Reno, the most fun part of Fallout 2, and the Fallout Bible.

So the announcement that Obsidian was doing a full, honest to god Fallout game, with complete freedom and Bethesda's blessing... well, it was something I never expected to see and it made me unreasonably giddy. We have no information about the game yet, but I believe the first article is due next month. I'm very impressed that Bethesda would do this, especially since New Vegas will likely outclass Fallout 3 in every way; it's a big risk to let a better company into your toy box. Perhaps it'll force Bethesda to step it up on Fallout 4. And the possibility of getting a new Fallout every couple of years, going back and forth between Bethesda and Obsidian...

Starcraft 2

For most people, Starcraft is still the pinnacle of the RTS genre. It had an epic storyline (less impressive than it was in ninth grade, but well-presented), great single-player, and multiplayer that became a phenomenon no one had ever seen before. It introduced us to the twelve-year-old South Korean kid who shouts KEKEKEKE FAGGORT ^_^_^ while schooling you in your game of choice. And it's gone twelve years without a sequel.

The decision to break it into three games sent people screaming. I don't mind it. I love single-player, and the idea of each race having a campaign as extensive as the entire original Starcraft excites me. And it's Blizzard—when have they steered you wrong? I don't like World of Warcraft, but that doesn't make it bad. The rest of their games sit on my shelf, and most of them are still installed.

What else is there to say? It's Starcraft 2. About fucking time.

Deus Ex 3

Oh, boy.

As you have probably gathered, I love Deus Ex. It is, to me, the greatest game ever made. Planescape: Torment tops it in the story department, but as a whole experience Deus Ex is unmatched. No one's even come close.

Like every successful game, it got a sequel. Deus Ex: Invisible War took the Deus Ex formula, removed all the good parts, then shit in a box and charged $50 for it.

Okay, I'm being unfair—my real opinion is Invisible War wasn't that terrible. If it had been its own game, with no Deus Ex connection, it would've been a solid seven and people would've forgotten about it within a year. And I sympathize with the creators. Making a sequel to the best game of all time is a tall order; I wouldn't expect them to top or even equal it. Something reasonably close would have been fine. It's hard to pull a Terminator 2. However the fact is that it was a massive step down. This was the beginning of the era of simplification, where a game being complex and having a learning curve suddenly became a bad thing. Simplifcation isn't all bad—Civilization 4 was simplified yet deeper and better than any of the prior games—but bad simplification is, and that's what Invisible War did.

Invisible War had a lot of good elements (I still love the Templars) that it combined with stunning ineptitude. It removed most of the side content, like books and datacubes and extra areas. There weren't as many branches, nor as much content. Deus Ex is so massive and complex that I've always found new things on each playthrough, despite the fact that I've done at least ten. One run through Invisible War gets you most of the game. It's also a bad sign when the side-plot involving the coffee shops is as or more interesting than the main story.

Hell, just compare the box art.

So, now there's a Deus Ex 3. I'm expecting nothing from it; I can only handle so much heartbreak. Plus, the messages so far are mixed. Originally the lead developer sounded good. He talked about how the original game worked and seemed to get the concept, and endeared himself to the community by saying that they were using Invisible War as a blueprint of what not to do. Sounds good so far.

Then he said the original game had no memorable moments. What. Stepping out of the MJ12 prison for the first time is one of the greatest mindfucks in gaming. He discussed the need for more action. Some of the augmentations came out, such as the FIST OF DOOM THAT PUNCHES THROUGH WALLS or whatever in the fuck. And then there's this guy:

I like the mech-aug thing, I like some of the stylistic choices despite them not making any sense. I know I'll play it, and I'll probably hate myself for it. But why must you do these things? Presumably, you're doing a Deus Ex 3 instead of a new cyberpunk game because of a love of Deus Ex. Because you recognize its greatness, because it's a great setting and the design was amazing and it gave people something they'd never seen before. Why do you then decide to make a sequel and start tearing parts of the original out? Wouldn't you understand that people love the original for a reason and keep the sequel as close to it as possible?

I'm not encouraged. I hope I'm wrong about it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Zapocalypse Now

I may be putting my foot in my mouth, but I think the recent surge in movies and games in an apocalyptic setting, as well as the zombie craze, is representative of a larger whole. Back in the day, the Western genre was huge. It had everything the aspiring American boomer could want: the lone, gunslinging hero, the absence of law, the stretching frontier, the founding of new settlements and all the freedom, exploration and exploitation that comes with it.

But the Western definitely petered out in our generation; rare is it that movies like 3:10 to Yuma or games like Red Dead Revolver (though that may change if they live up to the promises of the sequel) get much press or attention. We, as an audience, have moved elsewhere, and probably because there's not much left to exploring this genre.

I think that the current surge in apocalyptic movies and games is the second coming of the Western genre, and this accounts for this recent popularity. These games and movies share similar characteristics, they establish a frontier, they create a lawless world and they present the player/viewer with main characters who must create their own law and rules in a world gone half crazy.

The Frontier

The frontier, in the literature world, is a really big deal. It is representative of the American Dream; with the frontier, there's always room for expanding success. There's always room to make one's own path in life, and strike out from the world with just one's wits. The frontier represents a mentality in the American mind.

With satellites, population booms and other technological and economic growth, the American frontier, as we know it, has been effectively eliminated. We made it to the other side of the country, and we've settled in every place in between. There's nowhere new to explore. But the American mind still needs a frontier; it is important to our way of life and thought. So we continuously establish a new frontier. The oceans. The Internet. Space...the final frontier.

And, I believe, apocalypse settings. Suddenly the world, which has been fully explored, fully realized gets wiped clean. Now we have a clean slate, a fresh world to explore and conquer; a new place to settle and establish. Sure there are remnants of the old world, but a majority of them lose their meaning. There's little time for libraries and books, more basic needs must be met. Survival, mainly. You need a gun, both to get food and to not become food. You need a means of travel, and you need shelter. That's it.

Any of this sound familiar? Look at Fallout 3. Look at books and movies The Road. Zombieland. Dawn of the Dead. Borderlands. Left for Dead is more about immediate survival in a world that is currently losing its frontier, but imagine the Left for Dead world in another ten years. The Zombie Survival Guide. The Book of Eli. I am Legend. Bioshock too. I even googled "dead frontier" and the first thing that popped up was an MMORPG zombie apocalypse game named the same thing. All of these are lands that require a new frontier, and carry all the traditional themes of a good Western.

A Lawless World

Lawlessness represents freedom and autonomy. For the Western genre, this is critical. It allows a place where individuality has the most value, and internal morality rules the land, nothing else. It places the most emphasis on you, and whether or not you have the means to succeed and advance in a world where you have only your own moral compass to rely on.

Lawlessness also invites the possibility to impose order, and to take charge where no one else previously could. Imposing order, even over a few individuals, means power, and power is everything in the Western. Power can mean having a bunch of lackeys, having the biggest, baddest gun, or having the most attitude. With power brings advantages, and it is critical for survival in a lawless world.

A Lone Hero

The lone hero in the Western allows us to place ourselves in his position. This is always a guy that has the knowledge of the land and the way things work. He's, essentially, a badass. Think Clint Eastwood. John Wayne. Will Smith in I am Legend. Denzel in The Book of Eli. Woody Harrelson in Zombieland. You in Fallout. Borderlands. Left for Dead.

The hero gives us a means to establish order, or at least a way to traverse the lawlessness, and a means to explore the frontier. The hero needs to be hardened and unshakeable in his moral stance, regardless of what it is.

I think the parallels in these apocalyptic settings --and I include zombie games as a subset of this great apocalypse theme--and traditional Western genre games are all too glaring to ignore, and I think (at least for the time being) we have found an effective way to replicate a new frontier to be explored, filling our need for such thoughts.

And while something can also be said that the rise in apocalypse movies/settings can be attributed to a problematic economy and a nation stressed by healthcare and war, I'm convinced it goes beyond this. There are too many parallels to the Western. I think, until this "new frontier" has been really explored, we're going to see a lot more apocalypse movies now more than ever.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Gaming is in a good place right now.

I don't know if it's a new golden age—the games of the late 90's are still unsurpassed in so many ways—but it's damn good right now. Much like TV, there's a whole lot of shit out there, but once you sift through the refuse the quantity and quality of good games are up, too. 2010's looking like another good year for me, for the following reasons (in roughly chronological order).

Mass Effect 2

Bioware frustrates me. They're good at what they do, they make reliably good games, but they could be so much more. I feel like a parent with a brilliant kid who won't apply himself. No one does the bog-standard RPG better than Bioware, but they've been mired in that bog-standard part for a decade now. Every Bioware RPG is fun, solid, and utterly devoid of risk (note: I never played Jade Empire). Their refusal to innovate in any way is almost a signature of their style at this point.

Mass Effect was no exception. I loved it, but it did not attempt to go beyond. Occasionally the game would run up to the line, put a toe over, and just when you thought Bioware was going to outdo themselves, it would step back. The biggest example of this was at the end, when you confront Saren on the Citadel. One way to deal with it is to convince him of his error, and he kills himself.

This stunned me. Not because it was new—Black Isle did it in 1997 with Fallout—but because Bioware had never done anything like this before. Being able to skip a final battle through dialogue is fantastic design for an RPG and went well beyond what I was expecting. I was impressed.

Then Saren got resurrected and you had a boss battle. Thank you for jacking off in my eye, Bioware.

But, in the end, I still had fun. And what I've seen of Mass Effect 2 makes me think that maybe, just maybe, they've decided to stretch themselves and try something new. We'll see; I've been burned before.

Bioshock 2

When I first heard there was going to be a Bioshock sequel, I was devastated. Bioshock was near perfect, the story resolved fully (such a rarity in games), why the hell were they raping it with a sequel? Stay away from my Art Deco, goddamnit. Then when it came out that Ken Levine wasn't in charge, I decided to just forget it.

Then it turned out the new designer was the man responsible for the Shalebridge Cradle in Thief 3, the most terrifying experience in the history of gaming. Okay, you have my attention—especially since Bioshock was supposed to be scary, and it fell short of that mark. As information has come out, they've won me over. I'm not convinced it's going to be good, or that Bioshock needed a sequel, but I'm willing to look.

And I get to drill people in the face, so it can't be all bad.

Alpha Protocol

Now this is what I'm looking forward to, more than anything else.

First, it's Obsidian Entertainment. I love these people. Obsidian is the surviving part of a family of gaming companies; first Black Isle, which then budded off into the wonderful and sadly departed Troika, then when Black Isle got shitcanned and Interplay went under, most of them ended up forming Obsidian. On my list of top ten RPGs, six come from these three companies. So, you give me a new Obsidian RPG and I'm in.

Then stack on the heavy Deus Ex feel. The unique setting—there aren't many spy games at all, and no RPGs that I'm aware of. It's strange to call the real world a unique setting, but for this genre it is. Chris Avellone and Brian Mitsoda were the main writers. The variable paths, from psychopath to never killing anybody. The fact that it's impossible to see more than half the game on a single playthrough. Relationships that go beyond "save box of kittens/set box of kittens on fire".

If Alpha Protocol isn't my personal game of the year, I'll be surprised. Is it unwise to anticipate that much? Probably, but Obsidian's never let me down before.

I'm going to break this post in two here, because the remaining games may or may not be out this year: Fallout: New Vegas, Starcraft 2, and Deus Ex 3. And oh do I have thoughts about Deus Ex 3.

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Avatar" pulls heartstrings

I was pretty blown away by a recent CNN story on James Cameron's movie "Avatar." It seems thousands of people are feeling depressed and even suicidal after watching the movie, both as a result of not being able to live on the beautiful world of Pandora and lamenting what we, as a race, has done to the earth.

This is escapism at its finest. People get so immersed in a world that they'd rather live there? You can draw the lines to video games yourself.

I'm surprised; I didn't think the first major push for a 3D movie would have this sort of effect. This is the sort of thing science fiction writers write about virtual reality and true and complete sensory immersion.

I've seen the movie, and the 3D really does make you feel much closer to the scene, almost as if you are a part of it. But a world is a world, no matter how pretty. I get into movies for the characters and the story, and Avatar didn't cut it for me. Maybe I'm just a cynic.

Point is, I'm guessing few people saw this sort of fallout from a movie like Avatar. And as I'm guessing that we're going to see a major 3D push in the next 5 - 10 years, this sort of thing is only going to get worse as the technology gets better.

How can we cope with these newfound feelings of wanting to leave our real lives behind? "Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing "Avatar" video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities."

So you can stop feeling so depressed by keeping inside the world as much as possible. Or you can, you know, go outside.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Deus Ex Retrospective Part 3

The common theme of all these articles is the depth that Deus Ex had, a depth that few other games have even attempted. Maybe nothing better represents this than the political philosophy and literary connections made throughout the story and world.

The game uses paranoia to encourage the player to think about what's going on. It doesn't just hand you a world, expecting you to accept it and move on. The game forces you to confront and think about every aspect of it, really think. Bioshock did something similar, for a more recent example. What's the difference between a conspiracy and a government? Do you know? What about between a freedom fighter, a soldier, and a terrorist? When does security destroy freedom? Is democracy a good thing? How much evil can you accept if, in the end, it's for the greater good? Can humans rule themselves, or do they require external authority? Is mass communication a good thing? When do we stop being human?

I could wax on, but instead, I'm going to quote the game at you. This is just a small sample, but illustrative of the quality of writing (and the thought behind it) that we're dealing with in Deus Ex.

"When government surveillance and intimidation is called 'freedom from terrorism' or 'liberation from crime', freedom and liberty have become words without meanings."

"When due process fails us, we really do live in a world of terror."

"Every war is the result of a difference of opinion. Maybe the biggest questions can only be answered by the greatest of conflicts."

"What good's an honest soldier if he can be ordered to behave like a terrorist?"

"Somehow the notion of unalienable liberty got lost. It's really become a question of what liberties will the state assign to individuals, or rather, what liberties we will have the strength to cling to."

"Being a soldier isn't just following orders, it's following those orders in the service of a higher cause. When that cause is betrayed, we're not soldiers anymore, just pieces on a chess board dying for the wrong reason."

"I guess it's not surprising to find a few crooks in a place protected by security procedures. The shadow of secrecy... it protects indiscriminately."

"There's a time and a place for security, but the legislature has to stay vigilant, or there will be abuses."

"The checks and balances of democratic governments were invented because humans themselves realized how unfit they were to govern themselves. They needed a system, yes. An industrial age machine."

"Without the use of computing machines they had to arrange themselves in crude structures that formalized decision-making. A highly imperfect and unstable solution."

"The human being created civilization not because of willingness but of a need to be assimilated into higher orders of structure and meaning."

"God was a dream of good government."

"The individual may be remembered, but the organization persists and thrives. A single artist, a single general, a single hero or a single villain may all die, but it is impossible to kill a people, a nation, an idea - except when that idea has grown weak and is overpowered by one that is stronger."

"Listen to me. This is real freedom, freedom to own property, make a profit, make your life. The West, so afraid of strong government, now has no government. Only financial power."

"A system organized around the weakest qualities of individuals will produce these same qualities in its leaders."

"You can't fight ideas with bullets."

"Ever wonder why big car corporations pay two percent tax and the guys on the assembly line pay forty?"

"Corporations are so big, you don't even know who you're working for. That's terror. Terror built into the system."

It's a game, not Plato, but the fact that they were even willing to try to add real depth and thought to it deserves respect. Modern developers should pick up the torch.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Power of Place

In addition to replaying Deus Ex, I've been working my way through Grand Theft Auto IV. I think it's the best of the series, and I think that's because Liberty City is perfect.

The previous games had this too, from what I've read. I've played them all, but I wasn't in Miami in the 80s or Los Angeles in the early 90s. They feel like a caricature of those places—which they are, of course. Liberty City is as well, but it's also the best re-creation of New York City in any game I've played.

By best I don't mean most accurate. Liberty City isn't a perfect copy of New York by any means. The layout is generally the same, but the city's too small, one entire borough is missing, and the geography is similar but not accurate. But I think GTA4 proves that kind of exact copying is unnecessary.

The first thing I noticed when I was wandering around Broker (GTA4's Brooklyn) was that I immediately recognized it. The geography is wrong, the streets are wrong, the names are wrong, but they re-created every neighborhood's feel. The culture, the kinds of buildings you see, the languages you hear, the food, the architecture. Hove Beach is Brighton Beach the second you walk out and see the lines of shops and Cyrillic signs. Outlook is Prospect Park once you see the park itself, the slopes of the streets, the old rowhouses. Lancaster feels uptight just like the Upper East Side. South Bohan is the concrete block that so embodies the Bronx, complete with memorial murals spray-painted on the walls.

When you play GTA4, you are stepping into New York. It's a fictionalized version, still a caricature, with every aspect of the real New York stretched to the extreme. It's the crime-ridden, broken down, seedy version of New York that ended fifteen years ago but still persists in fiction because, while you might not want to live there, the tough as nails New York that challenges and threatens you on every corner makes for better drama than the safer than Provo, Utah New York of today. Yet it still feels just right.

This makes the game. As far as gameplay goes, GTA4 isn't much different than the previous entries. The driving system has been modified, for the better in my opinion; the previous games fucked this up royally. You would think a game based on thieving autos would bother to have a decent driving mechanic from the beginning. There are still plenty of dumb design decisions. Which brings me to an aside—there is no excuse to release a game on the PC that does not have the ability to save anywhere, at any time, in as many slots as I want. If you think that ruins the experience, you're dumb and you're welcome to not take advantage of it, but for the love of all that is holy, STOP LIMITING SAVES. We finally got rid of jumping puzzles, this is the next relic of the 80s that needs to die a horrible, horrible death. Especially when your missions are as unforgiving as the ones in GTA. Stop. It.

Anyway. As I was saying, GTA4 isn't a massive departure from the previous games. It's so much better than them because of Liberty City. The city has personality and is a character in its own right, just like the real New York. Setting is one of those things that can take a game from good to classic. As an example, Total Annihilation and Starcraft came out around the same time, reached a similar audience, and both were exceptional games. Total Annihilation was as good or better than Starcraft, had (and still has) a strong cult following, but never gained the kind of success Starcraft did. One big distinction between them was that Starcraft had a strong setting and a storyline that captivated its audience, while the setting and story of Total Annihilation was incidental at best. Few people can remember anything of it beyond the names of the factions. It had to survive purely on gameplay strength, and while it had that in spades, it just wasn't enough to grab players the way Starcraft did.

GTA4 is one of those games that combines strong gameplay with a truly memorable setting, and I don't think it will be forgotten.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ganked IRL

This story hit the news a few days ago. Police tracked a criminal across the Canadian border with the help of Blizzard providing the guy's WoW account information.

I always get an itchy feeling when I read about games in the news. It's always this weird pseudo-news, where a game and "those people" who play them briefly interact with the real world. The whole article is structured just as any crime-report would be, but there are little disconnects from the norm that lets you know everyone is a little uncomfortable with the whole process.

The "two worlds" really are portrayed as two different places. The writer, Patrick Munsey, sets up the dichotomy: "Indeed, World of Warcraft is among the most popular online pastimes today, boasting more than 14 million players in dozens of countries — including Canada. But this is the Internet, and Blizzard is in California." But this is the internet, indeed. Beware those who enter not knowing the rules of this strange realm.

The media struggles in bringing these two worlds together. There is a clear standoff between the two sides of the line. There is a simultaneous acknowledgement that the two are different and a push to shove the two together. Look at the uses of the word "subpoena:"

"...putting everything we had together gave me enough evidence to send a subpoena to Blizzard Entertainment," said the deputy. The problem here is that he didn't actually subpoena Blizzard in the real legal sense, his subpoena was "nothing more than a politely worded request, considering the limits of his law enforcement jurisdiction and the ambiguity of the online world."

The point of a subpoena, from what I understand, is to require a certain kind of compliance by an individual (by it appearance by a witness, or to divulge information) under threat of punishment. It is not a politely worded request that Roberson was "under the assumption that they wouldn't [respond to his request]." Roberson, straddling the line as someone who as both played WoW and works as a cop, seems to be twisting in the wind, buffeted by the obscure internet forces who seem to be impervious to real legal action. I grant that this isn't actually the case, but it's hard to read this article and not feel that way.

Roberson's use of the word subpoena shows how no one really understands how to handle when the real world and the internet clash. The article portrays the real world, and Roberson, as continuing to bow down to the internet and its rules. Roberson used the IP address to get a home address and "I got a longitude and latitude. Then I went to Google Earth. It works wonders. It uses longitude and latitude. Boom! I had an address." Surreal.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud Roberson for using creative means to nail this criminal. The fact that law professionals are considering games and the internet to use toward their advantage is interesting and appropriate for these times. But in reading an article like this, it's hard not to look at Roberson and think of just how subservient he was to this internet culture (or, at least, how subservient he was portrayed).

It was like reading an article where an undercover guy had to know all the right gang handshakes and passwords to take the kingpin down. If I "subpoenaed" a gang I'd predict they wouldn't respond, too. It feels like he just got lucky that Blizzard threw him a bone.

I'm aware that there are legal issues and otherwise involved in asking Blizzard to provide account information. My point is that the way this story was covered really illustrates the startling disparity in the way the world actually views the internet and its subculture(s) of gaming. People don't know how to talk about it, and the media doesn't know exactly how to cover it. People pull familiar words and concepts and ideas to fit games into the mold, but a next step needs to be taken where gaming has its own definition and associated culture.