Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gameplay as the anti-story

This is a little of a story-related rant, but mostly an emergent-player-narrative rant.

I like playing rogues.  I find them interesting.  One exception: WoW.  I don't make any friends as a rogue, so it's out.  But single-player, it's my preferred option.  I like loot, I like sneaking, and I like not being the one to get stabbed all the time.  Everybody's happy!

That is, until Dragon Age decides to force me into a situation where, on my own, I'm expected to battle odds of 3-to-1.  I don't know if you've ever tried to backstab someone when they're facing you, let alone 3 enemies at once, but I'll give you a little hint, just in case : it doesn't work.

And, with that, my main advantage is lost.  I can still sneaky-sneaky, but I can no longer stabby-stabby.  Couple that with a templar who guzzles Health Poultices like he's Mitch Hedberg's wino in a grape juice store, admittedly at my behest due to his tactics settings, and I'm left without my healers, without my tank, and without any hope of success.  Bollocks.

So what's an elfin rogue to do?  Die, apparently.  To this stage, after 31 hours of play time, I had died only once.  Now, in the course of half an hour, I've died more than 15 times.  I stopped counting when I managed to form a 30-second sentence that was composed entirely of cusswords.  My cat was not impressed.

I understand a main quest line.  I understand a common story is far easier to program and fulfil, and even more interesting to replay as a different character class, especially since, in the case of Dragon Age, you would have different companions depending on what class you were.  I know all of this.  And yet there should then be no area where one class type is so eminently unsuited to the task at hand, let alone on the main quest line, that it takes supreme patience and a ridiculous amount of luck to succeed.

Worst of all, I feel like the game is punishing me.  What did I do wrong, Dragon Age?  Did I choose the wrong class?  Did I go somewhere before I was supposed to?  Did I trip the random keep-killing-me-I-enjoy-it variable?  Why is this so hard?

To give an example : there's a room with two mages in it.  So far, I've been able to use stealth to walk past most anything, but anywhere worth going has a portal or object that's only usable once out of combat and, even in stealth, once you sight an enemy, you're in combat.  Okay, whatever.  Take away another one of my strengths.  So I go to walk past these two mages which - and this is important - are behind a closed door.  One of them complains about the noise (I'm a stealth character, don't look at me) and you know what?  BAM! Fireball.  To the face.  Reload.

Let's try that again, staying on the opposite side of the corridor.  No, still too noisy.  Reload.  Let's try it as a rat, in stealth mode.  No, still too noisy.  Reload.  Oddly enough, if I use the mouse hole to get into the room they're standing in, I can run circles around them and they don't notice.  Okay, let's try to get off a backstab on at least one of the mages.  Shock, fireball, frost and oh, yes, reload.  And, of course, my favourite: try to escape the mages who are chasing me by turning into a rat and running through the mouse hole into the room they've recently vacated...  Only to have them cast fireball, which follows me through the wall and kills me.  Reload.

You can see why I'm a little frustrated.  My character is my character; I base my conversation choices on the person I perceive her to be.  That perception doesn't include 'bloody hopeless at near about everything.'  It also doesn't include 'disinclined to attack from behind while in stealth mode', as seems to be another glitch.  It does include 'getting the heck out of here while fighting as few things as possible', which doesn't seem to be an option and, failing that 'die'.

She has a specific skillset.  She's thin, lithe, quick on her feet, and prone to confusing her opponents.  She works best when coup de grace is a definite option.  She does not do so well against 3 burning templars at the same time.  Nor should she have to.

Am I missing something?  Is there a magic win button that I'm somehow failing to see?  But, alas, all I'm seeing instead is a game that, instead of being relaxing escapism at the end of a long day has turned into my worst enemy for no apparent reason.  And it's all the more frustrating because I was having so much fun.  It's like finding out your jumping castle is made from the skin of dead babies.

I just want to feel in control of my world, Dragon Age.  Is that so wrong?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Walking on the SID Side

You know that feeling you get when you see a continuity error in a movie and it completely distracts you from keeping up with what's happening until you're not only hopelessly confused but you missed what the bad guy said, too?  That's how my life feels about now.

You see, I'm writing a non-linear, choose-your-own style lecture.  There are multiple choices, multiple paths, and I'm doing the entire thing in Powerpoint, with pictures.  I'm used to writing non-linear dialogue in an editor, but when it's a matter of "Do I create 21 alternative question choke points and just try to remember to click on the right one?" or "Will they really care if they can take the same option twice?" my brain becomes a little mushy.

Luckily, I have a programmer on my side.  He says the latter.  And I'm very grateful for it.

Similarly, if an interaction could possibly be called on twelve separate occasions, or possibly never, do I make 12 variations and hope?  Or 6?  Or just one, and replay it?  I've gone with one, because time is a factor (I'm presenting tomorrow, whoops!) but even if it weren't, is there really any merit to spending time on split-second interactions that may or may not be seen?

And, really, that's what game writing is all about.  It's a little easier than what I'm currently attempting - it's only words, usually, with perhaps a gesture or two - but the principle is the same.  How do you decide where to cut corners?  What happens if the player notices?

Since this is a lecture, I can wing it a bit.  I can steer my audience away from repetition, and hopefully make them feel smart in the process.  But in a game, where you have no direct impact on your audience, providing that guidance is so much harder.

When writing branching dialogue, I try to link different paths to different outcomes, but never repeat the same line.  Sometimes that's simply not possible, as with end-of-conversation comments, but in that case, I simply try not to make them too memorable.  Writing a memorable parting line that's going to be repeated will only make the player more aware of the repetition.  Better they experience one shining moment of brilliance than the reflection of a candleflame in a hall of mirrors.

But what of those paths that are all equally valuable?  How do you make them shine?  Personally, I try to imagine my own delight if this were all new to me - if I were playing this conversation for the first time.  If I wouldn't be excited by the dialogue choices, why would the player be?  Of course, that's when outside testing will be very useful, to get new eyes looking at your project and picking out the moments when you let the shimmer slip, but I find that trying to imagine the game as one I'm playing is a good start.

For a lecture, though, which is guided, trying to teach, and ultimately only has one ending (in this particular circumstance, anyway), it's far easier to know the paths and guide the audience away from the dangerous (i.e. repeated) ones.  In the end, they'll never know.  But with the ability to replay your dialogue, the player will.

Practice with Powerpoint first.  It's as good a place to start as any.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

San Francisco and Penny Dreadful

Kevin Andrew Murphy may be to blame for a very strange case of deja vu.

Back in 2007 I read his ridiculously entertaining novel, Penny Dreadful, based on the Mage: The Ascension world by White Wolf.  I even corresponded with him briefly.  He was lovely and friendly and I feel quite fond of him yet.  But it wasn't until I actually travelled to San Francisco last year that some very odd events played themselves out in my mind's eye.

You see, Penny Dreadful is set in San Francisco.  I had forgotten this.  There are landmarks there, such as Ghirardelli's and Alcatraz that, I'll admit my ignorance, I hadn't heard of before.  Being from Australia, I had no idea what the Bay City was.  And, coming from a world of tabletop experiences, I'm somewhat used to the unexpected taking shape.  Just not usually where I can see it.  You know, with my eyes.

So back to last year, when I was wandering around San Francisco.  Some things, while not looking at all like anything I'd ever seen, were sounding strangely familiar.  The sights, while brand new and exhilarating, were sounding warning bells in my head.

Werewolves, they said.  Vampire clubs, evil witches and a manor house on a cliff.  If you go to Ghirardelli's, order a milkshake, and for goodness sake don't open your lunchbox!  And if you think that's weird, I won't even tell you what I thought when we went for yum cha.

You see, Mr. Murphy's San Francisco was so close in spirit to the feeling of the place that I got lost in the world I remembered only vaguely.  Everything that happened was a little bit like being in one of those dreams where you've already been everywhere, and now you're looking for someone.  Going to San Francisco was like looking for someone I've never met in a place I'd never been.  It was an experience of surreal expectation, forever sure that the next corner would reveal what I had been waiting for.  If anything, that made it more magical.

But is that a good thing?  Remembering a place I'd never visited through a book I read two years ago - how does that affect my experience of the world?

I guess it's like travel writing, only vaguely terrifying.  Perhaps if every city had a pseudo-occultist history based in a roleplaying game fantasy world, things would be a lot more interesting.  Or perhaps there'd just be more Cthulhu.

Monday, April 26, 2010

How to enjoy yourself: Pt. 1

More Dragon Age.  I've been mentioning it in the majority of my posts, but that's okay, I can assure you it's taking up the majority of my free story time, as well.  Well.  And here's something that I'm finding improves my play experience a lot:

Not trying to get the ideal story.

As a perennial ditherer, I find this very hard to comprehend.  What has kept me from finishing games such as Jade Empire, Fallout 3, Morrowind, The World Ends With You and Baldur's Gate was the desire to see everything, experience everything, and come away with the best possible loot.  I was so busy looking up this or that guide to make sure I'd gotten the best deal or reward that I forgot to enjoy the game and, consequently, stopped playing.  The irony.

Not irony, I suppose.  Pedantry.  Which is not the same a pederasty, but I digress.  My completionist attitude kept me from completing what I had set out to complete: the story.  Well, no more.  This time, I'm staying with the consequences I get.  Even if it kills me.

And I do mean me.  Not my character.  The things that kill me, in general, are sad moments that could have been avoided.  Killing Connor.  Letting the mayor die because I chose to start the battle of Redcliffe in the wrong place.  Things that could so easily be fixed, by a simple load.  But where does it end?  If you can endlessly rewrite the past, do you ever truly experience the future?

My favourite example of this kind of mindset is a DS game called Time Hollow.  Interactive fiction would be a better description than game, however.  The main character can use a somehow-magical pen to look into the past and influence events.  But the more he does so, the more things he finds he has to fix.  And every time he does it, it's sapping his life force.

Well, loading and reloading in games saps my life force too - my time.  Moving from the long-ago days of student idleness into a full-time job, I've found that I've far less patience for games that don't go anywhere quite quickly.  And that includes far less patience for people, such as myself, who endlessly try to decide on the best outcome.  I suppose this shows a change in myself, over the past years, where I've become more of a person of action than one of unnecessary forethought - 'tis better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, and all that.

But do you know what I'm finding, most of all, and to my chagrin?  Playing the game the way that it runs, dealing with the imperfect consequences and not letting myself be disappointed by unopenable chests or lost loot, I'm finding something really weird.  I'm actually enjoying the game.

I'm no longer so concerned with having everything perfect that I'm spending less time metagaming and more time feeling.  This became quite clear to me when, sitting through a particularly moving cutscene, I found myself thinking, "This won't be nearly as sad when I load my game and save everyone."  I was so busy thinking about how sad it wasn't going to be that I forgot to be sad.

Perhaps it's a defence mechanism, but I don't think so.  From my previous posts, you've no doubt noticed I don't at all mind being sad, sometimes even when the occasion doesn't call for it.  We all know life is imperfect and sometimes miserable, which could explain my earlier attitude of fixing everything, but I guess I have just grown.  Losing someone very important to me, far from making me more of a control freak, has made me, if only a little, let go.

Am I growing up?  Maybe.  Am I learning to enjoy what I have?  Definitely.  In a game, after all, it's easy - simply go back and replay it later.  You'll spend far less time replaying it later on than you will saving and loading to get every perfect outcome.  And that's probably a lesson worth learning.  Don't try to make it perfect, perfect it over time.  Because even in real life, there are second chances.  You just have to recognise them when they arise.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

How It Should Have Ended: 9

I was really excited about 9.  Really, really excited.  Then it just never seemed to appear.  It came out in America, and it just vanished.  After months of chasing down a friend who assured me he had a copy, we finally sat down to watch it tonight.

I can see why it disappeared.

If you don't want to read spoilers, please don't keep reading.  You have been warned though, to be honest, I don't think you'd be missing much if you read my description instead.  That makes me sad.

The movie centres around 9 little sack people, created by a scientist, who are the only 'survivors' of the apocalypse - the war between machine and man.  We're in Terminator, but without any hope.  One of these sack people, 2, gets carried off by a creature known as The Beast - a cybernetic demon dog made out of bits of bone and metal.  Okay, a little creepy.

Cue their daring but ill-considered rescue attempt.  They succeed, and unleash a new and more terrible evil.  Fine.  Whatever.  They meet up with 7 (the only female, and therefore the only character with no facial blemishes, finer-grained sackcloth and a pouty lower lip), things go bad, etc.

They end up having to fight the Machine, which builds search-and-destroy bots, only to find out they didn't actually defeat it.  Up to this point, it had sucked out three of the sack people's souls, by using some kind of alchemical button.  All right, that's kind of cool.

9, being our typical Gary Stu, goes to uncover the secret: the scientist created the Machine with knowledge, but no soul, which is why it could perpetuate the atrocities it did; conversely, the sack people are the nine fragments of his soul.  That's pretty sad and lovely.  He says they are the last remnants of humanity.  Well, that would be fine, if they were human, but okay.

Throughout the movie, 6, who's a crazy inmate wearing striped pyjamas and with mis-matched eyes (Edward Scissorhands Sackboy), has been talking about returning to the 'Source'.  When he gets caught by the Machine, he doesn't resist having his soul taken.  9, putting these pieces together, decides on a course of action:

To use the alchemical button against the Machine and turn the 5 stolen souls of the sack people into bacteria-infested rain.  Have I lost you yet?

Here was a story that had the beauty all geared toward the greatest sacrifice, and possibly greatest betrayal that could be imagined: knowing what he knows, would 9 let the others be captured, even point them out, until he was the last one left, caught in the claws of the Machine, wondering whether he had really made the right choice, about to meet his destiny?  Would the Machine, now imbued with the fragmented (although possibly insane) mind of the scientist made whole, finally decide to build machines that would do more than destroy?  Wouldn't it change the Machine's entire operating system to include the perpetuation of life, including human life?  It can't have killed everyone.  This is localised to a city.  There's a chance other human beings, elsewhere, are still alive.

But instead there are explosions, a touching reunion scene where even the jerks are idolised through meaningful head nods, and finally, goo rain.  I mean, come on.  Animation isn't just for children.  That's where so many dubs of Miyazaki films go wrong.  When will we, as a Western audience, grow up enough to understand than animation is just another medium, with the flaws and responsibilities of every other moral soapbox?  When are we going to stop treating ourselves like children?

On the plus side, Morrigan and Alistair are hilarious in combination.  There's a story more worth my time - one I create myself.

There's no time like mythology

After quite a few years, I've returned to my unfinished reading of The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose.  It documents historical facts about the woman known as Elizabeth Bathory, a.k.a. the Bloody Countess, who has appeared everywhere in pop culture from David Eddings' The Elenium to Diablo 1 to Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

It amazes me that one woman could have such great effect.  She lived around 1600AD, so her story has had plenty of time to do a world tour, but that doesn't explain her ubiquitous 'appeal'.  Surely the story of a woman obsessed with her own beauty is nothing new.  Killing servant girls to help preserve her looks is taking it a step further.  But I think the big draw is precisely the mythology of it - it happened so long ago and in a relatively small and, at the time, secluded country, that whatever facts have been unearthed gain the air of absolute veracity.  If there is only one account, does that make it true?

Certainly, other people have done research into Erzsébet and Castle Csejthe.  She has been heralded as beginning some of the vampire-related legends from that era.  I can understand that young girls being spirited away in the night, from a deeply superstitious people, would definitely have had that effect.  Deep down, she was merely a sociopath with the means and seclusion to kill some 650 young women.  But why is she so interesting?

If you've ever watched Law and Order: Criminal Intent, you have an idea of what a sociopath may be.  Certainly characters like Hannibal Lecter have made psychological illnesses more popular for popular fiction.  Couple this with a greater understanding of how the mind works, and how it can malfunction, and it seems that every man and his talking dog knows a little about psychology these days.  While this is definitely a good thing, and informing the public on such matters (like the recent distinction between Multiple Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia, often confused or completely wrong in movies from before the 80s) is something I heartily approve of, I do question our fascination with these topics.

It may be that they're simply new to public viewing.  Things like Saw have re-created, or at least popularised, the exploitation genre.  Where is the appeal?  We know these 'people' have something seriously wrong with their brain chemistry to be acting this way.  Why do we want to know what happens?

The darkest depths of humanity are very interesting, one could say.  Carl Jung's The Red Book, only recently released, chronicles his journey into his own psyche and, in my opinion, reads very much like automatic writing.  The dark is fascinating.  It requires guesswork.  And it doesn't always show you things you were expecting.

Due to advances in forensics, as well, I suppose serial killers - for that's absolutely what lovely Erzsébet was - get caught either more easily, more often, or more quickly.  They don't have reigns of terror lasting for 20 years upheld by the superstitious belief of a peasant people in aristocracy as god-like, nor the semi-romantic backdrop of earlier times to contend with.  The serial killers of our times are far more disconcerting for their reality, while a beautiful countess in a windswept castle upon a hillside conjures certain sympathy in some respects.  It can be more rewarding to try to understand her, while our current-day criminals can merely be dismissed as insane.  

'Oh, how lonely she must have been!' I have heard or read people say.  'How she must have suffered!'  And, surely, that's the media treatment most often afforded her, that I've seen.  Interestingly, the people who have done a great deal of the available research are those connected to her by blood, visiting Csejthe and recording what they find there and what the local people have to say.  Some of the villagers are even entertained by the notion that Erzsébet used to take away; now her memory gives.  People will visit Hungary just to go to Csejthe.  And so her allure is undeniable.

Of course, it does have something to do with her death, which also has an air of the romantic about it.  She was bricked into her tower, with only a small window for food, and lived there for 3 years with no companionship or excursions to the outside world.  She did not repent.  And, in the end, she died alone.

Perhaps the pathos comes from the idea that no one really understood her.  That, were we able to speak to her today, her story might be quite different.  But, then again, it might not.  Many people would have liked to have the chance, I'm sure, by doing such things as evoking her name during ouija sessions, but the real answer is that we'll never truly know why she did what she did.  The mystery is what drives her memory, while her actions live on in vague infamy.  It could be something to remember, if one were to be involved in worldbuilding.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Free loot for clicking!

More Dragon Age, and, I must admit, I have another complaint: why am I the only one who can do everything awesome?

I found the journal of a scholar-priest.  He said he'd been studying these Chasind Trail Signs, trying to understand their meaning, believing they led to treasure of some sort but unable to completely decipher them.  I read his entry, and suddenly I'm an expert.  I find them all, and the cache, with no more than a clickety-doo.  This strikes me as a little unfair.  I've always wondered how game characters who aren't the protagonist feel.  Probably quite insignificant in their accomplishments.

Nevertheless, I stole some things, killed some guys, met a pretty (?) lady and drank some blood.  Mmmm, taintalicious.  Excuse me for getting a little excited when Alistair said there was one last thing before the Joining could be completed.  Unfortunately, he only handed me a necklace.  Well, at least it's a start.

I guess heroes are only ordinary people who do extraordinary things.  Maybe no one else would really stop to help the mabari hound.  Maybe I'm being genuinely rewarded.  Certainly being born with a plot-related constitution for imbibing tainted blood is believable in an 'I can't believe it's not butter!' way.  And if I am the one who collected all those vials of Darkspawn blood and rifled through all their clothing to take their loose change, I probably got some of their blood in my cuts already, thereby kind of making the Joining moot.

I was kind of hoping for at least a little bit of innuendo, though.

No, it would have spoiled the moment.  But at least now I can go on my merry way, unfettered by the shackles of extraneous party members.  I will remember you, brave Daveth and... that other guy.  Jory.  I knew that.  Although, you know, if the flower of the Wilds can help a mabari hound overcome his exposure to the taint, you'd think they could mix it in with the blood to give their new recruits a little more of a fighting chance.  Either that or the flower was for something else.  Clearly I was paying attention.

I was probably distracted by the player choice, "I swear I'm the bravest one here, and I'm a woman!"  No, really?  That couldn't have been 'elf'?  But I suppose it's multi-purposefully offensive, since you'd get that line no matter what race you played.  Honestly, the opening sequence in the Arl's castle gave me so much hope that I could be a strong, independent woman recognised for her merit rather than her gender.  Simply the fact that I'm the one choosing to bring my gender into the equation doesn't make it okay.  I joke about Alistair, but a soldier is a soldier, or should be.  You wouldn't see the line, "I swear I'm the bravest one here, and I'm a man!"  That means it's a double standard.  Double standards tend to make people angry.

Or maybe it's just my over-developed sense of justice (I want to say vengeance... silly Princess Bride quoting reflex).  Maybe they didn't have any women playtest this part, though I find that hard to believe, especially as some of their most prominent writers are women.  Since I've spotted two spelling errors already, perhaps their QA department simply ran out of time.  But despite all the work the game is doing to immerse me, nothing punches me back to reality faster than the old gender divide.

I still remember Neverwinter Nights 1: if you chose to be a woman, the description went something like, "The women of Faerun are the equal of men and can excel in any area they choose."  It made me chuckle, because it was protesting a little too much, but at least it was protesting.  Dragon Age may as well have told me I run like I girl.  Actually, she runs like a monkey.

Of course I'll keep playing, but notice my disapproving frown.  You'll need to work extra hard to win me back after that one, make-believe-but-a-little-too-real-fantasy-world.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Kick Ass is not a comedy

Only a short post, because other factors have kept me from my rightful rest, but after watching Kick Ass this afternoon, I can safely say that it isn't a comedy.

It's funny in parts, yes.  A lot of what happens is absurd.  But at its heart, it is a cautionary tale about what can happen when we take silly things too seriously.  Or, as in the case that originally sees Dave become Kick Ass, when we don't take things seriously enough.

I've heard a lot of complaints that originally made me not want to see the movie, or even have anything to do with it.  Having seen it, I will gladly recommend it, if possibly only from the comfort of your own home.  The people around me guffawing at incidents that were obviously intended as ironic parody and, actually, not meant to be funny at all, made me more irritated than when people kept telling me Avatar was a good movie.

There are some moments where the director didn't know what he was doing.  Some moments have funny music to try to offset what's happening on screen.  I kind of wish he had just taken his message and said : "This is what it is.  Take it or leave it, but know that it's here." rather than dancing around some of the issues with strange camera angles and music reminiscent of Benny Hill.

Kick Ass was awful, but in so many realistic ways that I found it compelling.  I wanted to know what happened. I cared about these stupid characters with their flaws and ridiculous idealism and blind sociopathy.  I wanted them to have a happy ending.  The fact that it was somewhat cheapened by the impromptu laughtrack of those who had bought into the marketing and had come to see a comedy doesn't make it any less effective.

What Mindy's father did was wrong.  But he also loved her, more than himself.  This seems to be a recurring theme, now that the last generation has grown up, and is having children.  Comedies, especially, are moving into the realm of father-with-kids-goes-on-zany-adventures.  But Kick Ass is not about how her father ruined her life.  It's a warning, if anything, rather than an ovation.  It doesn't idolise his actions.  It idolises his love.  And before you start wondering, no, I'm not referring to any kind of abuse.  I'm trying to write without spoilers.

Kick Ass is about the varying degrees of standing up for yourself, and being brave enough, or committed enough, to stick to your morals.  It's wrapped up in a bubblegum-flavoured, candy-wrapper alfoil case of explosions and so-gory-they're-ridiculous  moments of torture, but it certainly doesn't glorify the actions of 'real-life' superheroes.  It shows them to be the vigilantes that they are, which is something I, personally, haven't experienced before.  It looks at the balancing going on, on both sides of the equation, and comes out with one answer:

People should help other people.

That's what it boils down to, and that's what made me like it.  One of the lines from the beginning really touched me, but forgive me if I quote it incorrectly:

"Superheroes only exist in comic books.  And that would be fine if bad guys only existed in comic books, too, but they don't."

As a tale of one boy's attempt to make the world a better place, I give it a definite thumbs up.  Go and see it, even if you're expecting a comedy.  I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The downpour has ended

After finally taking a month away, I've found the time, and willingness, to sit down and finish Heavy Rain.  Don't get me wrong, it wasn't that the game was arduous, although it was, in an emotional sense.  It was just that I was afraid - very much a waking fear every time I thought of the game - of what the ending would be.  I unfortunately managed to read a spoiler the day the game came out (trolls... must I avoid the internet now?), but I still didn't know the ending.  And, for the past month, I haven't wanted to know.  Now I do.

Spoilers ahoy.

Apart from the fact the game fell apart somewhat (how did Madison know who Ann Sheppard, Scott Shelby or Norman Jayden were?), which I'm willing to put down to my particular play-through path, I found the ending very... I'm not sure.  I think what they do with Shaun after you rescue him is a little bit cruel, but it sweetened the moment; I also think Carter is the biggest jerk on the force.  After I'd settled down and watched the credits, we played through the ending a couple more times, to see the other outcomes.  Some of them were, I would think, more worthwhile than the endings I got (for example, I missed Madison's motorbike stunt and, well, if you've finished it you know how that turns out).  I've got a lot more playing through to do yet, but a couple of things stood out as both good and bad.

First, the bad things: 1) Carter is antagonistic.  I was nice to him, I saved his life, and he was suddenly telling me to take a hike.  Okay.  Strange.  2) You know, I was controlling Shelby during that section, and I'm pretty sure I didn't do what it told me I did.  In fact, I know I didn't, or I'd remember.  3) Jayden, on a talk show?  Um...  He's not exactly the world's most social cop.  4) Kramer claiming in one breath that no one would miss a street scum little boy, and in the next telling me he's been leaving flowers on John Sheppard's grave for 30 years?  Newsflash: Sheppard was street scum, too.  Choose your motivation.  5) So Madison escaped, and she knows the killer's real identity...  But even though she writes a book about it, somehow word never gets out.  I see.

Okay, ranting aside, there were some things Heavy Rain did beautifully.  I've played through some of the scenarios time and again, to find all the variations, and I rarely get sick of the dialogue.  Ethan's connection with Shaun is wonderful, especially if you get the happy ending.  And, yes, that's one spoiler I'm pleased to present: everything can turn out fine.  That's the thing I was most afraid of - that there could be no happy ending, not ever.  But there can, and it made my heart stop.  For all that it's contrived, for all that it's movie-stock predictable, I was happy.  And making people happy is far more difficult than making them sad.

The other thing that Heavy Rain did well - even exceptionally - was that it got the psychology right.  My friend didn't understand the killer's motivation.  I studied psychology at university, and I can happily say that his motivations fit with the kind of personality type he has.  The origami dogs, and orchids, the gentle poses.  They all make sense.  It's sad and beautiful and twisted and a thousand percent distressing.  But, within his worldview, it all makes sense.  And that makes up for a lot of the flaws.

I wasn't expecting a perfect ending.  I was expecting a trade, some kind of switch, praying that the last trial was a fake while fearing, with shaking dread, that it wasn't.  I was expecting to cry.  I did cry.  But I also wept with joy.  Thinking of it now, I still have tears in my eyes.  After all of that, everything that happened, life can still be okay.  There can still be beauty with the ones you love.  What you have, despite what you've lost, is more than worth holding onto.

I hope I remember this feeling.  I hope I can remember that, in 2010, I cried because a man was reunited with his son.  A character, not even a man, but one that I had come to know, because his motivations were my own.  After everything we went through together, I feel like his happiness is mine.

So why do I keep crying?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to fall in love

Well now, well now, well now.  I'm crawling through Dragon Age at my usual snail's pace, and what do I find but what appears to be a love interest?  Unless he dies, of course, but somehow I doubt it.  Alas, Wedding Ring, your charms are already fading...  One of the things I'm also noticing, though, is that, even though I'm a female character, I'm the one doing the chasing.  Ah, refreshing.

I actually laughed at some of his dialogue - in the first exchange, he proves himself a wit, and, by happy circumstance (and good writing), you get to prove yourself the same.  He comes across as a flirt, and, if you choose to respond to that, he's genuinely surprised.  Ah, a humble flirt.  Cute, in all sincerity.

After speaking with the guy for five minutes, I already know what kind of person he is.  And I like it.  I've rarely met a man who's a determined flirt but doesn't believe anyone takes him seriously.  I'm as attracted to him as I would be if I met him in real life.  And, you know, if he wasn't imaginary.  Though Haer'Dalis knows that's never stopped me before.

But, and here's a question - in romance novels, or novels of any sort, really, you have to convince the reader than the love interest is worthy of the love of the main character.  How do you go about doing that in a game?  You don't have anyone they can show their soft side to; they can only show it to the player.  How do you build that bond of trust without treading on some very corny or intimate territory?

So it seems to me that to write the love interest, you have to court the player.  And how do you do that, when there are so many different types of players, all with their own personalities, emotions and agendas?  I suppose you provide different characters and hope one of them takes the player's fancy, but when writing that one half of the conversation, how would you feel?  Do you imagine the player to be your ideal match, and convince yourself you're in love with them in order to write the dialogue?  Do you imagine you're talking to your spouse or significant other?  Can you write the lines of love even if you're not in love yourself?

Perhaps that's why confronting a game writer about how much you like their character is a little disarming.  If they were imagining their ideal - or actual - partner when they were writing those lines, it would be quite a shock to find a stranger had responded.  Wouldn't it be strange to know that writing a character had made someone fall in love with you?  Well, not you, obviously, the character, but I maintain that all writing is necessarily autobiographical.  Otherwise where would the veracity lie?  No, the player would have fallen in love with a part of you.  And that would be strange.

I've had the delight to speak with two of my writing heroes in recent times.  One, a man writing a man who I fell in love with, was quite uncomfortable with my praise.  The other, a woman, who wrote a man I fell in love with, was pleased someone else felt the same way about her beloved character.  It would definitely be a surprise, writing in your gender and hearing someone of the opposite extol the virtues of that character.  How would it feel, to have a stranger know something of you and you to know nothing of them?  A little bit like a stalker, I imagine, and I now see the scary side of fangirls.

So I would love to know who wrote Alistair, if only to congratulate them, but if it was a man... would I be better off keeping my mouth shut?

Monday, April 19, 2010

The clone complex

We're willing to put up with quite a lot in games.  Playing Dragon Age just now, I clicked on ten different soldiers who all said, "Maker bless you, my  Lady."  Hmmm.  We're willing to trust that these characters have nothing more to say.  I find this hard to believe.

I do believe in technical restraints.  Anyone who's played Oblivion would have a hard time not believing, after the voices of the beggars changed so much.  I'm told this was because they ran out of room for the audio on the DVD.  What a terrible fate for any character, let alone a city-bound beggar with five different accents.

But, and this is something I remember from long ago, before games became full of sound and noise (two very different things) - what ever happened to playing the same sound byte and replacing all that talking with text?  Baldur's Gate did so to great effect, and Aion does it as well today.  That way, the writers can write without having to worry about pesky technical limitations.  They can write what they want, as long as it will fit in the character's invisible speech bubble.  And they can create a richer world, being no longer tied to recording schedules and size constraints.

This audio-only-dialogue thing began when conversations became more cinematic.  When talking to someone was more than just clicking on text boxes over the same old isometric view.  Then again, Fallout managed to have half-spoken cinematic conversations, with a couple of lines spoken, and a couple of lines not.  It became immaterial that some had audio and others were without - it seemed only natural, somehow.  The things that they spoke were important.  The things that they didn't, were not.  The use of audio, in that sense, was to direct the player to pay attention, as well as to evoke emotion.  I don't see that as a bad thing.

Still, in these days of $20 million budgets for movie-game tie-ins, I guess recording only selected lines or selected characters just won't cut it.  But even those characters, who are only called 'Soldier', and only speak one line each, repeated ad infinitum because you can't tell who's who - surely they could have something more to say?  Surely they could have names, too?  The intentional lack of a name signifies someone you don't need to talk to, but is that really a world view we should be promoting?  As a writer, I like to think everyone has a story to tell.  I don't see why games should be any different.

I've worked in games.  I know how much writing sandbox dialogue can suck.  But it can also be one of the few places where you can let your guard down and have some fun.  Somehow I feel today's game writers are being cheated of that outlet.  Then again, it's a brilliant way to ruin the tone of your own game, if you're not careful.  So perhaps it's a lore-based constraint, rather than a technical one, but has the added bonus of saving the programming team a bunch of time hooking one-line-of-dialogue-X up to met-once-in-a-playthrough-Y.

That's one of the things that I do vastly prefer about Aion.  Every NPC has a name, and something to say.  They may not have fancy recorded dialogue, but they're there, they're interesting, and they're unique.  I don't care if they don't talk.  I get tired of listening to people yabber on anyway.  Bring back the silence, I think, at least for unimportant exchanges.  It made us read, and it made us imagine, and it kept out social skills honed by making us guess.  Many a time has come and gone where a character has said something in a different way than I've read it.  Let me tell my story, though my own inflections, and leave the recorded dialogue for the important people.  I'll thank you.  I promise.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oh, and one more thing...

Ah, and I neglected to mention, of course, one of the moments that had me yelling in appreciation - the fact that, when surprised by off-duty guards, and one of the dialogue options ends in 'Attack', my character darted forward and threw a knife into the nearest guard's throat. Awesome.

Making me feel at home

I've finally started Dragon Age, prepared, this time, to give it a chance.  Last time, I was disillusioned by different dialogue choices that led to not only the same outcome, but the same line of dialogue.  This time, I'm finding it a lot more enjoyable to simply backchat the NPCs when necessary and enjoy the rest of the ride.

I must admit, though, that despite some odd rhyming moments (I'm playing City Elf, and the Arl's son seems to inadvertently assonate [assonance - newly created verb form - plus he's an ass, so I figured it fit] all over the place), there are some funny and meaningful moments so far.  Despite my best wishes to play the cynical bitch, I've found myself genuinely concerned about some of the characters, including my intended.  There are a couple of little touches that have made me feel like I belong, more than simple dialogue choices.

Spoilers to follow, but only to the end of the Female City Elf intro.

As soon as I met my betrothed, and he met the Arl's son, I knew he was dead.  Well, both of them.  I just figured my husband-to-be would be the first to die.  I was right.

What I didn't know was that, when looting corpses in the inevitable bloody aftermath of killing the Guard Captain and his cronies, I would accidentally loot Nelaros' body.  And he would have a Wedding Ring as his only possession.  Out of the 20 or so words he ever spoke, one of those sentences was, "I will spend every waking moment finding out how to make you happy."  Needless to say, my character is wearing the ring.  Despite perhaps not wanting to get married in the first place, I now find it hard to imagine her ever taking the ring off.  Of course, the future may be full of romance and betrayal, and I doubt wearing the Wedding Ring item would bring me any bonuses later in the game, but somehow it just seems right.  We'll see how long my storytelling wants can override my gamer needs.

The other thing that made me feel warm and fuzzy was that, when I was looking for my cousin after returning from the Arl's estate, the tooltip on the door says, simply, 'home'.  Despite the fact I'd been told I was leaving everything behind, that made a difference, too.  Of course, you can act brash and say you're just glad to get out of there, but the more I played, the more I found myself sympathetic toward the characters I had 'grown up with', and I don't believe that's simply my good (haha *coughcough*) nature coming to the fore.

The last thing, and, corny as it sounds, the thing that made me feel most strongly about this whole intro was that, when I visited my female cousin before leaving, after saving her from the Arl's son and declaring only myself responsible, is that she told me she loved me.  I've known this woman for all of half an hour, and only a little at a time, at that, but before I could even think to say otherwise, I'd clicked on, "I love you, too."  Oh dear.

The voice acting in Dragon Age really stands out against its competitors, including Mass Effect.  I hope greater things are to come, but for now, it's time for bed - my cat is pawing at my cursor.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Zynga Vs. Playfish

This won't be your usual 'which company is better?' debate.  I'm not interested in who has the greatest turnover, or number of players, though I still mildly growl at EA every time I log in to Pet Society.  It's a brief look at why I prefer Playfish over Zynga.

First - and let's just get this out of the way, shall we? - I find Playfish games a lot cuter.  Their graphics are bright, colourful, and engaging.  Their pets are endearing.  Their provision of customisation as far as design and colour go are unmatched in any other Facebook game I've played.  They're pretty games, and, for the most part, well-animated.  On to the next point.

Their gameplay.  Playfish doesn't punish me for not being able to sign in.  They use positive feedback, not negative; instead of signing in to FarmVille to find my crops withered, and having to make a mental note to check it more frequently next time, I simply don't get the chance to win greater amounts of in-game cash or extra ingredients if I happen to miss a day or two.  Of course, their games weren't always like this - Restaurant City allowed your restaurant rating to drop if you didn't sign in to remove the door while your workers were sleeping, for example - but they have built on a lot of the criticism they've received.  And, hey, they've given me some improvements I didn't even know I wanted, so kudos to them.

They also semi-rebuilt SimTower, which was my next big-idea-I'd-never-get-around-to-doing, so they get a smile with gritted teeth that quickly dissipates, because at least I have a very basic SimTower to play again anywhere, on the move, and without the aid of DosBox.

But, for an example of why I prefer Playfish over Zynga, we'll take a look at FarmVille and Country Story.

FarmVille is ubiquitous - most people have played it at some point, at least amongst my friends, but many have left their farms to rot.  Fair enough.  Now, what you can do in FarmVille is have plots of land that you plough and plant seeds in.  In real time, these seeds will grow, and, in however long, you harvest them.  Rinse, cycle, repeat.  You can also have trees and animals, which have no expiry period, so you can leave the fruit on them/forego milking/petting/gathering their eggs for as long as you want, but woe betide you if you miss harvesting your crops!  They wither and die and generally look like a mess.  It's a bit of a social embarrassment, if you're into that kind of thing.

Country Story, with its myriad recent improvements, is slightly more simple.  You have available plots, which increase with your level.  You can have trees, once you can afford them, and I have it on good authority that new players are now given two animals to begin with.  You plant your crops, and gather them whenever you feel like it.  After they're done growing, they just sit around, looking merry and generally being green.  The fruit on the trees may eventually fall on to the ground, but the tree only dies when it reaches the end of its lifecycle, and you'll know when that happens.  The animals are pretty cute, but, again, if you don't feed them, no big deal.  Actually, if you don't feed them, they don't produce, but that's the only downside, and you probably won't notice, because you're not they're to see them.

So what's the difference, really?  They're both farm games, they both require the input of time that could be much better spent on other things.  The difference comes in the little touches, the things that make me feel like my farm in Country Story is much more alive that the one in FarmVille.

For example, in FarmVille you harvest your animals.  Originally some of the gathers were a bit strange, such as collecting yarn from kittens (pardon?), but they've since changed that to 'brush kitten', which makes me wonder why I can only do it once a day.  They have these little glowing pink triangles above their heads, and when you harvest them, these triangles disappear until next time.

In Country Story, you can see the produce sitting next to the animal - bunnies have cotton balls (again, don't ask me) and chickens and ducks have eggs.  But the even more relevant thing is that they think about them.  If you happen to be in the game, and not notice your animal has produced something for you to collect (and no, no one's made a fertilizer-manufacturer sim yet), a little thought bubble appears above their heads, thinking about the picture of their produce.  Simple, but effective.

The other thing the animals in Country Story do is react.  When you brush them, they close their eyes in delight, hop around, and make a little noise.  Cute.  When you feed them, they take a moment to munch on their feed, and, again, make a little noise.  Even when you watr your planets, they go from drooping brown-green to vibrant, upright, in-your-face verdancy.  I like feedback.  It makes me feel like I'm having an effect.

But my favourite part?  Each animal in Country Story has a mouseover status bubble.  It tells you how long until their next egg/cotton ball, how much food they have (from poor to great) and, this is important, a little love heart with their current level of happiness next to it.  Leave your animal for too long without attention, and it will be 'sad'.  Brush it and feed it, and it will be 'happy'.  I know I'm a sap, but seeing a little bunny or chicken flopping around in glee just because I took two seconds out of my day to click it with an imaginary brush makes me feel a little warm inside.  It's nice to know someone misses me.

And that's the difference.  My pet in Pet Society is always happy to see me, even if she doesn't seem to notice the mewling petlings starving at her feet.  The people in Hotel City all wave at me when I save and log out.  Playfish excels at making their customers feel welcome.  And, in games riddled with micro-transactions, they make it easy to forget that you are a customer, addressing you, instead, as a player.  Most of their for-cash items are only pretty enhancements (except in the case of Pet Society), so it's easy to forgive them when they ask us to complete a quest that requires Playfish Cash.  After all, we can just sweep it under the rug and ignore it, but thanks for trying, guys.

I don't know much about their respective business practices, and I don't care to, but from the outside it seems like Playfish listens and improves their products, and fills their worlds with beautiful things.  In a Flash-based game, you wouldn't think that would matter so much, but if I'm going to spend 10 minutes a day tending a make-believe farm, it may as well be pretty.  The fact that it makes me feel warm and fuzzy is the icing on the cake.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What if I like alcoholics?

I just started playing Fable 2.  I know, I'm behind the times, but it's been a long time coming, and I didn't want to get so choked up by my disillusionment that I couldn't actually enjoy the game (I'm looking at you, Oblivion/Professor Layton 2/Dragon Age).  So I've steered carefully clear of anything to do with the game, citing a lack of interest but, really, just not wanting to suffer that same dramatic let-down as going bungee jumping only to realise at the bottom of the dive that your rope's made out of snakes.

So I popped the DVD in the drive, still vaguely terrified that my 360 would somehow decide to chow down on it like nachos in a blender, and curled myself up on the couch to play.  I can be a girl this time - nice.  I like that.  Some women (and, more frequently, men) complain that adding the option to play as a girl is a token effort to include female gamers, but anything that makes me feel good about playing my gender *coughAioncough* is a bonus as far as I'm concerned.

I'm a child.  Nothing new there, either in-game or out.  I need to collect some magical golden coins.  Well, not really magical, but only magical in the sense that they'll advance the plot.  I feel a little like Mario, but that's okay.  Let's follow the shiny fairy-dust path of plot device - wheeeee! - and wind up somewhere interesting.

Except...  Who put a sermon in my tutorial?  Kicking chickens is pretty fun, I'll grant you, but you don't lose any reputation because of it.  I helped save a dog - since one of the few things I know about the game is that there's a dog involved, I kind of assumed this was important - and suddenly I'm little miss goody-two-shoes.  Hmmm.  Swing my sword around, and most of the crowd of children finds me 'funny', after I just sent a bully home with a broken nose and severe mental trauma, no less, but some of them 'hate' me for my innocuous sword-waving.  Double hmmm.

So I go around the corner, and find a place infested with beetles.  Some of the dialogue has been quite interesting so far, and since it's the beginning of the game, I'm inclined to give it a chance, though a big thumbs up to the designers for including the 'hold A to win' dialogue option.  A slightly smaller thumbs down for making the dialogue so ridiculously long that it's almost worth skipping on principle, but it's mildly entertaining, so I wait.  Kill some beetles, got it.  Wait, what's this 'we' business and why did my sister not go with me?

Ah!  A moral choice!  I get to make a...  No, wait.  I get to decide whether or not I want to kill some beetles (+1 destructive, +5 good), or smash all the guy's stock to make up for him not paying his 'protection money' (+2 destructive, +3 evil).  It's actually more work to smash up the crates than the beetles, so I scuttle a few barrels and get on with it.  A nice little revelation from our window-dwelling ruffian comes if you kill all the beetles, and Mr. Storehouse Owner almost-but-doesn't-quite reprimand me for wantonly wailing on his crates with a wooden sword, but apparently I'm now the world's best child.  

Next up... a hobo with an appetite for alcohol!  He's too sauced to rescue his booze, so I head off on a merry, but brief, chase to find it, since I'd previously found it next to a slumbering chap with something against bathing.  My sister warns me not to wake him, but since I'd trodden all over him in my previous efforts to explore, I grab the bottle and saunter easily away.

And now!  Another moral choice!  Give the bottle to his wife/mistress/sister/honestly who can tell? for a gold piece, or give it to him for a gold piece?  Well, since I'm a pre-teen of my word, I decide to hand the bottle over.  What?  3 evil points?

Hey, look, buddy, you know what?  I want to make this clear to designers the world over: I'm not responsible for what he does with his life.  If he wants to drink himself to death, he will.  Me not fetching his alcohol for him ain't gonna do a damn thing to dampen his enthusiasm.  I'm not the shepherd of every idiot with a liver, and if I thought I was, I probably wouldn't be playing video games, but doing something society considers useful, like finding a cure for cirrhosis or growing genetically modified livers in specially-shaped glass tubes.

And that brings me to my main point, in a very roundabout and not at all economical way - I'm tired of being responsible for everyone else.  I have a job, I have a life, I have a cat, so I know about responsibility and, coincidentally, being used as a hot water bottle in winter.  There are many things I do need (read: want) like an all-access pass to Blizzard HQ and a mountain of Planescape rulebooks, but a sermon on the evils of alcohol isn't one of them.

I'm not picking on Fable 2 in particular here.  I think it's interesting they chose to use something like alcohol addiction, albeit in a semi-humorous light, in their game.  Perhaps they hoped there was a stronger message they could get across, although it's undermined by the comedy.  Possibly they weren't really thinking about it at all.  But having my choice affect gameplay seems a little heavy-handed.

Before you get up in arms, yes, I know, it's a game about moral choices.  Yes, I understand, everything is going to influence gameplay.  No, I'm not a cynical lock-up in a basement somewhere with nothing better to do than whinge on the internet.  You'll just have to trust me on that last one.  But I resent being told how to live my life through the medium of video games.  Just as I don't watch movies about domestic violence or drug abuse, I feel I have a right to control the content of the games I play.  Maybe I'm mistaken, but it runs a little deeper than that.

I guess my main problem with this kind of choice is that, ideally, I would like to be surprised.  I would like to not know, for once, which way a story was going to play out.  Maybe he has a thrown disc and needs the alcohol to self-medicate; maybe he lost all his loved ones in a fire.  There could be so much more to this (granted, single, simple and forgettable) interaction, but, really, the only subtext is this: drunk people are evil, and the people who help them are too.

Yes, player agency and needing to understand the effect of their actions, yes, it's in the tutorial and it won't have any impact on my game, really, yes, I'm reading too much in to it and I'm belligerent and feel long-suffering in a perhaps unjustified manner.  But Fallout 3 managed shades of grey, and consequences.  Oblivion did, to a lesser extent.  Games like InFamous made a mockery of it, inadvertently, by giving some evil points for knocking civilians down, but more good points for shocking them back to life - my friend took me from two-thirds evil to two-thirds good in only 20 minutes of free-roaming gameplay.  It seems most games give you more points for doing a 'good' deed than they do for a 'bad' one, which makes it almost too easy to be good.

Then again, in games like Baldur's Gate, it could become impossible to finish the game if you were evil, because soldiers would attack you on sight and shopkeepers would charge exorbitant prices for simple things like arrows.  That way isn't the path of wonder, either, but somehow it felt like more of a choice.

I don't believe people are good or bad.  I believe people change.  This is something that these newer games reflect relatively well - people treat you according to your fluctuating status.  It would be nice if the people you screwed over remembered you as you were when they met you, even if you're suddenly the most saintly man alive but, hey, we can't have everything.

Apparently what we can have, though, are alcoholic bums who drink themselves to death and make the people in the immediate area stand around, doing nothing to stop him, and hate me.  I see.  In the meantime, I guess I'll just keep playing and kill as many people as I can.  Y'know, because I've already taken one step down the path of evil and now I'm a baby-eating nun.

We're getting there, toward living, breathing game worlds, slowly.  But I'll be happy when we get closer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sleep Is Death

So I just spent the better half of an hour playing Sleep Is Death, the new Jason Rohrer game. At the moment all I and my friend seem to be able to use it for is a kind of entertaining graphical IM. I can see its future applications, though, and, once I figure out how to use it, I'm definitely looking forward to learning a lot about player agency.

Unfortunately, I'm typing this on my iPhone, since it's late and I turned my computer off. I thought it might make me write less and go to sleep sooner, but the process of installing blog writing software on the iPhone - Safari can't handle for some reason - took almost half an hour. Nevertheless, this may be quite handy in future. I'll have to check the quality of the upload tomorrow.

In the meantime, I recommend Sleep Is Death, especially if you're a pixel-based artist. Your assets are shared with anyone you play with, and so on around the world, so not only would it be a great way to practice, you'd also brighten up an already fascinating narrative landscape. Two birds with one customisation, you could say.

One last question: if you could do anything in a game world, what would it be? It turns out most of my solutions involve roundhouse kicks and gun fights, which isn't really a direction I'd seen myself taking. What will Sleep Is Death show you? Hopefully a new side of yourself that's been previously unexplored. Enjoy the wonder. I hope your revelations are more pleasing than mine.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Storytelling and Collection

I'm noticing a trend in the games I enjoy - Pokemon, Bioshock, Dead Space and, to my chagrin, the Sims 3.  And, more importantly, I'm noticing they all have something in common.  You have to go around collecting things.

Gotta catch 'em all, huh?  The Sims 3 introduced not only gemstones and bug collections, but, with the addition of World Adventures, artefacts, as well.  Bioshock and Dead Space both have audio logs, some of which only the truly conscientious will find.

And is it worth it?  We find these things, we listen to them, or view them, or name them, and we get joy out of it. Presumably, otherwise why would we keep playing?  In Pokemon, you're winning bragging rights.  In the Sims, you're creating stories to tell to your friends later.  In Bioshock and Dead Space you're piecing the story together to get a clear overall image.  Arguably all of these things relate to the very human need for stories - having something to tell someone else - but the audio logs pose a problem here.  Without knowing the game in exquisite detail, it's highly likely that even your friends are going to have little clue of what you're ranting about.

So, I offer, what drives us is not so much the social aspect, although that's certainly part of it.  I think we gather information to find information.  The having of knowledge is its own reward.  In Pokemon, you're trying to complete the Pokedex.  In Bioshock and Dead Space there are a finite number of audio logs, and, in Dead Space, at least, you can see the gaps in your collection.  In the Sims 3, the more you learn about the world around you, the more bonuses you acquire.

Knowledge is power.  We're raised to understand this.  So knowledge, even story knowledge, must surely have a use, or an application in real life.  Otherwise why would it be there?  Why else would we want to collect it?

It's all part of the clever story conspiracy, I'm sure of it.  Those game designers with their shiny mechanics are using our collecting impulses to teach us things.  But are they things worth learning?  The writer in me wants to say yes, vehemently, they are.  The scholar in me says, well, when is knowing where and how to catch both types of Shellos ever going to be of real value?

The answer is, in all honesty, outside of a very specific subset of time in the course of my lifespan, probably never.  I know this.  And yet I keep playing.  As an experience, this information becomes crucial.  But would we keep playing without it?  Is it, perhaps, not really the story that keeps us going at all?

And here, I know the answer is a resounding no.  None of these games would be what they are if it weren't for the stories attached to them.  They create a sense of community, of sharing, of discovery and delight.  The story alone accomplishes this, whether it's the intended or emergent.  I get as much joy from listening to Andrew Ryan speak as I do from relating his words to others.

So I can only conclude it's my exploratory curiosity that draws me to these games when others find them trivial or irritating.  I do my best to discover all I can, and I feel that I benefit from this.  Is it a false benefit?  Are my friends right?  Does OCD really play an important part in my gaming schedule?

And to them I reply: "Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

STFU, I'm Trying to Cry

Story is a very personal experience.  In the case of a good story, it grows with us as we grow, changes as we change, and becomes a part of us that is only more relevant as time goes on.  This is something I've found with Loom - despite all the games I've played in the meantime, it means as much to me now as ever, and my world-view is still very much in alignment with Bobbin's.  I may be twenty years older, and so may he, but we're still the same where it counts.

And Loom provided, for me, something more - it provided a sense of delayed gratification.  It allowed me to dream.  For those of you who haven't played the game and don't wish me to mildly spoil the ending, turn away now: but, you see, the story doesn't end.  It resolves, as all good stories should.  But it isn't over, not by a long shot.  And that's okay.

Over the years, I've found those are the games that I look to most, that I feel for the most, and that I love most deeply.  Stories that keep going, beyond the mere screen and into our imaginations, that allow us to dream of what yet might still be.  Bobbin may come back to save the world.  He is immortal now, of course.  He has all the time in the (other) world.  The Nameless One may make his way back to Sigil, even though he's part of the Blood War (and seeming to break all the rules about Petitioners, but that's another tale entirely).  District 9 had such an ending; that's the type of ending Avatar should have had.  I don't know when we started demanding closure, but it's ruining our imaginations.

Some movies, such as children's movies, benefit from a final ending.  Kung Fu Panda would be nothing if Po didn't defeat Tai Lung.  But when did we become so complacent in our own minds that we decided we wanted everything explained to us?  Did we ever really decide that at all?

What sparks this post is Bioshock 2, and its multiple endings.  I won't reveal spoilers, but suffice to say, once again, the morally ambiguous (but mildly good) ending is the best.  The bad ending is terrible, and the good ending is...  Well, I said no spoilers.  But it reminds me of The Suffering, where, the whole game, you're accused of killing your wife and children.  If you play through the game as though you're a criminal, you find out it wasn't really your fault.  Ah, but if you play through the game as if you're not guilty, and you make the game harder by never giving into rage, so you can retain your humanity and prove that you'd never do such a thing...  I believe that ending is the most horrible of all.

But all of these games, though they finish the player's journey, don't finish the question of story.  What happens next?  And I think that's important, to let us keep on dreaming.  There are more endings in our minds than any one company can create, and more variation in characters and setting than a thousand artists could paint.  We just need to know how to access it, and that means learning to believe.

Children believe in imagination.  They can believe anything is possible.  If you want to be creative, you need only close your eyes and remember, or watch a child at play.  As Violet Baudelaire says, "There's always something."  And as long as you keep imagining, as long as you keep keeping the world alive, there always will be.  The story isn't over because someone else told you so.  It's over when you let it be.

And so Bioshock 2, with its simple monologue, drowns all my pretentions of who my character was.  Far from the extremes, it melts instead into a kind of innocent incomprehension, which reminds me of my core as Delta: who I was, and will continue to be, long after that chapter is closed.  I doubt there is a time when someone mentions this game that I won't think of the look in Eleanor's eyes, and feel as any father would.  I know there will be a time, maybe no more than days from now, when I will remember the end of my journey without tears in my eyes, but for now, this sadness is precious to me.  It means the world touched me, and created something greater than itself.  For all that it guided me, these feelings are my own, and I treasure them in their intensity and despair.  I had loved, even a little while, and now the world moves on without me, as it should.  And this, too, is okay.

The ending of every game is a tiny death.  Whether that death is worthwhile or not is decided by what remains alive after the disc has stopped spinning.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why WoW Wins

This stems from something I've been considering for a while now.  I play Aion - surely one MMO is enough?  And yet I find myself reminiscing about WoW, remembering how it felt to play back in the Beta, when Azeroth was fresh, young, and full of more bugs than you could shake a dwarf at.  By comparison, the Aion Beta seemed almost bland, with minor, if any, errors and only a couple of changes since then and release.  Of course, WoW has been around for longer, and Aion has had a couple of years' grace before it made its way to Western shores, but it still got me thinking: what is it that I miss?  What's the difference between my green-haired gnome and my Atreyan goddess?

The answer, it seems, lies in the details.  My Aion character is tall, slim, beautiful in every regard, and winks at me when I stand still for too long.  By comparison, my gnome is loud, crude, and dances inappropriately whenever he's in the Auction House (since I made the macro, I may as well use it).  She's beautiful, proud, and strong.  He looks like something you'd use to mop the floor.

And yet his appeal is undeniable.  To me, at least.  He's an upstart no-good from a line of all-but-extinct inventors bent on creating their own destruction.  Add to that the fact that he's got a laugh like a yo-yo made out of a cat, and he's quite a daunting companion.  For all her beauty, my Aion character is silent, apart from the occasional cheer or sigh (or oddly-voiced cutscene).  She's also one of many (many... MANY!) to ascend since the game first opened its servers, and I guess that's part of the problem.

She has wings.  She's immortal.  She needs to make it to the Abyss to fight the evil Asmodians.  But you know what?  So does everyone else.  Everyone else in Atreya started off in Poeta, travelled through the forest, possibly stole some clothes from a 'nymph', and wound up in Sanctum, somehow, just somehow, just managing to be just as special as just about everyone else.  It really puts some of the NPC comments into perspective.  I'd get pretty cheesed off if everyone I didn't see on a day-to-day basis was a Daeva from the beforetimes, bereft of memory and destined to rise to glory once again.  It's got to put a little sting in that ol' mortality they're still carrying around.

I know that's the point of the game - everyone's an angel (even the demons).  How much fun would it be if you weren't anything special, I hear you ask?  Let me counter your question with another question: what's wrong with being normal?

Okay, so MMOs are designed for escapism.  Atreya or Azeroth, they're designed to take us away from our everyday lives.  Everyone wants to be someone, or so everyone assumes.  But here's my idea, and you don't have to agree, but hear me out:

I would like to be a mortal, living in Atreya.  I'd like to never have been to the Abyss, to have no fragmented memories awaiting my discovery, to have had a normal childhood, insofar as a childhood on a planet that's been split in two can be.  I'd like to be the guy who looks up at the Daevas and thinks, 'Maybe someday.'  And I'd like to be wrong.

If I weren't a Daeva, maybe I would own a shop.  Maybe I'd be able to farm, or mine, or craft weapons and armour.  Maybe I could make jewellery.  If I was good enough, I might even get a coveted stall on Sanctum itself, selling jewels to the Daevas I admire.  And maybe, once I'd led a full life, I'd leave the store and my craft to my sons and daughters, to carry on as they see fit, a whole new generation selling jewels to all the same Daevas.  Maybe the only inconstant in this world of immortal, shining beings would be me.

Maybe I could travel.  Not by teleporter - I'm no Daeva, after all - but maybe I could eventually buy an airship like the one that glides to the Outer Port.  Maybe I'd have to deal with Shugos, and watch out for sky pirates.  Maybe I'd have to keep an eye on the ever-changing economy, to make sure I was selling where demand was highest and buying where the market was flooded.  I'd get to see all the same places, just from afar, and not beset by monsters.  That sounds like a good deal to me.

Because, you see, even though my gnome is one of the heroes of Azeroth, and he's fighting in a never-ending war against all kinds of unspeakable foes, no one expects him to do or be anything.  He has no past to live up to.  He has a future, if he wants it.  But he'll only get there through hard work (or making powerful friends), and if he chooses to slack off and sit in Ironforge all day doing nothing but chatting and getting drunk, then so be it.  He can.  And that's the difference.

In WoW, you can be the best.  It will take a heck of a lot of hard work.  But you can also be the least.  You can do as I did and spend three hours jumping up and down the hills just outside Ironforge, trying to get up the slope to the airfield, because you know there has to be a way and you need to see what's there.  And you can make it to the top, and feel like you're the only one in the world, both real and imagined, who's walked there since the dawn of (server) time.  You can play as a Blood Elf and run to Shalandis Isle just to listen to the music, or sit near Lady Sylvanas just to hear her sing.  You can make a female dwarf just to hear her tell dirty jokes.  And, once you've done all of that, you can actually play the game.

And that's what makes WoW compelling.  The variety.  You can start in any one of the four starting areas for your faction, and you can go anywhere at any time.  You could be the only gnome questing around Auberdine - which, believe me, was much more of a big deal when you could only get there by running through the Wetlands at Level 10.  I vividly remember one Christmas, when my friend and I ran to Bloodhoof Village to throw snowballs at the Tauren.  We didn't know where we were going, or even where we were, but we had a tea party by the side of the road - 2 gnomes and 3 Tauren - and I suddenly had more faith in humanity.

And, for me, that's why Azeroth is more alive than Atreya.  When I played WoW, I used to go exploring for hours.  I'd find a road and follow it, and see where I wound up.  Sometimes it would get me killed.  Sometimes, like the time I fell off Thandol Span in pre-BC days and swam for 45 minutes before I found a usable shore, I found my way to Quel'Thalas.  But what happened, happened to me and no one else.  For all that I completed the same quests and went to the same dungeons as the people in my guild, that feeling of exploring, of finding the previously-hidden, still stays with me.  Even if the world was defined to begin with, even if I'm running around in the designers' sandbox, and it's all an illusion, that feeling of discovery was real.

Atreya is very clean and beautiful.  There's not a thing out of place, and there are no surprises.  I fell off the cliff near Miraju's Holy Ground, not down into the swamp slimes, but down into the nothingness.  I wandered around in the valley below the mountains, misty, surreal, and beautiful.  There was nothing to collect, no monsters to find, and chasing the elusive sound effect of a waterfall led me only to a dry pool below an equally dry rock-face.  I wandered to the edge of the world, and I found out the world is a very sterile place.

If the Aion Vision trailer is anything to go by, perhaps all of this will change soon.  There will be graphics upgrades, choose-your-own-mounts and player housing estates.  And I'll still be perfect and flawless whenever I choose to sign in.  But for all the recent changes, and for all my complaints about WoW becoming too easy (mounts at Level 20?) and ruining its own lore by listening to common demand (Blood Elf Warriors?), game mechanics aside, I still know which game holds my heart.

There are stories in Aion.  Beautiful stories.  Talk to any NPC and you'll get a tale of some kind.  Like the Daeva who ascended after his wife died, leaving his two sons on the world below because his duties called him to Sanctum, who doesn't know how he'll care for them, since most mortals aren't allowed in this city in the sky.  Or the old man, ascended on his death bed, only to outlive the rest of his family, trapped in a cripple's body.  That sense of tragedy is moving, and memorable, but not personal.  In Aion, I'm expected to do my part, to be part of great things.  In WoW I am merely expected to be.

If MMOs are escapism, I'm afraid I choose the game that allows me to shirk all responsibility, and pretend I have nothing better to do than to try to get into Silithus before Silithus, as a zone, had a name - to jump into the bottomless chasm and fall for an eternity before I have to use task manager to exit the game because I can't log out when moving, only to log back in to find myself dead, and back where I started.  And to laugh, and tell my friends, because it was a stupid thing to do, but here, in this world, stupid things don't have consequences.

I choose the game that allows me to do what I want to do, which isn't saving the world.  Let some other guy do it.  I'm here to relax.

And, for all these reasons, for these and so many more, I play Aion.  To keep me away from the allure of Azeroth, and free to live my life in the real world.  Because, when it comes down to it, that's where I should be.