Monday, May 31, 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

So I finally saw the film everyone raved about. I thought it was good, but no better than good. While I was impressed with both of the lead actors for their convincing portrayals, I felt the movie itself lacked the spark that Clementine's character had.

Spoilers ahoy: given the content of the movie, I imagine it was supposed to be a huge realization that the version of Clem that he meets at the beginning if the film is, in fact, her post-memory-wipe. However, since in 2004 he's lost two years of pages from his journal, and the next time we see him it's 2002, it's a pretty easy logic leap to make. Seeing as I missed the first minute or so (due to cat) that might have been the summary of my overenthusiastic friend, who told me it was set in 2004, rather than the fault of the movie itself.

The scene where he is trying to keep the memory of Clem talking about the ugly doll she used to have was disproportionately horrific, given the previously PG content - it felt like they got some of The Ring in my Garden State. Him trying to wake up and crying moved me, but the callousness of the technician and his girlfriend seemed too difficult to believe. It doesn't matter that it's supposedly impossible to wake their patient up. You don't make out when you're supposed to be working, end of story. No wonder people erase their relationships in this version of the world.

The idea of him hiding Clem in different memories was cute, but didn't provide enough variation. The issues between Joel and his mother, and the fact that he's a grown man acting like a child were things I could gave done without watching. Besides, he was taking Clem there, not regressing. You can remember things with the clarity of hindsight, as humiliation is often wont to remind us.

However, my biggest complaint is Clem telling him to meet her where he met her. She was created entirely by his mind at this point, and would not have been able to relay this vital piece if information. The link is tenuous, at best, especially since their relationship devolved so terribly. I liked the idea that, even if they were going to break up, it was better to keep the memories than be without, but the ending seemed to gloss over the fact that they're both two years older with nothing to show for it. It doesn't seem right that they should be willing to try again if they know they're going to fail.

Was it worth watching? Yes. Will I remember it? Probably not, and that may be the saddest part of their whole relationship.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Porrasturvat at its finest

Short story shorter : I fell down a flight of stairs today and need to spend my precious before-bed moments preparing myself for the inevitable barrage of questions from concerned coworkers. "No, I REALLY fell down the stairs, my boyfriend was the one who picked me up..." No blog post tonight.

I will post the most entertaining queries here tomorrow, if any arise.

Gamers are good people

I was recently pointed to Jane McGonigal's talk on how gaming can make the world a better place.  Sure, people complain about the violence, and the stereotypical nature of many in-game characters, and won't somebody please think of the children, but I think that if Facebook games are proving anything, they're proving that people want to make the world a prettier, happier place.

Playfish's new game, My Empire, is basically Civilisation with a Flash interface and a more difficult control scheme.  Play centres around making sure your population is expanding, and keeping them happy.  This is similar to Hotel City, where decorating your rooms makes your customers happier, and therefore increases your popularity (income).  Restaurant City uses service.  Pet Society reminds you to feed your pets, and shows your friends as being happy when you visit them.  These are all positive things.

People talk about how gamers have control issues.  Playing Civilisation is a god complex, yes.  Controlling the lives of many, in a simplified, easy to understand and cute way still panders to the Dr. Horrible part of us that thinks the world would be a whole lot better off if we just ran things.  And, hey, we may be right.  But in the meantime, the mechanics are still valid - happy people are more productive.  Decorations and good living conditions improve happiness.  This is a lesson that is constantly being drummed into the skulls of the current younger generation by these time-wasting games.  I don't know about you, but I'd far prefer that form of management than some others I've experienced.

Where I feel this is being undermined is in microtransactions.  I've said it before - I'm not a fan.  My elephant in Country Story is perpetually sad, because I won't pay real money to buy imaginary bananas, and I can't sell him or put him in storage.  That's beside the point, however; the point is that microtransactions are teaching kids that money can solve or expedite everything.  Want to get that dish to Level 10?  Just fork out some cash!  Want to redecorate your pet's bedroom?  No problem!  Only $25USD!  Want the prettiest, the best, the shiniest, and most prestigious?  Get ready to open your wallet!

By proving that the old system still holds true, that only those with money get the biggest and the best, we're still undermining our future employees and managers.  We're still telling them that they're nothing without money, and certainly not teaching them the value of their money.  They have no concept of what 20 transactions at $2 a pop is worth and, worse still, neither do their parents.  I'm not saying all parents are idiots, but microtransactions are so innocuous that many people simply let them slide.  They justify it by saying, "Well, that's one candybar I won't be buying him instead," rather than, "Well, that's still real money, and it's still teaching him that he needs money to get the respect of his peers."

I don't know any of my friends who would think less of me if I had less money.  If they would, they're not my friends.  I don't know anyone who thinks less of me for not having an animated wallpaper in my virtual house, or thinks they're better than me because they do.  It may be because I'm not a teenager anymore, but I'm primarily concerned with keeping my little virtual people as happy as I can without spending my hard-earned real world money.

There are things that make us happy.  Sometimes that's being in control.  Sometimes that's having the prettiest and the best.  I like to think seeing people being happy is a big motivator.  Knowing your pet and their pets are happy and well-fed, knowing that you're 'visiting' your friends, even if you can't see them in person, and keeping your customers and villagers happy are my main motivations for playing the games that I do.

Do away with the microtransactions.  Give rewards based on effort.  Kept your village consistently at 85% happiness or above for three days straight?  Unlock a reward!  Kept your pet clean for a week?  Have a new picture for your wall!  Served a streak of 100 customers with 0% dissatisfaction?  Boast about it in your news feed!  Give rewards based on effort, and maybe they'll mean something.  They'll teach us to be better people, rather than just how to open our wallets.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Prince of Persia movie is visual crack

Say what you want about the story - I know I will - but the Prince of Persia movie is a sight to behold.  A massive, massive thumbs-up to cinematographer John Seale, and credited storyboard artists Giles Asbury, Jim Cornish and Nick Pelham (according to IMDB).  What I wouldn't give to get my hands on the pre-production stills.  Oh my.  One can only hope that, like Rodolphe Guenoden, they see fit to publish their works via the wonders of the internet.

I went in with high expectations.  I left with them fulfilled.  No one was more surprised than I.  In fact, one of my students from my narrative class happened to be in the same session.  "What did you think?" he asked me skeptically.  "That's my movie of 2010," was my reply.  He just shook his head and walked away, muttering something about sarcasm.

But what didn't this movie have?  Thrilling chase scenes, deadly cults, a beautiful princess for a love interest, the entire world at stake and the bonds of brotherhood as the last line of defence.  I will admit, toward the end I wanted it to be over, since my exposure to pure awesome was beginning to shrivel my soul.  In all reality, it does seem a lot longer than its supposed 111 minute length, because there are so many setbacks that it almost becomes a joke, which is, luckily, where the visual effects come in to overwhelm you and make you forget that it's a little bit silly.

I had trouble believing pretty Jake was a desert prince street-rat, but after a while I found myself not minding his suave ways.  The manner in which he handled the princess was reminiscent of the games - the course of true love never running smooth and all that - and he was suitably witty at other times to endear him brilliantly, but no moment so brilliantly as one near the end.  Oh, my heart stopped.  When you see it, you'll know what I mean.  It's not often a movie surprises me, let alone more than once, but I'm happy to say Prince of Persia was a delicious exception.

I do feel like they lost a lot of footage, though.  Perhaps it should have been 3 hours long.  I've already put in my request for a Blu-Ray version to my boyfriend, and if it comes with deleted scenes, I will be a happy camper.  The beginning of the movie felt a bit quick, and the setup of the Slaves' Valley wasn't enough to warrant what came of it, but from the half-way point it all seemed to flow and be very high-octane, if such a phrase can apply to a movie that includes absolutely no cars.

I know I tend toward effusiveness on this blog, because I would much rather build up than tear down, to be honest, so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say this is my new favourite movie after Chronicles of Riddick, which, at the time, was the first movie to surprise me in 6 long years.  6 years includes a lot of movies.  When everything in them is predictable, something that stands out really stands out.

Silent Hill did.  Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man 2, more recently, also made me wonder.  Prince of Persia took it to a new level.  I was worried they were going to pull my heart through a strainer and feed the resulting mince to a pack of hyenas.  Did they?

Watch the movie and find out for yourself.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Alan Wake filler post

I must apologise for my post obscurity and tardiness of late. We've been trying to finish Alan Wake, you see, and while the horror has died down to a dull roar, the story continues to be compelling, so we continue to stay up late, not doing anything productive.

There are some breathtaking moments, I must admit. At one point, Alan falls off a cliff while holding a lit flare, and I think I'm pretty safe in saying it was one of the most cinematically stunning moments I've ever seen in a video game. There are times when I genuinely fear for characters I consider ridiculously annoying, and when a cold lump of dread settles in my stomach for a character we've yet to meet, but have already read about in the manuscript. At the moment, the part of the story we're up to somehow seems overwhelmingly sad, though I can't put my finger on why.

It's certainly disturbing, and a welcome and enjoyable twist on the whole what-the-writer-writes-comes-true cliche, but I do have one major criticism :

I can't see this story ending well, and for once I really want it to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Social misfits are not action heroes

I've noticed a trend in children's movies that has been happening for a while, but only just came to the point of severe irritation.  I'm talking of the tendency to make social misfits into the hero.

Finding Nemo did it.  Nemo had a malformed fin.  Happy Feet did it.  Mumble had a malformed head and vocal chords (thanks to a negligent father, I might add, as if there weren't already enough stereotypes).  Tale of Despereaux was about a mouse who didn't know how to be a mouse, e.g. was not afraid of cats and didn't like cheese.  This hearkens back to the days of Dumbo, the floppy-eared elephant whose drunken pink elephant sequence still gives me nightmares.

I know the main character has to be different to those around them, or they won't stand out, but how far and how often does it have to come to this?  Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon was a Viking misfit.  Bolt was a bit stupid, but, really, he was just Buzz Lightyear in disguise.  Remy in Ratatouille is definitely a social misfit.  So is Linguine, for that matter.

I suppose this is slightly easier to put up with in live action because they tend to stick to stereotypes we understand.  Sam in the Transformers movie is a social misfit, but he's a nerd, so we accept it.  Bruce Willis' character in Surrogates becomes a social misfit through circumstance, so we accept it.  Dave in Kick Ass is a social misfit because he dresses up in a suit and tries to help people, but in this case he's the only good person in a world of grey, and it's quite sweet, so we accept it.

But come to live action again from another angle, and people with disabilities were historically represented as evil.  Now I would say they're not represented at all.

I know the hero has to be different.  They have to be someone who can work as a change agent, to bring about a new world order, and to have the courage to think the thoughts that no one else can.  That doesn't mean they need a physical deformity to show their mental difference, even to children.

And, of course, the issue with anthropomorphic animals (Mumble has a built-in bow tie in his feathers, for goodness' sake!) is a whole 'nother post.

Monday, May 24, 2010

My cat is a time-management game

You know you've been playing Cake Mania too much when aspects of your life turn into tiny in-game goals.  When I played The Sims 3, parts of my life had tags assigned to them - "+10 moodlet" for a random compliment, "-100 moodlet" for a particularly depressing day.  I'm still chuffed that my boyfriend gave my representational Sim the trait 'Good', which means I can use the skill 'Brighten Day' to make any other Sim feel good about themselves for 2 hours.

My cat is like a slow-motion time management game.  The has feeding times - 7am and 6pm - and affection management techniques - cuddles when I get home, pats while eating and a warm spot on the bed - to ensure the smooth running of the household.  She can go outside on weekends, as long as we'e watching her, and never for more than about 15 minutes, because she won't wear a collar, so she can't leave the premises.  If she's awake for too long while we're asleep, she cries.  It's like having a highly agile infant.

Then there are the micromanagement moments that I'm sure would be Wii minigames if they could figure out a control scheme - pat until the tip of the tail starts flicking, change to scratching just above the eyes, and watch out for the head twist in an anti-clockwise direction that means 'danger!'.  Coincidentally, a head twist in a clockwise direction means 'keep going!', so be careful not to get those two confused.  Judge her mood carefully before attempting to pick her up, and make sure to keep your hands out of sight when doing so.  Know when she's cold and warm her up, but not too warm, or she'll run away.  Don't use a blowdryer.

Somehow, although Nintendogs was an amazing hit, I can see why they didn't make Nintencats.  It would be the micromanagement king.  Forget StarCraft, WoW and Settlers - cats win, hands down.  They are the ultimate in resource management, and the midnight-awakening reason for such an abstracted blog post.  Now, once they manage to integrate real-time scratching and biting into a game handset, the experience will be complete.

I don't know about you, but if Natal had real-time cautionary feedback, I think it would certainly add a new edge to gaming.  Now I'm going to try to get some sleep, before any more puns kick in.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Melancholy as madness

Whenever I hear Paranoid Android by Radiohead, I'm reminded of the Weeping Gorilla from Alan Moore's Promethea, saying, "Can we hear that Radiohead track once more?"  When I think of Promethea, I think of Dawn, by Joseph Michael Linsner, which I discovered around the same time.  Whenever I think of Dawn, I think of Luis Royo.  Geiger, Freud, Shakespeare, George Lucas In Love.  The list goes on.  Paranoid Android is also the ending song for Ergo Proxy.  Witch Hunter Robin, one of my friends, a spaceship game design, Melbourne.  Tripod did a particularly poignant acapella cover of it in one of their live shows.  Jonathon Coulton, World of Warcraft, skiing, my parents.  Is it any wonder I get confused?

Of course, this happens for everyone, I imagine.  One thought leads to another, and by the end of a six-minute song, you've been through so many thoughts and memories that you're somewhere completely different, and that song is now associated with that end point and all of the steps in between.  Fallout 3 is inextricably linked with The Gruen Transfer.  Carl Jung's The Red Book is linked with rainbows in a clear sky and warm, freshly-iced cupcakes.  And everything is, at some point, linked with my family.

I know there have been countless studies of contextuality.  But short of writing stream of consciousness, is there any way we, as writers, could bring this feeling of familiar ground to our readers?  The player can associate - for example, in Alan Wake the descent of the ravens is always preceded by a particular sound.  Then, when the sound happens at a later date, in a different place, or at a different pitch, that familiar feeling of dread arises. What I'm after is the sense of exploration I felt upon sneaking into my grandfather's workshop, seeing the tiny watch parts littered across the bench and wondering if they were magic.  The feeling of exultation and longing when I watched The Little Mermaid for the first time.  The first time something really, truly and deeply hurt.

Of course, everyone's experiences are different.  That's the basis of our personalities.  Bioshock 2 managed to invoke that childhood glow, and to good effect, in the section where you play as a Little Sister.  No game has yet created in me the feeling of Ariel's longing to be free, possibly because the player is rarely trapped.  Planescape: Torment broke my heart.

This is the basis of inkblot tests, which Heavy Rain uses to good effect.  The idea that things are vaguely related is, I've been told, the basis of true surrealism.  That tenuous link that we recognise instinctively, yet don't quite understand, is what both intrigues and dismays us.  Alan Wake's link between the manuscript and the future in-game provides an irresistible backdrop for the inevitable approach of events we would rather avoid.  The link is clear - too clear - and we need only wait.

We spend a lot of our time waiting, thinking, feeling.  All the time we're forging indelible links between unassociated pieces of data.  This tree and that person, this smell with those tears.  Synaesthetes simply display a more visible version of what we all do, all the time.  Seeing the pattern in these things could be described as the first hint of madness.

This is all Alan Wake talking.  The Darkness comes for us, and only the light will allow us to resist, and it is fleeting and pale.  With every synapse connected to another, do we lose a shred of our potential, or take another step toward becoming something greater?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full?  And, more importantly, did you remember to charge your torch batteries?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why timesinks are the new black : unclear victory conditions = $$$

I've been reading several of Ernest Adams' articles lately, and most recently his Bill of Players' Rights.  All of his choices make sense to me, as a gamer and as a fledgling designer.  Thinking back on my unsatisfying play experiences of the past few years, every one of them can fit into at least one category.

The main category I find many games have trouble with is establishing victory conditions.  This is a subset of some of his other writings, mish-mashed with the Bill, but essentially the idea is this : the player should, at any point, have a clear idea of how to win the game.  This requires information, feedback and responsiveness in the form of controls.  If any of these are missing, it's likely your victory condition hasn't been adequately explained.  If your victory condition hasn't been adequately explained, then your game is going to be frustrating.

As a very vague example, a friend was relating a story from Mass Effect 2, wherein he'd been asked to do a specific mission.  Hurry, they said.  He, thinking like a gamer, decided to go and do a side quest on the way.  Unfortunately, this resulted in mission failure and the death of an important character.  If you've ever played an RPG, you know that 'now' rarely, if ever, actually means 'right now'.  We believe, and we have a right to believe given previous feedback from other games, that the world waits on our whim.  If we are the central character, then this should certainly be the case.  Changing this at one specific point, but not others, conceals the victory condition, and makes for unsatisfying play.

Where Facebook games get it right, however, is by going completely in the opposite direction - they not only don't specify a victory condition, they often don't have one to begin with.  What is the victory condition of FarmVille?  Pet Society?  Restaurant City?  In many cases, it's to beat your friends, but it's so highly individualised, and these companies have realised this so completely, that the only direction they provide is information.  The player brings their own responsiveness and feedback to the process, and is therefore satisfied.

This blows my mind a little bit.  I'm not saying Facebook games have longevity.  My own list of used-once-never-accessed-again apps is long enough to be used as a gown by an especially short arboreal princess.  What I am saying is that my drive for playing Hotel City is to decorate the rooms I let to my guests.  My victory condition is having a room that looks pretty.  Therefore, I will go through with whatever else the game asks of me in order to accomplish my goal, but beyond levelling up and attempting to create a 5-star atmosphere, no other direction is provided.  The only aim of the game is to perpetuate the playing of the game, which reminds me of Aliens, only with far less Geiger.

So, obviously, there's room for discussion within the idea of the victory condition.  Technically, I will never win Hotel City.  Even if I reach max level, there will always be new furniture or wallpapers to buy, and my hotel will constantly evolve.  I cannot win.  The same is true of most MMOs.  The exist in order to exist.  We give them meaning through our time, as Jesse Schell said.  I invest time in it, so it must be worth my time, and therefore worth my money.  It comes down to how the player feels, in the end, as that's the true victory condition.  Everything else is just the interface between player and emotion.

Bad writing in Alan Wake

Alan Wake is the story of a writer who goes away to a small town somewhere in America to take a break from his two years of writer's block.  After he and his wife arrive, mysterious things start happening, and he starts uncovering pages of a manuscript he doesn't remember writing.  This is where it all goes downhill.

However, it's a controlled slide, a descent, if you will, for Alan is going slowly mad - shadowy shapes stalk him, his wife is missing, and let's just say their island's doing the whole Avalon deal.  Roll a San check, Alan.  Things are not looking good.  But I'm not going to talk about the plot.  Go play the game for yourself.  It's definitely worth it.  I'm going to talk about the pages he discovers while wandering around town in the dark, with only a flashlight and a pistol as protection.  I'm talking about the wonderful yet cringe-worthy ability to write first draft material.

We've all been there, we've all done it.  We've all written something that we think sounds beautiful and poetic and on re-reading six months later sounds like a cat walked over the keyboard and Word auto-corrected.  "Did you mean 'nihilistic existence'?"  That's as far as it goes, for most of us - either into the shame folder, never to be seen again, but kept as a reminder of the folly that was, or into the ether, as a deleted file or an edited one.  We don't leave our work like that, and we certainly don't publish it, not if we're older than 14.  That type of over-writing is self-indulgent, immature, and doesn't make for particularly good reading.

Every time Alan picks up a new page of one of his manuscripts in-game, I cringe.  I know what's coming is going to be almost worse than the monsters.  But the pages give me information I need, so I listen to him read them in his monotone, and try not to cry.  I know Alan Wake has good writers.  Max Payne says so, and the actual dialogue in the game says so, too.  I understand what they're doing.  I'm not sure many others will.

The pages from the manuscript as essentially the 'what not to do' of writing fiction.  Ridiculous descriptions that make no sense upon reflection, inconsistent imaginary lighting, lots of use of adverbs, participles dangling all over the place like so many suspended log bundles that somehow manage to look like swinging bodies.  It reads like a first draft.  I spent a while wondering why, oh, why did they put this into the game?  And then I realised that, of course, that's what it is - Alan's first draft.  Considering the first monster you face chases you with catcalls such as: "You'd be nothing without your editor!" and "Every word you write is a bunch of pretentious s**t!", it's hard not to notice that this game was written by, well, writers.

So writing a first draft and letting it stay that way for publication is a big deal.  You have to be brave enough to say "Yeah, I know this is bad, that's the point, but listen to all this other awesome stuff."  You can't be shy, to publish a first draft, even ones so painstakingly created as these.  You have to trust your audience to get the joke, and know that you're playing.  And, most of all, as a writer, you have to resist the urge to let the editing blood-rage take over by repeating the mantra "It's for the good of the game, just the good of the game..."

I should probably do some research.  I'd be interested to read an interview with Remedy's writers.  I assume they must have done this on purpose - how could they not? - but at least if it was an accident, I'm giving them a convenient cover story.  And if they're reading this blog post, they'll know I'm willing to publish crappy first drafts, too.

Hey, guys, how about a job? =D

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Predictability in free choice

I started the research for my Masters today.  Well, the practical side.  I won't go into great detail here, but suffice to say it involves watching a whole bunch of different people play through the same section of gameplay and looking at what choices they make.  So far the results have been a little... depressing.

You know how, in RPGs, there are always those exciting, but risqué lines that you hover your mouse over, laugh, then choose the serious option?  It seems a lot of people do the same thing.  Now, I know there's a definite Schroedinger's element to this whole research setup - after all, they're being filmed, and I'm sitting in the room with them, making notes - but the fact that everyone, so far, has chosen the predictable, safe and, most importantly, informative route is something that I wouldn't have predicted myself.  Even the people I thought would be most like to Halo their way through the RPG elements (yes, Halo is a verb now) slowed down in order to make the 'right' decisions.

And, really, that's what's happening.  A couple of them even made what they would not consider excuses, but sounded suspiciously like them : "I normally play the biggest jerk I can on my second playthrough."  Why not the first, then?  Is there some underlying idea that one cannot seriously experience the story if one is not themselves serious enough?

The most frustrating part for me, perhaps, is that I know this particular scenario quite well, and I know that by choosing the safe path, they're denying themselves some of the best dialogue.  Lines that are not only highly comical but relevant, brilliantly voice acted and completely out-of-the-blue don't even show up on their radar if they fly the straight and narrow.  I don't know why this is - perhaps the designers chose for the game to be this way, and it makes sense, truly.  If your player is treating the game seriously, nothing is likely to upset them more than the game not taking itself seriously.  Similarly, some of the silly lines lead to overblown repercussions, so although it feels like the game is trying to move with me, it sometimes feels like it's trying too hard.

Then again, when you come to an entire series of choices and 100% of your test demographic make the same choices, it becomes easy to understand why big companies don't always waste their time on the kind of branching dialogue I'd like to see.  If 0% of your audience will ever see your brilliantly snide yet astoundingly astute observation on the matter at hand unless they replay the game, suddenly the drive and the production value decrease to match that assumed player percentage.  It's hard to argue with statistics.

I've got a couple more days to go with this research, workload permitting, so I'm hoping for some variation in results.  Please, let there be some variation!  But even if there isn't, I will have learned an important lesson : the feeling of player agency may be what the player decides it is, rather than providing an ideal play experience.  It's a chilling thought, and one I hope proves false.  Meanwhile, it's interesting to see just how well the dialogue trees are married such that one chokepoint line takes on many meanings, depending on the line before it.  I have a lot to learn, as a young Padawan.  I only hope it's not too much.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

I'm successful in my mind

Humans are curious things.  If we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, most of us in the Western world would be at the Esteem needs level, since our physiological and security needs are usually taken care of.  Obviously there are exceptions, but I'm a fan of generalisations in my blog posts, in case you hadn't noticed.

That means we spend a lot of our time looking at other people, judging what they've got and comparing it to what we have.  How come her car is shinier than mine?  Why doesn't my house look that pretty?  My skirt is such a nicer red.  You'll notice those are all superficial examples - that's because these are the most common esteem judgements we're able to make.  It's difficult to say, "Well, my job is more fulfilling than his." because you a) don't know what he finds fulfilling and b) your measure of fulfilment changes with your current feelings, attitudes and position in life.

All this is very philosophical, Dream-Thief, I hear you say, but what does it have to do with games?  Everything, my dear, dear reader.  Everything and more.

You see, the player reacts in a way the game expects them to.  As was said in an article I read on Gamasutra yesterday, when your only interactions with the world involve violence, it necessarily limits your outlook.  That's why Heavy Rain is so versatile.  I didn't find anything boring in putting Shaun to bed.  I was still interacting, but I wasn't holding a gun, knife or magic staff.  The game didn't expect me to be violent, and I wasn't.  As as alternate example, when I was getting my friends to playtest a module I'd written for Neverwinter Nights last year, the first thing many of them did was run in and kill the main quest character just because they could.  I ended up having to make her level 20 billion so they'd take my module seriously, and then they'd only run in, try to kill her, die, and ragequit.  The game was based around violence, so that was how they reacted, despite my protestations to the contrary.

In games, it's important to remember : we are what the game designer makes us.  We can only make choices that he or she thought up.  Our success is measured by who we think we are, and who we think we should be, and how far apart those two things are.  Telling us who we should be is the job of the designer and writer.  What does that mean for your self-perception?

I'm heroic in games because they tell me I am.  In real life I'm under no illusions that driving the wrong way down the freeway, at night and in the rain, will only end with me flipping my car and having to crawl to safety. I'm not that brave.  But because I'm Ethan Mars, and I have to do it so save Shaun, I do.  I defend the town of Redcliffe because I'm a hero, and people expect me to be a hero.  They don't treat me like the scum of the earth.  They treat me like someone who's going to help them.  So I do.

Now, imagine this in real-world terms.  If you think you're successful, and if you act like you're successful, what is the outcome likely to be?  What is the gap between what you think you are and what you think you should be but a measurement no wider than a thought?  What is success but personal emotion?  Choose to be successful, and you'll not only be happier, you're more likely to succeed.

But let's take it one step further.  If everyone treated you as if you were the nicest person in the world, how would you choose to act?  There are numerous movies about that - the mean guy who learns to be not so mean.  If everyone you met assumed you were wonderful, how would you feel about yourself?  Would you be rude, just to dispel their illusions?  Or would you succumb, unknowingly or willingly, and strive to be the person they already think you are?

The world is a much nicer place if you expect people to be kind.  Whether it's a game or the real world has little bearing on your emotions.  And, strangely enough, I think game designers know that better than we do, or at least aren't in denial about it.  You feel what you feel at any given time - choose to make it a positive feeling, and reap the quest rewards.  Fulfilled self-actualisation needs are the epic loot that awaits you.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The gender divide is more of a skipping rope

I was playing through both genders of the City Elf intro in Dragon Age today for some research I'm conducting, and I must admit, I quite marvelled at how little difference there is dialogue-wise.  BioWare has latched onto something that is often the case in real life that never seems to make it into games :

Gender is just not that important.

Sure, you won't get hit on by Bann Vaughn if you're a guy, but really, I count that as a bonus.  However, while most of the dialogue remains the same, the actions taken are quite different.  I would argue the female City Elf intro is more moving and directive than the male.  I say directive in that it gives you a reason to act - it might have been my choice of conversation options, or the fact that I already knew what was coming, but I wasn't nearly as shocked when Nesiara got taken away.  Spoilers below, for those of you playing at home.

You may recall from my earlier post that one of the big moments of the beginning of my Dragon Age experience was playing through the City Elf opening, and meeting Nelaros, who promised to spend every waking moment learning to make me happy.  Then, to watch him be brutally cut down, unarmed, by the very guard who took away my friends just added injustice to the injury.  I looted his body by accident and found his wedding ring.  48 hours into the game, and my character is still wearing that ring, with its complete lack of stat bonuses and zero magical capacity.  I found a better ring, but couldn't convince myself to take it off.  Sure, I flirt with Alistair and Tegann and Zevran, but Nelaros died trying to save me, and I think that deserves reminding.

If you play as a man, however, your betrothed gets taken away, and instead of the guards killing Nelaros, you come across them having just killed Nola - the same woman who gets killed in the female path.  They make some distasteful comments about her body still being warm, but you don't even have the option of speaking with the Guard Captain.  He just attacks.

Once you get to Vaughn's chambers, the conversation is the same, although I did experience an option that I haven't seen before, so I'll have to test is further to see if it's available for both genders.  Nevertheless, if you kill Vaughn and his men, Soris goes to find the other women and returns with both his bride and yours.  You leave, have the discussion with Duncan, then you can go and visit Shianni.  If you visit her, you get to have a brief conversation with your betrothed, in which she wishes you well and leaves wistfully.  It's a far cry from watching a very kind man die at the hands of a soulless lapdog.

I don't know whether this is because of the real-life gender divide - I have no statistics on how many male gamers choose to play female characters, and vice versa, and I suppose if you're really after escapism, changing gender is a good way to get it.  BioWare, of course, would have these statistics, I imagine, and they do have several women on their writing team, which accounts for the veracity of Shianni's response to what happens to her.  The question then is whether men would be interested in that kind of storyline.  I'm not even going to raise the issue of whether or not they'd understand the subtleties because, frankly, I think that's unfair on every man I know.  I saw a chilling ad campaign once: "1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime.  Will it be your wife, your daughter, your sister or your mother?"  The true discomfort there lies in the fact that it seems like it's asking you to decide.

But that's not the point of this blog post, as so many of my trains of thought tend to not be.  The point is that the female City Elf intro is, in my opinion, far more effective and affective than the male City Elf intro, and I'm wondering why that is.  Perhaps the men who play men like the idea of a sweetheart forever pining after them.  As a woman, I find it a little silly.  Perhaps the women who play women like the idea of a man who would come to save them, even though he couldn't fight and knew he would probably die.  In theory, yes, I do like that.  So, based on my own preferences, I'm going to wildly extrapolate to say the female intro was written for women, and the male intro written for men.

And if women are now getting the long end of the stick when it comes to stronger narrative, believe me, I'm grateful, but what are our male counterparts getting?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Surprise! We have a winner! A.k.a. Jolly Rover and the Sleep-Deprived Writer

It's not often something surprises me.  Well, in a good way, at least.  It sounds cynical to say, but I rarely enjoy going to the movies anymore, simply because I can usually pick what's about to happen.  And let's not even mention games!  Games? Pah!  Don't make me laugh!

Except Jolly Rover.  Through the exceptional good grace of Andrew Goulding of Brawsome and his willingness to trust a complete stranger via Facebook, I have had the privilege of beta testing what may be my favourite indie game of 2010.  From my post last night, you may have guessed I would be heading to bed early tonight.  Not so, Jolly declared, in his whimsical yet alluring voice!  For the tides of puzzle flow seldom, and the rocks of flat humour are ever-looming...

Yet much like finding yourself on Dinotopia with your ship intact, my voyage through Jolly Rover has been one of surprise, followed by intense joy.  Here is that lost wonder!  There is the long-awaited shore of the return of the puzzle point-and-click!  And that's a parasaurolophus.  How strange.

Just to be clear, as far as I'm aware, there aren't any dinosaurs in Jolly Rover.  What you will find is a personable (dogable?) non-pirate by the name of Gaius James Rover, who is unwillingly cast into a series of unfortunate but highly entertaining happenstances.  The first room you can interact with gives a clear indication of the type of humour involved, but let me just say I was gladly intrigued from the words 'Cape Kit.'  That's not supposed to make sense if you haven't played the game, but when you do, I'm sure you'll thank me for ruining the joke.

Luckily, there's an abundance of good humour and delightfully obscure puzzles to solve and be rewarded by.  What starts off similar to Monkey Island 3 (minus the talking skull) quickly distinguishes itself as something different : a more elegant half-cousin of that beloved genre for which we all constantly pine.  You can either interact with an object, or you can't.  You can combine objects, if you try.  But unlike the adventure games of yore, you don't have to cycle through countless icon options or interaction wheels to make sure you have the right sense selected.  Finally!  While I miss being able to make Guybrush try to lick everything in the game, I must admit the dialogue in Jolly Rover is witty and concise enough to stop me from missing that particular interaction too much.

That's not to say the gameplay is simple.  There are multiple interactions that I could only dream of when we attempted to make our own ill-fated adventure game at the 48-hour challenge two years ago.  In Jolly Rover, often the solution will be staring me in the face, but I'm far too stubborn to use my crackers.  There, have another obscure reference.  I hope they're piquing your interest.

The voice-acting far surpasses my expectations.  The music is so well-suited I must admit I didn't even really notice it, but it added to my enjoyment immensely, and [spoiler] is so unbelievably [spoiler] that you're not going to believe it's [spoiler]!  You'll just have to play the game for yourself.

The art is great, colourful and bright.  The dialogue rarely runs overlong, and the jokes that abound are relevant, funny, and unpredictable.  The story so far has me wanting to keep playing but, really, I do need to sleep at some point.  Despite the fact that all of the characters are dogs, they act in such a way that it quickly becomes unnoticeable.  They're pirates.  Being a dog is irrelevant in the face of unadulterated piracy, but it does create some interesting situations.  My favourite animation so far is probably of the main character digging.  You notice, then, that he's a dog who just happens to be a pirate, rather than the other way around.  It made him more endearing to me, despite the fact that when I forget he's an imaginary dog, I think I quite have a crush on him.  Oh dear.

The dialogue at the waterfall alone is worth playing for.  The constantly updating quest in the top-middle of the screen provides a subtle source of humour.  I may be undermining my own credibility with my enthusiasm, but I don't think I can speak of this game highly enough.  I may be criticised for the inherent cynicism in the following statement, but I believe the greatest compliment I can give Jolly Rover is this :

It doesn't play, look or sound like an indie game.

The level of polish is undeniable, and through it, the spirit of LucasArts lives on.  I've got another half of the game to go, and the Gold Master is scheduled for this Friday.  It's only a matter of time before you too can be enjoying the wonder that is a well-rendered, well-thought-out and generally exceptional modern-day point-and-click.  Go ahead, check it out.  Click the link.  Watch some videos.  Buy some swag.  I just did.

And please, try not to use any hyphens or rampant enthusiasm for the next couple of days.  I think I've exceeded both our quotas.

Marking blues

Tomorrow, dear reader.  Tomorrow.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beauty is in the eye of the account holder

The first character I made in Aion looked happy - permanent smile, upturned bottoms of the eyes, raised eyebrows.  She looked like she was enjoying every moment of her virtual existence.

That was in the open beta. Since then, they've toned down the squinting of the eyes and the degree of the smile, so the most I can manage with my tweaking of facial attributes is a lukewarm, semi-surprised expression.

Every character I've made since has looked sad.

I don't mean this in a 'they stuffed it up' way.  I mean that I have purposely made my characters look sad, with a neutral mouth, and eyebrows that are close together and raised in the centre.  I tilt their eyes to make them look downcast, and give them soft, feminine features.  I find them beautiful.  They look vulnerable - like someone who might have actually endured some hardship in their life.  Other people find it strange that I like my characters to look miserable.  But I would rather my character had some expression - any expression at all - than be a blank face that I never want to look at.

So many MMOs let you choose the face, but not the expression.  That's all changing, I know, what with all the facial slider tools cropping up in every game like clowns in the Louvre.  Sometimes it's just unnecessary.  If I can't customise my player experience story-wise, why should I be able to customise it on the outside?  But that's another post entirely.

Only a couple of games give me the freedom to determine not only how my characters look, but also how they generally feel.

My Dragon Age character is concerned.   

My ranger in Aion is approval-seeking. 

My mage in Aion is, well, emo.  I should have changed her hair colour.

I think all of them are beautiful.  But none of them look happy.

I guess what I'm aiming for is something that evokes a feeling.  When I play my character, I want to feel.  It's easier to feel something for someone who has a facial expression.  It gets a little strange, yes, when my sad characters are cheering after a great victory, but the rest of the time, if I spin the camera around to take a screenshot of some stunning scenery, or a new piece of exceptionally pretty armour (Aion makes me like clothes more than I like clothes in real life), at least my character looks like they're thinking.  They look like they're alive.  They don't look like any empty vessel waiting for me to log in.  They look like someone who might have a life, and happens to be controlled by some weirdo in another dimension, perhaps when they fall asleep.  It's the Fahrenheit theory.  Will I ever catch myself?

I wonder if someone will take away from this deep meanings of my inner psyche.  Perhaps.  I would probably feel just as weirded out by someone who made all their characters look ecstatic.  I'd feel pity for someone who made all their characters have neutral facial features.  It's all part of the customisation process, but does it really tell us anything about each other?  Do we even ever look at other characters' faces?

Sometimes, and often they're bland.  Maybe I'm just trying to Mary Sue my way into being noticed.  I don't think so, but perhaps I'd better go start writing a book about sparkly vampires, just in case.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Endless Ocean- let's go exploring!

For the same reason I enjoy Pokemon, I love Endless Ocean. You go diving, collect fish by clicking on them, and discover interesting facts about things you may never find in real life. It's certainly more convenient. Whenever you click on a fish or manta ray or turtle, a little info box comes up with the name, and you can click on that to find out how big they usually grow, interesting physiological facts and usual habitat in regards to where you currently are. I don't know any real device that affords such amazing convenience, short of something with a good old 'Don't panic!' sticker.

The journey of knowledge is something I enjoy, but even more beautiful are the visuals. Even were I to go scuba diving, short of becoming a diving instructor or diving guide, there's very little chance I would ever get to see such a diversity of locations. Factor into that unlimited air and a collect-em-all codex, and I'm one happy explorer.

But, ah! Exit the tutorial, and not only will you be confronted with Story, but an air limit and combat will be introduced! I see. Well, the combat 'calming' weapon can also be used to heal sick fishies, so that much I like, but an air limit is definitely not my style.

My other gripe is that they used recursive storytelling to start the game. It's essentially a mystery, but they tell me I find what I'm looking for, without letting me go inside. How rude! I guess it's kept me interested in the story, which I would otherwise ignore in favour of poking sea cucumbers and cataloguing kelp. My life is an exciting one indeed.

Does it make me want to go diving? Yes and no. Yes, because I know the real thing would be so much more amazing, and no, because I know the real thing can be so much more dangerous. The simulation is enough for now. Luckily for me, the Great Barrier Reef isn't all that far away, so at least if I change my mind, reality can meet me halfway.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Silent Hill: Homecoming made me cry

And not in a good way.  Continuing my apparent theme of 'Japan is awesome', I must admit I was sorely disappointed by this game.  While it starts of with allusions to Silent Hill 2, it quickly devolves into knife fights with sexy nurses, strange sound effects and enigmatic dialogue.  I didn't mind the dialogue in Silent Hill 2 - it sounded like you were listening to half a conversation.  I do have a problem with lines like, "This your hometown?"  "You could say that."  Either it is or it isn't, boyo.  Don't try to be smart with me, you young whippersnapper!

But you see, you see... It's lost its horror and turned into an action-adventure with poor lighting.  We only encountered 3 types of enemies in our hour-long play session - giant scarabs (I'm not afraid of bugs, so not especially scary), sexy nurses with the wrong sound effects, and weird fish-men with sideways mouths.  Everything died.  Hit it enough times with a pipe, and it goes down.  There were whisperings of Pyramid Head, but he didn't appear, and I was disappointed.  I guess even our stoic main character wouldn't dream up something that weird.

And, it may just be me, but having read the Wikipedia plot entry for Homecoming out of frustration, I think Silent Hill 2 kind of ruined that storyline.  It was amazing.  Beautiful, sad, intricately related to psychology.  Any time I pick up a new Silent Hill game it seems like the focus is on killin' stuff, and not the character development that made Silent Hill 2 such a pain to get the perfect ending in.  The sexy nurses were a big part of the storyline, not just a generic enemy, and what they were told you a lot about the main character's psyche.  Everything did.

So it's a little shallow to pretend that our new hero can take them down with a hefty lead pipe.  At least the sideways fish-men show some semblance of relating to the deeper story, but when you need to rely on previously-used enemies to inspire terror, you may be doing something wrong, especially in as well-known a franchise as Silent Hill.  The idea of those first games was that no one had ever seen anything like it.  Now the enemies are commonplace, and when they can be bested with a few well-placed sucker punches, that's a good sign you're missing the point.

Silent Hill 2 and, by extension, the Silent Hill movie, were never about a real town called Silent Hill.  It was a place you wound up when the rest of your life was an absolute mess.  It's a symbol of the retreat into the self, for not wanting to have to deal with something too painful to feel.  It's full of your darkest desires and fears.  Those can't be beaten with a crowbar.  You can't subjugate lust with a combat knife, although I suppose you can technically end it, but even then, the feeling remains.  It reminds me of one of my favourite Princess Bride quotes: "Death cannot stop true love.  All it can do is delay it for a while."

Playing through a Silent Hill game should be like falling in love.  Slow, subtle, enticing, and captivating.  You shouldn't know you're enthralled until you are, and then it's too late to pull away.  You're irrevocably changed.  Forget the 10-minute anxiety rule, forget twisting the familiar to make it obscene, forget surprise noises in the dark.  Make me a different person.  Make me make choices I would never choose.  Make me feel the helplessness that's ever-present, in some aspect of my life, and help me release it as catharsis.  That is not healed by beating up monsters.  Uncertainty and doubt aren't cured by holding a handgun.  The only way out is through, and there's nowhere that's more evident than in Silent Hill.

Make me a different person.  Maybe then I'll learn to be a better person.  Show me loss, so I know that someone else understands.  Horror games aren't just about being afraid.  They're about the dark parts of the soul that we all fear we have.  Take me there, then show me who I really am.  I won't mind.  That's why I'm here.  You've been expecting me.  Right?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Reliable character design

There are a lot of game characters around.  I don't know if you've noticed.  Truth be told, I haven't really - most of them just aren't that interesting.

Take the protagonists of vying rivals Prototype and inFamous.  They both wore jumpers (hoodie vs. windcheater), jeans and sneakers.  Alex Mercer may have had a shaved head, but probably not.  He looked like a Hunter from Left 4 Dead.  Cole's most memorable feature was the fact that his jacket was yellow.  Faith, from Mirror's Edge.  Cool tattoo, but do we ever see it in-game?

Differentiating again, I'm going to sound like a huge Japan-ophile.  But this is another area where Japanese games get it right.  Their characters are visually interesting.

I'm not talking Final Fantasy interesting, with Vanille's random fur-and-bone attachments.  I'm talking simple, yet evocative.  I'm talking about characters whose personality comes across in what they wear, and yet allows room for surprises.  I'm talking about DS games.

Neku in The World Ends With You is an excellent example.  Just a normal guy with spiky red hair, and massive headphones.  Shiki is likewise memorable - cute outfit, ridiculous, but adorable, hat.  Josh is memorable for his lack of ornamentation.  Each character comes across as an individual, with individual tastes, and these tastes reflect their personalities.

Professor Layton and Luke sure look like who they are, don't they?  Phoenix Wright, Miles Edgeworth, Mia and Gumshoe are all immediately evocative.  When I say evocative, I mean evoking an emotion - they make you feel a certain way about them before they've even spoken.  That's a big plus, in my opinion.  Just like in a movie, your first glimpse of a character should tell you enough to understand them.  Otherwise, what's the point?

Then again, localisation can kill this, too.  The voice of the final character you meet in Professor Layton 2 was so bad I had to turn the sound off.  I can only play Odin Sphere in Japanese.  And I wish, how I wish, Final Fantasy XIII had made the choice to offer the alternate Japanese voice track to PS3 players, rather than omitting the option from both consoles!  There are very few games that I've seen localised well enough to outdo the original.  I know there are many challenges, especially with fitting longer English words to Japanese mouth movements, but in games where that isn't an issue, there's really no call for either poorly-written dialogue or terrible voice actor choices.

People complain about Japan's obsession with androgyny.  I complain about our obsession with masculinity.  A man has to have a manly voice, or he's not a man!  Especially if he looks effeminate!  But some of the dialogue uttered by these translated characters simply doesn't cut it when voiced by the equivalent of Vin Diesel.  If you're going to translate something, you need an understanding of the culture it came from, or is going to, in order to make the translation work.  It's just common courtesy.

But this post was about characters.  Where the player can customise and change clothes and decide on their party members' hair cuts or hats, it becomes difficult to create a unique-looking character.  Morrigan is one.  She'd be recognisable in whatever she wore, and I still don't know where she gets eyeshadow in medieval-style Ferelden.  Lara Croft is memorable for her massive breasts and tight t-shirt.  Mario, in his primary-coloured overalls certainly fits the bill.  Even Link is memorable, if only because what he wears is so simple, and he's the only one who wears green.

But to create this kind of personality, the physical artefacts have to be part of the character's outlook.  Mario wears overalls because he's a plumber.  Link wears what he wears because he's in a pseudo-medieval fantasy.  Lara Croft is, well...  The less said the better.  Morrigan's a witch, so suddenly the dark eyeshadow makes sense (oh, psychological theories of makeup...).  Sazh's chocobo-hair doesn't.  Vanille's random ornamentation doesn't.  Lightning's random side-curl doesn't.  Hope is the only one who dresses in a way that suits his personality.  I realise I'm picking on a series known for its extravagance in character design, but where better to look than the most obvious?

To draw your character, you have to know your character.  Memorable characters are memorable in word, deed and look.  You can't have one without the other - they're like the handle, body and clapper of a bell.  Lose any one, and you haven't got a chance of making yourself heard.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Office is not a comedy a.k.a. Demon's Souls is awesome

Those of you familiar with my previous posts will know where this is going.

I just finished watching Season 1 of the UK version of The Office, for work.  You know what moral I came away with?

Don't try.

Seriously, that's the moral.  Dawn is all excited because Tim is going to leave and move on with his life, and then her world is utterly crushed when he stays just because he got promoted to 'senior' sales clerk and will get paid an extra 500 pounds a year.  That's less than 10 pounds extra a week.  Granted, I know nothing of the UK economical system, but if someone offered me an extra $60 a month to stay in a job that I hate, I'm afraid the answer would be no.

The show is full of people who decide they want something, and doggedly ignore it.  Tim wants to be a psychologist.  Well, I guess he doesn't, really.  Dawn wants to be with Tim, but stays with Lee.  David wants to maintain his self-image, yet can't control his tongue.  And Gareth...  Well, Gareth is the only sane one.  He wants exactly what he's got, and that's really sad.

The world in The Office is so dismal.  Lee's plan for Dawn is to get married at the register's office to save money, move in with his mum so she can have a couple of kids and his mum can help look after them, then Dawn can get a part-time cleaning job while she raises the kids.  This isn't even about romance - it's about ambition.  Do none of these characters want to do something with their lives?  And, if they do, do they ever do anything about it?

I know it's meant to be a mockumentary, and in that it sells itself well.  People believed it was real, believed David Brent was real, and that's the real problem.  These people hit too close to home.  From the perennial complainer, never-acter to the woman who's in a relationship because she doesn't want to leave, they all remind me too much of people I used to know.  Operative phrase: used to.  There's a reason I'm not friends with them, or dating them, anymore.  They irritated me.  I like acting on plans, and leaving relationships that aren't good for me.  The people in The Office are the people I'm glad not to know.

Update: Demon's Souls has the most intriguing and hilarious player interaction scheme.  When a player dies, they leave a bloodstain, and someone nearby in their own single-player experience can find the bloodstain and activate it to see how that person died.

So far we've watched about 8 people combat-roll off the same platform, all for apparently no reason.  Some of them even ran up several flights of stairs to do so.  This may be the most awesome game for sharing single-play experiences that I've ever seen.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The forgotten art of the collector's edition

There was a time, back in the day, when games didn't just exist in the computer.  I'm not referring to board games or other forms of non-computer play.  I'm referring to the accessories known as feelies.

Feelies brought a game to life.  How better to feel you're Bobbin Threadbare than with your very own Book of Patterns?  How better to understand Atrus' journey than by reading the beautifully-bound Book of Atrus?  How better to feel like an adventurer than with your very own cloth map?  These things meant something, and were worth something - they gave us a chance to believe that the world we were entering might have been real, once upon a time.  And, in many cases, they set the scene before you'd even managed to start installing the game.

Many moons ago, games had to do this.  One need only look at King's Quest 1 (thankfully remastered!) or Quest for Glory to know that 8-bit colour was the best we could do.  The book you could hold in your hands, the map you could refer to, made the world real already, so stepping into the game was like stepping into a memory.  You were there.  All the computer needed to do was provide the interface.

Collector's editions these days are a shadow of the glory of feelies.  My Aion collector's edition contained a special title for my character, some special dyes, and some special wings.  They're all things to show other people.  It's not about me, it's about bragging rights.  But what do we get out of it, exactly?

I have the matching set of World of Warcraft collector's editions.  I also have the leather-bound hintbooks for the three most recent Zelda games, even though I don't even own Spirit Tracks.  I bought the Bioshock 2 collector's edition to get the record of a soundtrack I not only can't listen to, because I lack the hardware, but that I also bought from the iTunes store.  What do I really need a record for, anyway?

Out of all of those examples, Bioshock 2 may be the only one that got it partially right.  Back in the time period when Bioshock was set, they would have only had record players.  Even the CD version of the OST is a miniature record.  It's beautiful and evocative.  By comparison, the clunky, heavy, prone-to-falling-and-breaking statue of a Big Daddy that came with the first one is surely just aquarium fodder.

I saw Darksiders.  It comes with a statue of War.  Why?  Likewise the Avatar game, Settlers 7, Street Fighter 4 and Pokemon.  Do we really need physical representations of the characters we're going to be encountering virtually?  Does it really help to set the scene that I can hold a Big Daddy in the palm of my hand?

Bayonetta came with a replica gun.  I have that on my TV cabinet.  Fallout 3 came with a Pip Boy bobblehead, relevant to an important in-game item and, if you were super lucky, a Pip Boy replica that functions as a digital clock and can even be worn by the particularly fanatical.  Items from within the game world evoke far more realism than statues of important characters, especially when they're no bigger than my fist.

StarCraft 2 is going to come with a limited edition comic.  They're almost there.  It's a step in the right direction, anyway.  The hook is what I want.  I want to believe.  It could be a diary, a novelisation, or scribbles in the margins of the manual like Lady Cottington's Pressed Fairy Book.  Anything that makes the game world more real for me, sitting out here in the real world, earns the magnificent honour of being dubbed a feelie.

I'm interested in the behind-the-scenes, sure.  I like the soundtrack, definitely.  Art - sign me up!  But a coin of Uriel Septim?  Now you've got my interest.  And, in important terms producers, marketing staff and distributors can understand - you have my money.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

My game persona is an explorer

Luckily for me, so is my real-world persona.

This may sound like I'm stating the obvious, but bear with me; games allow us to live out some of our innermost desires.  Sometimes that can be something we never even knew we wanted.  Sometimes it can be something we know we'll never have.  For me, my love is exploring.  Others are not so lucky.

There's a test called the Bartle test, which can be used to determine where you fall on the scale of four player types: explorer, achiever, socialiser and killer.  I'm 87% explorer and 0% killer, so that automatically tells you a lot about my worldview.  When I was a child, I got used to watching my feet, just in case I stood on something that might be alive.  When I was in Edmonton last year, I decided to walk from my hotel to where I had to be, just to see what was around.  Longest 12 kilometres of my life, but I have to admit, I had a great time.  For me, these numbers match up.  Sometimes, for other people, they don't.

This is what concerns the people who have a problem with video game violence.  The idea is, of course, that playing violent games will automatically raise a person's 'killer' percentage.  As you can see from the above, that's definitely not assured.  But for the people who don't know themselves, or know what they want, taking the Bartle test can be a real surprise.  A person's playstyle is usually indicative of how they want to relate to the real world, and if they delight in PvP, griefing or otherwise causing other people discomfort, that can be cause for alarm.

Not all griefers do so out of violent sociopathy.  Some find it genuinely funny that other people allow a mere game to upset them so much.  But I have seen the sweetest girls and most adorable guys turn into smack-talking, loudmouthed, abusive jerks when they're behind an imaginary gun.  I'd say that means somethin' ain't right.

Having said that, gaming is a learned behaviour.  You learn from the people around you, and how your parents deal with frustration is a big indicator of how you will deal with frustration.  That includes frustrating segments of games.  If your parents swear like sailors when something goes wrong, welcome to F-ville, population: CS players.  If your parents blamed other people, you may need to visit Smack-Talk-aholics Anonymous.  If your parents ignored the frustration and simply kept doing what they were doing, you're more likely to be a level-headed player who focusses on the details.  Again, all of this makes sense: it's rudimentary psychology.

When it becomes a cause for concern is when otherwise placid, easygoing or friendly people turn into anti-social, selfish or otherwise unrecognisable morons as soon as they get online.  Single-player games are an exception - I will smack-talk my party members in Dragon Age because, hey, they don't really exist and it's a way of relieving tension during a long or difficult battle.  But online I'm much the same as I am in real life, and that comes from a strong self-concept.

I know who I am.  I know what I want.  I love exploring, and I have my parents to thank for it.  People who are not aware of these things, who may be insecure or troubled or confused, will make poor choices.  That includes socially, and that definitely includes gaming.  If you have a lot of anger to get out, it's gotta come out somehow.

So I recommend you take the Bartle test, not so it can tell you who you are, but so it can help you understand the aspects of yourself that already exist.  It's not the be-all and end-all - no quiz is.  The only real reward is getting to know yourself a bit better.  Understanding what makes you tick, and, more importantly, what gives you joy, are the most healthy ways toward long-lasting happiness.  If you don't know what makes you happy, how can you make sure you're doing it?  How will you know when you've found what makes you happy?  Everyone needs a starting point, so consider this test one of many.

And if you find your main score is in killer, it may be time to look at ways you can being to exert more control over your life, so you don't feel as powerless.  Either that, or take up boxing.

Love stories: The Japanese do them best

Vast generalisations being the point of this post, I want to say one thing: love stories in games fail.  Out of all of my favourite games, only Revenant has had love as a major plot point.  For the others, it's been present, but optional.  You can choose to care about Deionarra if you want to.  You can tell Aerie to get over having her wings cut off, or cultivate her self-pity.  Many of them don't include love at all - unless you're counting Andrew Ryan or Dagoth Ur, most games don't have romance as their backbone.  It's a fun, frilly extra, like icing, or cable television.

Japanese games are the exception to this rule.  In a Western game, if there's romance, it darn well better be about the player.  In a Japanese game (RPGs especially, of course), the player character is not the only character.  They're usually one of a party, and one of a party that either existed before the hero arrived, or formed of people who knew of each other before now.  Unlike Dragon Age, which dumps a bunch of strangers together, JRPGs tend to make them friends first.

There are many reasons why I think this works.  It's one of the failings of D&D groups - why is your party together in the first place?  If the reason is 'just because', you're going to have a lot of trouble with group dynamics.  Previous relationships, and previously defined relationships, help provide structure and a code of conduct.  So the player is supposed to know the Chantry looks poorly on people claiming Andraste destroyed the Elven homelands.  How, exactly?  Better to have another character ask in the player's stead, or make an aside, than let the player make a social faux pas in a society they know nothing about.

The other thing that I find exceptionally sweet and incredibly different in the romantic sphere is that Japanese games tend toward this 'farm boy fell in love with the princess when he was a child, but has kept it secret because he knows he's got no chance' idea.  It's based on social constraints, yes, which are more valid in some countries than others.  But often the farm boy triumphs and wins the princess' heart, once she remembers him as the boy she had always been looking for.  It may be because I'm not a particular connoisseur of the romance genre, but I can't think of a single Western game that has your childhood sweetheart make an appearance.  They just don't expect us to care.

Maybe that's why the farm boy is usually a secondary character, having a romance with another party member.  That's so much easier to believe than to convince us, the player, that we're in love with Rosalind, and have been our entire lives.  Obviously, that isn't the case.  But letting two separate characters find each other, and watching their love grow - isn't that reward enough for the time it takes to sit through the cutscenes involved?

I guess not.  Western games are so player-centric that it sometimes becomes ridiculous.  Oh, am I really the only one who can clean the rats out of your cellar?  Am I the only one who can kill the giant polka-dotted wilderbeest?  How many prophecies am I in, anyway?

And I suppose that's another big part of JRPG culture, too.  The hero may be fated to succeed, but more often their success is attributed to traits that are of benefit to society - being helpful, friendly, putting yourself out for others and generally making people's lives better.  You grow such strong Pokemon because you shower them with so much love and affection.  You get married in Rune Factory 2 because you pay attention to a particular girl's likes and dislikes and talk to her every day.  You're just an ordinary person who goes the extra mile.  And I don't know about you, but I feel pretty good about myself after playing those games.  There's only so much you can be told you're lovely, friendly, helpful and wonderful before you start acting that way to make sure it's still true.

It sounds like social conditioning.  Perhaps it is.  I know I'd rather live in a society populated by people who excelled at raising their Pokemon to be happy than one where the majority of people revelled in Kratos' numerous decisions to kill innocent bystanders.  In those Japanese games, the farm boy doesn't fall for the princess because she's the princess.  They're too young to understand.  They fall for her because yes, she's pretty, but she's also kind.  She's nice to them, when maybe no one else is.  If you don't believe me, watch Reservoir Chronicle Tsubasa.  We can genuinely believe Syaoran is in love with Sakura.  I haven't seen anything in the Western world that even comes close to creating such a believable and long-lasting bond between two characters.  If they do, they've usually been separated for years, gone their separate ways, and somehow wound up together again under fortuitous circumstances.  In JRPGs, the characters in love go on an adventure together.  I think that's much more true to life.

The downside of it is that Japanese romances tend to end in tragedy, or at least threaten to.  When Syaoran asks for a way to save Sakura from dying, he's told the price is that she will never remember him if he does save her.  He agrees.  He figures it's better for her to be alive, and him to still love her, than for her to die in full knowledge of his love.  Tidus and Yuna are another example.  Shuyin does everything he can to bring Lenne back, even if he only gets to hold her for a moment.  Serah gets turned into crystal for completing her focus and Snow spends the rest of the game trying to free her from her prison.

We Westerners give up far too easily.  We see the princess, and say "Not for me", or can only have her if we meet her before she know who she is.  The Prince & Me, The Princess Diaries, The Phantom Menace - no one can love a princess if they know who she is.  Arguably in JRPGs the character doesn't know she's the princess when they fall in love, but they keep loving her, even once they find out, and even once they know they don't have a chance.  Sometimes they get that chance, and sometimes they don't.  But they never give up, and they never stop loving her.  I think Western games could learn a lot from that.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My game persona is dishonest

I often think about this saying: if we lived in a completely truthful society, we would have no stories.

We would have histories, for certain, but novels, movies, games, comics - everything we watch or read for entertainment would not exist in the form that we know.  There are only so many times you can retell the same series of events without embellishment.  That being the case, I'm a little concerned that the untruthful part of our society is becoming easier to encounter.

It's always been there.  Newspapers and magazines are nothing if not hyperbole.  But with Facebook taking over the social world, and the games that come with that monopoly, I'm noticing a trend, at least in Playfish games.  It's suggested I take from my friends.

In Hotel City, if you visit at certain points, there may be a giant bag of coins sitting in your friend's foyer.  You click on it, and get your bonus for visiting.  If a giant bag of coins were sitting in my foyer, however, I'm pretty sure I'd want it.  Next up: Country Story.  When you visit your friends, you have the option of taking from their crops or trees, 7 times per day.  The tutorial text says, "Go ahead and take some.  Your friend won't mind."  I'm also pretty sure that if you started taking things from your friends in real life, they'd not only notice, but they'd be kind of pissed.  And, of course, Pet Society - when I visit and hug my friends, coins pop out!  Am I taking their wallets?

I'm not naive.  I know this is a device to get people to click on their friends' restaurants/homes/hotels/farms and find new decorations they didn't know existed, thus perpetuating the cycle of buy-grow bored-repeat.  I don't really like being paid to visit my friends but, hey, I do it anyway.  If I got paid to visit my friends in real life, I have no idea what I would think.  Perhaps if it had happened since the beginning of our friendship, it wouldn't seem so strange.  I tutor a boy, and have done for 4 years now, and of course we've become friends during that time.  I help him with his schoolwork, I get money.  Is it really any different?

Well, yes, I think so.  What began as a professional relationship has evolved.  Facebook is turning that around.  It's monetising our social relationships, and putting a value on our time.  In Hotel City, it's also putting a value on our patrons' uninterrupted sleep - click on them while they're sleeping, and you might get 400+ coins.  When they only pay 1 coin to stay the 'night', that becomes a big draw.  Every two minutes you have new people to click on.  But, as a hotel owner, surely I should be making sure my guests get an uninterrupted night's sleep, without me mugging them in the wee hours so I can redecorate the downstairs boudoir.

Ah, the moral dilemma.  Obviously, these games are designed for children, or at least younger players, who go with the mechanics because they're there.  I'm thinking too deeply about it.  But as a writer, I tend to roleplay.  In Hotel City, I'm a successful entrepreneur, running my establishment at the cutting edge of interior decoration.  In Country Story, I'm a compassionate farmer who always makes sure her animals are well-fed and happy.  Nowhere in that self-concept do I see "... who also steals from friends and strangers alike."

And yet I do steal.  I do take from my friends.  I do mug unsuspecting hotel patrons.  Because the game suggests it, because the reward is there, and because there are no consequences.  It's just a bit of fun.  Stealing.  Just a bit of fun.  Go ahead, your friends won't mind.  Really.  Really?

Are you sure?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Love is shared story

Whenever I see my boyfriend and his cat together, I know two things: one, they're ridiculously adorable and make every moment into a good old-fashioned Kodak moment, and two, I will never have the same bond with her that he does.

They love each other so much it's a part of them.  He's had her since he was 8, and she's known him her whole life.  They grew up together.  So it's no wonder to me, though it's still fraught with jealousy, that they're so in tune.  He can summon her with a click of his fingers.  I have to go chasing her.  She'll cuddle up next to him without a complaint.  I have to put her on my lap, and then she runs away.  Him just being nearby elicits the loudest purr she can muster.  I feel grateful if she doesn't bite me when I'm patting her.

Yet I love her.  Her little headbutts and licks that mean "I love you", the fact that, when I'm not chasing her, she will curl up next to me, and purr.  Every time I've been sick since we started dating, she's come to keep me company.  It sounds strange that I'm extolling the cat's virtues instead of my boyfriend's, but, really, the basis is the same.

I see, through her, something that I enjoy; that tapestry of our time together, me and this cat.  When I put my face near hers, I can't help but remember the last time she gave me a little affectionate headbutt, and the warmth that flooded through me.  Whenever she licks my hand or nose while I'm asleep, I immediately think of the last time she 'groomed' me.  And I remember important moments, like the first time she purred on my lap after we moved to our new apartment, and I'd been worried sick because she didn't eat or go to the bathroom for days.

We have a history, her and I.  It's not as long as her and my boyfriend.  Pictures of her as no bigger than a teacup cause my heart to melt, but it's the everyday actions of this little fuzzy thing that keep our relationship going.  Even though she wakes me up in the middle of the night by vomiting in my shoes, or sleeping where I'm supposed to be, or wanting food, or to play, or to go outside, my annoyance is only momentary.  It only takes a little bit of a pat to remember our history, the warmth of her fur under my fingers and the subtle vibration of her purr, and I'm in love all over again.

It's the same with people, I've found.  Provided we're still on speaking terms, we tend to remember the good more so than the bad.  When I hug my friend, I'm not thinking of the times she's lied to me or made me angry.  I'm thinking of the other times we've hugged, and the times she's made me feel better.  The moments when she was in my life to cry on or to laugh with are the threads in our bond.  The physical connection makes it all the more memorable.  The stories we tell are the lifeblood of that bond.

Shared memories, in-jokes, travel stories and tales of woe: all of these are bonds that knit tighter than blood.  I'd argue you haven't really met someone until they've seen you cry.  How they react will show more of their character than the first six months of meetings.  How they comfort you will say endless amounts on their emotional maturity.  And if - by some crazy random happenstance - they know how you're feeling better than you do, that can't help but stand out.

We weave our tapestries with so many people, and we fall in love all the time.  Video game characters are no exception.  When they interact with the player, they spin these threads, and create a shared history that only they and the player can understand.  The fact that they're computer programs is moot - in this world, from your point of view, everyone but you is an NPC.  And immersion - oh, immersion! - if the character can guess how you're feeling, the bond is doubled.  They may as well be human, because they've elicited a response.  Just like my boyfriend and his cat, where a pat can make her purr, game characters create a response in us that, if strong enough, is memorable, and becomes a part of who we are.

The security of a hug, the warmth of my cat, the comfort of a concerned friend or the first time you kiss - these are all stories, bounded by emotion and tactile response.  Games are just a little harder to touch.

Visual storytelling as the writer's craft

I was writing a game design document this afternoon for an informal pitch this evening, and found something strange.  As a writer, I prefer to communicate my story in casual games via art.

This is not to say I'm an artist.  That certainly isn't the case.  But, rather than having dialogue of any kind, I'd much prefer to let the environment speak for itself.

This may not be a surprise to any of you.  I've worked in games for so long that writing only using dialogue seems natural, as I'm usually asked to wrap things up once the game is content-complete.  That means there's no provision for a little extra asset that would make all the difference and save a tonne of dialogue.

But planning this one from the beginning, I'm finding it easier to work with the backgrounds, items and even interactive objects to create a story that requires no explanation.  To my baffled delight, I'm even enjoying it a lot more.

One of my biggest peeves about games, and what I have to do when writing for games, is the overuse of talking, talking, talking.  If I can't skip it, it shouldn't be there.  That's my feeling as a gamer.  If I want to read it, that's great, but forcing people to read something is the quickest way to make them want to skip it.  And yet I consistently find I'm asked to add in more dialogue, more jokes, more explanation.  She cannae do it, Cap'n!  It's all she's got!

Subtle.  Evocative.  Meaningful.  These are words I would like to hear regarding my in-game story, but often such adjectives conjure up images of banks of text, just waiting for the user.  They much easier regard a literary work than a gaming one.  And it's not for me to say that environment design is my forte.  It's not.  But the little touches, the ones that change a blank wall into something meaningful to the narrative, are.

Of course, input is always nice.  I vastly prefer to design and create in a team environment, especially when it comes to games.  And that's another thing I usually find as a games writer.  The people bringing me on to the project are somehow so terrified that my ideas will be polluted by what they already have that they separate me from the team entirely.  Of course, that only leads to frustration from the team, who thought what they had was pretty good, and definitely doesn't further the cause of game writers, since it's making us out to be the bad guys.  So, then, asking for an asset becomes a big deal, even if it would save a lot of the player's time.

I don't blame teams for disliking writers.  I blame management for not getting writers involved sooner.  That doesn't mean you need a permanent writer on staff.  Personally, I'd get bored.  But it does mean your writer can come in as a consultant.  Let them sit in on the pitches and scope meetings, and make their contributions.  Bring them back in at the beginning of production to see how things are progressing and make suggestions to help the mission structure remain cohesive.  And then bring them in at the end, to tidy up the loose ends, add the finishing touches, and work with what you already have.

That's something else I want to stress: just because it wasn't written by a writer doesn't mean it's terrible!  Clients often want me to rewrite their whole game from scratch, and I become the villain when I simply refuse.  So much of a team's time and effort goes into the story, no matter the depth or tone, that it's pointless and unfair for a writer to come in and change all of that.  There are exceptions, such as when the team doesn't actually have a story, but I have never seen a game story that was a lost cause.  Even the most cliched hack-job can have redeeming qualities, if you only know what to change.  That is the role of the writer.  Not necessarily to create, but to improve.  To create from the pieces a living whole, and make the world make sense.

Have a little faith in yourself.  Have a little faith in your team.  It's as much their game as it is yours.  Trust them to know what suits.  And then, hopefully, you'll have a little more faith in your writer.  Moulding unset clay is easier than starting with a blank slate.  Let your writer take what you have created with your loving care and improve it with their own.  You'll find greater things come from a shared story than just something for the player to listen to while they kill stuff.  You'll have something everyone can be proud of, and that shows.

Know what you want, and don't settle until you get it, but be open to suggestion.  It sounds like the shopping list for the perfect project manager, but I assure you, it's possible.  If you're not happy with the direction your writer is taking your game in, talk to them.  We're only human, just like you.  It's not that hard to understand. We're trying to do our best, and if we need to change direction, it's better to provide some guidance than apply the brakes.  It's your project, after all.  But if you really want the writer to feel it's their project, too, the guidance needs to be clear from the outset.  Lay the course, set the line, and sail off into adventure.  Nothing ruins enthusiasm like having to stop and revise every 3 minutes.

But sometimes, please, just give us the benefit of the doubt.  Let us run with the idea that seems wild and irrelevant.  Let us ask how long it would take to make such and such an asset, or film such and such a sequence, but don't be afraid to help us think of alternatives, especially where the tech is concerned.  If we're asking questions, we have a vision, and any obstacles that can be overcome will bring us one step closer to achieving it.  Let us dream - help us.  I promise any decent writer will bring you a story more wonderful than you could have imagined.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Multiculturalism in Thedas

I've noticed something interesting, and not at all all that difficult to notice.  The accents, in Dragon Age.

People from Orlais sound French.  Except that one Scottish Chantry Sister in Denerim.

People from Antiva sound Spanish, or possibly Russian, depending on who you talk to.  Especially Zevran.

People from Ferelden sound English.  Yes!

People from Par Vollen sound like they've been gargling gravel.

And the dwarves?  Oh, the dwarves!  they sound... American.  Huh.  Well, it's a nice change from all of the voices being American, at least.  I quite enjoy the semi-multicultural soundscape, to be honest.  And at least they're not Australian, like Vanille.  Sometimes I want to put her back in the Crocodile Dundee movie she sounds like she crawled out of (Aussie cultural cringe in 3... 2... 1...).

Now, if only the political landscape were as tolerant.  Chantry or bust, it seems.  So your Old Gods come back as undead horrors, really?  Well, don't that make them a darn sight more real than the Maker?  Though he does have that Golden City, or should I say had?  Zing!

I wonder why I haven't met anyone from Tevinter?  Aren't they supposed to be around?  I also wonder why I haven't met any Asians.  Or black people.  This is suddenly wandering down paths best left untouched since The Phantom Menace.  Why do we have trouble with true multiculturalism, again?  I'd like to think it was just an oversight, that one simply cannot portray all of the races without forgetting some.  But when most of Asia and Africa are consistently missing, the excuse wears a bit thin.

Or perhaps those races, to us, have the most distinctive accents, and are most likely to be the basis for a lawsuit.

But really, David Gaider?  "Militant Islamic Borg"?  I know it was a comment on the political landscape, not the religious one, but really?  The people with hedge mages who eschew the one true religion?  Granted, I'm finding little-to-none on a google of this phrase, so I'm hoping it's a misquotation, albeit a popular-in-that-the-fans-seem-to-like-it-somehow way.  The Chantry already strikes a bit too close to home.  Let's not compound the issue.

Overall, I like the world.  It feels like it has potential for further adventures.  I applaud the use of different dialects of English, too.  I would just like a little more colour, please.