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Dogen's blog

9:51 PM on 04.21.2009

Rolling with the Punches

I'm an obsessive, which I why I love PC games. Not only do PC games tend to have better loot and inventory systems to appease my inner packrat, they also allow for frequent game saving in a way that consoles, to my knowledge, have yet to embrace so heartily. To me, on-demand game saves are paradise, because they mean that I never have to fail. My character can be flawless in his quest, each mishap erased from history by a quick trip to the load menu. No setback cannot be surmounted by simply retracing my steps for a little while.

So when I tell you that I killed Dogmeat, I want you to understand the impact that this had on me. I had become very fond of him both for his willingness to absorb bullets while I shotgunned our enemies in the face and for the companionship that he offered in some of the creepier settings of the Fallout world. I protected him whenever possible, kept him out of battle when it seemed necessary, but when he jumped into a horde of ghouls as I picked them off from the doorway it never occurred to me that anything was wrong. As the battle turned against him I tried to call him back to me and away from danger by exiting the building. This was my first mistake. I had woefully misinterpreted the workings of the game, and was met immediately by a notice that "Dogmeat has died" as ghouls piled out of the door I had just come through and ran after me. I went to reload and found that a) my departure from the building had triggered an autosave, which meant that my nearest load point would not rescue the mutt and b) the next closest save was 3+ game hours prior.

I spent a solid five minutes debating the choice: to continue without my only friend in the Wasteland, or to rehash half a night's worth of gaming just to keep him alive. In the end, I couldn't justify backtracking that much, and I slaughtered the ghouls with a grim sense of vengeance before moving on. After this, I had to put the game down for nearly two days, trying to put that sense of failure behind me.

Upon coming back to the game, I was struck with a thought. Most stories incorporate loss and setbacks as essential parts of the narrative. Was I robbing myself of a rich story by avoiding all negative progress for the sake of perfection?

I'm trying to loosen up my play style now to incorporate this attitude of "it's all part of the game". I will admit, it still grates my nerves a bit to continue on when I would normally call up the load screen. In the end, though, I'm hoping that the story I've played through will be a better one for the effort.   read

9:38 PM on 12.03.2008

On Relationships and Games

It was cute at first, all these tales of love triumphing over the great fear of games. Unsuspecting young women wooed by the siren song of Rock Band or Peggle or whatever the casual game du jour happened to be. Then it got kind of tired, with the same terrible advice repeated over and over. Now it's downright weird.

Here's my take on it: if you are in a relationship with a girl or boy who does not have an interest in video games, leave it be. There should not be a quest to convert her to the great joy of gaming. If it comes up, great. Maybe she'll enjoy it, maybe she won't. Neither choice necessarily reflects on your skill in convincing her of the merits of your beloved hobby.

The best approach is to simply create some space in your relationship where the two of you can pursue whatever interests you want. I know the whole “I have a significant other, heehee!” thing can be kind of overwhelming, but act like you got some sense. If you don't have a few hours a week to devote to gaming alone and it's that important to you, then you're doing it wrong. Have a talk and set up some boundaries for your time together so you can do your own thing on occasion. It's not regimented or callous, it's for your own damn sanity.

And seriously, this rash of “success stories” has got to stop. It's creepy and mysogynistic and reflects poorly on the community.   read

2:46 PM on 11.19.2008

A Time to Build: Starcraft Mods

I was just starting to grow out of children's games about the time that Starcraft came out, and my first experiences with it were mind-blowing. There were so many things to build and manage and blow up, it was like my eyes had finally been opened to the potential that games could hold. I had to have it for myself, and so I saved up my allowance and finally got my hands on a game disc.

As excited as I was about the single player game, nothing could compare to the anticipation of playing the game online. Online. What a concept. That the same connection responsible for email and Yahoo! could coordinate a strategy game was almost too much to wrap my middle-school head around. I remember calling up a friend the night that I installed the game and forcing him to wait on the line nearly an hour while the game updated itself in order to connect to the first time. I think my bedtime may have come before I was actually able to get a game in, but it didn't matter. The lobby was the coolest thing since sliced bread and I don't think I had a coherent non-Starcraft thought for the next two weeks.

I learned very quickly, however, that I was not going to be competitive in this arena. That complexity that I got so worked up about continued to hold me in thrall while I played, slowing down my gameplay to a level far below where it should have been. The result was that I spent too much time micromanaging attacks and clicking on the units to hear their comments (always hilarious) and not nearly enough building the structures and units I would need in the endgame. Initial failures led quickly to discouragement, which pushed me out of the normal matches. How would I get my Starcraft fix, then?

Enter the custom maps.

Custom Starcraft maps could turn the game into anything from a racing sim to a...god, I don't even know what to label those "madness" maps. I guess bloodbath is the closest possible description. Standard tactics went out the window, and balance and pacing that Blizzard had so carefully crafted probably went with it but I didn't care. My favorites were always the RPGish maps, which generally featured a long tunnel of baddies, a couple of teammates, some scripts which allowed you to trade kills for upgrades or health, and a barebones leveling system. I could micromanage my one little character to my heart's content, waiting excitedly to see which character model would be used for his next level. It got to the point where I finally opened up the map editor for myself and modded one of the maps to be playable in the single player mode for those times when I wasn't allowed by my parents to use the internet. While I'm sure it completely defeated the purpose of the game to play it alone, I was happy ferrying my little "Nerd" (High Templar) through his "Day at School" in which he had to mow through hordes of teachers and bullies with only his psionic storm and floating computer (I think it was a Science Vessel) to keep him safe. It should have gotten old quickly, but I remember playing through a number of times and never getting particularly bored. I guess I was just particularly easily amused.

Why not just play an RPG, you ask? Because I didn't have one. Or at least not a halfway decent one. My gaming library remained rather limited for a long time, and Starcraft, by way of the user mods, introduced me to new genres without breaking my piggy bank. Maybe it wasn't the cleanest, most professional sort of introduction, but it certainly whet my appetite for new experiences. So I guess this is a thank you to all those amateur map-makers from the Starcraft era. Your grammar and spelling my have been atrocious, and your sense of humor juvenile at best and morbidly tasteless at worst, but without you I probably would have been driven out of gaming. And what a tragedy that would have been.   read

1:01 PM on 09.04.2008

Dead Space Contest

As if the Dead Space team hadn't produced enough preview content fleshing out the world of the game, they've now got a contest going with a new storyline to explore. The top 100 scorers in the contest will win a copy of the game, although if that's something you're interested in you should get on it right quick, as the contest is already in its second week.

In order to compete, you have to register for the EA forums or something, which is a little too much of a hurdle for me. I'm just interested in exploring yet another of the characters that they've cooked up to populate that creep-tastic little nightmare. To be honest, I'm a bit concerned that by the time the game comes out, I'll know too much about what's going on and it will ruin the suspense. If there was ever a marketing campaign that could get me to put aside my reservations for the horror genre and pick up a truly frightening game, this would be it. Maybe a month's worth of nightmares will be worth experiencing the story.

Anyway, go check out the contest/game yourself and let me know what you think.   read

8:39 PM on 07.13.2008

Branching Plot Lines: for better or worse

I like the idea of branching storylines in games. I see it as an impressive advance in storytelling, a means of increasing player immersion by allowing them to impose their own choices on the game world and watch it change to reflect those choices. But I've been playing The Witcher lately, and I've found that branching, when poorly written, can be obnoxious instead of immersive. Allow me to illustrate my frustration with an extended metaphor:

Imagine you are hiking in a park, following trails past beautiful scenery to impressive landmarks. All the trails start at the same parking lot, but from there a number of trail layouts are possible. In a pure branching format, each branch of a trail leads to a separate landmark, making each visit to the park unique and memorable so long as you take a different set of paths each time. In the realm of game storylines, this format generally takes too much effort to implement; there are too many possibilities to script for a reasonable sized team of people to create. More common is a format in which the path splits occasionally, but all the branches eventually lead to the same endpoint. Some of the splits lead you to different areas of the park, changing the scenery you see along your walk dramatically. Most of the splits, however, are less drastic; regardless of which path you take you can still see most of the same scenery, just from a slightly different viewpoint, as if the paths you can choose from all run parallel to one another. This is how The Witcher handles most of the choices which feature so prominently in its marketing, and it's here that the storytelling runs aground on its own ambitions.

To continue the metaphor, imagine now that you are faced with a fork in the path you're walking. Both branches seem to pass the same areas, based on what you can see, and there is very little to help you decide between them. After a moment's consideration, you think you see a dead bird off to the side of one branch, so you choose the other to avoid the momentary unpleasantness. A half hour later on this new path, your progress is blocked by a den of skunks. You can endure the trials of passing by the skunks and soldier on, or return to the fork and attempt to take the other path; thereby losing time while revisiting the exact same scenery with no assurance that the other path would be any easier to travel. Having reached this awful dilemma, you find yourself feeling mildly upset at yourself for having chosen such a perilous route, but mostly you're just angry at whoever ran the damn path through skunk territory without bothering to warn anyone.

This is often how I feel when Witcher decides to make me suffer the "consequences" of my actions. When I chose the path, I had no way of knowing that the penalty was coming, I simply made the best decision I could with the information I had. Similarly, in the game I often find myself making choices with incomplete information and suffering later for my ignorance. What really angers me, though, it that it seems my character is aware of the potential fallout the whole time, despite the fact that I, his "master" or whatever you want to call me, am not. The cutscenes which take you back to the moment of choice and elaborate on the chain of cause-and-effect that lead to your current misery are narrated by the big bad Witcher, himself, and often sound as if he feels guilty for having made such a decision. His guilt becomes mine, as my role in the game is to inhabit his character, but I'm not really sure I deserve this shame. If you're trying to make a point about unintended consequences, that's all fine and good, but don't give me the illusion of being able to change the world for the better, then spit in my face whenever I attempt to follow the rules of the game. Leaving me in ignorance of my full situation is not an awesome new way to create drama; mystery has to be handled with finesse (as in my darling Bioshock) or else I just end up feeling frustrated and deceived. I don't mind hard choices, and I don't mind surprises, but I do mind being made to feel stupid and guilty when I was never given the opportunity to make an informed decision.

Not every branch point in The Witcher has this irritating quality, but those that do take away from the overall positive experience of the game. The lesson to learn from this is: everything in moderation. No matter how boldly your packaging trumpets the inclusion of "choices and consequences" in your game, don't implement a branch in the story unless you can do so without falling back on ineffective strategies for building the tension required to make the choice actually matter. Leaving the player uninformed works well in the survival horror genre, when surprise is the ultimate goal of gameplay, but when you're trying to make a game that explores ethics, it's always better to use nuance and subtlety to create conflict than to simply omit the real story and force the player to cast judgement without full knowledge of the situation.
As much as I appreciate the effort it takes to venture out into the largely unexplored arena of branched storylines, when a developer tries too hard and falls short, the entire medium suffers a blow in the public relations department. So next time, let's drop the smoke and mirrors and try to make a game with some meat to it, okay? It might not be epic, but at least it won't make me want to tear my hair out.   read

4:05 PM on 05.30.2008

If You Love It, Change It: MechCommander 2

The BattleTech games don't get a lot of press these days, but I'm sure I'm not the only one with fond memories of the franchise. In particular, I've got a lot of love for MechWarrior 4 and its RTS sibling, MechCommander 2. These games have a way of making you feel immersed in a universe much larger than the conflicts you see, and I've got a soft spot for the overacted FMV sequences that drive the story.

MechCommander is something of an anomaly of the RTS genre. Most games in that family follow a simple formula for constructing an army: set drones to work gathering resources, then spend those resources on soldiers. Here the resource management is done mostly outside the mission, meaning only troop orders are part of the real-time gameplay. Army size is limited to a handful of Mechs, leaving the player free to micromanage to his heart's content. This runs counter to the current evolution of the genre, which seems to be a constant march towards complexity, marked by larger armies and wall-sized tech trees. But as Supreme Commander and its ilk push for a grander scale, they leave a niche for games like MechCommander which emphasize tactical precision over army size.

Now you know why I love the game, but what would I change? MechCommander was a fusion of RTS and RPG elements before anyone even thought to use the phrase "RPG elements" in an ad campaign, and I think the inclusion of more RPG inspired aspects would create an unparalleled gaming experience. Already present are character leveling and inventory management; pilots gain skill points after each mission and learn skills as they are promoted, while the Mechs you put them in become more sophisticated as your resources expand. Missing are emotional ties with the members of your party (the pilots), and freedom to shape the game world outside of the mission->briefing->mission structure.

The player can build attachment with the pilots through use, but bonding is limited by the lack of backstory for most of the faces on the roster. The solution is to expand the opportunities for contact between player and pilot, which requires a substantial revision of the between-mission space. It would be possible to accomplish this with the standard videophone console interface, but a much more powerful solution would be to make the player's dropship, his home base, an explorable space akin to the Normandy from Mass Effect. The ship would be populated by both pilots and Mechs, allowing the now embodied commander to walk among his troops and build ties with them. The additional face time with these characters would give the narrative substance beyond the motivations of the player's clients, making it easier to craft a satisfying story when the rigid structure tying missions together is removed.

If the game is to emphasize tactics over all other aspects, then shouldn't mission selection be included in the player's tactical responsibilities? I say do away with the linear mission structure and instead separate the story into contracts, each contract defined by a timeline. Missions are chosen from a map of targets, and scripted events scattered throughout the timeline will periodically change the map for better or for ill. For example, the player may be alerted to troop movements that leave an outpost temporarily weakened or the presence of a supply convoy that adds a potential mission to the static list of targets. It might even be interesting to completely break out of the mission selection framework by allowing the player to pinpoint a drop location instead of a picking a predefined mission, then leading a team to accomplish contract-relevant objectives before calling for an extraction. With this change, the entire planet would be reachable from any drop point, but natural barriers, travel time, and Mech repairs would make extraction the more attractive option.

One of the most disappointing aspects of MechCommander to me was the fact that it is possible to play the entire game using only a fraction of both your pilots and Mechs. Half the fun of playing these games is to amass a small navy's worth of weapons, and to never have the opportunity to use the extent of that force is quite a let down. Within the timeline mechanic, there are a few ways to force the player to deploy a greater percentage of his team. The first is to create situations in which running missions simultaneously offers a strategic advantage, and give the player the flexibility to initiate two or more missions at once. The second is to render pilots and Mechs unavailable for a certain period of time after a mission, making it necessary to choose others to keep the schedule defined by the contract. The last is to end contracts with large scale assaults in which the player can drop in many more Mechs than in a typical scenario. This would create a peak in the action caused by the necessity of managing a larger number of units, would break the established paradigm without straying too far from the core gameplay, and would also subject the player to greater casualties, setting the stage for some rebuilding at the beginning of the next contract. And it would be epic.

I loved MechCommander 2. But if a sequel were ever made, and these changes brought in, I would never have to play another game again. Not even Starcraft 2.   read

1:23 PM on 03.19.2008

Godspeed, Arthur C. Clarke

He was a visionary and an actor, able to both see the future and shape it. He used narrative as a tool to open our eyes to the possibilities open to us, and has inspired countless numbers to respect the power and possibility inherent in our continually advancing technology.

As gamers, we see his mark on every space opera ever created. He dealt with the issues facing a space-faring race thoroughly, exploring scenarios ranging from the alienating effects of time dilation to the horror of our own tools turning against us. As humans, we owe a debt to him for the revolution in satellite communications that he worked so hard to bring about.

The world has lost Sir Arthur C. Clarke, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word. He blazed a trail into unfamiliar territory, leaving behind a map by which we might find our way through the times ahead. One would hope we have the sense to use it.

CNET post   read

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