Why look, a spot for me to talk about myself! But I don't like doing that. So here are the answers to the default questions!
-I can't really recall how exactly I got into gaming. I think it really took off for me when I got my N64 (which I still have) for Christmas all those years ago.
-My favorites would have to be Mercenaries, Timesplitters 2/Future Perfect and Battlefield 2
-I'm playing a couple of things right now. Stuntman: Ignition, Earth Defense Force 2017, Scrub Fighter IV (I'm the scrub) and Modern Warfare 2
I'm not real good at any game or genre. At best, I'm maybe a little above average at a couple of games that I've spent alot of time on (plastic guitars, Modern Warfare, Battlefield 2). Really, this is because I'm more or less what might be called a casual gamer, in that I simply play games to, well, have fun (and be pretentious every now and again). Topping the charts is a phenomenon that's cool when it happens, but not something I aim for. But what could a casual player, disinterested in being the best, like me ever be good at? The answer is the metagame.
A metagame, at least as I use it, is a player instigated game-within-a-game. You aren't playing a metagame when you guess what's in the chests in The Legend of Zelda: The Orcarina of Time. You're playing a metagame when you look at Volvagia flying around in the sky and wonder if it just might be possible to kill him with naught more than bombs (using the hammer only to make him vulnerable). When you play a metagame, the metagame's goal is now the game's goal. The game has provided you with a set of rules, abilities, supplies, whatever. The metagame supplies the goal to which these resources will be directed.
And that's where my expertise lies.
I love my metagames. For me, they usually take the form of personal challenges, beating levels in an unusual way, weapon/item restrictions and so forth. The key to the metagame is that it's composed of challenges/goals set by the player and not the game. If one of my friends says 'It can't be done' I take it as a personal challenge. If someone says "You can't beat this level in the A-10!", the goal for me is to no longer just beat the level. If that was all I wanted to do, I could use the best jet for the job, play the game as it was obstinately intended to be played. Now though, the goal is to use the A-10 to beat it. Beating the level only becomes important to me now if I do it in the A-10. Metagames can be more rewarding than the actual game itself in my opinion, because you set and beat your own challenges. Metagames are intrinsically more personal than the game's goals and objectives.
But why do I consider this my expertise? Why should metagames even be considered an expertise? After all, all you have to do is set some personal goal, and you're metagaming. That's not really so hard. It could even be said that creating and participating in metagames takes no skill at all (beating them is a different matter). If metagames are just some personal goal, how could anyone have an expertise in them?
The answer is that for me, whenever I'm playing a metagame, that metagame is more important than winning, or advancing the story, or what-have-you. It's a mindset thing. An expertise in metagames means that you are of the mindset that a game, any game, has more or less unlimited gameplay potential, and you apply this principle. It's just a question of working within the game's structure to create personal goals and objectives. If you don't have this sort of mindset, if you feel that a game's challenges are all included on the disk, programmed into the game already, then you don't have the mindset to have an expertise in metagames. If you think that the overriding objective of a round of Modern Warfare 2 is to win, you don't have the mindset. An expertise in metagaming can't be taught, and you can't really practice for it.
I haven't encountered many active gamers who share my kind of mindset regarding games and metagames. In the original Left 4 Dead, there were those who complained that the game was to easy. I suggested some metagames (pistols only, no medpacks, no melee, etc) for them to try to increase the difficulty of the game. My suggestions were usually shot down, for one reason or another.
In contrast with the Left 4 Dead example, limited though it may be, the Dwarf Fortress community is full of people with an expertise in metagames. The forums there are full of people trying to get a dwarf to max out his stats, drain the ocean, create moats of magma. They use the tools of the game to challenge the goal of the game. Dwarf Fortress may be different than Left 4 Dead in that it gives you all sorts of creation tools of course. But the difference is that in Dwarf Fortress people are more likely to treat the game's goal (get your fortress to survive) as merely an objective to be satisfied in the course of creating whatever their current mega project is. They use what the game has given them to create and beat their own goals in preference to what goals the game has. It's not a perfect comparison as Dwarf Fortress is somewhat designed to encourage these metagames, but I hope it did at least succeed in illustrating the sort of mindset that is required for an expertise in metagames.
At the end of the day, metagaming is about having fun in ways that the game didn't set before you. You find your own fun, and it might be at odds with what the game designers thought would be fun when they made the game. But a metagame is your game, not theirs. And that's where my expertise lies.
Now, I love Mass Effect. It's a great game (and I think the full appreciation for it will only come through once Mass Effect 2 comes out next year and we get to see just HOW we've shaped the universe through our actions), and one that I enjoyed playing. There is however, one teeny tiny little thought, whispering at the back of my mind.
I committed genocide. It doesn't assuage my ego that I was forced to commit this act of genocide, and in fact this is why I have a love/hate relationship with Mass Effect. In a game where choice is paramount it is shocking when you are forced to be sidelined and watch as the choice to make one of the most heavily weighted ethical decisions in the game is made for you. I was forced to sit back and numbly chose conversation options and watch as my character made plans to use an improvised nuclear device on a facility containing perhaps the only relevant research to a cure for the Krogan genophage in the galaxy.
And that's what struck me. That my character, a Paragon, would endorse such an action without a hint of hesitation or reservation in the Salarian Commandos' action-packed plan of destruction. I had no say in the matter. I had to watch as the Krogan were placed squarely in the path of the narrative train, and I was the conductor when they were hit.
Even worse, there was no middle ground, it was all-and-everything. I couldn't hand the research over to the council for them to do with as they saw fit. I couldn't even save the research at all. The last I saw of the Korgan scientist who was in charge of the project, my toxic rounds were turning him into a fine chemical powder, scattered about the laboratory with his subordinates. His computers, OSDs and files were of no interest to my characters. Not even Wrex complained when we simply scurried past all that glorious research that he had been searching for his whole life, that research that no one else was interested in conducting. He just grumbled about how "Saren has to pay for what he's done to my people," which while being very Krogan-like, didn't seem much like the tormented Krogan threatening to kill me for this exact course of action minutes earlier.
My shame over the actions that the narrative railway forced me to commit caused me to later save the Rachni. When making that decision, almost the first thing that popped into my mind was "I don't want to condemn another species to death". Sure, I may have interrogated it to try and determine whether or not it would go mental on the universe, but that overwhelming guilt of killing off another species probably still would have made me save them. It might be debatable whether or not the Krogan are going extinct, but as Wrex said, they sure aren't getting any stronger.
And that's why I have a love/hate relationship with Mass Effect. I love the rest of the game, for the most part. But even what bits I might fret over, none of them left a dark a spot on me as that half-hour of gameplay did. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to atone for my forced hand in Mass Effect 2. But even then, every time I re-visit the original, I know that I will forced to be the executioner of Wrex's hopes for his people on that planet.
If any images are buggered up in this, I apologize. First blog and whatnot. A word of warning, I don't have too many pretty pictures in this post.
For a number of years now, games have come out that have asked the player to make moral choices within the game. Fable, Bioshock (to a degree), Fallout III and so on. I wholeheartedly applaud game developers who make this choice. Allowing players to make moral choices in hypothetical situations is one of the unique advantages games as a medium can provide. With that in mind however, there are a number of pitfalls I've seen that somewhat detract from the experience (for me, at least). Addressing these pitfalls will, hopefully, allow those developers seriously pursuing moral choices within their game to make them relevant to the experience as a whole, or at the very least be more effective. So what are the five, you may be wondering. Well read on!
Abolish the moral compass
This one isn't up first by accident, and it plays into most of the other four. I think in any game that wants the player to make moral decisions, then that game shouldn't provide feedback as to whether a given action was 'bad' or 'good'. Let's take Fable 2 as an example. I'll give you five guesses to guess where on the sliding scale of morality this character falls on:
That's the sort of thing I'm talking about (though Fable has always been on the lighter side, the ability to choose your path has always been one of its core concepts so that's why I'm including it here). Other games use different systems (A slider for Fallout III, a colored box for I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,etc), but the end result is the same: the player is given an objective way to measure the value of his or her actions. If a game is asking the player to make the choices, then the feedback should not be so blatant and obvious. The choices they make need to be guided by the player's internal compass, not the game's. That's why they were given the choice in the first place. Providing this sort of feedback can put the player into a sort of roleplay. Being the good guy or the bad guy, simply for being the good guy or the bad guy, irrespective of what they may have actually wanted to choose.
Additionally, morals are very diverse and rich, and can vary widely between individuals. What I might see as acceptable, you may see as deplorable and so putting an objective way to measure them is doomed to failure. The player was given the chance to make the choice, so the player should be able to make it without the game arbitrarily measuring the value of that choice. Actions are just actions, they don't have an intrinsic value.
Try to make the choices less blatant
This one stems from the moral compass I think, but it still needs to be addressed. In too many games that let the player make moral decisions, the decisions are very black/white in their nature. Do I steal that man's cheese, or do I not steal it (the game's compass would likely rate those as bad/good, respectively). But what if I were to steal that cheese and give it to the starving children in City Z's slums? Where does that fall on our objective scale of goodness? Is breaking the law to help children good?
Though I only presented two choices in that example, it was merely to illustrate my point. In a game where you're called to make tough choices, then the choices should be tough. Get the player to ask themselves where the limits are. Introduce them to those starving orphans, then show them that they could alleviate their hunger with some well-intentioned law breaking. Scenarios like that one aren't clear-cut as to which way a player should choose, and that's how it should be. Not every scenario will be a tough one for every person, but it could be a tough one for someone else. And though that's still present in games, they aren't as frequent as they should be. Those sort of scenarios will make the moral choices matter more (title tie-in, hah!), and ideally force the player to consider their choice carefully, not just pick whichever one that looks like it's the 'good' or 'evil' choice.
Ideally, the player would be able to resolve a situation as they saw fit but since our technology isn't omnipotent, my suggestion is that scenarios just need to have a careful attention given to making them, or at least the player's choices, more 'grey'. Fallout III had some good examples of this, such as the cyborg who wasn't aware of his robotic nature and the game asking the player whether he would turn the robot in for money or not (though it still has a clear cut set of good/evil choices, it does start to grey out a bit, mostly in asking the player, assuming they're emotionally involved, if they really want to destroy the cyborg's life)
Give the choices more impact on the world The choices that a player makes in games like Fallout III or Fable often only have a big impact if they're tied into a chain. On the world as a whole, and in particular the NPCs, you can roam around like an unnoticed blip on the moral radar. If you habitually steal in Oblivion, in broad daylight in the town square, the townsfolk won't care too much the first time (after you get out of prison, of course) and they won't care too much the hundredth time. Despite being a kleptomaniac, no one cares! Impacts are the way a 'moral compass' should be included into a game in my opinion. The impacts can be any number of things. NPC comments and shifts in their reaction to you are the easiest way to show that your actions have consequences (murders in Oblivion apparently go unnoticed among the rest of the city, if I remember correctly). But there are other ways too. Maybe when you robbed that stagecoach, you'll notice later that a house a family previously occupied is now boarded up. If you can track them down (they're now on the streets), you might learn that their paycheck never came, the stagecoach having been hijacked. Unable to pay the bank, their home was foreclosed on. That may be a sappy example, but it's the sort of thing I'm talking about.
Assuming such measures were implemented into a game, it's unlikely a player would ever learn the full extent their actions have, but that just means that it truly will be up to them to decide what to do, with the knowledge that there ARE consequences more far-reaching than 'Jailed for X days. You now have Y stat penalty' or 'Karma lost!', even if they won't be able to see how far the ripples spread.
We can't get completely objective moral systems into a game of course, but through the impacts of their actions, players will be able to decide for themselves whether or not what they did was justified or right. Or perhaps more importantly, whether they are prepared for the consequences of their actions. And while my vision here far exceeds many developers' reach I'm sure, some variation of it could likely be included in a game.
The morals of violence I'll try to keep this one brief, since this demands an entry all of its own. In short, violence is too often a black/white affair. Killing monsters/bandits/thieves/etc is all ok, but heaven forbid you touch a civilian. This plays a bit into my impacts suggestion. Whether the violence is justified or not is left entirely up to the player, but while there are penalties and punishments for killing civilians, there are often none at all for killing all those bad people, and there should be. The goblins just sit neatly in their caves and passively wait for the hero to show up and liberate them of their ill-gotten gains (which, of course, are sold unless it's a quest-specific item in which case it's turned in for reward). If there's consequences on one side of the mighty sliding scale of morals, there should be for the other, lest that side lose any value or meaning in the player's moral calculations.
Make it a secret! This one is pretty much a pipe dream. In any game that really wants the player to make moral decisions, I think that it should be a secret function. That is, it shouldn't be advertised in the previews or on the back of the box that there will be, say, 'tough moral decisions'. In this way, a player can simply play and hopefully get to see the consequences, both good and bad, of his choices without feeling pressured to play one way or another.
Well, that's it. If you read this far, congratulations! And I do want to note that these are mostly for games that want to have the moral dilemmas and choices they present the player taken seriously, or have them as a core mechanic. Moral decisions can be included without being a focus, and for those types of games, this list is less helpful. And while the degree of impact I'm looking for probably isn't going to be technically feasible for awhile, I do think there's more that could be done.