Sunday, 15 March 2015

What has it got in its pocketses?

'Hail, adventurer! Can it be true that you slew the Vampire Lord of Tanjar, as the minstrels sing? Please, I beg of you, rescue my daughter from the dread Necromancer King! You will not find me ungrateful. But first… you must TIDY YOUR ROOM.'

I've performed a lot of menial tasks in games over the years - for example, the starting quests in MMOs which make you deliver items to people on the other side of the room. Farcical though this might be, you can at least understand why. The game is easing you in, starting you off with small and easily completed assignments while you become accustomed to the mechanics. From time to time, though, you run across a piece of gaming design which really makes you stop and scratch your head. Software doesn’t write itself, so someone must, at some point, have looked at a build of the game and said ‘Yes! that’s exactly how we want that feature to work’.

Recently I’ve been trying to finish Divinity: Original Sin. I love this game, I really do. It’s the sort of RPG they just don’t make any more. With a focus on exploration, party development and lots of statistics, it’s clearly inspired by Baldur’s Gate, but with modern-era visuals. The developers (Larian Studios) took a potentially risky - yet inspired - decision to make the combat turn-based, rather than real-time. This lends a more tactical aspect to each encounter, somewhat reminiscent of the original X-COM games and their predecessors, though rather more up-close and personal.

Divinity: Original Sin. It's pretty.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re making a homage to classic RPGs, obviously you’ll pattern your interface after those titles, and include lots of features that will make fellow fans feel right at home. Original Sin does this a little too well. I was perfectly happy to wander round the starting town for an hour or more, chatting to the townsfolk, not fighting anyone and not advancing the story. I’m delighted by multiple dialogue options. I’m even OK with the agonizing paralysis that grips me every time I gain a level and can’t decide where to spend my ability points. But I do object, most strenuously, to old-school inventory management.

Remember when you were told to clean up your bedroom as a child, and you employed the time-honoured tactic of stuffing all of your clutter into a wardrobe? That’s what your inventory used to be like in the days of classic RPGs. Everything you found during the course of the game was deposited in a huge messy heap on your inventory screen, leading to eye strain as you struggled to make out which item was which from a series of tiny icons. Original Sin has copied this slavishly. Right down to pointless minor irritations, such as items which won’t stack despite having the same name and picture, dozens of potions which all appear virtually identical, and essential quest items jumbled up together with everything else.

There are a few concessions. When you pick up an item, you do have the option to send it to a particular character. Moving stuff between your characters is fairly easy. You can apply filters to the inventory screen, to show (for instance) all of the usable equipment a character has on them. But for every step towards user-friendliness, there are two back. There’s no central pool of money. You can’t unlock a door unless you’re controlling the character who has the correct key. You can’t identify or repair an item unless it’s in the right person’s inventory. On the trading screen, you can’t sell one party member’s items at a time, and you can’t access anything inside a bag. There’s no option to use a special arrow in combat - it has to be selected manually from the inventory screen. And then there’s the fact that there are hundreds of different items in this game, and despite the filters, no easy way to organise them.

Screens and screens and screens just like this one.

The classic RPG’s heyday was a decade and a half ago. I’d like to think we’ve moved on a little since then. I’m sympathetic to the notion that games nowadays are ‘dumbed down’ for a generation of gamers accustomed to spoon-feeding, but come ON. I play games for fun. Spending 10 minutes hunting through four screens and multiple bags is not fun. It’s work, and dull frustrating work at that. It’s reminiscent of trying to find something when you’ve just moved house, and everything you own is packed into identical boxes.

To be fair, this isn’t the only game which gives you an inventory like a Gormenghast attic. Skyrim’s system, for example, was legendarily awful (though easily fixed with third-party mods). However, Skyrim had the benefit of a slightly less awkward crafting system. Original Sin, sadly, takes a very simple concept (drag one item over another) and then makes it as hard as possible to find the items.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Divinity: Original Sin is a stone cold classic. In every sense, it’s a throwback to a golden era - in every sense, even when it clearly detracts from the gaming experience. Such attention to detail is certainly impressive, but in this particular matter, I could live without it.

So I'm back

It's been nearly a year since my last blog post. I never intended to stop blogging. I hadn't grown bored particularly, or run out of stuff to say. It was an accident. Real life got in the way for a while, as it sometimes does, and after a bit I fell out of the habit. I'm back now though. Let's see how things go.

Monday, 31 March 2014

I'm outta love

I suspect I may finally have fallen out of love with the first-person shooter.

It's been a long time - 20 years, in fact, since I first played Doom on a friend's PC at university, and was instantly hooked. Not only did you see the world through your character's eyes, you could see the weapon in his hands - even see it move as you ran and fired. In 1994, this was completely new, intoxicatingly different, and utterly compelling.

Ahh, the memories.
The rest, of course, is history. A star was born. Doom was successful on a scale which guaranteed that others would want a piece of the action. 'Doom clones' sprang up everywhere (the term FPS didn't catch on for a few years). Many were mediocre, but some went on to become gaming legends: Marathon (1994, for the Mac), Dark Forces (1995), Goldeneye (1997, on the N64), Half-Life (1998).

At first, each new pretender to the throne added something new to the basic FPS blueprint. Marathon and Dark Forces introduced the third dimension by allowing aiming up and down (Doom itself only required the player to face in the right direction). Goldeneye brought us the concept of the sniper rifle, and the incomparable joy of taking out unwitting enemies from halfway across a map (I can still remember my first time). Half-Life added more challenging AI, with opponents who would take cover, use grenades and try to flank the player.

The Goldeneye sniper rifle. Dear to the hearts of gamers of a certain age.
Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the innovation stopped. In 2000, the original Halo brought in a two-weapons-at-a-time limit, and shields that regenerated when the player was in cover. Both of these are still in regular use today - although I've never been convinced that either was an improvement. I don't want to backtrack through a level looking for the right weapon, and I definitely don't want to agonise over whether or not to pick up a rocket launcher because it means leaving something else behind. If I wanted to think, I wouldn't be playing an FPS. Also, although being able to run about carrying twelve firearms is certainly unrealistic, so are bullet wounds that heal themselves when you stop getting shot.

Bioshock Infinite - we've come a long way, in some respects at least.
Nearly a decade and a half on, the graphics are prettier, but the concept remains essentially untouched. A few months ago, I bought a copy of Bioshock Infinite. It looks lovely, and I'm a sucker for a game with good atmosphere - but after a few hours, I realised that I had played this game before. Not just once, but dozens of times. The backdrops vary, and the weapons change a little from game to game, but the basic template is the same. Perhaps there's nothing wrong with that - we're still playing platform games thirty years after Manic Miner, after all - but I think I may have had my fill.

It may be that the genre doesn't change much because the developers know what sells. There's a new Call of Duty every year, a new Battlefield nearly as often, and they shift in huge numbers, but they don't do much for me. It's all about the multiplayer for these franchises, and multiplayer FPS doesn't float my boat. I'm not entirely sure why. I think it's the culture. I play games to relax and to be entertained. I prefer to go at my own pace. Single player campaigns in CoD tend to be bolt-on affairs - I was lent a copy of Ghosts recently, and the intro bored me to tears. Please note, this is an intro that features a gun battle in space. That's gaming gold you're working with there. To make it dull takes a rare talent.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against FPS games. The gaming world as we know it wouldn't - couldn't - exist without them. I just think the magic may have gone out of our relationship. I think it's time to move on. FPS, it's not you - it's me.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

It's been emotional

Can games inspire emotion?

The Walking Dead: guaranteed to make you question every choice you make.

Whether you instinctively answer 'yes' or 'no' probably depends on what emotion sprang to your mind first. Gaming has made all of us emotional at some point - that's part of the attraction - but some emotions are more familiar than others.
An overly difficult game may give rise to intense feelings of frustration, even real anger (I've never personally thrown a pad across the room, but I can understand the impulse). You know the story - you've got to grips with the game and its controls, you're making steady progress, and then a savage difficulty spike stops you in your tracks in much the same manner as one of the mats the police use to shred the tyres of speeding cars. Of course, when you finally clear it, the exhilaration can be equally intense. I recently succeeded in killing the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls after about a dozen failed attempts, and the feeling of unbridled joy made up for all the previous frustration. Well, almost.

We all love to be thrilled when we're gaming, and games often achieve this by generating anxiety. The tension of an XCOM battle on the point of going sour; the timer ticking away as you race to complete a mission in Grand Theft Auto; the flesh-crawling creepiness of exploring a new area in Dead Space; the famous dogs-through-the-window scene in Resident Evil.

What about 'finer' feelings, though? Can a video game inspire affection? Compassion? Sadness? Grief? They're not emotions one immediately associates with the medium. Perhaps this is because gaming is a predominantly male pastime, and as a gender we're generally more comfortable playing with big guns and fast cars than discussing our feelings. If there were a developer out there mad enough to code an emote 'em up, it might struggle to find a niche. Even when games have attempted pathos, they haven't always achieved it. When Aeris died part way through Final Fantasy 7, once I realised she wasn't coming back, the first thing I felt wasn't loss or regret, but mild irritation. Who the hell was I going to use as a healer now?

However, as the genre has matured, there have been exceptions. Telltale's The Walking Dead, released last year in a series of 5 episodes, attracted high praise for its believable characters and strong story. By presenting the player with a series of moral dilemmas, it also induced feelings of compassion, guilt and regret, none of them commonly seen in a gaming context. To the Moon was criticised by some for being more of an interactive story than a game, but this wasn't hard to forgive because the story was so good - a rich tale of sadness and loss, which transcended the 16-bit style graphics. The best thing about it is the way it's told - the player is never given more than a few pieces of the puzzle at once, and the complete picture doesn't become clear until the very end.

A few weeks ago I played through Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, made by Starbreeze Studios and released on Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network and Steam. It's an adventure game, clearly inspired by the Brothers Grimm and similar folk tales (in their original and uncensored form). You take charge of the titular brothers, the game's 'hook' being that you control both simultaneously. Big brother is your left hand and little brother your right, and the two must work together to overcome the obstacles the game puts in your path. Like all great ideas, this one works so effortlessly that you can't believe nobody thought of it before.

The game looks gorgeous and the setting is detailed and imaginative (one section places you in the aftermath of a battle between armies of giants, where you must figure out ways to move giant corpses blocking your way). It's not a long game - you can play through it in three or four hours - but they're very entertaining hours indeed, and it's more than worth the asking price.

Brothers - care has been lavished on the environments, and it's a proper visual feast.

I'd love to say precisely why I'm talking about it right now, but sadly I can't, as it would involve utterly game-ruining spoilers, and I enjoyed playing it so much I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. However, I can honestly say that there were a number of points in this game where I was genuinely moved, and not by the story alone. Brothers has no intelligible dialogue - all the characters speak Flowerpot Men-esque nonsense - so the content of conversations is conferred by gesture, facial expression and intonation. This is both endearing and immersive, since the player fills in the words in their own head. Also, the game has very few cut-scenes, meaning that you're not shown the emotional moments, you experience them first-hand.

I encourage everyone to play this game. It's not perfect (for a start, you'll polish it off in a single evening) but it's not afraid to try original ideas and to take the medium in a new direction. I'll always remember the time I spent with it - one or two sections especially - and I can't offer any praise higher than that.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Bedlam - a novel set inside games

 I can't put into words how much I love Christopher Brookmyre's books. If you haven't read any of them, stop wasting time reading this and go and read one. At once. Why are you still here?

Bedlam is Brookmyre's fifteenth novel, and represents something of a departure from his previous work. Most of the previous fourteen have straddled the border between crime novel and thriller. As a Scottish writer, they are often described as belonging to the 'Tartan Noir' genre alongside the works of Ian Rankin. He has a flair for the grotesque and the gruesome, and is genuinely and consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Honestly, I meant what I said a minute ago. Go and read one.

Over the last few years, he has followed the lead of the late, great Iain Banks, and has published novels under two subtly different names. His last two crime novels (slightly more serious in tone) have 'Chris Brookmyre' on the covers, whereas the last two books credited to 'Christopher' have been slightly different, and more experimental. Pandaemonium  was a contemporary story which incorporated some elements of science fiction as the plot developed. Bedlam, by contrast, is set almost entirely in the virtual world of video games.

This change of subject matter doesn't come as a total surprise. Brookmyre outed himself as a fellow ageing gamer in 2001, with the publication of A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away. The story, whose reluctant hero is a former gamer who becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot, contains multiple nods to classic FPS games, Half-Life and Quake in particular, and culminates in a showdown at a power station named Dubh Ardrain (Scots Gaelic for Black Mesa).

The difference in Bedlam is that the story takes place inside the gaming world itself, where characters have an independent existence rather similar to that seen in the film 'Wreck-It Ralph'. The main protagonist wakes to find himself stuck in a (fictional) game named Starfire, which combines the setting of Halo with the unbridled violence and machismo of Gears of War. Brookmyre pokes fun at a host of FPS staples: hopelessly underpowered starting weaponry (plus the inability to pick up better guns from deceased foes), endlessly repeating cut-scenes, supporting characters with absurdly macho names, and the curious inability of otherwise indestructible characters to hold their breath underwater for more than a few seconds. The FPS genre is clearly his spiritual home - there's a discussion of deathmatch tactics at one point, and also a disparaging mention of the later rise of the 'cover shooter' - blamed here on the unsuitablity of console gamepads for the precise aiming required by an FPS (A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree).

As the story develops, it moves from game to game and genre to genre, always mentioning the odd peculiarities of each (Why do so many games route the player through the sewers? Why are present-day developers so obsessed with zombies? Why doesn't anyone in Assassin's Creed ever look up?)

I don't wish to give away spoilers, but suffice it to say that the tale has a number of trademark twists - and in true Brookmyre style, nothing is ever quite as it seems. There may, however, be a boss fight in there somewhere.

JSW - 5 minutes to load 48K of game.
Bedlam  is a highly enjoyable read, especially for those of us old enough to 'get' the references to Voodoo 1-era graphics cards and to Jet Set Willy (apparently, if data transfer speeds had remained the same, loading one of the Total War games would now take several years). What I'd be forced to admit, though, is that it's a long way from being Brookmyre's best book. This isn't altogether surprising - after more than a dozen novels, this is something quite different, and naturally it doesn't flow quite as well as his usual writing. Having said that, I'd still rather read a bad Brookmyre than the best efforts of most other authors, and Bedlam  isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination.

I recommend this novel to all older gamers, with one proviso. If you've really never read a Brookmyre novel before, read one of the others first. Which one you read doesn't especially matter, but my recommendation would be the aforementioned A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, as you can at least be certain you'll get all the in-jokes.

Friday, 17 May 2013

What do gamers want? Part 2

Oops, so much for the posting schedule. Missed April entirely, plus more than half of May. Still, here's part two of this. Hope you like it.

There's nothing like a game which really sucks you into its world. This can be done in many ways. It might be through the quality of the story, or by creating a sense of 'being there', or simply by being so maddeningly addictive that hours pass, unnoticed, until you 'surface' well after midnight.



2 (a) - Storytelling
Famous example - Planescape: Torment (PC, 1999)

I've previously remarked on the blog that games don't generally go in for complex plots. Some don't bother with them at all. This makes it all the more satisfying when you come across one which bucks the trend.

With Torment, Black Isle chose to place the story at the very centre of the experience - and rightly so, for what a story it was. Your character (referred to as Nameless One for obvious reasons) wakes up on a mortuary slab. He has no memory of how he came to be there, and soon realises he cannot die - if he falls in combat, he simply wakes up back on the slab.

As you speak with other characters, you realise that they remember you from previous lives - of which you have no memory - and you gradually piece your story together. It's both dark and adult in tone, and related mostly by dialogue - almost uniquely for an RPG, combat takes a back seat, and talking to people is more likely to get results than fighting them.

Torment, of course, is set to make a comeback, with its spiritual sequel, Tides of Numenera. We can only hope that as much care will be lavished on the story in the new game as was on its predecessor.

The graphics aren't up to much nowadays, but stick with it - it's worth it.

2 (b) - Exploration
Famous example : Morrowind (PC, 2000)

As was mentioned in Part 1, it's very rewarding when a game allows you to deviate from the main story and to play exactly as you see fit. Occasionally, though, a game will not just permit this, but actively reward players who just can't resist poking around in odd corners.

The earliest examples of this were found in platform games, such as the Mario series, where making the effort to get to the most inaccessible parts of a level would often be rewarded. Many RPGs also make it worth the player's while to look everywhere and inspect everything - doing this in a Final Fantasy game (or at least in the older ones where you could wander the world map) was often the only way to discover the game's best items, and even additional characters. Even FPS games have got in on the act from time to time - Doom 2 placed a chainsaw directly behind the player at the very start of the game, as a free gift for those who just have to explore every nook and cranny.

Morrowind's more celebrated sequels, Oblivion and Skyrim, also catered to those afflicted by wanderlust, and raised the graphical bar enormously, but neither could match the sheer scale of their predecessor. As I said in part 1, there was a whole lot of Morrowind in which to get lost, and always something else to discover - a mage who falls out of the sky at the very start of the game, a tomb containing a Viking burial ship, even the corpse of Indiana Jones...

Morrowind also featured more unusual geography than its successors.

2 (c) - Meaningful Choices
Famous example - Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)

The concept of a player's decisions making a real difference to the plot of the game is something of a Holy Grail in game design - highly prized, much sought after... and possibly mythical. Obviously it's not possible for designers to write a game with hundreds of different plots to reflect every last parallel possibility, but sometimes it's all too obvious that a game is giving you an illusion of choice, and that the story will pan out exactly the same way no matter what you do.

Many games have got around this by offering multiple endings - the main plot is unaffected, but the choices you make affect the way the story finishes. Some games (notably the Silent Hill series) can end in several different ways, but this device has more commonly resulted in 'good' endings for players who have been upstanding citizens, and 'bad' endings for those whose conduct has been less exemplary. It also means that, if you want to know whether the in-game decisions matter or not, you have to play through the entire game at least twice (or go hunting for spoilers on the Web).

Making a game's story develop differently as you play it is a lot harder to accomplish, but it can be done. Fallout 3, for example, offers the player the early choice of either saving or destroying the settlement of Megaton. Although the effect on the overall story isn't enormous, the player's 'base' from then on can be one of two distinctly different locations, substantially altering the game experience.

I choose Mass Effect here simply because the series attempted something I haven't seen in any other gaming franchise. In the first game, you're offered a stark choice of how to handle an alien threat - and the choice you make then affects events in the later games in the series. A gimmick? Perhaps, but still commendable, purely for trying something different.

A typical cut-scene. The dialogue's pretty good, which is fortunate as this happens a lot.

2 (d) - A sense of 'being there'
Famous example - Deus Ex (PC, 2000)

During the early stages of Deus Ex, whilst prowling the back alleys of New York, you come across a deserted basketball court. There's a ball there too, lying abandoned on the tarmac. You pick it up, naturally - it's clearly there as an invitation. It's at this point you realise that the game's physics engine will allow you to shoot some hoop. I spent at least ten minutes trying to perfect my throw so that it dropped through perfectly, no rim. I'm sure I wasn't the only one.

Did this have anything to do with the game? No. Was there a purpose to it? Of course not. It was just put there as a bit of fun, a light-hearted moment in a game whose subject matter tended towards the dark and weighty, but it's one of my best and strongest memories of the game. It made the game world feel more like a real place. It placed you inside your character's head in a way that pure gameplay cannot. That sort of detail can make the difference between a game that is remembered fondly and one that is remembered as a classic of the genre.

When DE: Human Revolution appeared, 11 years later, it also featured a basketball court. Clearly someone at Eidos pays attention to customer feedback.

That's the court right there.

2 (e) - To be part of an epic story
Famous example - Final Fantasy VII (Playstation, 1997)

Game designers may not always do coherent plots, but they do like to have it large, and I could have picked any number of titles to illustrate this. What better example, though, than the first JRPG to crack the Western market?

As I've mentioned previously on the blog, my Damascene moment with this series involved FF VI - but I've gone with VII here. To explain why, I offer the intro sequence. It begins with a tight shot of Aeris walking down an alley. As she steps out, the camera pulls back to show first a busy street, then a whole district, and finally the whole city of Midgar. The game's title appears. Then the camera spirals back down into a different part of the city, ending at a station with a train just pulling in. Out of this jump several people, including Cloud, your main character. It's huge, it's cinematic, and it drops you straight into the story. Damn, now I really want to play it again. It works on the PS3, I just need a spare week or two...

(Should the video bug surface again, click here)

Immersion can be accomplished in many ways - sometimes by enormity of scale, and other times by the tiniest of details. The bottom line, though, is that when we play games, one of the things we wish for most is to feel like a part of their world. As a medium, videogames can provide a purer sort of escapism than almost any other form of entertainment. Long may they continue to do so.