January 20, 2008

Commentary: Indigo Prophecy

Indigo Prophecy is a strange beast. On one hand, it's story-centric, so I instantly like it. On the other hand, its approach to storytelling in games just feels so... wrong.

Let's get the praise out of the way first. The game kept me playing through the end, the voice acting and motion capture are top-notch, and with the exception of a third-act meltdown as the plot rapidly got ridiculous, the story was excellent.

But as stated in Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, when dealing with interactivity, what matters is what you do. And in Indigo Prophecy's case, what you most often do is play repetitive reaction-based button-matching minigames in order to determine your character's success in action sequences. These action sequences are wicked cool, too. But they're cool to watch, not to play. Since Indigo Prophecy secretly wants to be a film (the opening menu lists "New Movie" instead of "New Game"), that's hardly surprising.

You also get to choose what topics you want to bring up in conversation. A lot of the time, this presents somewhat interesting choices, but you stop caring about them once you figure out that the vast majority have little to no effect on the game. The range of conversation choices is also extremely limited most of the time. Also, the game somtimes decides to artificially limit the number of topics you can bring up. As a police investigator, this gets frustrating when you need to ask someone about four different things but get cut off after two. Why can't you just finish talking?

There are other minigames that are introduced, too, including the obligatory and tedious sneaking mission and a more tense and welcome minigame in which you try to prevent your character from having a panic attack. Several times you're given a strict time limit to complete some simple task, like find an item or hide somewhere, before something catastrophic happens (the building blows up, the police arrive to arrest you).

It seems that the goal of the developer was to elicit in the player whatever feelings the the character was experiencing. The time limits induce increasing anxiety, the threat of a panic attack forces the player to stay calm and control the character's breathing, and the action sequences demand quick reflexes.

To some degree, this works, but it still feels wrong. You're being taken along for the ride, rather than actually controlling the characters. It's participatory, but not interactive. Like in a movie, all the major decisions are made for you by professional storytellers; in effect, the story is being held hostage behind a barrier of minigames. The result is that the action sequences are sweet and the story is good, but I feel no special connection to the characters that might have been garnered through interactivity.

January 18, 2008

Commentary: Deus Ex: Invisible War

I've made it clear in the past that Deus Ex is one of my favorite games of all time and conforms most to my own vision for games-as-art. Since the teaser trailer for Deus Ex 3 just came out, I figured that it was high time that I spent some time with the middle child. Besides, it's on GameTap.

I'd heard a lot of bad things about Invisible War, but I knew that these was partially due to everybody's high expectations when it came out. That said, once the game started up and my (male) character started to talk, the voice acting made me cringe. You can't deliver lines like "I just saw a man die" in a deadpan. I restarted with the female main character, who was good enough for me to continue playing.

I soon became upset that there were so few "normal" people in the game. I preferred the early levels of Deus Ex because they were filled with normal people just living their lives. There are only a few in Invisible War, and the majority of the NPCs in some areas are just "Thug".

That's not to say that everything Invisible War did was wrong on the story/environment front. There are a lot of nice additions. The two competing coffee chains, for instance (though they probably shouldn't have acted as reliable sources of optional quests). Or the international pop star, NG Resonance, who shows up primarily as an AI bot with whom you can chat in public places. Plus, as in Deus Ex, there are several early-introduced main characters who each have their own satisfying story arc.

But in comparison to the original, this iteration just doesn't hold its weight in creating a believable world. Maybe it's just that everything's too futuristic to relate to, but I just couldn't get sucked in. In Deus Ex you were surrounded by people who were just getting by, trying to survive in the wake of a devastating plague, while the rich got shipped a secret vaccine. That a terrorist/secessionist group rose up to fight for the people seems almost inevitable in that context. The different factions and their motives feel reasonable.

In Invisible War, the two biggest factions are the WTO, whose big selling point is enforced economic stratification and trade controls, and the Order, which is defined primarily by a bunch of talk about internal balance and such. They make some sense... but it's hard to imagine that the whole world is dividing along these lines.

Luckily, the game's plot proceeds rapidly after a somewhat slow start, so you don't spend much time with the less-than-intriguing initial dynamics. The choices that it presents really are interesting. Personally, I felt beholden to consistently carry out JC Denton's original intentions, but most of the choices are well-balanced.

But where I really appreciated this game was on the gameplay front. The new developers radically simplified the character customization by removing Skills, which previously governed things like weapon accuracy and lockpicking, and scaling down the biomod system, which governs special abilities like cloaking or hacking. The result is that each biomod becomes more potent and creates a new set of strategies.

For example, at one point I had to take down a gigantic military robot reminiscent of an AT-AT from Star Wars. I turned on my speed enhancement biomod and charged it. Because of my increased speed, I could avoid the rockets it sent at me. I got close and used my Bot Domination biomod (which was illegal in the game world and therefore harder to find) and ran away again. After 10 seconds, I gained first-person control of the bot for a minute and used it to wreak havoc on the enemy.

These sorts of interesting strategies weren't limited to creative biomod use. In one mission, I had to assassinate someone, but she was in a secure room with a guard and a security camera. I used a sniper rifle to take out the guard in the hall and an EMP weapon to disable the hallway security camera. I then used a "noisemaker grenade" outside of the door. My target and the guard left the monitored room to investigate and I took them both out with two quick sniper shots from the other side of the hall.

Liberal use of biomods and the sniper rifle made this game pretty easy in most sections, but they also made me feel like a badass covert-ops agent. Which, I should note, I was.

Ultimately, I confess that I had more fun with Invisible War than with Deus Ex, which I was not expecting. That said, Invisible War didn't inspire me like its predecessor did. Deus Ex was a landmark for including subtle interactive exposition and choices that felt important and flowed naturally. Invisible War doesn't deliver as much in that department, but it's still a great game.

January 17, 2008

Commentary: Rez

I first heard about Rez from Penny Arcade; Gabe listed it as his favorite game. That got me curious, so I started reading up on it. I read about how it featured procedurally created music, where the player helps create the soundtrack. I read about how it evoked a feeling of synesthesia (the mixing of senses) in the player, where the gameplay and music melded together. I read about how you couldn't be sure whether you were playing the game or whether it was playing you. That pushed me from curious to intrigued, and I hopped on eBay and bought a used copy (the only one available).

My first experience with playing Rez was thrilling. After popping the disc in the PS2 and starting up the first level, I could immediately tell what all the fuss was about. Every time I targeted something, every time I fired, and every time I hit an enemy, I'd hear a different sound; together, they made some pretty sweet trance music.

Unfortunately, things went downhill after that. After the first section of the first level, a more dominating background music starts up. The sounds from your actions in the game are still present, but they eventually start to get washed out. The rest of the first level, and the second, and the third, and the fourth all resulted in disappointment. The levels are rather short, so I kept playing, and I had some fun with it, but I felt let down. This was not "synesthesia". It was cool, but it was not revolutionary. The elements were there, but I just couldn't hear them.

But the fifth level reversed my opinion yet again. First of all, the climactic level features a healthy injection of powerful imagery representing life's evolution from the primitive sea to the modern day. Second, the difficulty is adjusted based on your previous performance to provide a more intense experience. Lastly, and most importantly, the music is great. The overpowering background music of the previous levels is replaced by something more low-key that melds perfectly with the gameplay-generated musical additions. It's truly a novel experience, and it's really in this level that Rez delivers.

I should note that the game is a somewhat standard rail shooter with no especially innovative gameplay. A story is present, but it's present mostly in the manual; it's something about a rogue supercomputer that you have to infiltrate, presumably by shooting everything that moves. The graphics deserve some accolades for succeeding in their highly stylized nature. The inside-a-computer look and the trance music match perfectly.

There's been a lot of talk about how Rez is a prime example of games-as-art, and it's connection to the Russian painter Wassily Kadinsky (see the bottom section of this page) certainly gives that view credence. Normally when I've thought about games-as-art, I've considered the story/narrative elements and the game mechanics; essentially, I've thought that games can be art either through the story that it tells (interactively, of course) or through the systems that it models. Rez adds another perspective: games can be art by providing a unique sensory experience. The combination of stylized graphics, pulsing haptic feedback, and procedural music really makes this game something wholly new, and any hardcore gamer owes it to himself or herself to find a copy of Rez (or buy the upcoming Rez HD on XBox Live Arcade) and play it to completion.

January 14, 2008

"The Videogame as an Expressive Medium"

I opened the Dartmouth student daily newspaper today and discovered that there would be a lecture entitled "The Videogame as an Expressive Medium" on campus. One of the benefits to being in college, I suppose.

The lecture was given by Mary Flanagan, PhD, who has an impressive resume, and the audience consisted mainly of professors. She was a game designer, not a Game Designer. Dr. Flanagan presented herself primarily as a scholar and an artist who uses games as her medium. At one point she defined a designer as one who solves problems for an auidence while an artist is one who asks questions or attempts to express something. Game design, it became clear, was only one part of her work.

The lecture itself quickly delved into a vocabulary that I was unfamiliar with. I was able to follow some of the references to "representation" and "relational systems", but a lot of the terms used were abstract, academic, artistic, and ultimately over my head. Chris Crawford dedicated a chapter of his book Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling to the divide between artists and engineers in the gaming world; while Dr. Flanagan had a wide and interdisciplinary set of skills, it seemed to me that she stood distinctly on the artistic side of that line.

Her projects revealed this. Consider [giantJoystick], an installation project that consists of a gigantic Atari Joystick connected to a standard Atari system connected to a gigantic projector screen. The games are only playable if a group of people negotiate how they will work together to move the controls, creating a social gaming experience out of a normally straightforward, solitaire game.

I'm more interested in the software for now, but that's not to say that I couldn't get anything out of a high-level academic lecture. One easy and interesting takeaway was her list of the different ways that games could be expressive: rules (as in The Marriage), style (I've also heard the word "color" used for this quality), characters, agency itself (i.e. the freedom to choose and to do), the way decisions manifest in the game, and the nature of the interaction (i.e. just shooting everything vs. having a song shared with you in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

The most interesting bit, though, was her statement that "the mechanic is the message." As Jonathan Blow discussed, game designers have largely ignored the potential effects of game mechanics on the player, which is especially unforunate since "systems are biased towards producing truth". Dr. Flanagan made a similar point. After all, she claimed, you can't say that your game is about world hunger when the only mechanic is collecting or shooting things.

January 12, 2008

Commentary: M.E.H.

M.E.H. is my the last game that I made in high school. It's available for download from TJGames.org.

The initials, I should note, don't stand for anything. Or, more accurately, they stand for something different every time you open up the game.

The game is a top-down shoot-em-up. Players choose a set of enemies, who are worth a certain bounty, and then destroy them. The resulting money can be used to upgrade the ship.

I had a number of goals when I made M.E.H., and now that I'm old and wise I think that it's high time I reflect on these. The primary reason I made M.E.H. was to continue practicing programming in Java. I certainly got better and learned a lot, but I can also state fairly conclusively that the programming is extremely sloppy. I promised some friends that I'd have it done by a certain date, so I ended up experiencing my first "crunch time", which lasted for two days. I hope that nobody ever sees the menu code that I made during that time. It's hideous.

But I also wanted to accomplish specific things from the design front as well. I've always loved customization in games, as in the Armored Core series. I wanted people to be able to upgrade along any one of several parallel paths. So for instance, I offered hulls that were slow and powerful as well as hulls that were fast and light as well as hulls that were balanced, and there were two levels (cheap and expensive) of each. I did the same with weapons and generators (whose energy was necessary to power both movement and shooting). The item choice became the game's strength; customizing the ship in different ways was most of the fun for me.

The enemies I created were also varied. There were four types: the weak, dumb, common enemies that would stop in place to shoot you, the fast and agile enemies that would swoop down upon you and then run away, the powerful but weak enemies that would snipe from a distance, and the large and slow enemies that fired a constant spread of shots. I was immensely satisfied with how the AI turned out, especially on the agile enemies. They behaved just like I wanted them to.

Unfortunately, all of this didn't make the game fun. It's pretty good for an amateur attempt, but not objectively good. The problem came with player control. Moving fast was the best way to evade enemy shots, and so the best tactic was to continuously charge forward, occasionally turning. Aiming and energy conservation were a bit too hard, and I found these tough to balance. The best strategy was to get the fastest hull and the spread weapon and just spam all over the map. It was fun to play with the customizations for a short while, but the gameplay wasn't there to back it up.

Perhaps with a bit more perspective and time, I could have fixed the balance issues (the charged shot weapon, for instance, was never a good choice) and made gameplay a bit more strategic or skill-based. Instead, I pushed it out the door.

For a high school game, I'm satisfied with how M.E.H. turned out, but it's not something I plan to hold up as evidence of my skill.

January 11, 2008


We all know the feeling. You've plotted carefully, planned everything perfectly, executed flawlessly, and then a roll of the dice takes it all away. I've permanently burned into my memory all of the times that I've had the rug swept out from under me in a game of Risk or Dice Wars.

Of course, complaining about the randomness in a game called Dice Wars is like complaining that In-N-Out Burger doesn't provide a slow and relaxing dining experience; it's true, but you're still a dumbass for pointing it out. And I can't deny that the game, which is built around a highly random game mechanic, makes for fantastic fun despite the occasional unfairness. Indeed, chance is one of the fundamental sources of the elusive quality labeled "fun".

This doesn't mean that randomness is fun, though. Rolling a die, hoping to get a six, is not a fun game. The difference between rolling a die and Dice Wars is that, in the latter, the player usually has a significant amount of control over his place in the game. "Significant" in this sense means that your decisions have a high potential to determine whether or not you win the game.

I don't think that the makers of Dice Wars would advertise their game as offering "the possibility of defeat regardless of how skilled you are!" The game plays very well when superior strategy eventually beats through the randomness and wins (as it usually does), but it sucks to have your fortunes reversed when you're rightfully winning.

So what role, then, should randomness play in a game's design?

Most games seem to think that random elements have some place. Some games even include chance when it's totally unnecessary. Take, for example, the standard attacks in games like Heroes of Might and Magic or Warcraft 3, wherein the ranges of randomness are narrow or always balance out. Changing "23-27" to "25" is not going to visibly affect the gameplay. I'm not sure if the randomness is an early feature that was grandfathered into the final design, or if random elements are part of some sort of game design checklist, or if the designers really feel that the minuscule chance of a major change in gameplay adds to the appeal of a strategy game. I really don't know. Of course, I LOVE these games, but I'm much more impressed by something like Diplomacy that actually boasts that it lacks random elements.

My only complaint about randomness is that it leads to arbitrary events in gameplay, and arbitrariness doesn't lend itself to fun. But it's worth noting that the feeling of arbitrariness isn't only created by random number generators. Imagine that you're running along in Battlefield 2. Suddenly, an artillery shell drops out of the sky and blows your character to smithereens. It was not a random event; the enemy commander chose to shell that particular area of ground, but the switch from safe to deadly was sudden; the death feels arbitrary, a nuisance that keeps you from the real action and fun of the game for that much longer.

The same scenario can play out in a lot of deterministic games. What if, in Diplomacy, a bunch of other players gang up on you simultaneously, each action on his own volition (i.e. not in alliance with the others)? Or what if you're playing a non-randomized rock-paper-scissors-style RTS against a friend who just so happens to choose the strategy that always beats yours?

The perception of arbitrariness, then, can be born of player action as well as game-generated randomness. This is an incredibly important point when games are viewed in a holistic perspective. What does the player compete against? Either other players (whose actions are variable), a random element of the game (as in most solitaire games), or against set obstacles. But a game that is played versus set obstacles is more properly a puzzle (which can be included in games but is not itself a game). From this analysis, all games are played against pseudorandom elements.

But playing solitaire and playing against another person still feel very different. The reason is that, while the other player might do anything, his or her decisions will be constrained by his own strategy and skill. If you only build bombers, your opponent won't only build tanks. To continue with the RTS metaphor, the reason that people don't bitch about an enemy's surprising strategy is because they have the ability to scout out the opponent's base and see that strategy firsthand. If you couldn't scout before a battle in an RPS-style RTS, the game would feel arbitrary.

In the Battlefield 2 artillery example, the arbitrary feeling could be fixed if each team had a counter that made visible the time left before the other team's artillery could be fired. You're left with a time-sensitive mission to destroy the artillery before time is too late; if the guns are standing ready, infantry would have to spend time under cover. Because the possibility of an artillery strike is known, it won't feel arbitrary.

So there's a useful takeaway: if a player's actions are obscured from another player, then scouting must be available. Otherwise, just reveal what the other player is doing. Chess and Go do fine without hiding anything from the other player. Even modern RTSs are starting to take the hint by adding visible countdown timers for superweapons or announcing when important units are being built.

But while this solves the perceived randomness of multiplayer games, it doesn't inform us about how (or if) to include genuine random elements in game design. What about Dice Wars?

The best answer I can give right now is that it depends on what type of game you're making. You can either go for the sort of fun that comes with a slot machine, or the sort that comes from a test of skill or strategy. Randomness has a place in a game like Dice Wars or poker primarily as a means of simplifying or abstracting a layer of gameplay. In Dice Wars, it's understood that each attack should have a possibility of winning or losing, with the higher count having a better chance to win. Rather than simulating this with a sub-game, Dice Wars just rolls the dice. Poker offers a test of skill that is entirely based around managing randomness and judging probability, since the player controls the betting. Like Dice Wars, it is a test of skill because the random elements are expected to average out. If they don't, it is accepted that the game is flawed as a test of skill.

Ultimately, games have to be either cheap fun in which randomness dominates or deeper, high-commitment fun that acts as a challenge. Mixing the two necessarily dilutes one or the other. Dice Wars is more accessible than Go, but it won't be a timeless strategic showdown. Slots is extremely accessible, but it won't keep people playing for very long. Unless they're addicted to gambling, but we can't much help that.

January 8, 2008

SupCom's Best

After becoming enamored with the robot on the front page of March's PC Gamer, I decided to dip back into RTS territory for Supreme Commander. The game promised to take the genre to a never-before-seen scale, with battles large enough that strategy, rather than micromanagement, is what counts. The huge maps, massive armies, and exceedingly satisfying explosions all made the game feel big. I'll be damned if I didn't feel at the time like the fate of the galaxy rested on my shoulders. This was war. This was epic.

One skirmish match stands out in my memory as my favorite moment in all of my RTS experience. The match was 2v2, with me and an artificial intelligence on one side and two AIs on the other. The map was gigantic. Each group had a continent, ripe with resources, separated from each other by a huge ocean that was broken only by a thin land bridge connecting the two sides. This meant that all land forces were funneled into a small channel of fighting, which made for some prime strategizing.

Upon starting, my immediate focus was, naturally, to secure all the resources I could and to build up defenses on the land bridge. I built walls, shields, turrets, anti-air guns, everything. It was like the Korean DMZ. The pace of construction was frantic. That little strip of land became my only military center. If I could stop all attacks there, I figured, the match would be mine. At first, this was pretty successful. My enemies would send in a few light bombers, some tanks, maybe something heavier now and then, but nothing stood a chance. I had time, money, and security. It was time to begin the only project that mattered: the Mavor.

The Mavor is the name of a huge, game-winning artillery gun that's capable of hitting any stationary target from any range with pinpoint accuracy. It's only disadvantage is its prohibitively long build time. But it's worth it since it's one of those weapons that makes you cackle with glee every time it fires. I started early.

Now, it's worth noting that the Mavor isn't the only major character in this battle. Each side has a few extremely strong, game-defining units that only it can build. My enemy, for example, could build something called the Galactic Colossus. The Galactic Colossus is a gigantic humanoid robot that can crush all smaller units under its feet and destroy almost anything with its huge, sweeping laser beam. I discovered this when one of these charming fellows walked over my extensive, carefully-built defensive network with barely a scratch. I was heartbroken.

So my defensive network was gone, and had proven itself ultimately useless late in the game. I was able to take out the Colossus before it reached my base, and I began to plan a new, better defense. They'll never be able to beat me now!

I was in the midst of this when the narrator helpfully chimed in with "Strategic launch detected." That meant that someone had fired a nuclear missile, and it had not been me. I watched the blinking icon on my little radar screen descend and touch, almost gently, down to land. A flash of light, and then it was gone. So was my base. So was almost all of my army. So was the half-finished Mavor. Curses! Foiled again!

If I had any sense of perspective, I would have exited the game at this point. I had almost entirely lost. But I was too invested in it to stop then. My thought at the time was not "Hmm, maybe I should go outside" but rather "Oh, now it's on." I pulled back all my engineers to my useless computerized ally's base and began a few specific projects: bombers to stop another Colossus, anti-nuclear defenses, my own nuclear missile silo, and a brand new Mavor. I was focused this time. I had learned from my mistakes of the last two hours, and it was time to turn the tide.

They sent a few more Colossi, which I stopped short with a team of high-powered bombers. They fired another few nukes, but could never hit my new base thanks to the new defenses. My own nukes eventually finished building. And after a long period of waiting and managing my defenses, the Mavor was finished. It aimed, it fired, and I cackled with glee.

Each shot punctured whatever shields they had installed and destroyed the structures beneath in huge clumps. I sent in some scout planes and learned all that I needed to know: the locations of their anti-nuke defenses. A few Mavor shells later, and these defenses were gone. You know what had to come next.


Payback's a bitch.

January 6, 2008

Commentary: Façade

Façade is perhaps the most ambitious independent game project that I've every seen. For those who haven't heard, the game is designed to be an interactive drama. You play as the longtime friend of Grace and Trip, who's marriage is falling apart. Your actions (which are very limited) and words (which aren't so limited) affect how the story plays out.

The game does a lot of things right. The graphics are a bit goofy at first, but you get used to them, and they emphasize the important parts such as facial expressions. The voice acting is superb throughout. When Grace and Trip argue, it's convincing and powerful. And while the game is short (it lasts for about 15 minutes), it can be replayed several times before it loses freshness.

That said, interactive storytelling requires that all of the elements be just right before it works. In this case, the natural language parser that the game uses is obviously flawed. That's not so much a fault of the designers as it is an inevitable outcome for such an ambitious project.

There were several times that I'd suggest something sensible to one of the characters and they would reply "That doesn't even make any sense!" or "You think I'm... not communicative?". The parser is clearly set to pick up on certain words in order to figure out what is being said, and it fails often. Another manifestation of this problem is when you try to get in-depth on a topic; if you try to make another point about, say, the possibility of an affair, the characters are liable to yell at you for bringing up a subject that they've already discussed.

And so while Façade is interesting, and I advise everyone to play it a few times, it ultimately fails. The final product is fun to watch and well-produced in many ways, but the introduction of interactivity, as has happened to most attempts at interactive storytelling, breaks everything down.

Chris Crawford suggested in his latest book that a better solution for dealing with language is to present a set of menus for what words would make sense to the copmuter at that point in the sentence. Word-by-word the player assembles a sentence that the computer is guarenteed to understand. This limits the number of things that a player can say, but it eliminates the frustration of being misunderstood by the technology. Façade with menu-based language might be a fantastic game.

January 4, 2008

Saved Games and Player Death

I once read a rant on some game review site that game designers no longer had any excuse for limiting the player's ability to save the game. Technical restrictions weren't a problem anymore, so just let us do as we please!

But that viewpoint, though common among players, ignores the importance of player death in gameplay. Generally, in any game, there is a possibility that you could lose. Saving eliminates that possibility. For a sufficiently devoted player, constant saving means that there's no possibility of failure at any level, and so any sort of tension that the game wants to create evaporates immediately. The worst that could happen is replaying a short bit of the game, so like Office Space's Peter Gibbon's, the only incentive to perform well is to avoid being hassled.

Marty M. O'Hale wrote a great article about this dilemma in The Escapist. As games got harder, players saved more often. Once designers saw this, they could justify adding more difficulties (including arbitrary obstacles such as deathtraps or highly randomized damage). In a sports game or casual game, we'd think it ludicrous to save before every single decision, but in RPGs and FPSs it's taken for granted.

O'Hale suggests that the solution is to replace player death with different types of gameplay-related setbacks. Rather than have the player die and reload, find some way to penalize the player and introduce a new situation. Penalties should never be random, and the player should only have to save upon ending a gaming session.

I can think of one game that already implements this system: Diablo 2. In D2, each death is accompanied by a loss in money and possibly experience. The player must then retrieve his "body" without the use of any of his previous equipment. The player is penalized, death creates temporary new gameplay possibilities, and saving is only available upon exiting the game. There's even a Hardcore mode, in which death is permanent, for the truly skilled and daring.

Prey and Bioshock also both attempted to circumvent the quicksave-die-reload cycle by implementing in-game respawning, though both also allowed saving at any time. These solutions, however, were lambasted for removing any penalty from death. Oddly enough, respawning automatically in-game was considered to be substantially worse than reloading. But if these games had included a more substantial penalty with each death and had removed the ability to save at any time, I suspect that they would both play better.

Games that try to reach this goal of limiting saving while improving gameplay have a whole new set of problems to deal with. Because losing now genuinely matters, the player has to be given several chances to overcome an obstacle. If he's run out of ammo, he has to be able to sneak. If he gets caught sneaking, he should be able to talk. If he's unconvincing, he needs to be able to run for it. If he gets caught, he can eventually escape. Each failure must have a penalty associated with it. Only if the player is wholly inept at all options can he lose the game and, perhaps, be forced to restart the level or even the whole game.

There's another big reason for saving, of course. I played Morrowind cautiously and rarely died, but I saved often because I feared the other great danger to my character: bugs in the software. Crashing is frustrating. One could take the D2 route and just eliminate all bugs, but that's an unrealistic expectation. I suggest, then, that the game implement a hidden autosave. Every time you step through a door, or every 30 seconds or so, the game silently and quickly autosaves. Then, if it closes unexpectedly, the option to restore the previous game becomes available. The designer preserves his saving mechanic, and the player doesn't get as frustrated as he otherwise would be. What's there to lose?

January 1, 2008

Commentary: Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines

Do I have enough subtitles? Meh.

I picked up Vampire from Steam during the Halloween special. I had previously read about the game's success in offering a powerful role-playing experience. I'd also read about its crippling bugs, but I figured that the most important ones had probably already been fixed.

The format of the game (a real-time, first-person RPG) was my absolute favorite, and I was very pleased with it. Vampire did a great job of using its subject matter in the gameplay; your vampiric abilities, weaknesses, and hungers are all front-and-center. Troika set the game in White Wolf's World of Darkness setting, and exploring this world is great fun.

In many ways, Vampire is like Deus Ex (my constant point of reference), and it earns my respect for that. There are several competing factions, each of which is appealing in its own way. Stealth and fighting are usually both valid options. You always travel to the same locations and accomplish the same major goals, but your actions and conversation choices subtly affect the story. At the end, you choose which faction to finally ally with. It's another implementation of the shared authorship model. It works, too.

I have three complaints, though. First, the game's action sequences are sometimes too long and tedious. I know that the only reason I'm building up my character is to make these sequences easier, but I wish that they could be made more compact. There were also several interesting skills like intimidation, hacking, seduction and others that I would have liked to use more. It would be cool to try to talk my way through an objective; instead, these skills were mostly useful for small bonuses along the way. Still, this isn't a game-breaking flaw (and Deus Ex did much the same).

Second, while the game's fictional world was vastly intriguing, the actual story that I played wasn't half as cool. The game talked a lot about apocalypse, but there was nothing other than talk, so I never was afraid of it. There was also a lot of talk about a great evil power that had crept into the city, but nothing impressive or alarming ever happened. There were some good touches, but the story was ultimately low-impact. It never convinced me.

Third, the game lacks replayability. This isn't a critique of the game, really, as much is it is my personal bitching. It offers some very interesting choices right off the bat though the "clan" that your character belongs to. One clan is insane, and you can argue with stop signs and such. Another clan is the only one that can use magic. Another is hideously ugly, so they must walk through the sewers and never speak to humans. But I found that when I tried to replay the game, I had to sit through the same briefings and accomplish the same missions. A lot of it was different, but over half was the same. It's great the first time through, but I just wish that it could remain fresh for another few plays.

Despite my bitching and moaning, the game is great. It's got plenty of flaws, but it delivers a solid role-playing experience in an interesting world. Vampire is still available on Steam, so pick it up when you've got a lull in your gaming schedule.