Metacritical

Because games are about more than headshots

Fallout New Vegas, A Mess of Words

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So the game pretty much opens with your traditional high noon western standoff. At least, it could have been high noon, were it not for day night cycle of Nevada. Ruined the ambience. But it was a pretty traditional Old Western standoff. I, the mysterious stranger taken in by the town’s doctor, managed to organise the townspeople against the local dynamite gang through my surprisingly broad knowledge and smooth talking charm. I’d like to think that I convinced the old man to lend us his dynamite by showing him some clever trick, and that when I told the shopkeeper that he should give up his stock so that his shop could “stay open at all”, I was growling at the shopkeeper. The townspeople cowering behind whatever cover is available while the “Powder Gangers” lined up at the other end of the road, jeering for the townspeople to hand over their mark. Silence. After a minute, I walk out from behind the saloon and walk slowly into the middle of the street. More silence. Finally, one of the gang loses their nerve and starts to pull out his rifle. I open up Vats and queue up the heads of the nearest three. BANG. BANG. BANG. Three less. Eight more gangers step out from behind the nearest rock and the townspeople start shooting madly. Silence to chaos in seconds.

This of course, never really happened. Well it did sort of. But not really. Let me explain. My smooth talking was the only dialog option that had the words [SPEECH 20] in front of it. I had more than 20. So I rallied the townsfolk. A person would have really have had to try to create a character who could fail that check. That’s a problem in my eyes. In a game where talking to people is one of the central mechanics, should mastery of all dialogue really come down to a number? There is a fairly climactic moment in New Vegas which can be solved by talking, despite appearing to be a fight, much in the vein of the first Fallout, which is damn cool.

But the implementation isn’t cool. I saw an option labelled with [SPEECH 70], so I figured I could avoid combat and the resultant loss of Stimpaks. Then I looked for the option which said [SPEECH 80] then [SPEECH 80] again and [SPEECH 90]. Two [SPEECH 100]’s later I had “won” the encounter.

Does it strike you as a problem that one of the game’s core paths is reliant only on the way you grow your character? Higher science allows you to try and hack the game’s hardest terminals, and while a higher Guns rating will help you in combat it will by no means play it for you. Ammunition, health and positioning are still important despite the increased damage and accuracy in addition to aiming of course. So why is dialog, despite being as large of a gameplay mechanic as lock picking or science, utterly devoid of skill or challenge in almost every instance. I feel as if I am cheating by taking the peaceful option, instead of playing  as a smooth talking guy. Because games are about interacting, you know?

Anyways, I convinced the dynamite man that I knew how to handle the stuff not in a traditional Western style of showing him a clever trick but by selecting the dialog option which had [Explosives] in front of it. While this is again not terribly interactive, it’s a nice step up from the previous Gamebryo Fallout, which didn’t have a lot of opportunities for your characters expertise to be reflected in dialogue. Having completed the various sub-elements of the quest, I head back to the lady who first gave me the quest and turn it in. Then the gang shows up.

They wouldn’t do it on their own. They show up only when I turn in the quest. I could have walked off and saved the world before coming back, turning it in and having the climactic firefight. The game has a day night cycle which governs the way that the AI reacts, it’s clearly possible to make the AI attack the town at a certain interval after the player takes on the quest.

The aversion to consequences is in my opinion, one of the major issues butting up against today’s sophisticated titles. If you’re going to put a lot of effort into crafting an interactive narrative that takes itself seriously, at some point there have to be ramifications for the player’s actions, or lack thereof. A good narrative is driven by more than just the player, for the player’s experience to be interesting he also has to react.

So I start the shootout event, lo and behold the Powder Gangers show up within a minute. My militiamen are all crouched on one side of the road, nearby but completely oblivious to the cover that is strewn around. The Powder Gangers show up at the other end of the road, guns blazing. They don’t even stop to ask whether we’ll hand over their man. They run out into the middle of the road, six men in a line.

My favourite battle formation.

The militia, are ineffectually peppering the front Powder Ganger with well over ten bullets. Not that he reacts in any visible manner. He decides to throw away his gun and pulls out a knife, running at my men.

They all drop their guns and swarm him with knives, running back and forth unconvincingly, slashing the air nearby that Powder Ganger. The AI for the other Gangers has finally sorted itself out and they have walked out of each other’s way, allowing more than one Ganger to shoot at a time. Not that the anyone’s bullets are really making any dent in the five militiamen who are all strafing back and forth in front of the melee Powder Ganger. I walk up to one of the gangers, take a moment to line up his head and squeeze the trigger. His head explodes. I walk up to his buddy, who is still shooting at the militiamen who are ten meters away. I could tap him on the shoulder, had I remembered to map that to a handy key.

I hang with him for about 30 seconds before I get bored of the silent treatment. Bang.

All the gangers are now dead. The quest doesn’t really have an interesting or satisfying conclusion, unless you find money particularly satisfying.

I came back to that town three days later. All the bodies were still scattered around the street, right where I shot them. I guess the people of this town don’t mind the six rotting corpses on their main road.

If you divorce any particular event in New Vegas from the rest of your experience, you’ll find that they’re almost universally terrible. Awful. Quite amazingly so. Particularly the AI. One could make a very valid argument regarding the difficulty of crafting open world AI on an engine which has been around for over a decade, but it doesn’t change the horrible experience I had with it on a moment to moment basis in New Vegas. The nonsensical AI combines with a really limited set of animations which don’t flow into one another at all to construct the least believable NPCs I’ve seen outside of an MMO in some time. The combat is better than it ever has been in a bethesda game, with iron sights making the game both more playable and cementing the fantasy of Fallout in your mind.

But it’s still pretty terrible. Aside from the weightless first person melee combat and the occasionally too ineffectual guns, most of the problems again draw back to the AI. Battle lines mean nothing, with NPC’s deciding on a target then sticking with it pretty much until they die. Situations where two armies clash almost always end up in this ridiculous situation, which does nothing for you ability to make believe that the conflict is real and by extension has meaning.

CAPTION: The aforementioned diagram. Note how the NPC’s positions make no sense.

NPCs switch to melee functions in a totally nonsensical way, far too often. In a life or death situation, most people’s instinct is not to drop their firearm and run at a firing line with Tire Iron in hand. This is pretty much every fight in New Vegas.

Once your opponent has switched to a melee weapon, you’re set. Hold ‘S’ and back away from him or her while you either blaze away or swing your melee weapon. Guaranteed kill with no danger to you.

CAPTION: The S key, ruining Bethesda games since Oblivion.

I think it is, above all else, the way the NPCs run at each other before arriving at some arbitrary distance and stopping that is so awful. They get to about 20 paces and just stand still, in the middle of nowhere firing at another group doing the same. Maybe 2 in each group crouch, which looks even sillier. Maybe one might switch to his melee weapon. I dunno. Is this the standard of quality for 2010? This would have looked poor in 2004 near Half Life, been pathetic amidst 2007’s Bioshock, Crysis and even Modern Warfare’s AI. 2008 gave us Far Cry 2, which handles the way that AI engages in an open world so much better than New Vegas. For whatever reason, Bethesda’s latest implementation of Gamebyro seems no more evolved than it’s 2006 effort Oblivion, which already had janky combat AI.

In 2010 it’s insulting.

Tragic, even. That New Vegas is in many ways the light on the hill.

The game dares to simulate, instead of scripting. At the end of the day, what I want is an interesting game and I couldn’t really care less whether it’s scripted to blow my socks off or whether the game features dynamic sock blowing. The important thing is that my socks are blown off. At this point in time, we seem to be better at scripting this desirable occurrence, however the long term of our interactive medium will have to be dynamic content which reacts to the way the player plays. Scripted content only has one form of meaningful interaction: to cause the content to happen or not to happen. Simulated content has theoretically means of meaningful interaction. It is the holy grail. Especially when the designers become so adept at designing the ecosystem that in most cases, the helicopter crashes as the player opens the bunker door. As you open the bunker door, not when you do. Pretty damn important.

New Vegas has a lot of scripting, but it tries to simulate a world. The two military forces never really move about fundamentally, but are constantly sending out patrols, who end up in unscripted fights with one another. Travelling merchants walk from town to town. People have a daily schedule which can be interrupted at any point by the player or another NPC. Then the AI has to make choices based on it’s desires. An NPC caught up in a brawl might stick it out and die, he might cower and run. That NPC might be permanently killed or not based on a snap decision he or she makes about whether he can win the fight. If he chooses wrong, the world might be down a merchant, or you might be down an entire chain of quests. In a scripted game, you could choose to shoot his attacker or not, thereby having a meaningful impact on the world. In a simulation he can make a choice to get himself killed or not, leading to game worlds not driven entirely by the player’s actions, which are more believable and important for creating an interesting narrative.

That isn’t to say that interesting narrative can’t be authorial and in New Vegas it mostly is. While you’ll end up with a few worthwhile anecdotes (mine is telling people how I spent 20 minutes dragging the corpses littering the aforementioned road into a ditch nearby), I didn’t have any particularly memorable emergent moments. Obsidian did do a damn fine job of writing a Fallout game, however. It’s a bit silly in the right places, it’s really dark in others. All but the most climactic moments in the game have a humorous edge to them, which in traditional Fallout fashion prevents the setting from being simply too horrible to enjoy. The writing is occasionally very good, such as in Vault 11, the twist of which I won’t spoil. It encompasses what I consider the quintessential fallout writing however, which is grim subject matter, really biting humour and an emphasis on mankind being it’s own worst enemy.

Although this was a major focus of Fallout 3 as well, I feel that Obsidian have nailed the “show don’t tell” rule better than any other open world RPG out there. The clues for you to discover what happened in X or Y burnt out shack or abandoned campsite are placed so that you’ll stop, look around and immediately have a sense of what happened.

A person is dead on the mattress. The body has not yet rotted away to a skeleton, so it happened post war. There is plenty of Jet and Psycho around the apartment, I think to myself as I loot the drugs. So either the person overdosed deliberately or was murdered by a drug addict. The fridge still has food inside. Probably not a raider then. I remember that I had to pick the front door to get in. Almost certainly a suicide then. Why the person offed themselves I never figured out, but I’m sure it would have been there.

It’s not a terribly interesting tale. A dude locked the door before ODing for some reason other than starvation. I chose it because it didn’t spoil anything interesting and is the easiest to explain, there are far more complex and less literal instances of this. But damn if it isn’t a revelatory moment anyway when you realise what happened. Definite enough to provide a basis for your imagination yet ambiguous enough to allow you to construct pretty much any narrative you want around that little shack. And you will construct a narrative. Not in any sort of aware manner, but as you wander across the large expanse of the Mojave, your mind too will wander away from the dull desert as you grow bored of the trip. And you’ll remember that shack and give more thought to it then you ever did in the 35 seconds it took you to look around for decent loot before leaving. If you avoid fast travelling for the most part, the game creates a really interesting, methodical pace which gives you far more time to reflect and take in what happens in the world around you. This is really one of the major advantages that Fallout has over Gear, Modern Warfare and Halo, that it doesn’t have to be dialled up 110% all the time. People often lament the generic, simplistic and unappealing narrative of our AAA shooters, yet there is really only so much that can be done in an experience which is paced like that. Complexity in either plot or character requires downtime for the brain to process such information and Fallout is far better for it. Characters who are not necessarily that much more significant or developed than those in our AAA counterparts take on a life of their won in your imagination, alongside pretty much everything else.

When I think back to the standoff, I remember it happening at High Noon. I don’t remember the AI. My experience gradually changes to become more like that scene in that Clint Eastwood film where he painted the town red and wrote “Welcome to Hell” on the sign leading into town. So much of Fallout is like that really. The game is a catalyst for you to make stories. Because New Vegas works so well as a setting. The characters in the game are often single dimensional and the actually interesting ones are rare. That there are legitimately interesting characters still puts Obsidian ahead of most games and some of the writing is really quite good. But as a result of the number of characters in the game, most are next to entirely uninteresting. Obsidian makes good use of what resources they must have had, prioritising lines which develop a distinctive personality trait or skipping straight to the gameplay relevant content.

Companions are a thankful exception to this. In Fallout 3 the companions had very little dialog to call their own, but thankfully in New Vegas they’re given greater depth and can talk about a broader range of topics. They do still run out of dialog after two or three conversations however and once you finish their quest, you can expect to get nothing further of interest from them conversation wise. Which is a shame. For the first hour or so each companion is interesting enough, but after you’ve completed that quest and their combat dialog has started looping real bad, any further character development is up to you and your imagination. Which is sorta disappointing after playing Dragon Age or Uncharted 2, where a great deal of emphasis is placed on context specific yet incidental dialog. It’s nice to have a character talking of their own volition, instead of at your beck and command. Goes a fair way towards maintaining the illusion that you’re travelling alongside someone, instead of a robot. Obsidian have also done away with Fallout 3’s clunky companion command system, which was all handled through a pretty disgusting loop of a dialog tree. The new radial menu works a lot better, although it would have been nice for hotkey to exit out of it. The hotkeys are, as a rule, pretty damn weird in New Vegas, having very little consistency. E probably exits from half of the boxes which pop into view, while X does the other half. You eventually get used to it, but small annoyances like this litter the interface of New Vegas. While some of these could probably have been worked around, such as the hotkey thing, others feel like holdovers from Bethesda’s implementation of Gamebryo.

Which is an engine which needs to go away. It has served for a remarkable length of time and nothing can take away from how impressive it was when you saw Oblivion for the first time. But it has run its course. The awkward cells popping into detail feel antiquated when compared to Red Dead Redemption’s open world tech. Playing on a capable computer with maximum settings, there were far too many instances where buildings popped into view barely a hundred meters ahead of me. While this only happened every hour or two, the low resolution texture work and very low poly models at a distance really detract from the fantasy of the New Vegas wasteland.

And what a wasteland it is. New Vegas does the “smaller but denser” thing pretty well by comparison to the Capital Wasteland, although this does lead to some weird assumptions about space. For example, there is a military outpost about ten minutes away from the main New California Republic camp. In the outpost, the ranking officer spends his life complaining about how much he needs a radio and how hard it is to keep in contact with the main force. The camp is a ten minute jog down the road. It takes maybe 20 minutes of walking to get from one end of the central highway to the others, yet people talk about having to make camp along it and there’s multiple stopover points. The game sorta operates on a scale almost, but that of course makes no sense in a first person game.

The wasteland is organised a lot better than the Capital Wasteland as well. Where DC consisted of a concentration towards DC and everything else being arbitrarily thrown about, New Vegas is arranged around the defining geographical features of the area, being the central mountain range and the Colarado river. Either side of the mountain range has a seperate highway that travels its breadth and they both come together at the Vegas Strip. Towns are situated in logical places, such as highway junctions, along the Colorado and near other water sources. The middle sections of the map are more barren than in DC but the populated areas are far more dense. It all just makes a lot more sense and you’re comfortable with the lay of the land a lot sooner than in Fallout 3. There is a smaller emphasis on Vaults and less feels copypasted around the world, although if you’ve played Fallout 3 then you’ll already know the layout of many structures in apocalyptic Nevada.

A lot of the content from Fallout 3 is reused, however none of it really feels cheap. This is mainly because you’ll be fighting new foes throughout the vast majority of New Vegas, only stumbling across a single colony of DC area foes every few hours. Like there’re colonies of Mirelurk Kings located all along the Colarado, or the giant ants have one colony in the south. In fact most of the enemy types are sorta segmented across Vegas like this. While it is certainly nice for old assets not to be overused, the arbitrary borders between various creatures feel really artificial and dare I use it as a negative “game-y”. So you have your Deathclaw level and you Scorpion Level and your Blowfly level and your Nightstalker one. While it makes sense for animals of the same species to herd, Vegas loses out on the feeling that DC managed to capture, in that it had an ecosystem. You’d stumble upon a scorpion killing a mole rat or a Yao Gui or something. The wasteland felt sorta alive by comparison, instead of being quite so designed. The enemies themselves are grounded more in real creatures than in Fallout 3, with the core design philosophy being “like a real animal but larger”, almost playing off the old B Movies that the original fallouts drew so much character from.

Another major change in your foes makeup will be the reduction of super mutants. These guys infested the entire DC area, and fighting them could quickly become tiresome, both due to their gratuitous banks of health and their unintelligent, inhuman nature. They were impossible to empathise with, which divorced the act of killing them from any moral repercussions. It’s simply the fight to survive, like so many situations in games. Largely the Super Mutants were replaced by the new “Fiends” of the wasteland, who are drug addicts brain addled to the point of lunacy. They travel in small gangs and attack on sight.

So they’re just as dull. At least in my 45 odd hour experience, I never really encountered any way to attempt to stem the flow of drugs into the Fiend territories, or to really interact with them in any meaningful way. It’s just kill or be killed.

Which is sorta important in the wasteland. In order to maintain the illusion that Nevada is a hard place to live post-war. Like any good zombie or apocalypse flick, the world itself has to be way threatening. But then the people in the world have to be way worse. To see how humanity has fallen into a bestial state and abandoned society’s morals post-fall is always the true horror of these scenarios.

But with the Fiends New Vegas loses out on that, much like Fallout 3 did. There’s no humanity in them left be corrupted, they’re all stir fry crazy. As a cautionary warning against the effects of drugs and cultural depravity they sorta hold up, but as interesting foes they do not. The Legion does step up into that role pretty well, however. Almost too well, in fact. The strength of the Legion as a “Look how bad we can be without rules” makes the three way dynamic a pretty black and white choice. The game contrasts the free and anarchic Mr. House with the ineffecient well-intentioned democracy of the New California Republic, as well as the despotic Legion. The Legion are impossible to sympathise with due to their complete lack of redeeming qualities. One or two NPCs make allusions to the harsh Legion governance taming the lawless Texan deserts, but this is never demonstrated in the game. To the player, they’re Satan himself.

The choice between the NCR and Mr. House is more interesting in that it plays into real world values. Throughout the game the NCR is portrayed sort of like England was to the early Americas, as an interfering state imposing taxes on land it has no rightful claim to, while Mr. House embodies the anarchist libertarian dream of free market capitalism.

The NCR is continually shown to be doing the right thing by everyday wastelanders. When the town of Primm is taken by Powder Gangers who escaped from the NCR’s chain gangs, it’s the NCR who are rounding them up. It’s the NCR outside an irradiated town warning travellers away. It’s the NCR investigating lost agricultural technologies to revive the land’s crop potential, or fixing up a solar energy station to provide power to the cities of New Vegas. The list goes on, they’re always doing good things. As the player, you feel like you’re being forced into liking them. But every time you meet them, they’re doing whatever it is badly. They’re understaffed, out of supplies, they don’t know how to use the technologies, they’re sending people to their deaths accidentally and you get the feeling that the Republic was in some manner responsible for the irradiation of that town.

The question put to the player is: do intentions matter? With the NCR doing such a poor job in Nevada, do they have any right to taxation?

But if they don’t tax people, how will they ever succeed in pacifying New Vegas?

In lots of ways the NCR presence in Nevada is reminiscent of the current conflicts in the Middle East. An army stretched beyond it’s means fighting a protracted war to hold onto both the land and its source of energy (In New Vegas, the Hoover Dam is a substitute for oil) as well as the hearts and minds of the settlers across New Vegas. I wonder if that then makes the legion, in all their depravity Iran? The Legion certainly has very backwards values towards women’s rights, much as how we in the west view Iran. Both pay (again from a atheist western perspective that does not reflect the opinions of Gamecrux) far too much attention to history and tradition in their values instead of adapting to the present, they attempt to force themselves onto it. Nevada is even a bit of a desert. This analogy isn’t bad.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to draw an analogy about the Middle East from any contemporary piece of fiction, as it dominates the discourse of our time alongside Climate Change (speaking of which, in New Vegas the only energy sources which survive the war are Hydroelectricity and Solar Power. Nice to see stuff like that). However, for an analogy like this to come to me in my natural course of playing a game is hardly normal. And is the strength of Fallout New Vegas. For me, the reason New Vegas is important is the same reason that Bioshock is. The game dares to dream. It dares to be a bit more sophisticated. Sure it’s possible to point to all the shooting (End body count of ~200 instead of Red Dead’s ~800 makes over a similar time period is really a good thing) and the sometimes stupid or boring or cliche subplots in the game, but Fallout really offers a depth for those who wish to engage with it, that very few other games do. I could probably them on two hands. Fallout New Vegas is important because it dares to be important, instead of accepting the mediocrity of games.

I wish the ending wasn’t so terrible. Have you played Knights of the Old Republic 2? It’s an amazing Obsidian RPG sequel to Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic. The ending was rushed through development and was… awful.

New Vegas is exactly the same. It introduces new characters that you’ve never heard of before and tells you that they’re the most important people in wasteland politics. Bullshit. The climactic action sequence: bullshit. Just not good. I wish that Fallout could utilise it’s main mechanic, discovering the world to end the game instead of combat and the bullshit speech fallacy.

I also wish that the game I played was the same one as in my head. I wish the AI wasn’t so bad, the textures were up to 2007 standard, that the companions didn’t feel so inert that it didn’t crash as often as it does that everything wasn’t so damn janky and that the world felt more alive.

I wish the shooting was up to Call Of Duty standard and that speech wasn’t so bullshit as a way to play the game and that stealth felt like more than a dice roll. I really goddamn wish that the animation wasn’t as awkward was it is.

But I thank my atheist god that Fallout New Vegas exists, both as a sophisticated piece of work in an often unsophisticated medium and because without New Vegas on my screen, I never would have gotten to experience my imagination’s better New Vegas experience. And for that I am damn thankful.

To anyone who managed to read through all of this, I apologise. To myself, thanks for writing this, it’s been an important part of my New Vegas experience.

Written by Aonshix

November 28, 2010 at 10:58 pm

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Tales from the front: R.U.S.E Open Beta

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Imagine a war.

In this war, tactics are denounced and deception is spurned. Every sector of thr conflict has invisible forces being revealed by flawless spies. Every man on the battlefield has spurned caution, advancing with double speed, resulting in a world where everyone moves twice as fast and no one does. Where you must assume that every unit is a lie, yet none are. Where every unit has an ideal counter unit, yet all units are simply countered with greater numbers.  A war of frustrating ineffectiveness and nullifying countermeasures.

Yet inseparable from this ludicrous conflict are the brutally satisfying blitzkriegs punching through the weak point in an opponents battle lines. The chaotic struggle for aerial supremacy in which fights and bomber become indistinguishable amidst the chaotic dogfight. Where towns are torn apart by opposing artillery lines, locked in a deadly war of attrition on the town’s outskirts. Bases are rushed, supply lines are shattered and impregnable defenses scarcely last only fleeting moments before they’re overrun by a fearsome display of combined arms.

Appropriately, R.U.S.E is an enigmatic dichotomy, which frustrates the mind as much as it gratifies the heart. It’s spectacle is undeniable, it’s competitive elements spurned.  An odd result, for a game designed to deliver much the opposite experience.

PS: Opinion based on a single morning of play.

Written by Aonshix

March 10, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Faith and Immersion

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For all of the game’s faults Mirror’s Edge had an amazing approach to first person platforming, utilising the immersive nature of the viewpoint uniquely for a platformer. Faith’s heavy breathing accompanied every majestic jump, the screen shook violently whenever you fumbled her landings. Her legs and arms were an ever present companion on your trip through ‘The City’, animated with a fluidity and weight that created the tangibility that underpinned Faith as a character.

The game frustrated a great many people with it’s imprecise combat and occasionally arbitrary geometry, however the general consensus in the official NeoGaf thread was that the platforming was a genuine step forward for the first person perspective and that it should be ‘ taken out of this shitty game and built into a man’s FPS’. Reading this I figured it might be interesting to go back and see whether any recent first person games are actually utilising the refinements of Mirror’s Edge in their movement systems (as one and half years is probably long enough for such elements to be integrated into a development cycle or two).

Sadly, the only first person game which has since put an emphasis on platforming is the oft-maligned Aliens vs Predator (AVP) reboot, which does seem to integrate the elements of the movement which made Faith feel so real. When playing as an Alien players can see their own tail as they quickly turn around, creating the impression that they really are a long, awkward Xenomorph instead of merely a reskinned ‘floating gun’ or ‘bald space marine’. The game can also induce motion sickness (like Mirror’s Edge) which while obviously a negative point for people prone to it, is indicative of the immersive camera work in the title, although this was present in earlier AVP games so it can’t really be taken as a sign of the industry having integrated the lessons of Mirror’s Edge.

Which is a shame, as aside from merely adding believable physicality to a character opening up a world to free movement also helps to add a layer of depth and believability to the world, which often seem to be lacking in a vertical axis, in addition to being fun. Imagine pulling up to a ruined factory in Rage and being faced with a maze of fallen girders and collapsed walls which you had to run, jump and clamber up until you reached the raiders camping out up top, instead of merely heading up the building along an improbable series of flat surfaces and conspicuous ramps.

This month’s issue of Edge revealed that Crysis 2 had adopted a ‘three floors’ game play mantra, in that the majority of the environments have three levels to explore, in order to make New York feel a bit more like the vertical city that it is. Combine Mirror’s Edge style platforming with a ruined New York and the nanosuit.
The realistic environment interactions which comprise the platforming of Mirror’s Edge benefit almost any title, even if only used sparingly. While it makes no sense for Soap to be leaping onto buildings, it does make sense that he’d have a limited climbing ability or that he might slide into cover. It just makes the environment feel more real, the greater agency the player has within it. It’s essentially the opposite of realising that the knee high pile of rubble is actually an invisible wall, which is without a doubt one of the worst moments in gaming.
Immersion, it’s the benefit of the first person perspective. Get on it, developers.

Written by Aonshix

March 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm

Why Sex Scares Me

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Yesterday, while paying CD Projekt’s seminal RPG ‘The Witcher’, I came to a startling realisation: That I had developed an fear of character’s making sexual advances towards me. Not with sexuality in general. I’m perfectly happy to see prostitutes on street corners and the ‘Vampire Brothel’ quest ended fabulously, giving me the freedom to allow a young girl to follow a sexually free but ultimately self destructive path. I love the way that the game constructs a misogynist approach to sexuality and then compels the player to give into the time, challenging the strength of the player’s real life convictions. However, I find myself terrified whenever a NPC whom I care about makings an advance on me. Why?

Because it means that any meaningful relationship I may have with the NPC is about to die.  It is an established trope of the RPG to make sex the pinnacle of an interpersonal relationship, after which there is nothing. In Bioware’s exemplary ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ series, characters receive one final batch of lines after sex and that’s it for the rest of the game. The dialogue tree persists in stasis for the rest of the game, unless the character has some reason to sacrifice themselves towards the game’s conclusion.  In ‘The Witcher’ character’s whom you’ve bedded often lose their dialogue trees altogether, responding to attention with only one or two lines of generic dialogue, all their interactivity stripped. These relationships are utterly ludicrous and shatter the player’s immersion, unless of course the player was personally disinclined to ever make contact with the PC after sex. In that case the developers time would’ve been well spent.


Some games don’t fall victim to this as much as others and ‘The Witcher’ is interesting because while it contains some of the most egregious examples of this crime, it also features some of the most mature romantic relationships in RPGs. In particular the relationship with Shani, who while at first falls victims to the ‘2 lines after sex’ example later returns to the narrative as both a pivotal plot character and as a woman who wants to make Geralt (the player and titular ‘Witcher’) settle down into a steady relationship, with her and her adopted son. This marks a total upheaval of the attitude towards that has been established by the title thus far, which is that sex is a goal and women are disposable, creating some interesting problems for the player.

However, upon further playtime it turns out that after an implied agreement between Shani and Geralt to stay together and marry, she does again revert to the ‘2 line dispenser’, at least until the plot is forwarded again, which is unfortunate. However, this relationship still goes some distance towards creating more believable romance and stands head and shoulders above the competition.

Bioware’s latest RPG, ‘Dragon Age: Origins’ serves as pretty extraordinary counterargument to my contention however, with the character of Morrigan. I shant spoil the title as alot of people (myself included) have yet to get a hold of the thing, however the player’s relationship with Morrigan can be ended with sex, however it’s handled in a pretty amazing way, turning sex into a moral choice which forces you to balance the strength of your beliefs against your feelings for a character, all executed in a surprisingly sophisticated manner.

Despite Dragon Age's sexually progressive nature, sex is still limited to young people

For the time being however, it would be best if Morrigan’s surprisingly engrossing sex was merely the exception to the rule. If writers were forced to include sexuality as something that happens in relationships instead of as a trophy for completing a long series of dialogue trees, then writers would be forced to create not only more interesting and believable romantic encounters, it would also necessitate more interesting characters, to maintain player interest after the elusive beast that is sex has been obtained.

Obtained.

Finally and possibly most important, implicit in all of this writing is a frustration that sex as a final interaction reinforces the ‘Sex as a Commodity’ model, with (usually) female NPC’s having to be convinced to give sex to the player. Whether conciously or not, this reinforces the model in the minds of players, which is not a good thing.

Sex as a commodity: Confirmed

Below is a trailer for Bioware’s upcoming RPG, ‘Mass Effect 2′ showing off ‘Subject Zero’ (a stereotypical and cliche`d ‘Child Experiment Turned Badass’)  doing her best to destroy my interest in picking up the sequel.The scene where she appears to come onto Shepard forcefully (Chris Remo of Gamasutra describes it as rape), totally interrupts the traditional ‘Sex as a Commodity’ representation in games and it would be really interesting to see player’s reactions to having what is traditional a much sought/lusted after reward forced upon them.  The only other case I know of where the player (as a heteronormative white male) is raped is at the climax (poor choice of words) of F.E.A.R. 2, however that game executed very poorly on the idea, leaving players mostly bewildered instead of feeling violated and scared. I’m a proponent of games exploring new territory and providing the player new experiences, as long as they’re well executed.

I somewhat doubt that actually happens in Mass Effect 2, however. Which is a shame, as Bioware could probably pull it off.

PS: Dragon Age’s neutered and awkward sex scenes also scare me.

Written by Aonshix

January 11, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Deutsch, Alienation and Mass Effect

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I did it wrong.

In my foolish haste to install Mass Effect as quickly as possible (and thus enjoy the tasty Bioware RPG goodness), I accidentally managed to install it in German. Menus, Subtitles, Voice Work. All utterly incomprehensible to me, my entire repertoire of German originating from Call of Duty 2.   Rather than sit through the lengthy install process again however, I decided I’d try and wing it, relying on my rote memory of the game from a previous play through and testing out the quality of the German voice work.

It started well enough, as German Shepard (I see what I did there) and I ran through the entirely linear and memorable sequence on Eden Prime, very few elements of which I had forgotten from my previous run through. It was feeling sort’ve cool to be honest, like watching a foreign art house film (except there’s no art house to be found, so like watching a foreign film. Really when I think about it, it was like playing a game in a foreign language). German Shepard certainly seemed a lot more bad ass that regular old Shepard and the crazy scientist (after you find that the beacon is missing) seemed a lot creepier, now that I could understand nothing at all of his inane speech.  Turians seemed more alien than ever and overall I was quite enjoying this German run through, despite the growing dread that the game would later become unplayable.

However, this fey experience was not to last. As soon as the Council announced their intentions to do nothing about Saren’s betrayal, I totally forgot what I was supposed to be doing. In my mind, I could recall most of the side quests in broad terms, however the minutia escaped me. Who was I supposed to smuggle this guys package to? Who does this Turian need me to intimidate? I began to feel quite alienated from the world, a feeling heightened by German Shepard’s seeming understanding of everything that was going on, creating a dissonance between us. Of particular annoyance to me was a quest where you had to convince some jellyfish to cease preaching in a public space, something I couldn’t manage to do even through trial and error.

The quests I did manage to complete were the ones which had a ‘renegade’ solution where you essentially just shoot the person who you’re talking to.  So, driven up against a corner, that’s what I did.  My hard coded inability to interact within the normal social structures of this society reduced me to the form of a sociopathic murderer.  Not because I felt I gained anything through my violent actions,  they were merely the only possible means of ‘progression’ through German Shepard’s life.

It was here that I realized the shocking parallels between my experience and that of people with mental disabilities.

Written by Aonshix

January 1, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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Shocking Discourse the Second

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Hello and welcome to the slightly (yet not egregiously) late second installment of ‘Shocking Discourse‘, part of a larger series  of posts regarding narrative trends of the last decade.  Today I’ll be discussing the rise of optional story content, which is another overt trend from the latter half of the decade.   In Levine’s games, optional narrative content is  essentially manifested through ‘Audio Logs’, which in both of the ‘Shock’ games are recorded remnants of the relevant society which has since undergone some cataclysmic disaster. These audio logs generally center around a few characters and are interspersed throughout the game, with most characters having arbitrarily gone to the same places that the player later visits throughout the game. For many people this technique has stood out like a sore thumb, for Levine hasn’t as of yet created a society where the use of the audio diaries seems believable.  A prime example of this is in the second half of System Shock 2, where a particular character who is attempting to escape the Von Braun seems to be taking an awful lot of time to leave meticulous audio diaries for the now brain dead population of the ship to listen to.  Bioshock runs into similar issues regarding believability when one of the characters starts to talk about her plans for assassinating Andrew Ryan in her audio diaries, which is a silly thing to do. [ERRATA: My memory has just conjured up the image of the player looting this audio log from the woman’s strung up corpse, so perhaps the game was being self aware here]. This particular element in the ‘Shock’ games has always relied on the player’s ability to suspend their disbelief, which is a shame, seeing as how little this is generally required in Levine’s games (which often seem to have the most coherent and thought out settings).

Ze Needle is Not Optional

Despite the lack of believability behind the technique however, none can argue with it’s myriad benefits, greatest of which being the ability of the player to choose whether they wish to indulge in this side of the narrative or not. Few audio logs in both games contain any essential gameplay information, instead being used to flesh out the world around the player by creating ‘human’ stories (which a world filled with splicers or hybrids intrinsically lacks). They serve to remind the player of what the war ravaged setting the now occupy used to be, as well as providing back story on the cataclysmic event which brought down the  society.  Audio logs also encourage the player to create their own pacing, giving players who wish for a lower tempo experience an excuse to just stand around for a little while, listening to logs.  Finally audio logs also serve as an effective reward for exploration. The same players who feel the need to explore an environment to learn as much as they can about are also the same sort of players who enjoy narrative, so rewarding exploration with narrative such as audio logs is a very effective technique for encouraging players to get the most out of a setting. This also places some audio logs out-of-the-way of the sort of gamer who merely wishes to breeze through a game’s linear path shooting things, by removing the perceived obligation of the player’s behalf to listen to these logs.

How does it feel, to exist only as an Audio Log?

As I mentioned earlier, (before losing my train of thought) adoption of this facet of optional narrative didn’t really become popular until after the release of Bioshock, after which audio logs seem to be the norm rather than the exception.  Far Cry 2, Dead Space, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Borderlands and even the legendary Halo franchise picked them up in its latest entry: ‘Odious Tea’.  The widespread adoption of the techniques can be largely attributed to two factors:

  • The success of Bioshock both critically and financially, which has led to many games which feature design which is heavily derivative of the title (and by extension, System Shock 2). Of recent titles, Dead Space seems most guilty of this, although theories have been put forward that it was designed to be a ‘consolised reimagining’ of System Shock from the very beginning, which might allow it to be classified as an homage in some respects.
  • Secondly and most importantly, game narratives in mainstream titles have become increasingly complex over the last decade. If one looks even the story of the original Halo and compares it to the dumb narrative of current times, Gears of War, it’s pretty easy to seem that tales have actually become more complex, when even the most basic (and garish) of tales now aspires to (slightly) loftier goals thematically.  While the Gears level game narrative has not yet grown complex enough to warrant the use of optional narratives, narratives that are a step up have become complex enough that many players no longer wish to experience the narrative in its entirity. In order to then cater to both the audiences which desire more from game stories and the (dare I say it) more casual players whom merely wish to ‘shoot some shit’  designers have been forced to integrate systems into games where story content is made optional, such as the inclusion of audio logs.

This is not to say that Audio Logs are the only form of ‘optional narrative’ that have risen among the decade or that the idea of optional narrative was invented by Mr. Levine. As in the last article, he has merely popularised a form of it. Probably the most prolific example of optional narrative from before System Shock 2 was the original Metal Gear Solid, where players can essentially access audio logs at will via the Codec. The only real functional difference between the two techniques is that Audio Logs don’t stop the game (allowing the player more control over pacing) and cannot include the protagonist as a participant in the audio.  The latest Prince of Persia also includes a system for optional narrative advancement, by allowing the player to talk to Elika at his own discretion, turning Elika into a walking two way audio log from a functional perspective.   By using Elika and the Prince as their own vessels for their optional characterisation, Prince of Persia manages to avoid the suspense of disbelief that’s required for most audio logs and definitely the Codec from MGS.  Although on the same note, both Far Cry 2 and Arkham Asylum both manage to integrate their audio logs meaningfully into the world, by making them either interviews or threats intended to be sent to someone.

If this is the Audio Log of the future...

Hope for the future of optional narrative content: MOAR. Also, I feel that writers will need to find a way to integrate optional content into the main narrative in a way that is more meaningful than many games manage, lest audio content become filler and increasingly irrelevant to the main story. Optional narrative must add the game’s main tale, not introduce its own. If it’s not adding to the main narrative in some way, it generally detracts by diluting the players attention from the more important content.

Tomorrow: Showing instead of telling a story.

Written by Aonshix

December 13, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Shocking Discourse

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As the first decade of the 21st millenium draws to a close, it’s only natural that one should look back upon the decade’s trends, the good and the bad, in an attempt to foretell which direction the medium is headed. While I’ve started hearing many podcasts bemoan the rise of quicktime events (or Q T E’s for people in the know) and argue over the benefits that motion control has brought to the industry, sadly the decade’s narrative trends have received comparatively little airtime, so I figured I’d bash out a few hundred words so that I might feel better about this perceived injustice. As sharply perceptive reader’s of this post’s title may have guessed, in these next few days I shall be discussing the adoption of Ken Levine’s narrative stylings, especially in the latter half of the decade.  Needless to say there will be spoilers, this time for; System Shock 2, Bioshock, Prince of Persia (2008), Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Far Cry 2, the Metal Gear series and finally anything created by the seminal Fumito Ueda.

Popularised by the groundbreaking System Shock 2 in 1999, Ken Levine’s narratives are easily characterised through certain repeated themes and presentation methods, both of which have seeped into writing industry wide. For this series, I’ll be focussing on three core tenants which are central to his narratives: Themes of Control, Optional Story Content and a Mystery Other.

Control

Atlas, Fontaine, Tenenbaum, SHODAN, The Many. Ignoring approximately 20 minutes worth of gameplay, the player finds himself being controlled by disembodied figures for the entirety of Levine’s more promintent titles: System Shock 2 and Bioshock. In both of these games, the player/protagonist are provided with little motive of their own, existing by and large as homunculi who exist only to carry out the will of more interesting and verbally empowered characters. Both of these games take great care to present the player with sophisticated moral dilemmas (“Is it right to carry out the genocide of ‘The Many’, despite the grave threat it poses to both the protagonist and the Human race?”) yet make a point of not providing the player any choice in which answer they choose. In order to complete System Shock 2, The Many must die. In Bioshock, both Atlas and Ryan share the same grisly fate regardless of the player’s feelings on the matter.  There is simply progression or a lack thereof, although that progression is guilt ridden for many. In both titles, Levine exploits these feelings of guilt or anguish to create many of the piece’s most powerful moments.

Sentience born from zeros and ones. Hurts the mind to contemplate.

Levine broke this ground in 1999, however it wasn’t until he retread this theme of powerlessness in 2007’s posterchild; Bioshock, for it to really propagate out to other developers, with titles such as Far Cry 2 and Prince of Persia arriving the following year, both with this theme of powerlessness at the core of both narrative experiences.  Indeed the season’s hottest hit, Modern Warfare 2 utilises the same themes in it’s now infamous ‘No Russian’ level, which while garish in its execution does elicit feelings of helplessness within the player as they’re constrained by the game to a single answer; to watch/participate in the slaughter to assist with the US’s counterterrorism operation. Although the narrative clearly establishes the alternative option that would be available to the protagonist (to kill the terrorists and jeopardise the Russo-American relationship in the long term) the game mechanics prevent the player from making this moral choice, conflicting with the narrative which presents it.  Themes of  control were hardly invented by Mr. Levine, however it is extremely simple to chart the proliferation of his particular take on this concept throughout the last decade.

Much like the 2008-2009 movement towards themes of control in ‘The West’, a similar movement occurred among Japanese designers in the early to mid part of this decade, with titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2/3, or Shadow of the Colossus. Despite very similar thematic concerns in these titles as compared to the type popularised by Levine however, both of these games handle the issue differently in that while the player is technically constrained by the gameplay mechanics from giving a certain answer to the game’s moral predicaments, the games also feature protagonists who are complicit in the actions which the player is forced to make under the game’s mechanics.  In all of the western titles I’ve mentioned above (even Prince of Persia, although I’ve seen arguments to the contrary) the conflict is between the player’s morality and the gameplay systems, while in the eastern titles the conflict occurs first between the player and the protagonist and subsequently  with the mechanics of the title. To spell it out with exposition, in Far Cry 2 the player finds his wishes to not destroy civilian medicine supplies at odds with the games mechanics, which provide no method of advancement other than defiling the game’s ambiguous African state. In Shadow of the Colossus however, the player’s desire not to slaughter the colossi is at odds with Wander’s desire to bring back the woman he loves and the intrinsically controlling gameplay mechanics serve to reinforce the themes of attachment that Wander feels, instead of highlighting the inability of the player to change his surroundings as in the western titles mentioned.

Although it's a difficult concept to express with words, funneling conflict through a character produces a very different experience to a mechanics based conflict

Despite not being well versed in the Japanese development scene of this decade, I get the feeling that this trend probably can’t be traced back to Ken Levine in any meaningful sense, which makes it all the more intriguing that  both scenes underwent similar thematic periods during this decade. Implicit within this last point is an assertion that control is just an issue which comes naturally to interactive media of a certain age/sophistication and that instead of being an inspiration to fellow designers in this regard, Ken Levine was merely ahead of his time with System Shock 2.  Regardless of the cause of the trend however, the theme of control has been one of the most prevalent of the decade.

My hope for the next decade: First Person Shooters which explore choice in moral decisions in a form more substantial that Bioshock’s meager offerings.

SPOILER ALERT: Choice in Bioshock 2 is no less binary than in the original

Tommorow I talk (another wierd lexical hangup) about audio diaries.

Written by Aonshix

December 12, 2009 at 2:52 am

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