Monday, April 21, 2014

New Post Coming Soon ON....DARK SOULS II

How to begin...

I've not been posting lately as much as I'd like, mostly due to the many hours I've been spending running around and beating Dark Souls II for my first time. It's so far been one of my favorite experiences lately in gaming and I'm going to be glad to write about it. Unfortunately that's where I get stumped.

There are so many great things that I'd love to talk about when it comes to Dark Souls that I could write for days. I could write a book on the nuances of the world building or the combat system. I've made a study of the series (including Demon's Souls) and I don't want to leave anything out. That's one of the reasons I'm putting it off, just so I can get my head wrapped around what's important, and also so I can get the rest of my life in order before putting pen to paper.

I love blogging about games, especially getting into the nitty gritty about the great things that each game I play brings to the table. Playing and developing games are two sides of the same coin, and I'd like to think that someday I may have an insight on the best qualities of the medium and be able to communicate to an audience about some of the components (ie. plot, setting, level design, character development, gameplay) that individually make games great. 

I'd like to bring that boring literature analysis that we've all had to go through (Ahem, English 101) to gaming, and take a critical look at the things that capture our attention and capture us for hours on end. For me, From Software have done so many unique things correctly with the Souls franchise that I'd like to give the series the time it deserves. 

Right now however, finals are upon us, my 2-year-old is brutally defiant, and work is as busy as ever. So I'll have to keep thinking in the moments between projects about how to begin my analysis, and find some time in my schedule to actually get around to writing about the series in a way that I find fitting. It's just a little pet project of mine that I'd like to bring a certain level of quality to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Modular Plot" will be the next big innovation in gaming

New changes in the way we see plot could lead us to more interactive worlds to play in

As I sit in my living room watching my wife play Bioshock Infinite (and occasionally chiming in) and having an amazing experience, I can't help but notice the story unfolding in front of me and think about the things that Ken Levine (Infinite's lead developer) said in an interview with Polygon last year:
 "Look, I've been thinking about narrative a lot and the future of narrative and how to make narrative...I've been working on a concept I call narrative LEGOs which is how do you take narrative and break it down. What are the smallest part of narrative that you can then remix and build something out of? Mix and match."
Now I haven't seen any sign of what his next project is going to be, but this statement in the interview excited me. Think about all the possibilities of a world where plot points don't exist to merely develop a story. A world where you aren't inexorably thrown toward a predetermined course and given only superficial choices. When every choice has a deep and profound consequence on not only your world but the story of your avatar, what would you do?

My interest probably boils down to reading too many choose-your-own adventure books as a child. I loved to see where my choices took me, and how they could end the story in an instant on the next page. Everything mattered and there were no pigeon-holed points where I needed to pass through to reach an exciting conclusion. The suspense was palpable and consistent. It's only too bad that games these days fall short of something that was perfected 20 years ago in written word.

The problem with modern gaming plot is exactly what I just mentioned, pigeon-holed plot points. Plots these days are meant to tell meaningful stories through the narrative of specific points of the game. An emotionally impacting event or a menacing enemy all add up to develop the characters and story in order to reach an exciting climax and conclusion. Both of which are most likely also predetermined in some fashion or another.

This is your standard plot in modern games. There are choices but the eventual outcome is a straight line.
Take an example of two games that claimed to hold choice, but both based their conclusion on a final choice; Fable and Mass Effect 3. The endings of those games were vastly different based on your choices (namely the last one you made). However you still reached that point in space and time, where that choice was made, and your character made it to determine what "ending" you would see. What might happen at the end of the game where you aren't at the tipping point of the world/galaxy? Where a choice along the way makes your characters plot bypass that exciting climax entirely! In the cases I mentioned, the world would have ended, but isn't that an ending in itself?

That may not sound exciting initially, but if you consider a world where these plots were intertwined, and the entire world did'nt depend on your performance or influence, then the world itself could develop around you. The influence of the main character would become secondary to the development of the world unfolding based on it's history and current events.

I'm getting a little ahead of myself here. Think about when a single event happens (like a battle where you might have the option to go and assist) and there is a lack of your characters presence; the entire battle would tip in the oppositions favor based on your preference. Those differences would reach back into your chosen plot line (by a visit from a broken and shattered man who is one of your friendly contacts) and show you the changes that were happening in the world around you where you might have had an effect (now that the entire community has been wiped out, plot lines that may have had a way to direct you through to that climactic conclusion of the biggest story are gone, and you must make due with your current life).

Bethesda has almost mastered this in the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, except for their major plot points. No matter what you choose during your time, to complete the most rewarding parts of the game and see the reason you have been "chosen" you must pass through specific trials that are predetermined as your destined path. You can slay anyone who may have a job for you, or just wander the forest as a hermit. However choosing the obscure way of playing has no reward since it was added as a feature and not a plot device. The actions you take and their effect on the world, is different than having an effect on a successful plot.

See, a plot is hard to construct without control (or if Ken creates it, minimal control). Essentially, in a games plot there needs to be three major themes/events: the rise of the story, the climax, and the fall of the story following the climax. To build to that climax successfully, you need suspense, foreshadowing, character development, and intellectual and emotional investment from the audience. Without a definite climax or fall, building a plot rise to ambiguous points is difficult. Which is why all developers include plot or space-time chokepoints in their stories to develop the plot successfully no matter the characters choices.

Now imagine a world where there are not specific plot points you must reach to move YOUR story along. Where predetermination is generated from within the gamer instead of by the developer. Where the smallest portions of the world are ready to be attached in a tapestry and the thread is held by the gamer. You may care about helping the needy, or fending for yourself, but both lead you in different directions entirely. There is no "final boss", only those people and beasts that act as obstacles to the goal that you set for yourself.

Simplified, this is what I imagine the plot lines of Ken Levine's modular plot driven game to look like.
Unfortunately this kind of world building, would take a very long time and require massive resources; unless you could find a way to make these choices act in a modular way. Where you could control portions of the plot, but not the eventual outcome for the player. Where you could master the art of "Plot Legos" and deliver a world where outcomes of some plot modules either restrict or open other plot modules in an inconspicuous way. And eventually deliver you a story that is at least partially unique to you as the audience.

If anyone can break this barrier and introduce the gaming community into a new era of gaming based on choice, I believe that Ken Levine can. Even as I watch my wife get slaughtered over and over in the tale of Booker Dewitt, I know that somewhere out there she may have chosen a different path, and sadly she might never have played Bioshock. Now isn't that exciting?

"Heads or tails?"

Sunday, April 13, 2014

6 days of...FTL!

The best Star-Trek simulator that I've played

There's something about FTL and it's simple interface that makes it honest and pure. There isn't any of the fancy evasion maneuvers that wouldn't likely be possible in space during combat, and it's more of a naval-style space sim where you and the opponent slowly fire large ominous weapons at each other until one of your ships takes too much damage to bear the vacuum of space. It's also mind bogglingly difficult.
Recently the developers even released a DLC that is completely free to anyone who owns the game already. It ads tons of new content and re-works some of the old systems in the game to adapt to the new content. Passing out this new content for free is such a great concept to give back to a community that supports indie studios that it touched me and convinced me to write about all the great things this game does.

You've taken their data, now it's time to RUN!

FTL by developer Subset Games is a space ship simulator that puts you in the rank of captain of a ship and crew to pilot through a series of galactic sectors to escape a pursuing rebel fleet keen on capturing valuable data that you've stolen. You must survive every jump between stars and sectors to get to your allied base. Unfortunately space is unforgiving and you don't have the luxury of a well-fitted spacecraft. You must make due with a basic suite until you can upgrade your craft at small shops along the way.

This may sound like a dungeon crawler in a different setting, because it is. It's a rogue-like game that has a lot of the same elements disguised as different features in-game. Instead of abilities or spells you get weapons for your ship. Instead of levels you can upgrade the stats on your ship at any time at the cost of scrap from ships you destroy. Instead of armor you hire or find new members of your crew to increase your capabilities; depending on their training and the station console that they're at. You're going to need all of these things to survive and even then you most likely won't make it to your destination. 

To be honest, I've never reached the end of a rogue-like game. EVER. It's somewhat depressing to know that I've failed my favorite genre; but the same reason I enjoy the genre so much. The games make me think about how I could have done better and to avoid the mistakes I've just made in my next playthrough. FTL is precisely the same way. It is harsh and cruel, but fun comes consistently when the game shows you that you're capable of surpassing your previous record. It has a local and internet board where scores are posted, and you can see how you stack up to yourself and others so you can show marked improvement.
This is what you'll be dealing with a majority of the time.
It's well set up though, and displays information perfectly.
The difficulty of the game is frustrating sometimes, but every ship and event holds a strict set of causality based rules and is entirely fair even with some of the random number generation. You know what you're facing most of the time when you jump, and can prepare for it in one way or another. The game gives you the opportunity to upgrade at the correct times to meet new progression, and throws that progression at you at a fair pace to keep you interested. There isn't a long boring start-up process (like the rogue-like Don't Starve) to slow the game down in the beginning. This in turn encourages new runs and a better play cycle even though it is repetitive. 

Even though it's as repetitive as any other dungeon-crawler there are enough differences in the situations you can get into, the races of aliens you'll meet, and missions you'll have, to keep game play different and interesting each time. These circumstances play out in the form of text boxes to inform you of what's going on, but that classic text adventure plays into the computer data that you would be pouring over in a ship anyway; so I feel like it's not only adequate, but appropriate as well.

Visually, it follows the dogma of simpler is better. It's not necessarily lacking in the visual department, it's just simple. There are visual cues for everything and they are easily identifiable. It performs as well as any other good rogue-like in that way, though you're not going to be getting anything special. I like this though, since all you need is the vital information. It doesn't allow for anything superficial in the graphics so there aren't any glaringly grotesque mistakes either.

The sounds in-game are a bit simple, and the music isn't anything to die for. The sound effects give audio cues of everything that is happening in clear samples, that are not confusing in the slightest. This adds to the awareness you have of your ship to aid in survival of the journey through space, and definitely helps. However the simple synth tracks that act as background music could have been a bit more varied or interesting. It seems that there are just random computer-generated tones with a consistent baseline always playing in the background. There isn't a real variance in what you're listening to while blowing through pirates. It doesn't detract from the experience but I feel like it's a missed opportunity to have something great stand out. 

When I said that it's the best Star Trek simulator I've played, it's because it follows the same concept as many of the battles that I've seen the Picards and Kirks engaged in growing up. Slow lumbering flotillas charging and discharging weapons at each other. Engaged in a naval-style combat until one metal giant succumbs to another. If anything in science fiction, this is what space combat will be like in the future. Think massive battle fleets from the old naval battles of World War II meeting in space instead of on the high seas. That's what FTL is all about. Putting the force of your crew and ship against the force of the enemy and coming out on top. Or not, in some cases. 

Also, there are SO many mods for this game that you can probably find your favorite space faring vessel for download somewhere. Seriously, SO MANY MODS.
Look, mods like this. SO MANY.
You'll like this game if: You like rogue-likes, space combat, naval battles, or any combination thereof. Also if you want to see more slug, mantis, or rock inspired alien races duking it out in a ship that is on fire while evacuating atmosphere. OPEN ALL THE DOORS!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

6 days of...Tropico 4!


PENULTIMO, we've got to get this portrait while the sun is up!
With the announcement of Tropico 5 coming out later this year (with our favorite dictator playing a part reminiscent of one of our favorite pirates) I decided to re-play Tropico 4 with some of the enhancements and DLC packages that were recently on sale. Tropico 4 happens to be my favorite city/country building game, and hides so much depth but has plenty of accessibility for people just coming to the genre. Not to mention the atmosphere is absolutely addicting. 

Seriously, I love the music. I'll talk about everything else in a bit, but the atmosphere that the music and voice acting creates for the game definitely gives it soul. Mariachi music blaring from my computer and the horns of the industrial sector of my city convince me that what I've created has substance. The voice acting of the international leaders and constant radio broadcasts are comical and at the same time engrossing. I love hearing praise and snide remarks from political group leaders letting me know exactly how my choices are affecting the lives of the population. 

This helps with the depth of the game, because without the comical side, Tropico could be very intimidating. Every person on your island has their own set of statistics and meters that feed into a larger pool of political powers on your island. Those powers make up a balance that you have to cater to if you want to keep order in your slice of the world. Every time you enter your "Almanac" which houses the statistics of the island and the world you can get lost. It is time consuming, but having visible data makes the weight of your decisions heavier and the results more compelling. 

I marked much of my time by the shipping and receiving cycles of my docks, since that is the major source of income on the island. The collective work of your Tropicans keeps your cycle of building ticking on the island. Other than international aid, your population and their work is what keeps you afloat. This cycle is natural with time, but jumping thousands of dollars every few minutes can be jarring at first. Knowing what your income and expenses are is important unless you want to ruin your reputation with the powers that be. 

PENULTIMO! Did you re-work the city zoning
so I get a perfect view of the ocean yet!?
Again this is all part of a complex balance that the game gradually introduces you to. After some time and lots of practice it comes very naturally to develop your political agenda and form the popular opinion to your needs. Even if you don't have the popular opinion, fear generally works just as well. Tropico 4 is a game that revels in the choice to establish and develop a country however you please. There are eventually challenges that increase the difficulty in case you want more of a challenge. Honestly though, the game is fun enough and balanced that the challenge isn't needed to make the game a blast. 

The entire game is placed during a period strongly resembling the Cold War, including a cast of characters that are memorable from that political arena. I've never seen a country building game put you into this type of archetype, but it works wonderfully. The context that it generates allows for in-jokes and references that otherwise would be lost in a sea of history. Focusing the period allows for things that other games would never comfortably be able to achieve. I would like to delve more into why this makes Tropico 4 so amazing, but in short it just makes the game that much more memorable. 

PENULTIMO! Of course we're not going to have elections.
Have you seen my ratings?
I only wish that my current schedule allowed for me to play the game more often. Each of the 20 story missions takes at least 3+ hours unless you're rushing. Counting that up is about 50 or more hours of game play in just the story alone. Not counting free play which includes all the amazing features of the campaign and allows you to carry your nation into an imagined future with slightly more advanced buildings. The only problem is that if you don't have the time in your schedule to feed the addiction it's easy to go through withdraws from the gripping atmosphere.

You'll like this game if: You want the challenge of playing the US off the USSR in a nuclear standoff while smuggling illegal goods internationally and running the worlds best resort location. Also if you always wanted your own Penultimo. (PENULTIMO GO COUNT MY MONEY AGAIN!)

(If you had a different opinion or a new video game to suggest, leave a comment below! If you want to recieve regular updates, follow me on Twitter @SimonGolden)