Saturday, September 13, 2014

6 days of...Broken Age!

Time well spent

Sometimes it's good just to get back to my roots as a gamer. I loved the Sierra point and click games from the 90's and somewhere in me I will always hold an attachment to those types of games. So when I heard that Double Fine would be releasing a point and click adventure called Broken Age after a VERY successful kickstarter I got excited. I loved Brutal Legends when I first got a taste of Double Fines work and I am definitely going to check some more of their games out after this. 

This is the prison that you have lived in your entire life, and the
game makes you feel this immediately without feeling forced.
Speaking of that Kickstarter, it was setup for 400,000 and made over 3 million. That's just nuts. The dedicated community behind Double Fine games just astounds me. They demand nothing up front because they believe that there will be a quality product coming from the money they donate. That speaks volumes to me about the faith and confidence the community holds in this company. If they decided to go more mainstream I think they could make a lot more money, but they would definitely lose a bit of their following. Too bad though, seeing a Call of Duty style budget go to Double Fine might get some amazing things accomplished.

Anyway, back to my time with Broken Age. I can honestly say it has got some of the most memorable and smooth transitions that I've experienced in point and click adventures. Often playing a point and click is like having a conversation with someone that spoke into a microphone years ago, and is expecting you to respond correctly in the future. It's a difficult disconnect to overcome and many games fall short. An example of this would be adventures that reference or give clues to your next action, but in a much more obscure way than is necessary so the player ends up not understanding.

These portions of the story add incredulity and whimsy
but are engrossing at the same time.
However in Broken Age, it was neither obvious or obscure what action I was to take next. It was a perfect balance of clues and discovery. It felt like the world spoke to me and I responded each time, instead of being led by an overaggressive partner or abandoned to my own means. It was a genuine conversation between developer and player. In which no side came out stronger than another. 

I would attempt to bend the world to my whim, and the game would calmly direct me back to a path that was more fitting. I would push and strain to accomplish seemingly impossible things, and instead of getting frustrated I would just stop and enjoy the scenery. After a short period of time the answer would just come to me through an epiphany not brought on by an obvious hint but seemingly by my own intuition.

Instilling this in a player is a very, VERY difficult thing to do. It is a mystery to me how they did it, but Double Fine made me feel like I was genuinely exploring a new world and overcoming challenges by my own intellect, and not just stumbling along my way through a story. 

That being said the art is incredible. It's not detailed or special by any means, but the washed out pastels and some of the color changes between scenes really sticks out. The art also lends itself to the story because of the environments you find yourself navigating. The art makes each scene look like a children's story, but the story is much darker in context than the pictures would describe. It has a very Grimm feel to it. The story itself is dark and in some ways shocking, but it juxtaposes completely with the optimistic color and youthful art style.

This doesn't give anything away,
but I was frozen in shock at this point of the story.
It's hard to describe in some ways why it is so good, but if you enjoy point and click adventures, you should pick this one up. There will be more episodes soon but for now the game only takes about 5 hours to complete. That is only one episode though and there is at least a second episode promised to add on to the current story.

You'll like this game if: You enjoy point and click adventures and love stylized art an amazing speculative fiction story that will keep you enthralled for hours.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

6 days of...Mass Effect 2!

Everyone told me it would be great..

And in many ways it was. Mass Effect 2 by Bioware takes after it's predecessors that I've played. Since I picked up the game on a Steam sale and it's brethren were not so lucky to be discounted, I haven't played ME1 or ME3. So I don't have the save file that transfers the consequences of your actions or anywhere to go after I beat the game. But I have played previous Bioware games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and more recently Dragon Age. I like Bioware's formula for games and especially the depth of story that they establish to create an all encompassing world that seems complete and detailed. 

Everything about Mass Effect 2 was great to experience.
Mass Effect 2 is no exception. Bioware put their heart and soul into this game and it shines through nearly every game play element. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it. What else is there to say about how good Mass Effect 2? It's pretty much been summed up in so many written and recorded reviews that there isn't much a single person could say that hasn't been said. 

That in mind, I think that there is something to be explored about the mechanic of choice as portrayed in the Mass Effect universe. This is something that has been touted as one of the accomplishments that Bioware is known for. Creating choice and consequence in a space opera that not only affects you and your team but an entire universe. How real is this choice though? Is it strong enough to break free of pre-determined course? Or just strong enough to create the illusion of choice? 

Free Will: Illusion vs. Reality

I will try to deny plot spoilers in this discussion, and instead focus on generalities. Strictly speaking you begin Mass Effect 2 as Commander Shepard and due to some circumstances are bound to the illusive man to help save humanity and the universe by revealing and exploring ways to defeat the Reapers. Starting out you are immediately tied to the destiny of a group of individuals and are made responsible for the survival of the universe. 

Of course it's implied multiple times that Shepard is the only one that can unite and save everyone. And so the responsibility is solely placed on your character. This is just the first choice that is denied you, the choice of responsibility. However that choice was made before even loading up the game, as you the player are already taking into your hands and putting on your screen a universe that you are taking responsibility for. Consent to become a savior is implicit in installing the game. It is your choice to play and when you play you are bound by the rules of the world you inhabit, the first one being that you must save the universe or doom it. That is your burden. 

Do we choose this path? Or is it chosen for us?
This non-choice at the beginning then is a real choice that was made by the player prior to playing the game. One might argue that you cannot choose to stop and do nothing in the game, and so it is illusion instead. However, this game is a STORY with a PLOT. It is not a simulator, as universal and ultimate choice would create. The parameters of the story are established and the choices after that are given to you are part of those parameters. One consideration is that in a story there can only be so much deviation before it loses its plot. 

Plot devices can change in minor ways but they cannot change in any way you decide to choose. Certain choices lead to consequences, but there must be some continuity in the main plot line along the way. Playing through the game multiple times, you end up in the same fights, with the same people. Often the only difference is replacing one character with another. In some scenes you are given a choice to magnanimously let people live or exercise wrath and cold calculation as you watch people die. This life and death scenario brings with it a deep sense of consequence to the choices presented. It is a part of our psyche to be impacted by death, especially of characters we are invested in. Is this choice real though?

The characters have minor plot devices in their backgrounds, and you can act on those plots to help them. You may even establish a friendship or relationship with some of them. The bond that Sheperd forms with these characters seems real and plays out with emotion and drama on the screen. So in choosing to let them live or die you break or strengthen that bond. Is that choice an illusion though? even though it has such an impact? 

I personally believe it is because of one train of thought. Implicit consent to become a savior of the universe puts you on a single path that must reach culmination to respect the boundaries of the universe you inhabit. By this I mean that beginning the game and accepting its terms implies that you will eventually finish the STORY that you have begun. Otherwise the initial choice is pointless, as the journey to the end of the story is the point of beginning it in the first place.

Once begun, the journey you are on places you in situations and gives you choices to develop the outcomes of lives around you. However regardless of your choice the fate of the universe will still be on your character, and the situations and missions you take on will continue to be very similar to what they would be regardless of choice. For example: a world may die because you did not cure a disease, however you will still fight that giant robot guardian on the next world with all or some of your friends. This robot is a plot device and an obstacle that needs to be cleared to satisfy the code requirements to continue the story. Are you affected by your choice? Possibly, but ultimately the choice does not matter as you continue on meeting these plot requirements. They are like domino pieces, and beginning the game pushes the first domino without any way to stop them from falling without just walking away.  

Final Questions

When does the illusion disappear and we believe this could be us?
This realization may be normal. Everyone might have it when they play games similar to this. What other devices are mere illusions in games? Using the same logic and exploring other devices we can show that everything is illusion in games. The improvement of skill in games is illusion because you are not actually improving, just increasing a number in a memory byte. The improvement of quality in graphics only improves as far as you can continue to create an illusion for the player, and the subjective opinion of graphics is relative to previous experience. So when does the illusion become reality then? When we cannot recognize the illusion? When does the change from illusion to reality occur? The difference is so subtle that we may not know until it is done, and then games will not only be a part of our lives, but may become our entire lives. If you experience something that is so real that you believe it to be reality, does that not constitute the definition of reality itself? The reality is that the thinking part of ourselves is only experiencing electrical pulses from the rest of our senses. If those electrical pulses can be manipulated and changed to suit a game, where does the boundary of illusion and reality exist? 

Going too far, bringing it back

These are some of the things I think about when a game gives me something that resembles "choice". Believe me, I think it's amazing that I can feel for digital bytes in the way that games like Mass Effect makes me do. I enjoy the choices and playing god, it's one of the reasons I play games in the first place. Being powerful is intoxicating, and playing games is the one of the best ways to do that. Mass Effect 2 definitely does that for me, and then some. It also has some great powers that are flashy to show off! You can even shoot a black hole at people! Don't tell me that's not awesome.

You'll like this game if: You enjoy space opera science fiction and like light bloom effects on literally everything. You may also enjoy the illusion of choice without having it or shooting black holes at people.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I'm Back!

Level Complete!

I'm just coming back to this blog after the last few months spent finishing off my Bachelors degree. Thankfully that is all over and I have the time now to get back to interesting and fun things during my free time. This means getting back to writing about games I do and don't like. I am still going to continue on with my Steam list and try to get all of them reviewed and in this blog. 

I feel like the problem with writing a blog about reviewing games is there are lots of sources of reviews out there that assign a score and say why it deserves that score. I'm a big proponent of the theory that every game has its merits and I want to focus on those merits more than the pitfalls that many games come across. In that way I'm going to try to start focusing on the things that the games I play do well and what I look forward to in the future from these features. Observing the evolution of games and looking for the traits that are strongest. Finding those traits in the next generation of games.

Also since I'm a business major I'd like to develop more of a temperature of the gaming industry and the strategies that modern gaming companies are following. These things interest me, and they give us a more personal view of the people and companies that are behind the games we play. Since this is my blog it's what I'll be writing about on occasion. Not every day mind you, but occasionally.

This is a personal project for me and in that way it will contain lots of my opinions that I will do my best to back up with facts or logical progression of ideas. I want to spend some time in dialogue about these ideas and get some clarity that I don't usually find other places. This is a legitimate industry that is rising to meet other media sources and I want to develop it in a legitimate way.

I'll be writing more soon!