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Waking Nightmare (Part 2)

February 29, 2012 5 comments

Disclaimer: This is not a review as such, but it does talk about various elements of a recently released game. If you’re particularly averse to spoilers, or really looking forward to Alan Wake’s American Nightmare you might want to come back once you’ve played it for yourself.

To be brief (and diplomatic), I am disappointed, although I understood before I wrote Part 1 that I’d have no one but myself (and Remedy) to blame if this happened. I’m also a little bemused, primarily because I’ve spent more time trying to figure out exactly who the target audience for this game is than I have playing the game itself. Of course, its reviewing reasonably well so I understand I may be in the minority here, but to me this felt like Alan Wake with all the interesting elements removed (albeit with the remaining ones polished to a mirror-like sheen). Or, to put it another way, it felt like I was controlling Max Payne as he wandered through a poorly written chapter of the Alan Wake story.

Alan Wake

Essential tools of the writer's trade. Apparently.

Alan was a much more relatable character in the first game. Lost in a dark forest, possibly going mad, desperately trying to rescue his wife – these are understandable challenges and motivations that help me care about him as a character. The fact that he’s a writer and not a cannon-toting superman made combat situations genuinely threatening and uncomfortable, and combined with the slightly clunky movement mechanics to create a convincing feeling of Wake as an everyman out of his depth. A big contributor to this was the relative powerlessness that comes from not knowing where your next flashlight battery is coming from, or if you have enough ammunition to reach the safety of the next floodlight. This ever-present threat, and consequently the tension, is conspicuously missing from American Nightmare, for two reasons:

First, ammunition and resources are ludicrously abundant. In addition to automatically changing all ammo in the level around you to match the guns you’re currently carrying, Remedy introduced cabinets generously scattered throughout the levels that completely refill all your resources. The combination meant I really didn’t need half of the ammo I found, and ultimately was able to use the ‘apocalyptic overkill’ strategy for most combat situations without fear of what was around the next corner.

Second, the gameplay has been tightened up considerably – Alan is now much smoother to control both in movement and aiming, making it easier to manoeuvre and to switch between targets during firefights. While this is obviously a good thing, when combined with the super-stocked arsenal, it makes Alan feel like a traditional video game hero – slick, overpowered and disappointingly two dimensional. Admittedly, while this results in much less tension in the combat, it does make it a lot more fun, and allows the game to throw more enemies at you early (both in numbers and types), creating a greater variety of action than the first game achieved. Since the first game was successful more so because it was interesting, atmospheric and unusual than because it was ‘fun’, this leads me back to the central question – who is this new instalment aimed at?

Alan Wake

He's running while he decides which of his many super-weapons to use on them.

There is a plot based explanation for the changes, but the game doesn’t quite pull it off. This time around, Alan is trapped within an episode of Night Springs (which he apparently wrote) and is battling to overcome Mr. Scratch, the villainous doppelgänger revealed at the end of the original. Rather than running for his life, afraid and in constant doubt if what is happening is real or imagined – American Nightmare’s Alan feels instead like a confident detective on the trail of a killer, and seems to be the only character who has any idea of whats going on. That Alan seems to understand the rules of this universe, and instinctively knows what to do (well of course I need to find a Kasabian CD and play it in the vicinity of an oil derrick so that a falling satellite will destroy a wormhole – it makes so much sense) doesn’t help to align me with Alan’s plight – instead of being motivated to uncover the mystery in order to help him, I feel like the character I’m playing is holding back story information from the person playing him – sounds novel in theory, but in practice turns out to be undesirable.

The most disappointing decision in this setting revolves around the environments – with a slim justification in the story, there are several areas in the game that are revisited over and over again, with only minor variations in the objectives and dialogue. Given that one of the consistent complaints with the first game was that the reuse of a few settings dulled their effectiveness, the idea of tackling this problem by deliberately repeating it seems a strange one. Its especially risky given the related decision to scale down the plot elements in favour of action, because there’s much less story to create the level of player engagement required to forgive this kind of lazy level design.

The issue is exacerbated by the quality of the writing, which oscillates wildly between genuinely clever and absolutely awful. Mr Scratch’s monologues from phantom tv’s are the most engaging part of the game – he’s a genuinely dark, unsettling and well written character, and he provides the major driving force keeping you interested in the story. Sadly, his appearances contrast starkly with Alan’s conversations with all the other npc’s, which are, frankly, awful. A ‘herbal suppository’ joke in the first five minutes of the game throws any pretence of atmosphere out the window, and it never really makes it all the way back. The occasions when it comes close (such as a drawn out encounter with Mr Scratch in an abandoned drive in theatre) are unfortunately bookended by stilted, awkward conversations with other characters that do little to advance the story, but a lot to erode any lingering scraps of immersion.

Ultimately, my major criticism here is more about questionable decisions than questionable writing. I feel like I was right in the middle of the target audience for the first game, and for me, this episode wilfully strips away most of the elements that set the first apart from the crowd, while taking one of the major flaws and deliberately designing it into the experience, without making sure the story and character elements of the game are strong enough to make it work.

Say what you will about the increased action focus to make this episode more appropriate to an ‘XBLA’ audience (why the method of delivery necessitated this focus change I don’t know) – its not the prevalence of action that lets American Nightmare down. Its the fact that it doesn’t even try to aspire to the same standard of writing for the story that it has. While the first was a character based mystery/thriller game with lashings of action, this instalment feels like an action game with a thin layer of substandard Twilight Zone dialogue layered on top. If you’re in it for the action, its polished and quite a lot of fun, but if like me you’re looking for more of what made the original so interesting, you may need to look elsewhere.

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Waking Nightmare (Part 1)

February 23, 2012 3 comments

I don’t know a right lot about Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. This is primarily because I stopped reading about it with a feeling of world weary resignation after hearing the early previews describing the deliberate design decision to prioritise action elements over the atmosphere and story experience this time around.

Alan Wake: American Nightmare

Not pictured: a deep analysis of how this encounter changed Alan as a person

I really enjoyed the first Alan Wake. It was flawed (almost every level is five minutes of exploring a new environment, followed by an hour of stumbling around in a dark forest at night, in the rain) but really interesting, and much like this Dear Esther thing, (which, if well written opinions are to be believed, is at once fascinatingly unusual and reasonably well executed), its exactly the kind of thing our beloved industry needs more of to arrest, or at the very least counterbalance those elements of it that are racing each other to genericise every game to the point of ridiculousness. (Yes, it is generally accepted there are only 7 stories, from which all others are derivative, but that doesn’t mean we only need 7 games endlessly reproduced with only the most minor variations.)

Anyway. Alan Wake’s convoluted story, unusual structure and faux-thriller/low level horror theme were a great experiment, and I will be genuinely disappointed if the only published ‘results’ of that experiment are ‘needs more action to sell more units’. What I feel Alan Wake needed was more exploration, and maybe some alternate paths to complete objectives – both making the most of the great atmosphere and taking advantage of the very interesting world that Remedy created (granted, they overused a small section of that world, but that rainy night forest was amazing the first couple of times). Additionally, allowing for more exploration means you have the option of requiring more exploration by further scarcifying (should be a word) resources, especially towards the later stages. The game was a lot tenser in the opening levels, when you really were scrounging for every flashlight battery and revolver round, and relatedly lost its way a bit once I had enough flares and flare gun ammo to Rambo my way through every encounter. What I don’t recall is anyone making an intelligent case for why a lack of action was at the heart (or even in the chest vicinity) of Alan’s problems – I say intelligent, because it is basically an action game – ‘lack of action’ is only a valid descriptor if we use the Gears of War series as a benchmark for our required minimum. (I’m not implying a correlation between intelligence and Gears enjoying, for the record).

So I switched off my attention on American Nightmare. By a quirk of fate (and an excruciatingly slow Sony PS3 repair process) I have developed a tiny window to play something not in my immense existing ‘to do’ pile, and this short expansion will fit that bill nicely. The other, more important motivation here is to hold my own angst up to some scrutiny, and see if its justified – if it turns out this addition is actually a better game for thinning out the story elements and replacing them with more chainsaws, well, I’ll have learned a valuable lesson about leaping to ill informed conclusions.

And if I turn out to be right, and this is one more disappointing step towards genre and series homogeny, well. We’ll have to clear some soapbox space around these parts, and settle in for some serious whining.

Game trailers – friend or foe?

February 21, 2012 10 comments

It seems like you can’t call yourself a AAA title these days (you know what? I’m not even sure what that means, although I think we can safely rule out ‘three times as good as an ‘A’ title) unless you’ve got a massive-budget, zero-gameplay trailer to go along with it.

Like this one.

There was a lot of controversy after Dead Island’s stunning, voyeuristic look at a family’s last moments in the zombie apocalypse sent expectations of the final game skyrocketing in the wrong direction. The problem was it all focused on the failings of the game itself, with side notes questioning how such an epic mismatch in marketing tone could even have occurred. What was missing was the debate about whether or not the trailer itself, as a marketing tool, was a good (or even necessary) thing.

It was by no means the first, but its been followed by a number of high profile visual successes (notably Skyrim, SWTOR, Far Cry 3, and Mass Effect 3) – none of which gave any useful information about the games they represented. Gorgeous as they are, do they actually result in anything beyond a few minutes of excitement, some inflated expectations, and a correspondingly increased risk of disappointment and disillusionment with the finished product?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much enjoying watching them – as stand alone entertainment pieces they’re awesome – and if you’ve not seen any of the ones linked above, I’d advise you to check them out post-haste. Its just that a part of me is starting to wonder if I should be suspicious when people spend this much time and effort trying to sell me something, (and another, deeply buried part of me remembers how much another glossy trailer once resulted in sky-high expectations and subsequent heartbreak) so I’m forced to ask the question, do we need them?

Did you buy any of the above games simply because the trailer convinced you it would be awesome? I didn’t. Those I’ve bought, I would have bought without a trailer of any kind, on the merits of the game (or series, or developer) alone, whereas for those I didn’t want, no amount of well choreographed CG fighting could have tipped my hand.

More importantly, have we come to expect this kind of fan service (assuming, most generously, that that is what this is) as an integral part of the experience in the lead up to a massive blockbuster, or is it simply a necessary investment as part of creating a profitable product in an overcrowded marketplace?

Relatedly, how many of these games lived up to the expectations their clever marketeers created? I’ve got some thoughts on those I’ve played coming in a future post, but in the meantime, lets get a nice healthy flamewar happening in the comments.

Good Griefing

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

As always, I’m several months off the pace with my thoughts and most of what I’m talking about has been previously documented elsewhere, so this post assumes some prior knowledge about the wonders of Dark Souls’ multiplayer. If you’re not familiar with the specifics, and don’t have the requisite 50-odd hours spare to learn the mechanics by hand, you may want do a quick skim over the basics before reading on.

Jerks are an inventive lot. Over the years, a range of methods for shoring up your insecurities by ruining everyone else’s day have grown into common usage in online gaming, from simple camping to the ludicrous concept of ‘ghosting‘, and none of them make their participants look like balanced members of society.

If From Software’s Dark Souls is remembered for nothing else, it should be the contribution it made to expanding the multiplayer experience, and introducing the idea of griefing as a sometimes necessary tactical option, moving the concept beyond the cheap thrills domain of over-angsty teens and damaged shut-ins. To be clear, there is a significant element of PvP to Dark Souls, and many ways to voluntarily engage in PvP by inviting other players to invade your world, or joining one of several covenants with a particular bias towards that side of the game. For the scope of this post, I’m talking about the ‘involuntary’ PvP and the particular brand of griefing it involves – invading the world of someone who isn’t threatening or opposing you, without their prior knowledge or consent, and attempting to kill them.

Not being a PvP player by nature, I looked upon invaders as people out to get their joy by feasting off the pain of others, (doubly heinous in a game like Dark Souls, legendary for its pain-feasting single player challenges already. In fact I’m surprised – and a little disappointed – that Namco Bandai didn’t sell Dark Souls under the tagline ‘Your tears are delicious’. If you’re reading this marketeers, feel free to use it for the sequel).

The Gaping Dragon

A fair fight, Dark Souls style.

Dark Souls was almost universally hailed for its innovative and complex multiplayer gameplay, but I’m yet to read anything that touches on what I feel is one of the most extraordinary elements – the way it acknowledged, challenged and subverted the role of griefers in online multiplayer. Its no secret that online gaming encourages some malicious behaviours, within the largely harm free confines of various imaginary worlds. It doesn’t matter if the game is a Halo deathmatch or a My Little Pony hair-braiding friendship jamboree, there are going to be players who only enjoy the game if they’re making it worse for someone else. From Software have taken this unfortunate truth, and built a multiplayer experience that at once encourages dastardly behaviour (by offering rare resources as reward for successfully invading another player’s world), and discourages it (by giving invadees access to more than one method of karmic vengeance). Most importantly, it humanises the invader in a way that – at least for me – nullified a lot of the angst I would otherwise have felt against them.

Lets examine further, using my experiences as flimsy anecdotal evidence.

Acknowledgement

Right off the bat, Dark Souls acknowledges that yes, jokes at the expense of others are fun. Giving players the ability to leave messages for others meant it wouldn’t be long before lulz-motivated signs inviting the unwary to leap from cliffs in pursuit of secret treasure flooded every level. There are rewards for leaving helpful messages (as rated by other wanderers) but no penalties for deliberately misleading information – everything about Dark Souls leans towards a ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality – if you’re brave/foolish enough to blindly trust anonymous tips on the floor, the consequences (good or bad) are your own to bear. Having said that, its not just that you’re given the means to lure the innocent to yet another untimely death that suggests the developers had griefing in mind. There is so much packed into the game that isn’t explained, so many nasty surprises, and so many secret treasures tucked away that as a player, you’re sorely tempted to gamble on this advice from strangers – the rewards balance the risk so well, and the game odds in general are so overwhelming, each questionable message results in a serious internal struggle of ‘will I or won’t I?’, which (one presumes) ultimately makes the knowledge that your false trail resulted in yet another frustrating restart for someone else all the more satisfying.

Of course, only the least committed griefers would be content with such entry level pranks. Invasion is where its at, and Dark Souls not only acknowledges that this is going to happen, it makes it a core element of the multiplayer experience. It also clips the wings of the invaders a bit, randomly making a match between invader and invadee, as long as they are within 10% of each other’s level. This nullifies the tactic of repeatedly targeting the same person, or targeting someone many levels below you. Additionally, you can’t use your primary healing mechanism as an invader – the health you go in with is all you’re going to get, giving the potential victim a much needed psychological advantage. Adding this kind of framework pushes your sadistic types into a specific ruleset for griefing, forcing it to happen in a way that doesn’t break the game for everyone else.

Challenge

As noted above, I don’t generally do a lot of PvP in primarily ‘single’ player games. I thought on starting Dark Souls I was playing purely for the single player experience, and would suffer through the occasional invasion from some joy-stealing arsehat with nothing better to do than further stack the odds against me. My first such encounter was deep in the Sewers below the undead burg, where I was already beset on all sides by smog-breathing curse-frogs, and my heart sank when I saw the ‘You have been invaded’ message appear.

Most of that encounter was me stumbling backwards in a panic, swinging wildly here and there, dodge-rolling for all I was worth, but by some good fortune I emerged victorious. The righteous thrill when I blocked his final swing and thrust the Drake Sword through his gizzard was better than beating any boss the single player game had served up so far. Against a human, it wasn’t about exploiting a hard-coded attack pattern, it was a vicious, real struggle to the death. For both of us, locked in mortal combat in this dank, horror filled dungeon, that one fight was the game. The random nature of the world invading mechanics meant that once this battle was concluded, there was little chance of the two of us ever crossing paths again. Within the context of my game world, there were no restarts or ‘best of three’ for us – this fight was all or nothing.

Smog Frog

I hate you, smog-frogs.

This set me up to start thinking a little differently about the value of the multiplayer aspect of the game in general, although I still viewed my invader with disdain – surely his only motivation could have been my fear and rage, the reward for his efforts my anguished wail as I died and restarted from an oh-so-distant bonfire.

Some time later, I realised I was wrong about this too.

It was in Anor Londo, when I was ready to face off against Ornstein and Smough – widely acknowledged to be one of the most teeth-gnashingly difficult boss fights in a game which makes its living from them. After attempting it once, and being told (via grisly and extremely rapid demise) that this was not a fight I was going to win on my own, I decided to summon in some co-op assistance and even the odds a little. Using the last of my precious humanity, I summoned in a nearby friendly and we set about our business. The result was much the same as my solo attempt, although this time there was a glimmer of hope there – perhaps if I summoned in two co op players and tried again, we could teach those guys a thing or two about the pointy ends of our swords.

That was when I realised I was totally out of humanity. With no way to turn human, I had no way to summon help. With no way to summon help, I had absolutely no way of winning this fight, and beating the level. I didn’t have many options. (Note: For the sake of brevity, I’ve edited out the part of this story where I now trek all the way back to the Undead Burg and start looking for rats, in the hopes of a random humanity drop. Rest assured it happened. Sadly, that humanity was burned in a couple more futile attempts at this fight.)

And so there I was, slowly coming to the realisation that the game had been waiting for me to arrive at since I picked up the controller. I was going to have to invade some poor unfortunate, kill them, and harvest their sweet, sweet humanity.

I got quite lucky (again) here. When I arrived in the victim’s world, she was already embroiled in combat against two Giant Knights, and not having an easy time of it. Distracted, it was much too easy for me to stroll up and get some easy hits in. My victim panicked and tried to flee, reminding me starkly of myself, many hours earlier in the sewers, stumbling blindly away from my attacker. I imagined all too vividly this person at the other end of the net connection cursing my name, and wondering aloud at what kind of mental deficiency made a person enjoy grief-killing someone as they struggled through this monumentally difficult game. I cut her down as she ran.

I felt terrible. I desperately wanted her to know that it wasn’t malicious – that I had to do this, in order to be able to get the help I needed to defeat this awful level, and ultimately, the game. I wanted this person that I’d never met to know I wasn’t a bad person, and that it was the game itself forcing me into such a dastardly role. (I also briefly considered how ironic it would be, if through some quirk of the summoning system, she was one of the friendlies selected to assist me in my fight against the end-bosses, after stealing her humanity to do the summoning.)

In the end, I made the most of the spoils of my evil – with the aid of some summoned companions, I put Ornstein and Smough into well-deserved graves, and said goodbye to Anor Londo. It wasn’t all smiles though – my opponent had been carrying ‘Indictment’, an item that added my name to an online Book of the Guilty, marked for future vengeance by a shadowy cabal of bounty hunters. I eventually got what I deserved.

Subversion

This whole experience, not surprisingly, changed my perspective on invaders – I was always forced to wonder (and ultimately, chose to believe) that they were just like me, desperate for humanity to summon assistance for a particularly brutal boss battle, and forced to fight me for it. I bore no ill will to those that defeated me, frustrating as it was at the time. Of course, for true griefers, the fun is in hearing the impotent rage of your victim, and their fruitless desire for revenge. Philosophically, it makes no difference – they are free to imagine my furious tears, if thats the value of the exercise. I wonder if it feels slightly hollow(er), knowing that your victim might instead be quietly wishing you best of luck, and full use of the stolen humanity against their own horrible trials? I imagine it does. More likely, the joy of griefing would be diminished by its incorporation into the core mechanics of the game – offering the same ‘reward’ of being able to ruin someone else’s game for your own fun if you so wish, but ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules if you do, and the victims are not without teeth of their own.

The brilliance of Dark Souls wasn’t just in acknowledging that griefing will happen if you give people a forum in which to do it, or in taking the primary griefing method and making it a structured and balanced part of the game. These things alone prevented those surly few from ruining it for everyone. The amazing extra layer was in making invasion a last-ditch (but always reliable) method of obtaining humanity, your only way of summoning assistance from other players altruistic enough to offer their help to other adventurers, often the only way to best this brutal game. Like the moral choice with the Little Sisters in Bioshock, this is a mechanic that answers the question ‘Can a video game make me feel guilty?’

Yes it can.

Did anyone else have a similar experience, or did you manage to get through the game without needing to ruin someone else’s day?

Far Cry 3 and the Mechanics of Insanity

February 16, 2012 7 comments

So the gaming web is abuzz this week, due to a flurry of new info about the prime contender for this year’s ‘Most Ridiculous Name’ award, Far Cry 3. (Seriously guys, why aren’t we talking about this name? I realise you need brand continuity and all, but Far Cry barely made sense the first time, and it certainly isn’t the kind of evocative name (like Doom) that you want maximum mileage from. Also, this new release has no relationship to any of the other games, so the time was right for a new moniker. Just saying.)

A lot of the attention is on the leaked-but-then-officially-released trailer which turned up this morning, looking gorgeous. It doesn’t show any actual gameplay, but what we’ve previously seen from E3 is more than enough to dispel any fears of a Dead Island-esque mismatch between marketing and gameplay reality. Concerningly similar to Dead Island though is the utter douche-bagginess of the central characters – one can only hope this protagonist is of the silent variety. Fortunately, the worst offender seems like he won’t be playing a role in the game beyond ‘corpse no. 1’.

Aside from the trailer, some gameplay information also surfaced this week, revealing that ‘insanity’ is a running theme, and that the decaying mental health of the player character will have an impact on various sections. Not much to go on yet, but my first guess is that this is in the same vein as the ‘malaria’ mechanic introduced in Far Cry 2, although hopefully this evolution comes with greater depth and impact.

Far Cry 3

These are not the eyes of a man in full possession of his faculties

For those unfamiliar, the player contracts malaria at the beginning of Far Cry 2, and must ostensibly be constantly aware of their state of health, as well as the number of malaria pills they currently have. Periodic dizzy spells can be put to rest by popping a pill, but should you run out of those, you’re in big trouble. Naturally, you can’t just get those anywhere, so you’ll need to do favours for various NPCs. Thats the theory. In reality, you keep a vague count of how many times you utilise your meds, and are periodically forced to embark on tiresome, cooker cutter fetch quests in order to earn more before returning to the part of the game you were actually enjoying. It wasn’t the best implementation of an idea I’ve ever seen, but it did at least indicate that Ubisoft were interested in adding an extra layer to the gameplay beyond the standard ‘go here, shoot that, claim reward’ sequence that makes up the rest of the game.

Thats why I’m pleased to hear about the insanity idea in FC3, as it could offer some interesting character depth, or at least a reason to feel something for the main character beyond annoyance at his haircut. Additionally/alternatively, it could provide gameplay depth, and add an element of risk the player would need to manage – one that can’t be overcome by adding ever-bigger machine guns to your arsenal. It represents the desire by the developers to tinker with the standard elements, and create something more engaging as a result. Its been done before – Amnesia: The Dark Descent had a really interesting take on the insanity mechanic that prevented the player from overusing their primary advantage (hiding in darkness), and created that extra layer of risk which made the game tense and challenging. It actually forced you to think about and change the way you approached the game, rather than just forcing you through an iteration of the same ‘side quest’ for every couple of hours of gameplay.

Lets hope Far Cry 3 is putting more thought into their use of it than they did in FC2 – if it turns out I can manage my mental state with pills, and I can only get those by doing a favour for some helpful NPC every hour or so, it will be a massive opportunity squandered. I’m also taking bets on how long into the game I have to play before a dream sequence characterising my descent into madness makes an appearance.

Looking forward to more details on this one.

Also, ‘Mechanics of Insanity’ is a great name for a band. You’re welcome, world.

The Minecraft Duality

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Full disclosure: Minecraft is one of my favourite discoveries (and favourite games) of the last few years. There is every possibility the following text may come across as more of an impassioned lovefest than the kind of surgically detached analysis I assume this blog is known across the seven internet seas for.

I very rarely play the same game twice in vastly different ways. Sure, I’ll play Mass Effect through a few times, once as FemShep, once as that default out-of-the-box guy (who barely counts, so far from the real Shepard is he), once as a badass Renegade Adept, once as a lame Paragon Infiltrator. I have a fairly different experience doing each time, yet its still the same game, played in the same way. Following the story, clinging to the universe and its offered reality, and playing much as I imagine the game is supposed to be played – you take on missions, slaughter countless aliens/organic robots/occasional human, and talk the ears off every npc you can find.

Not so in Minecraft (although if the NPC’s could talk, that part would probably stay the same). By now it’s general concepts and many virtues have been discussed elsewhere more articulately or more hilariously than I’m capable of, so I’m going to assume some knowledge and skip straight to talking about the perfect balance between multiple totally different games that exists within its code (there could be more, if the totally original idea for a timed-setup tower defence mod I just thought of gets off the ground. Or already exists.)

Stunningly, its a perfectly balanced combination of adventure game and sandbox ‘creation space’ – its exploration more engrossing than the most beautifully rendered modern epics, its creation possibilities the envy of every ‘sim’ game ever made. The primary thing that differentiates it from anything else is the ability to switch seamlessly between playing it as a ‘game’ (via exploration for its own sake, battling skeletons, spiders and zombies for fun, and collecting rare and precious minerals for the challenge and the sake of acquisition) and playing it as a pure creation engine (hours and hours spent planning, building and rebuilding the perfect sky fortress/undersea fortress/treetop fortress, purely for the sake of building it).

Minecraft

That mountain is just begging for a foolhardy monument to man's inhumanity to man

This sort of thing is certainly possible in other games – one glance at youtube will tell you there are plenty of people who spent more time lining up trick shots with the bow and arrow than they did exploring Skyrim’s snowy wonderland. I know thats there, but I’ve never felt compelled in a ‘real’ game to fool around in the engine, to organise my library of books alphabetically, or fill my house with literally thousands of individual items and then shout at them. The relentless pressure of quests, the story, or some other pastime in keeping with how I role play within the world means I don’t get bored enough, and if I did, those kinds of activities tend to break the fourth wall, and ruin the main experience for me. I certainly can’t switch back and forth according to my mood, or based on how much time I have free, which is so easy in Minecraft that I find it happening organically. A quick jaunt down the mine in the middle of building some ridiculous monument to folly might turn into a lengthy, tense exploration if I strike an unknown cave, or spy diamonds off in the distance. Equally, my most committed resource foraging expeditions have been derailed because I noticed a natural mountain face that looked enough like a skull to warrant many hours carving it into perfection.

Interestingly, while the multiplayer appeal of most games is in the ‘adventure’ elements, here its much stronger on the creation side.

There are few other multiplayer games with a persistent, sharable world that evolves over time whose purpose isn’t defined by conflict (I refuse to count FarmVille, for obvious reasons). Fewer still allow just a small group of people to privately build, evolve and destroy their own world, on their own terms. Those that do, tend to focus on the quick-and-brutal framework of a time or kill-based game limit, after which the board and teams are reset, the slate wiped clean. Minecraft allows for as permanent a world as is interesting to the participants, and as shared or disparate goals as is interesting to them. In my time on one multiplayer server, we had shared quests to procure diamonds or rallying together to fend off skeletons or zombies investigating a gap in the wall (inadvertently created by overzealous renovations) but also spent hours apart on separate pet projects, whether that was marking our individual territories with 60 cube high initials for each player, or connecting all these fiefdoms with a shared, roller coaster-esque minecart track for easy transit.

My fondest Minecraft memory is of the time a few of us were playing on a multiplayer server we’d set up, a world in which the host had wiled away many hours building a geographically and architecturally significant fortress. After a lengthy time adding parapets, skywalks and totally unnecessary sub-basement diamond mines, he disappeared temporarily from the game (no doubt to do something constructive in the real world). Seconds before he’d logged off, the three of us had discovered a vein of pure obsidian, deep below the foundations of the castle. As soon as he was gone, we remaining realised we had only one choice: to immediately mine the obsidian and secretly build a portal to hell/the netherworld. Immediately between the front door of our host’s castle, and an extremely convincing fake copy of the front door we would construct directly behind it.

The point, of course, was to see if we could set up a situation where our friend would unknowingly walk through his front door and be immediately transported to a hellish otherworld of flames and freakish monsters. For the 40 minutes or so it took to mine, ascend to the surface and build the door, you’ve never heard such childish giggling. It wasn’t dignified, but dammit, it was fun.

It didn’t work out in the end – we later discovered that particular beta didn’t have the netherworld working in multiplayer, but it didn’t matter. The point was the building, not the end result, and these kinds of experiences are par for the course here – the rule, rather than the exception.

Which brings me to what could generously be called the ‘point’ of this post. Most of my time with Minecraft was around this time last year, and finished before the official ‘1.0’ game came out. I’ve been very keen since then to get back and investigate how it plays with the massive potentially game changing additions this included. One thing concerns me though – does the much expanded sense of purpose, ultimate end goal and addition of a number of traditional ‘game’ elements detract from the total freedom earlier versions made so easy? Once an ultimate goal and a scoring system (of sorts, via achievement and levelling) is present, will I feel compelled to pursue defined ‘success’, even if doing so detracts from my overall enjoyment of the experience? In adding more content and more scope to the game, have Mojang ultimately made a whole that is less than the sum of its parts?

Only one way to find out.

The Fabtabulous RPG Media Blackout Challenge (Part 1)

February 8, 2012 6 comments

So lately I’ve been bemoaning RPG fatigue (here, here and here), and the difficulty I’ve been having recapturing the intense sense of immersion and escapism that I got so easily from these games in my childhood days. Rather than look too deeply for any personal or lifestyle reasons as to why this might be the case, I’m choosing instead to leap immediately to a flimsy conclusion, and attempt some half-arsed experiments to validate my theory.

My leading hypothesis is that a lot of the wonder of playing a brand new game is diluted by the sheer amount of information you have these days about the world, the mechanics, the environments and enemies, all long before the disc is in your perspiring hands. Taking the case of Skyrim (my current whipping boy on this particular subject), I feel in the year or so preceding its release, I probably read something in the order of 40,000 words in previews/reviews, saw 50 odd individual images, and watched 40 or 50 minutes of video. Don’t get me wrong, at the time I absolutely loved it – those numbers above represent the volume of information I took in the first time. If you count re-reads, re-looks and re-watches, I shudder to imagine what the true stats would be.

The end result was that I knew way too much. There was no real wonder at the constellation-style levelling system – I’d seen it before. Almost no time spent lost in just getting to grips with the world and its mechanics, as I knew how most of it worked. Possibly most importantly, not nearly enough time spent wandering and letting my character build itself – the amount of knowledge I had meant I’d already done most of the building in my head. I knew exactly who I wanted to be, and how to build that character, and (arguably) the best part of the rpg experience lost its most important dimension.

Prior to launch, I felt like this knowledge fuelled my excitement for the game. In hindsight, after being disappointed by how quickly the intensity of immersion and simple, exploratory bliss of exploring the world wore off, (and finding nothing at fault whatsoever with the game itself), I’m starting to wonder if having ‘used up’ so many tiny snippets of the all important initial experience before I even played the game is at the core of the issue here.

Obviously, I blame myself and my extraordinary lack of willpower in the lead up, but I wanted to ask the question – is anyone else finding the same thing? Is the sheer overwhelming volume of information about a game available before you play it helping, or hindering your enjoyment of the final product?

To test this theory, I’m kicking off my Fabtabulous RPG Media Blackout Challenge. Its a simple premise: I will pick an upcoming RPG about which I know next to nothing (I would have said absolutely nothing, but I don’t want to risk blowing this whole thing by accidentally ending up with a Final Fantasy XIII), and I will avoid knowing anything at all about the game until I play it. No previews, no trailers, no reviews, no news. I’ll have to either avoid google reader altogether, or put a filter for the name on it to prevent accidental learning. Probably also un-follow a few twitter accounts for the duration as well.

I’ll document the experience (using the world’s loosest definition of the term) here, and then make a totally scientific gut-call on whether or not I found the experience more or less engaging than I have with similar games about which I knew almost everything going in.

Obviously, choosing the right candidate is going to be a tricky endeavour. Anything coming out in the next month or two is out, as the damage is already done. As is anything which is a sequel or spiritual successor to anything I’ve already played.

I’m open to suggestions. The only thing I can think of at this point is Risen 2. The sum total of my knowledge about this game so far is:

  • Sequel to Risen, a western style fantasy rpg which was solid but flawed (not sure of the reasons, as I didn’t pay enough attention)
  • Its pirate themed. Or set in a pirate world. Or has something to do with pirates.

Thats all I’ve got. And thats all I’d like to have, right up until game time. (Someone will need to help me out with the release date). The important thing is I know nothing about the story, characters, mechanics or gameplay.

If you know of something thats still relatively unknown but will be released reasonably soon, feel free to shout out the title and release date in the comments.

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