Monday, June 28, 2010

Video Games and the Illusion of Choice

As you may have noted from my two previous entries, aside from tabletop gaming, I also enjoy video games - most often of the RPG or action/adventure genres, though sometimes something different. Which brings me to the topic of my entry today. In video games of the RPG genre, we, as players, are often offered choices. Or are we? Sometimes we are given things that seem like meaningful choices, but do they mean anything? Do they meaningfully impact the story in any way? I've got a few examples in mind; they may or may not be entirely correct.

Final Fantasy XIII came out a few months ago; as you can tell, it is the 13th FInal Fantasy game numerically, though there are a number of spinoffs. While I did not play it personally, I was present when a goof friend purchased it, and watched while he played for about 30 hours over 5-6 days. Now, as they have been in the past, Final Fantasy is on the cutting edge of graphics; the visuals are beautiful, the FMV (full-motion video) is great, and the characters look stunningly real for people in often ridiculous costumes. The story, while often terribly complex and bizarre, is long and intricate. But my biggest problem with Final Fantasy games, even though I love a number of them, is that they really offer the player no choice. There is one singular path you have to take, one story to follow, and there is no real, meaningful deviation; only after playing the game for more than 30 hours are you even given a chance to choose which area you want to go see - until then, you are shuttled from one beautifully-rendered locale to another, put on a linear path, and run through the paces. This is especially ironic, given that the main story is all about whether or not the characters have any choice in their lives. You have some minor choice in how you characters progress, but you never choose their dialogue options, you never make any goal choices, and often it doesn't feel like an RPG, but more of a virtual novel in which you take a very minor part.

Then we have a game like, say, Mass Effect 2. It's an RPG game by Bioware, and while the visuals aren't quite up to par with the latest that Squaresoft puts forth in Final Fantasy games, they are quite nice. If you played through the first Mass Effect, you can carry over your saved game and thus the choices you made in the first game, so some things will change. If you were mean or nice to a reporter in the first one, it will note that and she will respond appropriately when she meets you in the second; if you took the time to save a particular member of your team, Wrex, in the first one, he'll show up as an NPC in ME 2. There are a lot of little moments like this in Mass Effect 2, but the thing is, they really don't mean anything that pertains to the plot. Whether or not you threatened a reporter or saved Wrex won't impact the greater story; it just gives you the illusion that all of these choices, interesting though they may be, actually have some sort of greater meaning. Now, there is supposed to be a 3rd Mass Effect game eventually, and perhaps Bioware is building towards that, and maybe all these choices will culminate in something meaningful and concrete, but right now, Mass Effect 2 goes to some effort to make it look as if you have a choice, and while you do have more say in what you do - dialogue choices, where you do your missions, which weapons you upgrade - the story remains essentially the same.

Most recently of all, we have a game like Alpha Protocol. I don't know if this really qualifies as an RPG, but it does have a number of RPG elements, and so I'll toss it in there for the purposes of this entry. In Alpha Protocol, at a number of points during the game, you can make choices that actually, meaningfully effect what you do. If you rough up a Russian info broker, he'll inform on you to your enemies. If you let a leader of a terrorist group who has information you want live, he'll provide help later on, in the form of information and assistance - you won't be attacked by members of his group in a later mission, for instance. In one of the most notable instances I found (this will have spoilers, so you may want to close your eyes if you haven't played), there is a boss in the Moscow mission hub who is a truly ridiculous character - he worships the 80s. When you face him in his fortress-like home, you face off in his giant room with a stage suitable for an 80s hair band, with 80s hair band metal playing in the background, a full light show going, while he dual-wields gold-plated submachine guns and wears an 80s jacket so loud it hurts. After you injure him enough, he then snorts cocaine, which makes him a ravening, nigh-invincible death machine whose physical attacks will brutally maul you. Unless, of course, you went to the Taipei mission hub first, and made contact with a 'secret agent' named Steven Heck, and made a favorable impression on him. If you did this, and then go to face the Russian arms dealer/cokehead, you have the option of giving him a shipment of poisoned cocaine, which will slowly kill him every time he partakes of his wonder drug, making the battle far simpler. This is a choice that actually has some effect on the game. It is one of many; often, the amount of info you can gather on important personalities will give you different avenues of action or conversation with them, and this is sometimes the only way to get certain things done.

Now, all three of these were good games, though my friend who played Final Fantasy XIII was getting bored of the lack of impact he had on the story when I last saw him play. This same guy tore through Mass Effect 2 twice over the course of a couple weeks. He hasn't played Alpha Protocol yet, but I think if he does, he'll have a number of things he'll want to replay. So, is choice, or the illusion of choice, in a video game really so important? Does it have anything to say about the player, or about the game developer? How will it effect the future of video gaming, if at all? All questions I find myself wondering about at night sometimes.

Friday, June 25, 2010

USS Workstation - The Continued Voyages

Once again, I find myself posting from a computer at work. I probably wouldn't be doing this during the school year, but summers are a slow time working in a university, so here I am; plus I can't really get access to my computer for long enough at home, so here I am. As with my last entry, this will also be my own personal reviews of two video games, though not as ridiculously positive. Zero Punctuation may not be quite my level of vitriol, but it can get up there.

Prototype - this is a game that I picked up well after it was released, mostly because I don't often like to play the 'bad guy'; I don't play Grand Theft Auto games, and don't generally pick the 'evil' alignments in games where I get a choice. In Prototype, you play Alex Mercer, a guy who wakes up on a morgue slab, and immediately, for no reason he can remember, has people trying to kill him, including the military.

He quickly discovers that he is now different, massively so; he is stronger, faster, and tougher than normal humans, can literally run up walls and leap great distances, and under the right circumstances, can literally turn his body into a variety of living weapons. And as he discovers what is happening to him, he also discovers the military - or, more accurately, the military-industrial complex - views him as a threat greater than almost anything in history, and is willing to sacrifice the entire island of Manhattan to take him out.

In Prototype, you can kill just about everyone you meet; random civilians, military squads, tanks, helicopters, and beasts created by the 'disease' that infects Alex, and has begun to spread to the general populace. The game plays in a third-person perspective, and for the most part, you can roam all over the island of Manhattan - which is a big area, even when you can leap from building to building, because the creators of Prototype went to some trouble to make the area authentic. Aside from just following the storyline, there are various optional challenge missions, testing your new abilities and how you use them, and also missions that pit you against both the military and the Infected.

You can be sneaky about it - eventually you get an ability that lets you sneak up on and 'consume' a person, taking their shape and memories - but as the game goes one, things get harder; the military becomes better at detecting you, the Infected grow in number, and neither group likes you. So yes, while you can run rampant murdering the population of New York City, you aren't just a total psychopath - you are a man who wants to know what was done to him, how to stop it, and who is responsible. What you find out is ugly, but makes you something of an anti-hero - you may do bad things at times, but in general, you are working to do some kind of good. If you can handle crazy 3rd-person action where you run up buildings, fight hand-to-hand with helicopters, and can eat people to sneak around, this is a game you'll enjoy - as, I was surprised, I did.

Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood - this is a game that, unlike basically all the others so far, is something of a first-person shooter. You play one of a pair of brothers, who start out as soldiers in the US Civil War, and you are fighting on the losing side. The Civil War missions get you used to the two characters you'll be able to control throughout the game, the brothers McCall, Ray and Thomas. There's a third brother, William, who narrates, but he isn't playable. One brother, Ray, is tougher and more suited to close combat and heavier weapons, and can take more punishment; the other, Thomas, is more of a sharpshooter, and uses more accurate weapons.

The object of the game, once your characters desert their unit after going home to find their mother dead because of Yankee mischief, is to go down to Mexico, escape the law, and find the mythical treasure of Juarez, which will make them rich and let them rebuild their family home. To this extent, you take a number of jobs, many of them unpleasant - at one point, you have to gun down a sheriff of a small town because one of the brothers slept with the sheriff's daughter, then blow your way out of town as violently as possible, and eventually, you run into a woman, Marisa, who divides the brothers, as both want her and both will kill to get her. You work for, and against, a host of unpalatable people - the Mexican warlord Juarez, your former Confederate commander Barnsby, the Apaches of Texas and Mexico - all in search of the woman and the gold.

I disliked this game for both reasons of gameplay and story. Gameplay is first; for one, many of the most important 'fights' of the game are handled using a slow-motion, bullet-time fast-draw duel, where you circle around, try to keep your opponent in front of you, then draw and fire. The problem is that to be successul, you have to fire at exactly the right time, hitting a very small area, and do it very accurately, and you get one try - otherwise, you die and have to keep trying over and over. In a game where some of your other, tougher opponents can take dozens of bullets, as can you, this is just a way to screw the player. Also, the use of contemporary weapons meakes the FPS shooting difficult, as apparently nobody ever taught the McCalls to steady their guns, so they move all over, even when zooming in. This makes the game difficult to the point of frustration, even on Easy difficulty, for people who are not experienced in FPS games.

The story is unpalatable, too. The two brothers start out as Confederate soldiers, mowing down Union soldiers with glee, then desert their side the moment they hear their home might be in danger; it is, but they had known that could happen, especially since they, even thought they seem like vaguely criminal men, are apparently part of the slave- and plantation-owning Southern elite. They then pillage, and presumably rape, their way to, and then through, Texas, down to Mexico, and take up all manner of unpleasant jobs, to the sorrow of their brother William, who is a priest. Once Marisa comes into the picture, they even begin to fight each other over her, to the point where at the end they hate each other more than their other enemies. Ray and Thomas are unpleasant characters, who perform 'good' acts by accident on occasion, but generally are selfish, self-centered, and just plain mean. At several points, they actually laugh maniacally when killing unarmed people, whether white, Mexican, or Native American. They are exactly the kind of characters I hate to play, and since Bound in Blood is apparently the prequel to the 2006 game simply named Call of Juarez, I can't imagine how ugly things are there. Unless you love playing total bastards and are already very skilled at FPS games, I recommend you avoid this game.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tales from the USS Workstation

Well, I'm able to access my blog at work, and today is not a particularly active day, so I thought I'd throw up an entry while I'm here to give me something to do. Today, I think I'll try something I haven't really done before - I'll try to give short reviews of several video games I have been playing recently. I have no background in this, so don't expect brilliant wit, but it could be interesting.

Mass Effect 2 - this game actually came out in late January of this year. It is the sequel to Bioware's popular Mass Effect, and uses an interesting system in determining how the story goes - if you have a previous saved game from Mass Effect 1, you can transfer the pertinent story details to Mass Effect 2, so any choices you made in the first will carry over. If not, you can just go with the standard set of choices, but those choices are ones I found to be sub-optimal.

Mass Effect 2 is a sci-fi action game, mostly an RPG but with a fair amount of 3rd-person shooter elements. You captain a ship, seek out a crew of violent misfits to help you in your quest, and lead a three-person team down to planet or space-station surfaces to accomplish missions. Like most Bioware games, there is an alignment system; you can choose to go Paragon, the goody two shoes guy, or Renegade, the Jack Bauer of the cosmos. You can actually progress in both; earning points in one won't make the other go down, though getting one alignment up high opens up different conversation options as you progress.

It changes the combat system from the first game, simplifying the weapons choices, changing the overheating firearm mechanic to a reloading mechanic, ad makes taking cover very important - even with a number of personal shield and health upgrades, staying out in the open for more than a few seconds of fire will get you good and dead. The story is a continuation of the first game, and is just as compelling; the biggest flaws I've found in the game can be the long load times between some areas, much like the long 'elevator' sequences in the first game, and the replacement of the often frustrating tank-driving quasi-minigame from the original with a planet-scanning minigame to net yourself the minerals and ores you need to purchase upgrades.

I purchased this game the day it came out, and played it almost 8 hours a night for a week until I finished it; if you like previous Bioware games and can handle RPGs that have real-time combat, this is a good choice.

Alpha Protocol - this game actually came out at the beginning of this month, and while it isn't the type of game I normally pick up, some things I had heard abotu it intrigued me. After watchign a friend play through Batman: Arkham Asylum, I thought a stealth game might be fun, and Alph Protocol offers a robust stealth system. In Alpha Protocol, you play a secret agent, working for the titular group of Alpha Protocl, a secret agency kept secret even from others like the CIA, NSA, and FBI. It plays, when you are in mission mode, from a 3rd person perspective, giving you a decent idea of your surroundings.

You have a choice of a number of character options, which determine the skill-set your character will be best at; Soldiers are good with guns, with some training in Toughness and Tenchnical Aptitude; Field Agents are stealthy, good at martial arts, and have some pistol skills; Tech Specialists are good at Sabotage, with skill in Technical Aptitude, shotguns, and a hint of Stealth; and Freelancers can choose their skill allocations. You can also choose to play as a Recruit, where you start with no skill ranks, but finishing the game as a Recruit unlocks Veteran mode, which gives you 3 ranks in every skill to start, and gives you some extra options later in the game. You spend a lot of the game making contacts, whether friends or enemies, and how you interact with them determines how they treat you; the three standard conversation approaches have been called the 3 JBs: the James Bond (suave) approach, the Jason Bourne (professional) approach, and the Jack Bauer (rampant aggression) approach.

As you progress, you gain levels to improve your skills, money to upgrade and alter your weaponry, armor, and gadget arsenal, tips to help you on missions, perks depending on how well you do some things (in one mission, if you attack nobody and attract no attention, you get a perk that decreses cooldown on your Stealth skills), and can even choose your mission handler at times. There are four main mission hubs, and after you complete the first, you can then go throught the next three in any order - if you find one too hard, you can skip over to another for a while to try and improve your skills. I, personally, went with a sneaky martial artist; it was fun sneaking up behind unsuspecting guards and knocking them out with sleeper holds, though I could just as easily have killed them.

The way you interact with people you meet, and how you complete missions, changes the progression of the game so much that the game would seem to have almost infinite replayability. The only problems I've had with the game is that at times the graphics can seem somewhat dated for a game this new, and the sheer number of options and decisions available can be mind-boggling. As I noted before, this is not the kind of game I normally pick up; I generally prefer sci-fi or fantasy RPG-type games, but the sheer amount of fun I had with this game means I highly recommend it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Away Team: Second Mission

Yes, I have another short reprieve, and so here I am, sharing it with you, whoever you are. I thought that, since this is a temporary reprieve, I'd try and share some more of my personal memories and thoughts on various games, rather than more characters; I can always pick that up again later.

I have a lot of gaming memories, though the most vivid ones are most often of particular settings. My earliest favorite setting was Dark Sun; after a couple years of reading Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun was a breath of fresh air. It was a bleak world, where even finding things that would be the most basic items on other worlds was a great find. People made do with wood, obsidian, and bone, where on other worlds they would use metal. Water was rare, and life was cheap; evil had, for the most part, won. Characters started out as hardened people; in a game where virtually everyone started at 1st level in other settings, Dark Sun characters started at 3rd level, and everyone had some sort of minor psionic talent, some greater than others. Some races that were common player races in other settings were gone - wiped out in terrible wars of genocide, the commanders of which now ruled the great city-states of the setting, as beings of terrible power. Even in the terrible wasteland that was the world, though, there was still some hope, and it was hard-won and worth every minute. I played for a long time in Dark Sun, playing as a mul (half-dwarf, half-human) former gladiator, with a number of companions played by good friends.

Then there was Planescape. Planescape was D&D's big mindtrip. In other settings, the planes were strange places, rarely seen or spoken of and visits there were rarer still. They were places made up of concepts, of pure elements, of good and evil, law and chaos, and the material world had little in common with them. And Planescape was right in the middle of it all. Sigil, the City of Doors, was a strange multiversal city that had residents and visitors from everywhere, every place, every material world, and was ruled by nobody except a single being, the Lady, whose sole concerns seemed to be the keeping of the city from the hands of interfering gods and keeping Sigil residents from worshiping her and getting too rowdy. Sigil was called the City of Doors because somewhere in the city, there was a door or portal to everywhere - if you had the right key. You could go anywhere, do just about anything, meet almost anybody - from the worst demon to the highest god, from the embodiment of fire to the living center of Law. It was unique and special, and the writing for the setting, along with the art, gave birth to a setting like no other since. The Planescape: Torment computer game, based in the setting, has been widely regarded as one of the best computer RPGs of all time. Sadly, it died an ignoble death with the end of 2nd Edition AD&D, though a loyal fanbase has kept it alive in one form or another ever since.

Then came Eberron. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D, they announced a setting search, open to all who cared to submit - and thousands of submissions came in. Wizards of the Coast winnowed the submissions down to a final few, and of those, it chose Eberron, which breathed new life into the stagnant setting morass that was official D&D at the time. Eberron was pulp fantasy at its finest; magically created, mass-produced golems soldiered with dinosaur-riding halfling tribes, lightning-driven trains flew over magical rails. The undead fought alongside living soldiers against former countrymen; elves worshiped their mystical dead; strange beings from a dreamworld pushed to take control of the dream-state of the whole world. It was to 3rd Edition what Dark Sun and Planescape were to 2nd Edition, and I bought up every book, read every novel. Unlike Dark Sun, I got little chance to play in Eberron, but it has given me any number of new ideas; for characters, for games, for places to go and things to do. It was chosen as a setting for 4th Edition as well, right after Forgotten Realms, and luckily for me, Dark Sun will be revived next, in a matter of months.

Now, for those of you who know me, you know I have a taste for the mythological. Some of my favorite books are things like Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. So of course, when a small, independent gaming company called Khepera Publishing publishing a game called Hellas came out, a game that promised to let you tell the epic stories of Greek myth, but in space, I jumped for it. Sure enough, it does; Spartans are now from a world named Sparta, and Athenians from the Athens system; they fight and love and laugh and travel with such alien races as the Amazorans, (an entirely female subspecies of the larger Zoran race), the Kyklopes (aliens who blind themselves to see through a mystical third eye), the Goregons (primitive serpent-people, angry at the Atlanteans), the Myrmidons (hive-mind collectives that choose to shape themselves as Hellenes because they look up to them), and more. They still follow the gods, though by slightly different names, and travel the cosmos, spear and shield ready - with a blast rifle slung over one shoulder, of course, and traveling in a much snazzier chariot. In this sort of game, the Argonauts would not simply travel the Mediterranean, but entire galaxies. The siege of Troy would be a conflict so great it would make the final battles of Star Wars - any of them - look small by comparison. Perhaps in another galaxy lie Aegyptians, brought there by their own gods. It is epic Greek fantasy writ on a scale so large I have trouble seeing it, and so I have fallen in love with it - to the point of pledging over $100 to the Kickstarter for the first supplement, Princes of the Universe, and right now I am praying that it will make its goal by the deadline so I can have another beautiful full-color book to flesh out the setting more. I may not have the ideas to bring to life something like this, but I can certainly contribute to the success of something that may inspire me to do more with my thoughts. I hope to play Hellas one day - hopefully one day soon - but right now, the setting alone can keep me fascinated for hours or days, and that is good enough for me.

These are a few of the games and settings that set my mind on fire, that keep me up at night thinking of new games, new characters, new adventures. There are many more, because my collection is large; not all of them have the same visceral effect, but I remember them fondly, and try to keep them in my head. If you have any similar memories or thoughts on gaming, please feel free to share. Maybe we can help each other out.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Away Team

As you may have noticed, I haven't updated in a couple weeks; this is due to being out of town, in part, but also due to a need to spend most, if not all of my time at home in an area of the house where there is no computer, which makes it difficult to update. I've got a momentary reprieve from that now, but that stops tomorrow, and continues until the 24th or so of this month. Never fear, though, I have had a few interesting gaming ideas since then.

After playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II while out of town, currently playing through Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and reading Star Wars and Philosophy, I've had an interest in playing in a Star Wars game renewed. This is also in part because I am looking forward to the new Bioware Star Wars MMO next year, entitled The Old Republic. I think I'd like to play either a bounty hunter sort or a Jedi; the whole self-dependent bounty hunter thing appeals to me, but so do the challenges of having to play a Jedi who is trying to actively stay true to the tenets of the Jedi - no attacking others, fighting only in self-defense; as Yoda said, the Force is to be used for knowledge and self-defense only, never for attack. Also, the whole philosophy break between the Jedi and Sith is fascinating, and KotoR II came at it in an interesting way. I think it would be interesting to play in a Star Wars RPG that actually tried to play that way; it's a good idea, especially since it seems to be the reason for the high power level of Jedi in most Star Wars games, but I don't know how it would work in actual play. Plus, again, the obvious difficulty of finding anyone, online or off, to play with.

They other game I've been meddling with is a high-powered 4th Edition D&D game, where essentially the characters start in the epic tier, and are personal representatives from a god, or group of gods, who go around collecting on divine loans, bets, and other transactions that are slow to work themselves out. Since the gods dislike fighting each other personally - they know that even the evil gods are still needed to hold back another possibly Primordial War - they use people like these to settle things between them. This is explored in more detail in the thread here, entitled Legbreakers of the Gods.

Anyway, that's what is bouncing around in my head at the moment; more to come when I get a reprieve again.