[From “Crossing Roads”] Computer games stuff Part 3…

So, stories in roleplaying games. That’s why we play ’em, yes?

I’ve been following some discussions on random game company forums, and there have been some pretty interesting comments on content versus technical capabilities of modern cRPGs, especially as compared to the er, “classics.”

Which got me thinking on storytelling styles in cRPGs.

I think there can be three different approaches to storytelling, based on the style of the player character:

The first style, I’d say, would be what I call the “sit-on-their-shoulder” style. A good example would be the Witcher. While it’s an interesting story and I did enjoy playing through it, the player character has a set past and a set personality. As the player, you are in control of his growth as far as fighting skills and, to a limited extent, his social interactions, and you do affect some minor elements of the story. Choices result in different approaches to resolve the same problems, and you’re generally railroaded. But the story works because it’s well written. I’m sure that certain people may be turned off by the attitude of the main character. Much like if it were a novel. So, I’d say, it’s the closest I’ve seen to an interactive book.

The second style would be the a preset past which affect the present, with an option to determine the player character’s attitude. Of the recent games I’ve played, Mass Effect’s an example as good as any. Limitations are set from the fact the character is a military officer. If as a player your mindset is to step in the shoes of a military officer (and not, let’s say, a cumbaya monk from the deep forests of some obscure planet past the ass of the Universe), the story works. Because while there is still some separation between character and player, you as the player have a choice to “build” a character that you can relate to.

The third style would be where the background and personality of the player character is entirely left to the discretion of the player. Inexplicable market duds like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Temple of Elemental Evil (ok, the second one’s failure is explicable, I suppose) came close to doing this well in light of their story. The two approached the choice of background differently, but the effect was similar – there was some sense achieved that the player appears in the story as “themselves.”

Now, I can’t really say I have a preference for one of these styles. I think each style has its strengths and weaknesses, and I think the choice of which to use when approaching a game design is entirely dependent on some combination of considerations which include type of story, resources, intended market, competition, etc. etc. For one, with the apparently growing expectations for game cinematics and capacity for environment interaction, style #1 and #2 maybe have a leg-up on #3. Especially #1 predisposes a player to be more forgiving when it comes to railroading, which allows for some major freedom for the developers to flex their graphics and cinematics muscles. Voicing over the player character becomes a viable option, further contributing to the “beauty” of the game. Of course, this also tip-toes away from the full gaming experience and towards the interactive storytelling experience (which is more like a bunch of mini-games strung together to fill the time between cutscenes). Which brings the quality of the story (and the storytelling, which requires a different skillset, I believe) right in the spotlight.

On the other hand, there is the question of when a gamer is looking to be less of a spectator and more of a participant, or even the determining factor in the storyline (let’s face it, we are all well-developed narcissists somewhere deep inside). And that’s where style #1 starts to suffer, style #2 starts facing trade-offs, and style #3 shines.

(I got more to say, but first… lunch!)

[From “Crossing Roads”] Computer games stuff Part 2… Mass Effect!! (SPOILERS DO FOLLOW!!)

I had truly looked forward to its release for PC, so I had to rein in my excitement (and expectations) slightly artificially prior to getting it. Still, while the thing installed, I bounced off walls in anticipation.

Luckily for me, despite my pc stats being somewhere between the minimum and recommended system requirements, the game installed without issues, and ran smoothly throughout (crashed only once due to a graphical exception, after it had ran for over twelve hours – yes, I did a marathon stretch with it at some point).

So, within the first ten minutes of the game: I quite liked the character creation interface. I got goose-bumps during the opening scenes. I loved the Normandy from the moment I saw her (despite the fact she suffers from the atmospheric bubble in space syndrome), and loved her crew from the get-go. And even though I was iffy about the conversation interface, my female Shepard miraculously did manage to come up with acceptable lines every time, and the voice acting and cinematic direction were impeccable.

That is, I was ready to be completely and entirely sold on the game within the first ten minutes.

And then we went on our first mission. And my enthusiasm got squished to a stain on the ground. Right where Corporal Jenkins got shot down.

There’s one thing I struggle to forgive, and that’s pointless drama. Especially when it’s thrown in a player’s face bare-bone and sudden. In a cutscene. Kind of like, well, here we are, trying to be gritty and super-realistic. Expect more of it. And expect it to be as entirely unfounded just as this bit of it was. Yes, my problem is partially that I hate losing even a single NPC. But more of it was the promise that later in the game, I’d be losing NPCs, and judging from the way this first event was handled, I shouldn’t expect a craftwork approach to it. Guess what. Bioware’s developers lived up to their promise. But more on that later.

Now a little on the bits and pieces I found bothered me fairly early in the game:

The conversation interface. I understand a lot of it was due to constraints grandfathered from the console version of the game, but I disliked the fact I couldn’t pick the actual phrase my character will speak. Saving grace – it wasn’t very often that I misinterpreted the topic heading or that I absolutely hated my character’s response. And with a kick-ass voice actor, it didn’t end as a deal breaker. But throughout the game, I did make it a habit, wherever possible, to save before conversations and replay them, if Shepard’s response turned out not what I expected. Oh, and sometimes the dialogue flow didn’t make much sense. Must have slipped past the QA guys?

Combat. Once again, I assume console leftovers. The effectively “pause” button bugged the hell out of me. But that was minor compared to party member control. I found giving NPCs orders to use skills in combat to be entirely useless (luckily, the NPC AI wasn’t completely atrocious). Even worse, I couldn’t tell my party members to stand back and keep safe. There are controls to supposedly order them to hold their ground (and rally, or move ahead), but I never got these to work. I did eventually get used to the fact that if my character has occupied the only cover, my party members will stand in the line of fire. And I guess I did get used to the fact my companions will fall during combat fairly often, and I had to just settle to getting them back up when I needed them.

The “take cover” feature was a neat idea, but whether because of my existing FPS habits or maybe I never really learned how to use it effectively, I had lots of issues getting stuck to a wall when I didn’t want to, which tended to wreck havoc on my camera, aim, etc.. Nothing like trying to get unstuck from a wall while there’s a bunch of baddies shooting you up, I tell ya. See, my FPS style of play is skirting walls, constantly. A slightly wrong camera angle combined with a step forward, and, whap, I drop behind the wall. You get the idea. Maybe there was a way to reconfigure the controls to look without turning, but I have to admit I never put effort into finding out. But the end effect was that I’ve had to replay a few fights because of it.

Difficulty setting… played at veteran level, never had any real issues. I actually kind of liked the recharging of skills and limited healing / # of grenades, used them very sparsely anyway, and truly needed them only in the last fight. I probably won’t replay the game at the higher difficulty level, now that it’s unlocked, just because I’d want to play a male Shepard if I did… and his voice acting bugs the hell out of me. Cash wasn’t enough for anything in the beginning, amassed in no time and never got spent (I think I bought maybe two things during the entire game). Equipment was readily available… I’d say almost too much so. Because I have the pack-rat mentality, it actually became annoying when I started running out of space and had to periodically go through my inventory and turn things into er… gel?

And since I’m on a roll with the things I didn’t like… here’s other observations through the rest of the game:

More on combat, specifically level design. A million companies producing combat equipment, yet only one exploration module manufacturer? What was with the uniform design of mines and planetary outposts? Sometimes to the point of the crates placement being coordinated between outposts on different planets? There are occasions where copy-and-paste works against its users. That’d be one of them. I believe that the uniformity of these levels took away from the dungeon crawl experience. The formula “empty-corridor-save-empty-room-check-for-containters-empty-corridor-room-full-of-baddies-behind-crates-step-in-step-out-to-separate-them” got kind of boring after the first couple of times.

While I actually enjoyed the Mako super-non realistic off-roading trips, something that very much pissed me off… whoever designed the Therum level should go sit in a corner for a few days. What the hell? You can free-roam on most other planets, plan your attacks, use terrain to your advantage. Then you get dropped on Therum, and you can’t climb out of the canyon? When visually it’s no worse than any of the other worlds you’ve been through… AND when the level designer has lava at their disposal. If you MUST railroad me for whatever reasons, at least do it in a believable way (Virmire was done ok), not just by sticking an invisible vertical wall alongside the road. It’s inexcusably annoying when your vehicle is flipped on its back by (presumably) thin air.

Elevators. The only reason why I’ll whine about elevators is because I absolutely LOVED what was done with the elevators in the Citadel. The news flashes and the NPCs exchanging lines I thought were great. And then no effort was made to have the NPCs exchange a line or two at least occasionally in any of the other elevators. It just seems like such a waste of potential.

And since I’m now going into NPC interactions… To start with the good. I was actually pretty happy with most of the dialogue options I was given. But I chose to play a not very imaginative soldier girl with good logic on her side (and some charm to boot, sometimes literally), so I don’t know how good the choices would have been for a different type of character. Once again, my character ended up pretty dry (by choice), and the voice acting was just great for her.

I looked forward to any cutscene. I thought most were exceptionally well done (other than the pre-combat cutscenes; I don’t like my supposedly veteran casually walking in the middle of the road towards what is certainly a place filled with enemies). The visuals were great, even at the lower resolution my system was limited to.

I did go through the Kaidan romance, I still think it was too abrupt and random (not so much the culmination, but the start of it); I believe that if there must be romance (which is nice to have, I think), the developers should put a little more effort into spreading it throughout the interaction with the romantic interest (as opposed to the current trend of nothing-nothing-nothing, “oh, you reached a milestone, here’s a romantic node,” then again, nothing-nothing-nothing, and then another milestone, and so on…). On the positive side, I did like the NPC (as opposed to other instances when I’d wonder why the hell is the guy hitting on my character when she openly would rather chew through his throat than say a nice word to him?) and the interactions didn’t feel watered down. I wasn’t bothered by the sex scene, but once again, I thought that compared to the cinematic value of most of the other cut-scenes, it almost seemed as if the developers just wanted to get it over with. Oh, and when the guy’s spilling his guts to your character, it’d nice to use a camera angle that shows his face.

Friendships with other NPCs… Funny how I always seem to develop a really good rapport with the brawler characters. I liked Wrex. I also mentioned I really liked the Normandy crew, with Joker heading the list.

Confrontation with other NPCs… I liked that I had the option to execute a few of the baddies I had to deal with. It’s not the first game that gives these options, but, once again, the cut-scenes were so well done that the instances stood out in my mind, in a good way.

Missions: the recap of completed missions was nicely done; the quality of the missions themselves varied. The planetary exploration and side missions got a little repetitive (see my level design pet-peeve on these).

And now… the story. I enjoyed the world. I loved the amount of effort spent on technological details and aliens (the codex was a great read). The premise was interesting. For all my nitpicks about the game, the fact that humans were a proud newcomer into the intergalactic community really made me happy as a clam. I liked how my character was placed against the backdrop of the world, and I thought the information reveal was nicely handled.

…. Except that… DRAMA. Damned misplaced drama. Yes, I’m talking about being forced to sacrifice Ashley or Kaidan. Logically it didn’t make sense (the Normandy had actually landed to deliver the nuke, right? Why did she take off for the supposedly two minutes that were needed to arm the bomb?). What was wrong with her taking off with the nuke team before heading to pick up the diversion team?

I like tough choices. There were several tough choices throughout the rest of the game that were really good (the Council at the end was an excellent example). And I don’t mind the tough choice of having to sacrifice a friend… if it’s done well. If it fits within the logic of the story. It’d have pissed me off anyway, but it’d be the good type of pissed off. The non immersion-killer type of pissed off. As a matter of fact, I believed I had made the choice when I left Ashley with the diversion team. And I would have been absolutely happily pissed off if that had been it. But no, let’s inject some more drama, just because the first time it wasn’t bare in your face enough that the diversion guys were off to a suicide mission. Right.

The end was good. I’m irked about some of the writing on it, and I would have really enjoyed something like a recap. But it left me with the sense of a good game played. And I guess at the end of the day, that’s all I could want.

[From “Crossing Roads”] Computer games stuff, Part 1

Rambling about games and me:

In the last six months, I’ve been looking at games in a slightly different manner; before, I’d simply play them and move on, nowadays, I actually try to identify what are the points I’ve liked and disliked.

Now, I mainly play role-playing games (a fine blend of character grooming, action, and story is a hard thing to achieve, but it is superbly gratifying if successful). I’m not a combat nut – I’d expect some balance, a marginal requirement of skill, mostly to create an allusion to realism, and if some strategy and tactics especially with a party can affect the outcome of an encounter, I’m a happy camper. Of course, my Pavlovian response to experience gain is fine-tuned to perfection, so I actually do tend to pick fights; that is, if you’re a level designer, you can be confident that if you stick a small encounter in a corner far off the main road, I’ll be one of the people who would greatly appreciate your efforts.

World exploration – I’m not that big of a fan. It has to be worth my while to drive / walk / ride, etc. long distances (I’m not a patient woman), but if you give me interesting encounters, hostile or not, (even if their randomness is merely a disguise), I’ll probably forget about how long it took me to get there. On the note of distances and time to traverse them while playing a game – I don’t mind a little bouncing between locations to complete quests. But please consider the emphasis to be on “a little” – if you ask me to run back and forth between villages a gazillion times doing errands for random people just so that I can progress through the story… well, where I come from, that’s an actual occupation, and a pretty lousy one at that. Please leave these out of my games. I have no immersion issues related to not having to deal with the drab of real life in my games. I’d rather have to press a “go to point A” button than having to deal with the realism of a five minute driving my character through an already explored (read, empty) area. On the flipside… Please do not assume that if event A has happened, I want to be whisked away directly to the location where event B will now happen, unless, of course, it makes sense (my character has been captured, knocked out, charmed, etc., etc.). Give me a choice.

Which leads into what I think is the one unique feature of roleplaying games. Choices. Not only choices of how to approach an encounter, but choices that relate to the character and the world through which they move, that will ultimately influence the storyline. I’m actually fairly easy-going about storyline. I think a game can be interesting whether you’re a caravan guard trying to get admitted to a city past lockdown, or a hero on a quest to save the world from the evil invading hippies from space. What I am ultra-sensitive to, however, are choices. In a D&D adventure, if you’ve given me the choice of a chaotic character in the beginning, don’t punish me by never allowing chaotic options… or, worse yet, giving me chaotic options that make no sense whatsoever for the goals of my character. And, while I understand how much development is involved in fattening a storyline, if you do give me choices… please have these choice actually affect (or notably and reasonably fail to affect, of course) the course of events. And I understand there will be spots in the storyline where it’d be so convenient for game development issues to railroad the character. And that’s where the craft of game-making must step in. Railroad us, sure. But don’t stick it down the player’s throat. Disguise. Justify. Smoke and mirror the hell out of it… Put a fresh coat of paint on it and serve with strawberries and chocolate. If we still end up noticing, we’d be more willing to forgive. Especially if it’s high quality chocolate (feel free to equate it to mind-blowing cinematic… yes, yes: Mass Effect, or a super-generous elephant-sized shot of testosterone… hi, Mr. Witcher).

Anyway. Since I’ve started picking on particular games… I’ll follow this up with my first game review!!