Saturday, December 9, 2017

Detectives of Tomorrow

Like most folks, I enjoy the process of solving a good mystery.  In literature and television I'm talking about characters like Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe and (my personal favorite) Lieutenant Columbo.  In video games there's also some noteworthies such as Professor Layton, Phoenix Wright, Laura Bow, Gillian Seed and Cole Phelps.  For me though, the backdrop in which these police procedurals (and what have you) unfold is just as important to good storytelling as the unraveling of the mystery itself.

As fun as shows like Dexter and CSI are to watch, having everything take place in modern day USA has always felt like a missed opportunity to me.  I'm sure it saves them a small fortune on their production budget, but there's something to be said for taking the classic detective formula and changing it simply by transporting the setting to an unusual time and place.  One great example is the long running Sano Ichiro series set in Edo-period Japan.  Eighteen books in total, I must confess that I've only read the first fourteen.  Another example is "In the Name of the Rose."  Set in a 14th-century european abbey, the novel/film were adapted into an unofficial 8-bit computer game entitled La abadía del crimen.  There's also a whole slew of authors who have written crime fiction set during classical antiquity, but I have yet to hear of any such stories that take place during the Viking Age.

That might sound like a strange era to consider, but believe it or not norse culture has more than a few law-speakers.  In fact one of the longest and, consequently, most famous sagas prominently features a character called Njáll the Beardless.  Essentially a 10th century Icelandic lawyer, I think it would be fun to play a Phoenix Wright-style video game with him as the protagonist.  Of course going the opposite direction could also be quite interesting.  Instead of looking to the past for inspiration how about the future?

Subsurface Circular is neat little indie game that was released on Steam August 18th, 2017 (with deliberate lack of preceding hype or fanfare).  It has players take on the role of a detective robot assigned the subway system beneath a major city.  From this rather confined place the player has to solve a mysterious disappearance by interviewing other robots that happen to be riding the train at various times over the course of the game.  Part of what makes it a compelling experience is learning about the world above and what it's like having AI controlled machines doing all of humanity's dirty work.  It's all very minimalist by necessity, but I kind of wish a larger developer would try tackling a similarly themed game concept.

While I like LA Noire, I can't help thinking it would have been so much more awesome had the game been set in the Blade Runner universe.  Rather than using the clumsy "good cop," "bad cop," and "accuse" options during interviews, I think it would have been a lot more well suited to the medium of video games to perform Voight-Kampff tests on suspects.  Something that the 1997 video game adaptation of Blade Runner did rather well was at the start of a new game a random algorithm would secretly decide which characters are replicants and which weren't.  That, combined with multiple endings gave the game replayability as well as a degree of personal investment in the story.  A recreation of 1950s Los Angeles is cool and all...just not as cool as it would have been in the far flung future of 2019...errr...maybe the sequel's 2049 would be a better timeframe...

Saturday, December 2, 2017

2018 Hopefuls

There's still a little ways to go before 2017 is over.  That said, I already find myself looking forward to the coming year and what it will bring.  A bunch of  interesting games have been announced so I thought I'd share a list of a half-dozen titles that have my attention.  Here they are in no particular order...

Frostpunk, as the name suggest, is set in Victorian England during the sudden onset of a global ice age.  The player is tasked with trying to keep a starting group of about a hundred men, women, and children, alive by settling them around the base of a towering coal-fired furnace.  Securing supplies of of wood, metal, and food are obviously important to survival, but not as critically as coal which is need to ward off the -40 degree daytime temperatures.  Sounds like a good game to play in winter.  Hopefully it will make its first quarter release window.

Not much is known about FAR: Lone Sails aside from a short video clip that has been making the rounds.  From what I can gather it's a side-scrolling adventure game that puts the player in the role of a lone post-apocalyptic explorer who travels a dried seabed in a massive wind-powered scrap wagon.  Salvaging and discovery are probably two of the key gameplay mechanics.  The developers also boast that their game is zombie-free.

Ashen is a cooperative adventure RPG in the vein of the Soulsborne series.  Visually, it distinguishes itself with a somewhat simplified presentation that gives it an impressionistic look akin to RiME or Absolver.  The setting appears to be a generic fantasy world, although some screenshots imply that things might be less conventional than they first appear.  Regardless, the teamwork aspects is what makes this game a potentially unique experience.

Tank Mechanic Simulator is a curious variation on the multi-iteration Car Mechanic Simulator franchise.  Obviously, the novelty of restoring World War 2 era armored fighting vehicles instead of automobiles is the main draw, but I hope that's not all there is to it.  Whether it be managing museum exhibits, coordinating with private collectors, or planning tricky salvage operations, there really needs to be more things to do with these steel relics than simply replacing the rusty old bits with shiny new bits.

Overland has been in quasi early access for a long time now.  In a nutshell it feels like an answer to the question, "what would you get if you turned Jalopy into a post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game with burrowing monsters?"  A bit reductive, I know, especially since the game has a distinct vibe to it; reminiscent of Kentucky Route Zero or even Oregon Trail.  Much like those two games, the simplistic graphics convey a surprising amount.

I mentioned this last one before in another blogpost, but I'll bring it up here again since UBOOT represents the most recent attempt to simulate the history of underwater warfare.  Like many other entries in the subgenre, it chooses to focus on the North Atlantic area during the second World War.  Given the nature of the conflict in that region at that time, players will have to take the role of the Kriegsmarine.  Playing as the unambiguous bad guys in a historical context is always a tricky business.  Most games get around it by focusing on the simulation aspect, but I'm curious to see if this game will bring anything new to the table narratively speaking.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

Mouse Guard

It's a commonly held belief that mice like cheese.  In truth it isn't their preferred food source.  They can eat cheese to be sure, mice are omnivores, but ideally higher calorie meals are desirable.  Mice and cheese, expectations versus reality, they encapsulate Mouse Guard in a nutshell.

In case it's unfamiliar, Mouse Guard is a series of comics by David Petersen.  Described by the author himself as "mice with swords," the setting is very medieval and european in flavor.  Akin to novels like A Secret of NIMH, Watership Down and the Redwall series, the world is grounded in our own except that some of the animals exhibit characteristics and a level of intelligence typically associated with humans.  Normally, I'm not a big fan of stories about anthropomorphized animals, but Mouse Guard is an exception in that it takes the ordinary and turns it into the fantastical simply by changing the perspective from from a human one to that of a society of fully sentient mice.  The backdrop is essentially a bunch of independently governed mouse settlements that have entered into a compact by forming an chivalric order known as the "Guard" that is charged with protecting the "Territories" (as they are collectively called) from potential threats.  Keep in mind that mice are at the bottom rung of the animal hierarchy.  Pretty much any creature in nature that isn't a herbivore sees mice as a potential repast.

The stories told in the comics use this as a jumping-off point, but subverts expectations to varying degrees.  In the initial six issue run, for example, an internal mouse rebellion turns out to be a much greater danger to the Territories than incursions by hungry predators.  Unusual in these sorts of tales, carnivores are not depicted as being unequivocally evil.  A ferret-king appearing in the third volume is depicted as honorable, only eating mice out of necessity rather than cruel desire.  There's also a Mouse Guard table-top RPG, but this being a blog about video games, I really want to talk about the potential for a video game adaptation of the IP.

When I look at a map of the Mouse Guard world, I can't help but feel reminded of Strategy RPGs such as Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts, and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  Because of this, it's my instinct to consider Mouse Guard best suited to some kind of turn-based, story driven, single-player experience.  I'm not sure it's the best fit though considering most foes of mice are considerably larger in terms of physical dimensions.  We're talking about Shadow of the Colossus sized threats here...or at the very least Dragon's Dogma.  Either way, most SRPGs prefer to operate on a chessboard-like grid which isn't a very good framework for such wildly differently sized opponents.  However, therein lies the potential for innovating the subgenre.  If you were to combine the freedom of movement in Arc the Lad or Valkyria Chronicles with the mobility of Mario+Rabbits: Kingdom Battle then it might be possible to depict these kinds of large-scale skirmishes in a way never seen before.

The increased size and breadth of the battlefield could be a problem, but one of the nice things about Mouse Guard is the fact that each Guard member wears a distinctly dyed cloak that, when combined with variations in fur color, gives each mouse a distinctive look even from a zoomed-out perspective.  Animation is another tricky point, considering motion capture isn't really an option.  That said, it's amazing to see what one small team of indie developers has accomplished with Ghost of a TaleDark Maus also serves as an excellent example of how a strong visual style can make up for a lack of fidelity.  Something that people tend to forget is how much more steeped in shadow pre-industrial societies were.  Natural light was the main source of illumination and artificial sources were either expensive (candles), didn't last long (torches), or were serious fire hazards (lamps).  Ask anyone who has worked as a director of photography and they'll tell you that atmospheric lighting can make a huge difference.  I imagine the above also holds true for the kind of dwellings anthropomorphic mice would inhabit.   

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Wash Up and Eat Properly

There's been a recent uptake in discussions regarding the cost of game development.  In particular single-player story-driven experiences are, according to certain triple AAA  publishers, no longer financially viable as a one-time 60 dollar charge; hence the reason we see companies like EA abandoning the market space, while other publishers (such as WB) try to cram as much DLC, loot boxes and other microtransaction driven schemes into their games as possible.  Personally, I have doubts about these claims of infeasibility...it's not like any of these companies are allowing us inspect their accounting records.  Sure making video games has become a much more resource intensive process than it was during the 8 and 16-bit eras, but to offset that there's a wealth of third-party development tools available, in addition to a much larger potential customer base.  However, for the sake of argument let's presume that they really are in the red.  I can think of three easy ways these poor publishers could get back in the black.

Rumor has it that some of EA's past games were marked on budgets equal to the amount actually spent making the game.  In other words, they could have reduced the development costs of certain games by nearly 50 percent simply by dumping all the thirty second advertisements in lieu of sending some free copies out to Youtubers and Twitch streamers.  It seems silly to do otherwise considering word of mouth has, for a long time, carried more weight than simple product placement.  Visceral Studio, the now defunct makers of the Dead Space series, was based out of San Francisco...one of the most expensive cities in the world.  When you look at companies like IBM, they have all but deserted their corporate offices in large part because it's no longer necessary to have everyone under the same roof.  A variety of video games, including Kerbal Space Program as well as Ori and the Blind Forest, were made by a team scattered across the globe that coordinated their development efforts via the internet.  This sort of dispersed workforce brings up the question of executive supervision.  Former EA employees have gone on record saying that the company has a nontrivial number of people who get paid a lot to do very little.  Reducing wasteful administrative spending though is only one part of the problem when it comes to leadership.

Asset creation is a time consuming process that needs to be channelled by a strong directorial vision.  Too many games waste time and money on stuff the player doesn't notice, doesn't care about, or is thoroughly unimpressed by.  When you look at games such as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, or more recently Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, it's amazing what a relatively small team can accomplish.  Could they have added more provided they had the time/money/people?  Sure.  Would it have improved the experience significantly.  Not really.  Some developers have a bad habit of stretching the scope of their game in the vain hope that bigger equals better.  This often leads to over budget hot garbage, or titles that are trapped in an early access limbo for, seemingly, an eternity.  In other words, it's better to come up with a tight concept and execute on it rather than faffing about half conceived notions of open-world games with crafting and rogue-like elements.  Fun isn't going to materialize from the ether just because you keep attach more bells and whistles.

This brings me to my final point which is trend chasing.  As far as I know nobody has gotten rich making Minecraft clones or Clash of Clans copycats.  Worse still are flash-in-the-pan hits like Angry Birds and Farmville.  Real success comes from franchises like the Soulsborne series...which, I should stress, wasn't an instant hit; Before Demon's Souls there was King's Field and before Command and Conquer there was Dune II: Battle for Arrakis.  It takes time, money, effort and a few iterations on an idea to cultivate something that is both innovative and entertaining.  Hitting paydirt straight out of the gate is exceedingly rare and in most cases fleeting.

Of course most businesses only see the future in terms of next quarter profits, and as such often screw themselves when it comes to sustainable profits.  They can scoop whales and dolphins out of the water for awhile, but how long until that well runs dry?  More importantly, where's the respect for the craft?  I'm not going to climb on my high horse and claim video games are art, but at the very least they are supposed to be for the express purposes of entertaining the people who buy them...not to abuse and exploit.  This is rapidly degrading into a rant so I'll wrap it up by simply saying developer harassment and death threats are not acceptable, but publishers and shareholders that push this kind of garbage need to engage in some serious introspection rather than dumping their problems on enthusiasts of the hobby.