Friday, November 29, 2013

Going Medieval

I've never been an avid reader of comic books.  That said, I am familiar with some of the more iconic superheroes such as Superman, Ironman and of course Batman.  Most of what I know about The Dark Knight though is from the cartoons and movies rather than the original graphic novels.  I like the character, but I'm not so onto the setting.  Enter a small collection of concept art entitled "Gotham 1459."  Here's what one person had to say in the comments:
I actually think having Batman being placed in a time when the concept of the knight was dying off, would work. Batman would use a sword instead of the new guns and other new weapons of war, as well as other techniques. He would hang on to the idea of honor and chivalry (an idealistic idea, even in the golden age of knighthood, but Batman, being born after the heyday of the knight would have only known the good parts) long after the rest of Europe began to depend on mercenary armies. I want to see Batman’s alter-ego and the other characters!
A literal Dark Knight
After reading this my mind was filled with ideas on how this re-imagining could make an excellent video game.  I don't think setting the game in America would work though.  Instead, I'd recommend Königsberg (now called Kaliningrad).  Back then it was a built up fortress city complete with plenty of classic Gothic architecture.  It was also a cosmopolitan city of sorts (a mixture of Jews, Pols and Lithuanians.  As the capital of the Duchy of Prussia it was also part of the vast Holy Roman Empire some of which was made up of what is now modern day Austria, Italy and Denmark along with the entire countries of Germany Switzerland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.  The city is also connected to the Baltic Sea via the Pregolya River.

The world at the time was in a state of flux with the War of the Roses in England, Ottoman encroachment into Europe, and the start of the Renaissance (typically associated with the fall of Constantinople in 1453).  The king at the time was Frederick the Third, a ruler who had a fondness for marking things with the acronym A.E.I.O.U. although the meaning and reason for this has never been firmly identified.  A riddle, perhaps?

"Bruno von Wagner"
as Germanic Batman
A lot of classic Batman villains would fit easily into this proposed spin-off; The Joker could be court jester, Catwoman a wronged gypsy, Scarecrow a vengeful serf, Poison Ivy a pagan herbalist, and Two-Face a member of a Vehmic court (an infamous form of law enforcement that was quite popular at the time).  Then, of course, we have the Bruce Wayne character.  Perhaps he is a Landgrave from a diminished noble line whose true (but long forgotten) coat of arms is a black bat on a field of grey.  Maybe he is even a former Teutonic Knight.  While his collection of gadgets might be a bit more limited because of the technology of the era, there are some advantages as well.  For one thing the absence of electricity means that nights are really dark, and law enforcement lacked the levels of organization it has today.  That's not to say Commissioner Gordon (or should I call him "Schultheiß Gorder"?) isn't a secret ally of Batman.  There was also no shortage of trouble making henchmen to be found, everything from elites such as the Landsknechte and Swiss mercenaries to petty riverboat smugglers and common thieves.

Reminds me of Kefka
 from Final Fantasy 6
Enough about setting though, lets talk about the video game itself.  Assassin's Creed might sound like the obvious parallel, but I think the Thief series might hit a bit closer to the mark in that Batman doesn't kill.  To re-enforce his non-vigilante ideology The Dark Knight could use rebated weapons along with good old fashion fisticuffs.  That last bit might sound out of place in a medieval setting, but it's not a stretch when you consider that Batman's manor (or castle?) could have a Greek treatise on pankration in its private library.  Combat could be based on recent Batman games such as Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and the newest Arkham Origins.  Instead of a Batmobile, our hero could ride a black stallion and the bat cave...well, very little in the way of change is necessary.  Plate steel armor had reached the pinnacle of design allowing from heavy customization of protection and in turn counter weaponry.  Not to mention the flamboyant styles of clothing at the time would make for some very colorful over-the-top foes for Batman to fight.  The concept of detective work didn't really exist yet, but as mentioned earlier the Renaissance had begun so ideas of logical observation and deduction existed to enough of a degree for a video game to squeeze in some non-combat segments without it seeming forced.  This would give medieval Batman some mysteries to unravel much like his successor does in the modern day.

You'd think with the popularity of Batman movies and the Game of Thrones HBO mini-series the idea I'm pitching here would have been done already.  I guess comic book conservatism has kept it form happening though.  After all superheroes are supposed to be American, not German.  I have a feeling doing a Prussian Batman would inadvertently conjure up Godwin comparisons and possibly "master race" emotional baggage left over from the events of World War 2.  It's a bummer since the time period predates Nazism or even the country of Germany by several hundred years.  Not to mention that the real Batman is a white guy which means his ancestors had to have migrated to America from somewhere in Europe.  Oh well...if some people don't like the idea that's fine, but I still say it's a better idea than Superman versus Batman.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

From Print to Digital (Part 2)


Tomb of Horrors is unique in that despite being a dungeon crawl there really isn't much combat.  What it lacks in foes though it more than makes up for in deadly traps and oppressive foreboding.  I'd like to take a moment to stress that unlike the Hollywood move set lighting we're used to seeing in video games and recent Dungeons and Dragons artwork, these old modules base their imagery on real life caverns, tunnels and tombs (in this case Egyptian).  Firelight, whether it be candle, torch or oil lamp, was the only non-magical form of subterranean illumination until the invention of electricity.  This fact of underground exploration is reflected in many of the visual pieces produced back then.  As for traps...there are so many at times it feels more like Super Meat Boy than a RPG.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a bit of a genre bender in that the premise revolves around a crashed spaceship high in the mountains.  The vessel has a floor plan layout straight out of FTL and is filled with living specimens taken from various planets.  The crew have long since perished from a disease which oddly poses no danger to the player characters (possible H.G. Wells reference).  So, the alien lifeforms have been getting out of their pens and into the wild.  If you've ever wondered how some of those really bizarre entries in the Monster Manual (like Bulettes and Beholders) came to be it turns out they're from outer space!  In part, this ecological disaster is the fault of the ship's malfunctioning automated machines.  One of the most hilarious parts of running this adventure is seeing how fantasy magic-users, barbarians, thieves and clerics deal with police robots, medical robots, janitor robots and my personal favorite a gym coach robot.  Another interesting twist is a lot of the loot that can be found acts like magic items, but is actually just extremely advanced technology.  A belt of levitation is really a personal zero-g field generator, a wand of death ray is actually a laser pistol, and magic suits of armor are powered exoskeletons.  Needless to say any heroic explorers who make it through alive are probably going to throw off the balance of game such that it will look and feel more like Saint Row 4 than any traditional fantasy setting.

H.P. Lovecraft stories have always left a big footprint in Dungeons and Dragons, but no more so than in The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.  It's probably the most Cthulhu Mythos inspired module to be produced and also has some of the best cover art of any module, in my opinion.  I particularly like how it looks bright, colorful and inviting at first glance, but then becomes more and more sinister the longer you examine it.  The focal point for players is a ziggurat and the hidden temple underneath.  The deeper players go the creepier it gets.  Rituals must be performed in order to access the inner sanctums.  In all likelihood insanity or death will claim any interlopers before they can make to the "Black Cyst," a prison for the dark god of chaos and destruction.  The climax to Quest for Glory 4: Shadow of Darkness seems to have borrowed whole cloth from this adventure module.  The fact that player can very easily miss important secret areas also makes the underground parts feel like something out of a Metroidvania title.

The Isle of Dread was included in one of those boxed sets that used to be sold back in the 1990s.  As such it's probably one of the most well know modules produced.  Superficially, it feels a lot like Skull Island from the film King Kong.  However, I personally think Author Conan Doyle is the chief source of inspiration here.  A distant little known land inhabited by primitive natives and overrun by not-so-extinct dinosaurs is part of it.  The biggest thing for me though is the high plateau complete with precipitous rope bridge patrolled by overly aggressive pteranodons.  At the very least players will spend a lot of time exploring and doing battle with everything from giant oysters to carnivorous plants.  Other nods include a pirate base and and ancient ruin which would make this an ideal place for a Lara Croft game.

Castle Amber is split into two parts.  The first is a chateau inhabited by a variety of denizens including a family of nobles fallen from grace, a sun knight, mimics, giants, profiteers and a hideous coroner-like creature with spider limbs called the "Brain Collector."  Did I mention that the place is surrounded by a colorless fog?  While never referenced by anyone over at From Software I have a gut feeling that somebody on the design team got a look at this module before they set about creating the Anor Londo area in Dark Souls.

The second half of Castle Amber mostly involves journeying through the lands of Averoigne.  If you've never heard of this place it's basically a patchwork amalgamation of short stories written by Clark Ashton Smith.  In game terms though it really only serves as a backdrop for fetch quests as players try to gather the necessary items to free the lord of the Amber family from his ethereal imprisonment.

Treasure Hunt is the last one this list, but first when it comes to starting fresh with a table-top gaming group.  The idea with this adventure is players start off as level zero slaves washed up on the shore of an unknown land after the their galley wrecked in a fierce storm.  Rather than choosing a class during character generation, players are eased into one based on their action during play.  Unlike most fantasy which tends to drag out the greater destiny trope, this module has a Robert E. Howard vibe to it.  Players are expected to forge their own path in life through desire and cunning....and, of course, a whole lot of lucky dice rolls.

Whew!  Well, that was a little blast from the past for you.  Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

From Print to Digital (Part 1)

I recently played through a pretty big chunk of the free-to-play online game Card Hunter.  Ultimately, I found the progression a bit too slow and the fundamental mechanics kind of frustrating, but I don't really want to complain about it because I never spent any real money while playing.  What this tongue-and-cheek parody of tabletop gaming did inspire me to do though was go back and reexamine some of those old classics.  In particular, I want to focus on some early Dungeons and Dragons adventure modules.

I've mentioned the problem with video games falling into the copycat trap several times before on this blog.   Basically, it comes down to making copies of a copy and feeding them back into the machine over and over so many times the desirable elements have become washed out and faded.  By drawing from table-top gaming booklets, sometimes twenty or even thirty years old, we're able to see a much rawer form of design that (while lacking in polish) can still be applied to video games in this day and age.  Before I dive in though I should mention that these adventures were derived from other sources too.  However, given the time in which they were created it tended to be stuff like pre-CGI films and what is now nearly century old literature.

First up is a collection known as Scourge of the Slave Lords.  This series serves as an excellent example of linear vs non-linear design.  The first part of the game has players spending a lot of their time slogging through underground sewers (yes, one of those levels) fighting mostly orcs, ogres and some insect-like creatures.   Pretty much bog standard stuff, but once players have gotten about a third of the way through the module they travel to a new zone consisting of a stockade in which players have to use stealth and fast hit'n'run tactics in order to whittle down the opposition before the general alarm can be raised.  It's kind of like Metal Gear Solid meets Thief except the enemy strategy and overall layout of the area feel reminiscent of the castle stage in Resident Evil 4.

Keep on the Boarderlands is a classic example of outdoor adventuring.  Players find themselves at a remote outpost surrounded by numerous points of interest.  Bandits, monster infested caves, hungry swamp dwelling lizardmen, a mad hermit and his mountain lion plus intrigue in the keep itself are just sampling of the things that can be encountered.  Unlike most video games these events don't have to end in bloodshed.  Clever players might convince a faction or two to join with them or perhaps pit one against another.  Think Skyrim meets the original Quest for Glory (or perhaps I should say Hero's Quest), but with a much more flexible system of interaction.  No dialogue wheels here for better or worse.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits has the quintessential video game ending.  After defeating minions, slaves, guards and captives including but not limited to giants, drow, and kua-toa, players must journey to the 66th layer of the Abyss to fight their way through a cluster of compartments in the bowels of a huge mechanical spider.  This culminates in an epic showdown with the last boss, Lolth (no relation to Shelob or Ungolant).  So, basically the same as every big budget action/adventure/RPG video game to come out for over a decade except in table-top form.  All that is needed is some chanting music.  Winning this scenario is pretty tricky though considering there's no such thing as grinding in Dungeons and Dragons.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City features a jungle engulfed Aztec-style city ruin overrun with frog people (called "Bullywugs"), a snake cult (called the "Yuan-ti"), degenerated mongrelmen (called...well...mongrelmen), and tree climbing cat-goblins (called "Tosloi").  People versed in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs will immediately spot his influence here.  When it comes to monsters though the real treat is the Yellow Musk Creeper.  A plant that infests the mind of its victims slowly turning them in zombies.  Sound familiar?  If you've ever played The Last of Us it should.  If they ever make a Uncharted 4 this would be a perfect place for Nathan Drake to visit.  Alternatively, it would make an excellent subtitle for an Indiana Jones game.

Ravenloft is currently a setting in Dungeons and Dragons, but it originally started off simply as an adventure module with a significant number of key elements randomized, including the big bad's motivations and the locations of various treasure caches.  The medieval gothic setting speaks more to the writings of Bram Stoker than any traditional fantasy author.  Interesting when you consider that the module was authored by Margret Weis and Tracy Hickman, creators of the Dragon Lance series (a decidedly high fantasy universe).  Obviously, there's a lot of replayability here.  Even more than what you typically find in any video games outside of rogue-like titles.  That said it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the obscure PC title Veil of Darkness.

Well this is getting long so in going to break it into two parts.  Look for the second half coming soon.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Space Race

There are space programs...

"It's about the journey, not the destination," is a saying I'm sure we've all heard at least once about life.  What you may not have heard though is it applies to certain kinds of video games as well.  Not in the Kurt J. Mac's "Far Lands or Bust!" walk-a-thon for charity sense, but rather with one of the ways games get made.  Minecraft, Don't Starve, Dwarf Fortress and pretty much any other game that is made available to the general public while still in active development falls into this category to varying degrees.  As updates are made and new features added, the fundamentals of gameplay can significantly alter.  What's more, fan feedback often influences the direction of future iterations.  In the case of Kerbal Space Program, this evolution has become one of the game's most outstanding aspects.

My God!  It's full of Kerbals!
I've heard it said that playing through each version of Kerbal Space Program is akin to reliving humanity's history of spaceflight endeavors.  In early versions of the game players were limited to small simple rockets only able to achieve orbit.  Eventually other tools were made available, giving players the opportunity to explore more distant stellar objects.  New planets and moons have been created to give players something to strive for, and from humble beginnings they are now able to extend their reach further and further into the cosmos.  What's more the advent of docking has made it possible to build space stations and even dedicated spacecraft.  Space planes are also become a feasible venture, although still a bit more tricky to use than traditional rocket designs.  All these things hew closely to the progress of institutions such as NASA and the CCCP.   True to the legacy of spaceflight, players can feel the trials and tribulations, along with triumphs and tragedies much like what it must have been for real space agency planners.  However, there is a dark side to all this as well.

Much like real life astronauts, there isn't a whole lot for Kerbonauts to do in the depths of space, or even on the surface of another world.  Sure, you can plant a flag, walk around collecting samples, maybe even pose for the camera, but that's about it.  Also like reality is the fact that sending off unmanned missions is far easier with respects to not having to worry about returning or rescue.  While Kerbal Space Program has no mandatory budget restrictions yet, there are fundamental design limitations brought on by how many parts the graphics engine can handle on screen, as well as the load bearing strength of various components.  Mods offering weaponry have drawn mixed responses from the fan base.  Even without mods it is perfectly possible to design vessels capable of waging war.  Polluting wreckage, space debris and radioactive material from nuclear based technologies are all concerns which exist (or have existed) both in game and in reality.  Perhaps the biggest issue though is where to go from here.

All these worlds are yours except Magic Boulder.
Attempt no landing there
Scientific discovery is great, but what about the human, or rather, Kerbal element?  Much like the real solar system we humans live in, none of the other stellar bodies in the Kerbin system harbor life (at least beyond micro-organisms).  Of course colonization is a possibility, but the prospect is daunting and would require extraction of resources at local level in order to be an achievable goal.  Needless to say such infrastructure is still only on the drawing board both in game and out.  Journeying to other solar systems is still pretty much an impossibility with currently available propulsion systems as well.

"You can do anything!" is as true for Kerbal Space Program as it is with any other sandbox game, but the kind of question I think both the lead developers over at SQUAD and NASA are asking themselves in the back of their minds is, "where are we going with all this?"  We have rockets, but where do we fly them?  We built space stations, but what purpose do they serve?  We can traverse sizable gulfs of empty space and set foot on the surface of another world, but ultimately to what end?  Perhaps a better and more basic question to ask would be, "what do we do with all these giant spinning balls of gas, liquid and rock?"

These aren't easy questions to answer definitively, nor will any answer given be agreed upon by all.  Whatever answers there are though, I wonder if they will mark a major schism between game and reality, or will it be a vision of things to come?  I have a feeling it will be many generations yet before anyone knows which is the case.  Perhaps it doesn't really matter though, so long as we all get to have fun in the meantime.

And then there are SPACE PROGRAMS!

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Return of T.S.H.B.G.

I'm back with another segment of They Should Have Been Games (T.S.H.B.G.), films that really would have been better off had they been video games instead.  If you missed the first one you can check it out here.  Up to speed? Good.  Lets get started then.

I'm going to break with tradition right away here and go with a fantasy, rather than a sci-fi flick for once.  "Snow White and the Huntsman" felt like a poor man's version of Game of Thrones.  Most of the characters don't really get enough screen time to be fleshed out in a satisfactory way (especially the dwarfs).  The middle act was also an overly long aside.  None of these things would have been a problem though if it had been an RPG.  Think about it, plenty of time for character development, a chance to explore a wider range of themes, and an audience more tolerant toward mediocre storytelling...sounds like a great project for Level-5.

In Japan they have lot of things which you don't see anywhere else.  Two in particular are humanoid robots and raiser-sims.  So, why not combine them and make a video game version of "Real Steel"?  We have the kid protagonist, who acts as the player's in-game proxy.  The dad is your generic short haired, scruffy thirty something perfect for pasting pictures of all over the box art.  Toss in some Punch Out gameplay, a bunch of customization options, plus an upgrade tree and *BOOM* you got an instant knockout hit on your hands.

Moving on we have Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan.  Two of the most overrated talents in Hollywood teaming up to bring us "After Earth," a movie with a script that feels like it was copied directly from a video game design document (possibly Metroid: Other M). Just check out this short breakdown of some of the story elements:
  • A super suit
  • A mission control guy
  • An impractically cool weapon
  • A time limit
  • A geothermal checkpoint system 
  • A final boss  
Really, this should have been a Naughty Dog or Ubisoft project....

For the sake of enjoyable film viewing experiences, I hope I don't have enough material to write up another one of these for awhile.  Then again we have an extensive back catalog to dip into as well as new releases coming down the pipe all the time so you might see another installment in the not too distant future. 

Lucas Arts...ahem...Telltale could have done a lot with this franchise