Friday, August 29, 2014

Good Writing in Games

Video games and good writing have traditionally been an kind of oxymoron.  Usually when the request comes for counter examples people tend to bring up The Witcher series or Telltale's The Walking Dead.  Not bad games, but when I think of writing in games I tend to exclude story directions and spoken dialogue.  Instead, to me it's all about words printed on a screen.  So, having limited myself to that narrow definition lets take a look at few noteworthy titles.

Three Fourths Home takes place entirely in a car while on the phone.  You play as Kelly, a recent college graduate driving back to her parents farm during a storm.  The way the story unfolds depends on dialogue choices made by the player.  At first the narrative takes time exploring recent events in Kelly's life as well as her relationship to her family.  As the story progresses though the conversation turns to storytelling to pass the time.  I won't spoil the ending, but let me just say tension builds as Kelly progresses toward home (and the end of the tale).  Overall, the writing is incredibly evocative, and while the graphics might seem like the bare minimum there are a few clever things the developer did to make them meaningful.  The same goes for the limited interactivity players have over the story.

Vlad the Impaler is a hybrid choose-your-own-adventure RPG that takes place primarily in medieval Constantinople.  This is a grim tale filled with mysterious kidnappings, murder and other evil deeds.  Then again it's about vampires so what do you expect...a cheesy romance?  You'll be reading a lot of text and making quite a few decisions none of which will put the life of your character in danger.  What it will do though is adjust your stats and equipment which will in turn affect the outcome of your inevitable confrontation with Dracula in his castle.  Three classes are available to choose from; explorer, soldier or mage.  Depending on which you select the story alters, this combined with a number of other variables gives the game some replay value on top of being an enjoyable read.

Unrest is set in a fantasy world with ancient Hindustani trappings.  While the prose aren't as strong as the above two games, the lead writer here has an incredible talent for presenting grey and grey moral quandaries that ground the setting and make it feel surprisingly compelling.  The story jumps from character to character and leaps around chronologically as well.  Actions earlier in the timeline will modify events that happen later in important ways.  Players also have a degree of freedom to interact with the environment from an isometric perspective.  While not featuring RPG stats, every NPC has three relationship bars which indicate their attitude toward the player's avatar.  In turn this mandates a certain degree of role playing to succeed.  Being yourself can be interesting too though if you're a consequences-be-damned kind of gamer.

Based on person experience reading doesn't seem to be very high on most people's fun things-to-do-list.   It's a shame because oftentimes written words can paint visuals in our minds far more vivid than even the most cutting edge graphics.  Regardless, I'm glad to see that there is a new budding market for text driven experiences that aren't just fan translated visual novels straight out of Japan.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Blood and Steel

Close quarters combat with sharp bits of metal is a hallmark of fantasy themed video games.  In fact more often than not it's the primary gameplay mechanic in RPGs.  Obviously, trying to simulate the real thing is a daunting task, so the majority of titles opt to simplify matters by adopting pre-scripted animations of attacks.  Castle Crashers, God of War and The Witcher series fall into this category.  However there are some curious lesser known titles that deviate from this industry norm.

Rune attempted to tie mouse movement to attack button presses in such a manner that players could control the direction of their swings.  This was especially important to make use of when fighting undead enemies since they could only be slain by a well placed chop to the head.  Way of the Samurai gave players the ability to assume different fighting stances.  Thus, allowing for high, low and mid level attacks.  Blade of Darkness was somewhat of a precursor to the Souls series in that it had recharging stamina, shield blocking and target locking.  An additional feature was the ability to use directional keys in combination with presses of the attack button in order to strike foes from different angles.

Perhaps the most robust melee combat game yet made though is Die by the Sword.  While possessing multiple control schemes, the most hands-on choice allows for direct mouse control over the player character's sword arm.  It handles a bit like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, except with a far more dismemberment.

Plenty of fighting games have tried to make fencing their defining feature.  Bushido Blade, Deadliest Warrior, Infinity Blade and the Kengo series are all variations on the classic fighting genre although, as of yet, none have captured the realities of melee combat with any great degree of accuracy.  Mount and Blade does excellent work with regards to horseback combat, but like the rest of the games I've just mentioned it's still lacking a certain appeal when it comes to duels on foot.  So what can be done to improve the concept?

Well, distilled down to the essentials, melee combat is really about three forms of attack (cutting, bludgeoning or piercing).  Conversely, there are really only three forms of defense (dodging, blocking or parrying).  Injuries too can be broken down into three basic considerations; shock (temporary disruption of tissues caused by the raw kinetic force of a blow), pain (the nervous system reacting to damage sustained), and blood loss (the reduction in the supply of oxygen due to tissue damage).

This might come as a surprise to some, but inflicting an instantly fatal wound in reality is not as easy as mainstream entertainment media would have you think.  Psychological conditioning aside, only direct trauma to the brain, spine or heart kills outright.  Which means a lot of people who died by the sword (particularly the well armored) were most likely incapacitated by injures and exhaustion before being dispatched.  Of course video games tend to lack this feature for reasons usually stemming from the extremely abstract system of "hit point tokens," "health flasks," or "life bars" used to represent characters in games.  Typically, attacks don't account for the location or angle of impact either (not to mention the form of attack) which is a shame considering these factors heavily influence the lethality of a successful strike.  In truth though a fairly realistic simulation of melee combat wouldn't be all that complicated.  For example the kinds of strikes an attacker can make with a blade pretty much come down to about five:

  1. A vertical downward swing
  2. A horizontal swing
  3. A diagonal downward swing
  4. A diagonal upward swing
  5. A thrusting attack
All this might sound like an awful lot to account for in a video game, but if you're especially knowledgeable when it comes to table top RPGs the words "Riddle of Steel" might come to mind.  It's a phrase first coined in the 1982 film "Conan the Barbarian".  One interpretation might be it's a poetic expression regarding the enigma of power and how a single individual can hold dominion over many.  A more literal reading would be a reference to the closely guarded secrets used by ancient metal smiths to produce high quality weapons.  The mental connection I have with this phrase though is in association with a more-than-decade-old table top game called none other than "The Riddle of Steel."

It simulates all the things I just mentioned with surprisingly elegant design mechanics.  Additionally, it adds to the mix special maneuvers such as bluffs, feints, ripostes, binds, counters and a multitude of other tricks of the trade employed by people who did (and still do) practice swordsmanship.  The result is the most accurate representation of the real thing your going to get with paper, pencils and dice.

I find it odd that no one ever made a serious attempt to develop a video game with similar mechanics.  Especially since a little bit of programming would remove most of the tedious and time consuming bits of calculation needed in the table top game.  My personal theory is that, much like movies, stylized depictions of violence are considered preferable to grizzly realism (see the video linked bellow for an approximation of what medieval combat might have been like without the Hollywood treatment).

On the other hand there's a steadily growing demand for decisions and consequences in video games.  What better way to convey such a notion than with combat being a horrific, high stakes affair that probably won't end well for one or both sides of the conflict?  In a bit of an attempt to spotlight the human element of melee combat the Riddle of Steel RPG tosses in the concept of "Spiritual Attributes," basically phrases or short sentences detailing a character's personal convictions.  When applicable they provide bonuses to actions.  In the crux of battle this can oftentimes mean the difference between life and death.  In a video game this kind of thing could be handled through RPG decision trees common to the genre.  Alternatively, think customized character creation except with a focus on the internal rather than external.

So going back once more to the origin of The Riddle of Steel, Conan's father tells him that steel is the only true source of power.  Later, Thulsa Doom tells him that "flesh" (fanatical followers in this case) is where actual strength lies.  Ultimately, Conan realizes it is neither flesh nor steel, but his own beliefs that matter most.  A good sword will not protect against a thousand foes, nor will a thousand allies prove salvation from a well placed sword thrust.  What Conan believes in though, what drives him, what defines who he is...that (for better or worse) makes all the difference.  And any game emphasizing this sort of thing is a game worth giving a shot...IMHO.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

4th Wall Breakers

It's not especially uncommon for films or TV programs to have scenes in which someone looks at the camera and speaks directly to the audience.  Put simply, people on your screen know they're in a video.  However, it's much rarer to encounter a game in which the characters are aware of this.  There are a few noteworthy examples out there though which don't appear to be widely known.  So, I will mention them here.

Characters coming out of an arcade machine has to be one of the most obvious (and earliest) instances I can remember seeing the 4th wall broken in video games.  Mortal Kombat, in particular, had a mildly terrifying advert poster in which two of the fighters decide to take out their aggression on the players controlling them rather than each other.  Another example of this type of thing is the ending to the arcade version of Golden Axe.  Presumably through the use of magic, a variety of the characters in the game are able to escape into the real world.  One can't help but wonder what antics will follow.  The incredibly hammy film "Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time" comes to mind.

Speaking of movies, another Sega arcade game called Altered Beast features a rather strange image in the ending sequence presenting the in-game characters like a bunch of film actors wrapping things up on stage.  Needless to say, it's a bit jarring not only in the sense that everyone was wearing a costume, but also because it implies that the game was actually a movie shoot.  Much later Konami would take a similar tact with the ending of Silent Hill by showing cut-scenes outtakes wherein somebody flubbed a line or is simply screwing around on set.        

For me, hands down the biggest fourth wall shattering video game company has to be Sierra and their adventure games.  It must have been in vogue at some point to do this kind of thing because a number of titles featured it around the same time period.  Leisure Suit Larry 3 had the aforementioned protagonist of the series retire from adventuring to become a game programmer making none other than Leisure Suit Larry games.  Space Quest 3 had Roger Wilco rescue the kidnapped creators of Astro Chicken only for the three of them to get sucked into a black hole and re-emerge near planet Earth.  Naturally, they just happen to touch down in Oakhurst, California (which incidentally is the place where Sierra On-Line Systems HQ was located), where the two programmers are hired on the spot by the (then) CEO of the company, Ken Williams.

Of course there were a number of other instances of this kind of thing before and after in both these IPs, as well as several other Sierra franchises like Quest for Glory 2: Trial by Fire and Police Quest 2: The Vengeance.  Overall, I'm not sure what to make of these design choices, but regardless I thought they were worth mentioning for the sake of posterity.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Of Cats and Men

When it comes to dogs and cats, I prefer the former over the latter.  It's nothing personal, I just have a mild allergy to cat hair.  So, what does this have to do with video games?  Well...while I wouldn't consider myself much of a cat person in real life, I seem to have played a lot of games prominently featuring anthropomorphic felines.

My first major exposure has to be the Kilrathi from Wing Commander.  At first glance one might be tempted to label them as Klingons with furry manes instead of bony head ridges, but the reality is this race of proud(ly incompetent) lion-men are actually derived from the science fiction author Larry Niven's "Known Space" universe.  Of course in that setting they're known as the Kzinti, but are more or less the same in terms of being a warrior race of humanoid felines with impressive physiques.  Incidentally, the Kzinti also appear in older Star Trek fiction (check out the board game "Federation and Empire" for one such example).  The Kilrathi's appearance changed considerably over the lifespan of the Wing Commander franchise, but it's also worth noting some of the other copy-cats (get it?) as well.

In the 4X strategy game series Master of Orion, there's a physically impressive playable race of felines called the Mrrshans.  While I didn't play as them all that much I enjoyed having them present as one of the opposing factions.  Unsurprisingly, they get combat bonuses and generally operate as a military dictatorship with honorable leanings.

Moving into the realm of science fantasy, there are the Ronso from Final Fantasy X.  While a bit different appearance-wise, in that each male has a single horn sprouting from their foreheads, the Ronso retain all the warrior traditions and physical prowess associated with the previous examples.  They're also the only non-human race in FFX that I found to be at all interesting or fleshed out to any degree.

Thankfully, not all video games featuring humanoid cats are the same culturally.  The Khajiit from the Elder Scrolls series come in all varieties and are very much a blank slate when it comes to character creation except for a few tendencies toward thievery.  The one and only character I made (and played) in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one of these stripped fur creatures.

Then there are the friendly Katta, who appear in every Quest for Glory game except the fourth entry (possibly due to the cold damp location that game is based in).  Rather than being yet another proud race of warriors, they are most often artisans, innkeepers or merchants native to a desert realm.  Their stature tends to be a bit smaller than humans as well.

The list goes on and on, featuring everything from those feisty little guys in Monster Hunter to some others which feature eccentricities such as extra pairs of arms or legs...but I won't be going into detail regarding any of them know with my allergies and all...In conclusion though I have to imagine that a lot of game developers own cats, or like them to such a degree that they project a lot of intriguing characteristics onto them in the world of video games.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Arrakis, Dune, Desert Planet

"Long live
the fighters!"
I've mentioned Frank Herbert's landmark science fiction novel Dune numerous times throughout this blog, but I've never actually bothered to dedicate an actual post to it.  This is mostly because Dune is such an expansive novel it's not easy to talk about.  All manner of themes are covered ranging from philosophy, religion, psychology, politics and ecology.  Frank Herbert was a journalist and Dune, in many ways, is a summation of his lifelong experiences, observations and thoughts.  Unlike most sci-fi that came before, Dune flips the dichotomy of society and technology on it's head by placing the focus firmly on how society influences technological development rather than the other way around.  To help him explore the themes he was interested in, Frank Herbert structures the universe he creates with easy to identify entities:
Commerce = CHOAM
Transportation = The Guild
Political Power = The Landsraad
Religion = The Bene Gesserit Sisterhood
Research and Development = Ixians and the Tleilax 

"He who controls the spice
 controls the universe."
Even the individual leaders of factions within this power structure are given iconic labels like Duke, Baron, Emperor, etc.  All this is done in service of the social aspects of the setting.  The majority of the text in Dune is either internal monologues or dialogues between two or more people.  It's actually one of the reasons the book makes for less-than-page-turner reading.  The style is oddly Shakespearean when you get down to it, with unnatural sounding conversations  and discussions of major events that happened "off-camera".  For these reasons, I have to say that the first Dune video game is probably closest to the novel in terms of focus.  Instead of having the player directly control units, like later entries in the series, the game takes a much more hands-off approach by having the player's avatar issue general orders to subordinates. In a modernized version of the game it would probably work something like this; Want to travel to another planet? Well, don't buy a space ship. Talk to a Guild representative. He'll make all the necessary arrangements for you. Need to examine your financial assets? Don't look it up on a computer. Just consult the house Mentat.  Decided to go to war?  No battle micro-management for you. Instead, make you desires known to your Weapon Master.

"We have worm sign."
This form of interaction might seem boring, but I think it's really aimed at an unorthodox set of strengths.  Namely things like diplomacy, intrigue, espionage, assassination, bribery, blackmail, betrayal, duels and trading secrets like spice.  Would it be fun to play?  Hard to say since the closest video games I can think of to it are Master of Orion 3 and the Crusader Kings series.  I think the key to such a game working would be quality social interaction.  I'm thinking The Walking Dead dialogue trees meets the Sims with some randomly generated NPCs and a robust AI thrown in the mix.  Limited multiplayer interaction might go a long way toward enriching the experience as well.  I'm not sure what genre this game would be in since what I've described above sounds a lot like a first person adventure game with RTS elements running in the background.  Regardless of fun though it would be true to the themes of the Dune novel and Frank Hebert's notions of innovation.
"This person, this traitor, will be worth more to us than ten legions of Sadaukar."