Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Atari, Activision and Rainbows

I've always had a soft spot for really old video game covers.  Since Atari 2600 consoles had pretty minimal graphics the cartridge art was there to give players an idea of what they might imagine while looking at their TV screens.  Of course not all box art was this way.  In particular, Activision tended to go with cover artwork more indicative of the actual game.  To give the impression of motion on a static picture though they liked to use rainbows.  It's a more honest approach which might come as a surprised since this is Activsion we're talking about...here's some examples for your viewing enjoyment:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Light and Dark, Past and Future

Black versus white...good against evil...these are old themes often used in western storytelling.  In truth though bright light can be just as blinding as complete darkness.  Enter Destiny, the product of 500 million dollars and over half a decade of work from Bungie Studio's development team of 300+ employees.  How the heads of this company or the publisher, Activision, failed to see the meager results of this massive endeavor is beyond my comprehension;  Eight hours of single player gameplay, only one usable vehicle type, limited character customization, mechanically bog standard FPS enemies/guns, and lots of endgame grinding.  Then there is the complete lack of storytelling.  The groundwork for an interesting premise was there, the writers simply failed to capitalize on it in an interesting way.  Perhaps the greatest blind spot of all though is the fact that Destiny has been out long before it's September 2014 street date, albeit in slightly different forms.

Numenera was a kickstarter by Monte Cook.  If you never heard of him, he's the guy behind Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and Pathfinder...so, much like Bungie, one of the most successful game designers out there.  His crowdfunding attempt was the most fortunate table-top RPG project to date, managing to bring in over half a million dollars.  I know this is several orders of magnitude less than what Destiny got, but it's a lot of cash for what basically amounts to a textbook with some pretty artwork inside.  The game Numenera is set in the "Ninth World," a science-fantasy post-apocalypse wherein the vestiges of humanity live in the shadow of ruins built by far more advanced (but long dead) cultures.  Players can choose from three classes Glave, Jack and Nano.  Basically fighter, rogue and wizard in generic fantasy terms.  Starting to sound familiar?...like in a Titan, Hunter and Warlock kind of way?  Then there's the game mechanics which are d20 at its blandest, and the setting which seems to be based around the assumption that players will spend most of their time killing weird things to get weird loot.  I guess as much should be expected given the guy's background.  Again though it shares a lot with Destiny in that the wonder of the universe is squandered in lieu of generic gameplay.  In Numenera players go on adventures just like Dungeons and Dragons.  Meanwhile, in Destiny players get in firefights just like every other FPS.  You'd think with all that advanced tech left over someone would reinvent long-range artillery instead of firing hand-cannons (named in refrence to John Wayne films) like it's the wild west.

I've heard criticisms made against Destiny's art direction.  In particular words like "unispired," "shallow" and "generic" come up a lot, but "sterile" is the word that I think best describes it.  The nomenclature suffers from this too with names like "The Traveler," "The Darkness," "The Hive," "The Fallen," "The Speaker," "Guardians" and "Ghosts" it feels like someone just thumbed through an English dictionary and copied down some nouns they liked.  Exercise a little creativity Bungie!  Here, let me show a couple of simple examples from various Science Fiction media:
  • Vaygr (an anagram of the Russian word for "Viking") from the Video game Homeword 2.
  • Cylons (a derivation of the first reliably dated event in Athenian history) from the TV series Battlestar Galactica. 
  • Landsraad (the old spelling for Landsr├ąd which in several Scandinavian languages means "Land Council") from the movie Dune.
  • Shing (a Chinese name meaning "Victory") from the Hainish Cycle of novels by Ursula K. LeGuin. 
The last one in particular bears further discussion.  The Shing are mentioned in several stories in the Hainish Cycle.  They are though to be alien invaders that came from beyond the boarders of the League of Worlds and systematically reduced humanity to a pre-industrial state.  However, in one novel, City of Illusion, it's revealed that the Shing are just humans gifted with an unique ability.  Back before the collapse of the League of Worlds there was a form of communication called "mindspeech."  It could be universally understood and, better still, no one could willfully deceive another while engaged in mindspeech...except for the Shing.  They alone possessed the ability to "mind-lie," and while never numerous they were able to sow discord and strife.  The Shing never bloodied their own hands  though or even those of the "toolmen" that directly severed them as infiltrators.  Reverence for life was at the foundation of their order and as such they would prey on the fears, ignorance and paranoia of the people they slowly conquered, driving League of Worlds to corruption, tribalism and civil war without drawing attention to themselves.  It's powerful stuff that despite being written over 40 years ago is still relevant to the world today.  What better way to weaken foes than by using their own weapons against them?  At the very least I hope it presents things in a new light.  Destiny has been done before...and in a lot of ways it has been done better.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Evolution of a Theme

It goes without saying that the Legend of Zelda series is one of the longest running adventure game franchises ever.  Spanning nearly seven generations of console hardware and over a quarter century of real history, the tale of a boy garbed in green is perhaps the quintessential example of Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey in video game form.  Because of it's legacy, I think Zelda deserves the "Legend of" namesake in the title.  The question is though...can a legend evolve?

Based on what little we've all seen thus far, the Wii U iteration of Zelda looks promising.  Despite the limited power of Nintendo's current platform, the development team has shown that they are able to produce impressive visuals through stylish art rather than pixel and polygon counts.

"Zelda should be more like the Dark Souls!" was a comment I often saw and heard on the internet in the wake of Skyward Sword.  I even suggested the same idea in this very blog site several years ago.  In hindsight though, I don't think Zelda would do well copying from another similar franchise whole cloth.  Instead a new Zelda needs to borrow from a lot of places at once in order to be successful.

Interconnected open world locals have already been mentioned by the game's producer, Eiji Aonuma.  Along with that, I think environmental/visual storytelling is a good match since Zelda has never really benefited from lengthy dialogue sequences.  Still...keeping to text boxes would be better that trying to introduce voice acting to the series.  If there is anything I've learned from playing the Banner Saga, it's that reading what people say is still a perfectly viable way to tell a story.

Music in Zelda has made steady improvements over the years (as the video bellow clearly illustrates):    

I think the next step would be to upgrade to a full symphony orchestra (like this one used to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the franchise).

Eiji Aonuma also mentioned in an interview that many younger members of the development team have strong reservations about what a Zelda game should and shouldn't be.  Not knowing the details, I can't comment on what has been suggested thus far, but off the top of my head, I think it would be wise to avoid the RPG tradition of stat based numerical progression, as well as extremely gimmicky boss battles.  Then there is the excessive amount of hand holding that, in truth, could easily be avoided by simply including yes/no prompt at the beginning of the game that asks, "Have you played a Zelda game recently?"

Speaking of choices, it sounds like the player will have to make a lot of in-game decisions about where-to-go and what-to-do.  Especially since simultaneous events will be occurring in Hyrule.  For me, these welcome additions should tie nicely into the theme of player freedom (which is itself a callback to the original NES titles).

Exploration and the feelings of mystery, suspense and wonder are what originally drew me to the series.  Varying mixtures of triumph and terror are what have kept me interested even after all these years.  In some ways the development of the Zelda franchise is a reflection of the events in the games themselves.  Will the triforce of new ideas, old ideas and fun ideas be united once again?  Or will this next entry fragment fans like we've seen in the past?  I can't say for certain, but I do know that if the legend does continue it must evolve in order to endure the tests of time.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Fantasy Topography

Pretty much anyone doodling on a piece of paper can come up with something resembling a map.  Making it seem plausible, on the other hand, can be incredibly difficult.  Wind, rain, continental drift and the abundance of natural resources all affect the way a world looks in incredibly complex ways.  That said, it's rather amusing to find fantasy maps that fail to account for basic considerations like water always flowing downhill.  In order to take pressure off the creator's shoulders, simple tricks like flipping a map of Ireland over or using a poorly know location (like Antarctica after massive global warming) are used.  George R.R. Martin is guilty of the former while Final Fantasy games feature the latter.

It's also worth noting that the world is a big place.  The numerous single bio-dome planets in Star Wars feel a bit excessive when you consider that all the locations featured in the six films would comfortably fit in half a hemisphere of the Earth.  On occasion other sci-fi settings will try to impress with similarly massive scales.  At best though it's a deceptive illusion that doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  Most of the planets in the Battletech universe have the same plants and animals on them.  Meanwhile, Mass Effect never lets players explore more than a tiny fraction of the various places that are available.  To a lesser extent Destiny suffers from a similar problem, but at least in Bunjie's case they development team had the foresight to realize that entire solar system is more that sufficient in terms of size for the game and any future expansions.

In my mind it's really the micro, rather than macro, that impresses the most.  The world generation and simulation in titles like Dwarf Fortress is far more localized in practice, but still an impressive feat of programming from a design standpoint.  Perhaps the upcoming indie title No Man's Sky can bridge the gap to some degree.  In order to make each world feel unique in a procedurally generated galaxy players will need to be able to modify the terrain.  If you think of all things people have built in Minecraft, all the creatures they created in Spore, or all the geological events they triggered in From Dust, then it would be truly jaw-dropping to see all the things players can come up with in one game space.  Sure it might sound like mind boggling pie-in-the-sky amounts of stuff, but it's really not that big compared to the vastness of world we all live on right now.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Moral Quandries

I've noticed a lot of criticisms leveled at games like GTA V and Watch_Dogs recently, but rather than retread what others have said how about we turn a critical eye toward robots, zombies, Nazis and demonic aliens?...or "The Four Horsemen of Video Game Apocalypses" as I like to call them.  These foes might have been novel adversaries once upon a time, but now they're more often than not a crutch for lazy storytelling.  Instead of presenting situations which could be thought provoking dilemmas a lot of game developers try to come up with flimsy excuses as to why violence is the only solution.  It's an argument that doesn't hold water even when protected by the veil of genre conventions.

From Shodan to the Cybrids and the Reapers to AM, robots of all shapes and sizes have been threatening humanity in fiction since before the invention of the silicon chip.  The question I always have is why?  Do advanced artificial intelligences want to destroy all the humans out of some misguided sense of self-preservation?  And if so, doesn't that imply some kind of emotional response (namely fear)?  Please note that this is antithetical to the definition of a machine, and implies that we're not talking computers at all, but rather sentient (albeit artificial) life.  On a slight tangent, what happens if these machines succeed in their objective?  What do the doomsday armies of metal and plastic do then?  Don't give me that incomprehensible-to-human-minds bullshit, because H.P. Lovecraft did it better than anyone else and even then it felt like a bit of a cop-out.

Moving on, let's take a closer look at video game's most prolific form of undead, zombies.  I'm not an expert when it comes to biology, but I know for sure that muscle tissue doesn't work unless it has an energy supply.  In other words, if the flesh is dead it's not going to move at all.  Granted magically animated dead are fair enough, but a lot of games try pitch the notion of a disease causing zombies to appear.  It's plausible enough provided that the walking dead are actually still alive to some degree.  Of course this raises the question about whether or not the infected can be cured or recoup enough of their former selves to become a new culture of sorts.  Ever read the story "I am Legend" by Richard Matheson?  Here's a little tidbit for you, it doesn't end at all like the 2007 film of the same name (including the filmed alternate endings).

How about Nazis then?  Everyone hates them, right?  Well sure...but don't let righteousness bind you to the fact that a non-trivial amount of them were misguided (particularly Hitler Youth) through a carefully crafted system of indoctrination.  Or more ambiguously still, guys like Claus von Stauffenberg, who objected to a number of the Third Reich's policies yet still fought for Germany out of a sense of nationalism.  Don't get me wrong, Nazism is pretty much as bad as any ideology can get.  That said, anything seen as bad can't always be be pinned on them.  Godwin's Law, anyone?  If you've ever read the bizarre novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" you might find yourself questioning the firebombing of Dresden.  In particular, was incinerating tens-of-thousands refugees justified when it had little to no benefit with regards to ending the war?

Lastly, demonic aliens, lumped into one category here because for all intents and purposes the difference between cross-dimensional and extra-solar is trivial in most games.  What isn't irrelevant though is the fact that these entities are usually portrayed as irredeemably evil, and exist solely to do battle with space marines or some regional equivalent.  Never mind the fact that any military force requires the logistical support of an even larger contingent of non-combatants.  Of course one could argue that the player simply doesn't run into any of them because that might lead to ethical concerns over what's to be done with POWs.  On a side note fantasy games have the same problem with orc babies.  For the ultimate in deconstruction stories about alien invasion though I recommend reading "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clark.

After watching some 2014 highlights from E3, I think it's safe to say celebrations of violence in video games aren't going away anytime soon.  Which probably means the ubiquity of the above mentioned quartet of grab-bag of baddies isn't going to change much either.  You know what though, that's okay with me.  My beef isn't with overuse so much as underdevelopment.  In order for video games to evolve and grow both as a hobby and an industry, players need to have their ingrained assumptions challenged in interesting ways.  Exploring concepts that were simple when most gamers were children, more deeply now that a lot are older, can create new and fascinating storytelling opportunities.  After all the whole point of video games is to experience things that would be impractical or outright impossible in real life.