Sunday, October 26, 2014

Monday, October 20, 2014

Clarke's Third Law

Nope not Issac Clarke from Dead Space.  We're talking about Arthur C. Clarke, a prolific science fiction writer from last century.  He said a lot of things over the course of his life, but one of his most often quoted tidbits is "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Well...that's all fine and dandy, but what does it mean for video games?  Not a whole lot unless you're into world building.

Days of future past, cargo cults and post-apocalyptic settings are some of the 3rd Law's most prominent features when applied to entertainment media.  It's interesting to note that, when the apocalypse happens and when the story starts can drastically affect the look and feel of the fiction.  From the player's perspective, in Fallout it's pretty easy to spot stuff that exists in the real world.  While, in say, NausicaƤ of the Valley of Wind it's pretty difficult to recognize anything.  In some cases this is deliberate.  In Dragon Riders of Pern everything takes place on a planet colonized by humans rather than Earth.  Personally, I think there's a sweet spot such as the original Planet of the Apes movie.  It's not obvious, but observant individuals can pick up on details of where the story is taking place and how the destruction of humanity came about.  The same goes for technology.

In Phantasy Star they tend to be pretty fast and loose with what is a product of highly advanced technology and what is the result of magic.  For the most part it doesn't matter thought since the setting background is just an excuse to have robots fight monsters and wizards ride spaceships.  The table-top RPG "Rifts" takes this kitchen sink approach and tries to categorize all the gonzo setting material into magical, psychic and technological origins.  Meanwhile "Tribe 8" goes in the opposite direction, intentionally blurring any distinguishing features of tech or magic through the use of unreliable narrators.

Science might seem like witchcraft to the ignorant, but even to a learned person living in a first world country, most of the engineering principles of an internal combustion engine or computer circuit board are only understood on a rudimentary level (if that).  Sometimes the solutions to problems with various forms of technology can take on a ritualistic quality.  True story; I had a well educated uncle who every winter warmed up a fussy padlock on his barn door with a lighter before turning the key.
Neither of us knew why that worked, but it did so that was how it was done.  Of course it's easy to enlighten oneself thanks to things like public libraries and Wikipedia.  However, certain accomplishments of the past such as the construction of Hellenistic triremes or Egyptian pyramids are not well understood now days because the skills and techniques have been lost to time.  Worse still are instances when technological knowledge is a form of authority and as such becomes a closely guarded secret.  Some ancient Greek temples would utilize various tricks to astound visitors by means of hidden mechanical devices complete with gears, water wheels or even steam power.  In other words they were fooling everyone into thinking the temple had divine favor by way of parlor magic.  Granted, whenever I hear some explanation for artificial gravity or FTL travel involving zero-point energy, dark matter or some other area of theoretical physics, I kind of feel like it's the same sort of deception just dressed up in a different outfit.

Anyway, those are just a few things I wanted to mention concerning world design.  Overall, I think there's a lot of interesting directions video games could go if they decide to use Clarke's Third Law.  I'm also curious to see what upcoming titles like Torment: Tides of Numenera or Hyper Light Drifter do with it.  Hopefully the developers will take things in a direction we haven't experienced before...or maybe I should a long time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Tony, this one is for you
It's a fairly common occurrence in the forums of most video game websites to see a post wherein someone professes their recent apathy toward the hobby.  Usually, it goes something like, "more than half my Steam library is un-played games, but I can't be bothered to give any of them a try."  Or, "I have boxed games still in their original shrink wrap, but all I've been doing recently is watch LP videos while playing minesweeper in another window."  Well, to all gamers who feel this way, don't fret.  You're probably just burned out.

The same thing happened to me awhile back.  For about two years (from 2008~2009) I hardly played anything aside from a couple of flash games like Last Stand and Gemcraft.  I also still read reviews and occasionally frequented message boards just to see what was going on.  Otherwise though it was basically an extended hiatus.  The truth is I didn't miss all that much.  Of course, some interesting games came out; Dead Space, Flower and Valkyria Chronicles to name a few, but I got around to playing all of them eventually.  Sure, I missed out on the zeitgeist, but the early discussion threads were archived for posterity and other folks inevitably started new "LttP" message threads as well.  Overall, there weren't any negative consequences to my absence.

Rolling dice can be surprisingly fun
So, what did I do with the free time I used to allocate toward playing video games?  Lots of things, but rather than talking about my personal life in exacting detail let me just say that video gaming, as a hobby, isn't particularly conducive to good physical health.  Hiking, swimming, cycling and enjoying nature are all great things to do weather permitting.  Even if you're not the outdoorsy type there's lot's of other kinds of games out there such as board games and tabletop RPGs, not to mention classics like chess or card games (no, not the collectible kind.  I'm talking about tradition yet fun stuff like Hearts or Rummy).  Obviously you need real life friends to play these kinds of games, which if you don't have any, means you might want to make some.  You interacting with real life people face-to-face and all that.

As for video games...don't worry.  They'll still keep doing their thing.  Meanwhile your Steam library isn't going anywhere.  Any games you happen to miss out on will remain available for purchase through online retailers for the indefinite future (most likely at discounted prices and with less bugs to boot).  So, get out and experience all the great things life has to offer.  Video games will still be around when (and if) you decide to come back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Threefold Model

Back in the summer of 1997 a bunch of table-top RPG enthusiasts on USENET did a bit of group brainstorming and came up with a theoretical framework for the hobby consisting of three paradigms; Drama, Simulation and Gaming.  Basically, the school of thought goes that there are players who like competitive, mechanics driven gameplay with clear "win" and "fail" states.  Then, there are players who enjoy a good story that tries to elicit emotional responses by triggering certain kinds of moods or feelings.  Lastly, there are players who want to emulate a particular genre or set of source material.  While none of this might sound particularly important The Threefold Model (as it came to be called) can be a useful tool for understanding why some games play more smoothly than others.  Understanding what causes "friction" between Drama, Simulation and Gaming can help designers avoid a lot of the pitfalls that plague the table-top industry.  What's more The Threefold Model (with a bit of tweaking) can also be applied to video game development.

Perhaps the easiest way to wrap one's head around this theoretical framework is to first think of it in terms of video games that primarily use only a single category.  Good examples of purely Drama focused video game genres are Walking Simulators (Gone Home, Dear Esther, etc.), certain adventure games (Dreamfall, Telltale's The Walking Dead, etc.) as well as most games that rely heavily on text to convey information to the player (link).  Video games that are entirely about the Gaming aspect include a lot of fighting games (Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, etc.), online card games (Heartstone, Scrolls, etc.), and pretty much any game you'd find in an arcade.  Simulation is probably the most obvious to identify in that almost any game with the word "sim" or "simulation" in the title applies.  Now that we've outlined the extreme cases lets take a look at the various instances when incompatibilities can occur.

Ever spent a long amount of time grinding only to find yourself wondering what the point of it all is?  This is an excellent example of Gaming interfering with Drama.  Oftentimes it's simply referred to as "padding," and usually involves the player having to complete a bunch of arbitrary tasks in order to advance the plot in a meaningful way.  Conversely, intrusive unengaging cutscenes that detract from the player's enjoyment tend to be instances of Drama getting in the way of Gaming.  More generally speaking there's a lack of player agency in these cases because the entire experience is railroaded in an unavoidable direction.

For examples of Gaming overriding Simulation (aside from puzzle bosses) look no farther than the Civ series of turn-based strategy games.  Because of the complexity and scope of the franchise, the Gaming aspect has to act as a substitute for a lot of the intricate societal underpinnings.  This sometimes results in ridiculous simplifications of the way human societies actually function.  On the flip side War Thunder serves as a classic example of how Simulation can screw up Gaming.  If you ever heard the expression "life isn't fair" it's in full effect here.  Fighter craft such as the Japanese "Zero" were vastly superior to anything else at the beginning of WW2, but were completely outmatched by the end of the war.  In competitive online spaces this inevitably leads to balance issues in which the only solutions are to break out the buffs/nerfs or create some kind of metagame constructs (like a battle rating) either of which further distorts whatever the simulation is trying to emulate.

The friction caused by Simulation to Drama is easy to spot since it's a common complaint on video game forums.  Boss battles that are supposed to be epic, fall flat because the gameplay doesn't jive with the player's desired emotional experience.  One-shot victories and bullet sponges are opposite extremes of this sort of problem.  On the other hand invincible NPCs are a good way to illustrate how Drama can hamstring Simulation.  One of the most iconic cases of this kind of thing has to be the death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII.  It's a scripted sequence that defies the rules established by the setting and is done entirely for story reasons.

The Threefold Model has gone on to given birth to GNS Theory and The Big Model, but both of these are fundamentally flawed in that they advocate the best option being to only focus on one paradigm when making a game in order to circumvent incompatibilities.  In truth it's impossible to completely remove two of the three and still have something that would be enjoyable to play.  Concessions have to be made, and that's not necessarily a bad thing because, despite all the conflicts the three modes have, they do sometimes support each other.  Terms like "ludonarrative" and "emergent gameplay" are just a few examples of how one can complement another.  It's not easy to do, or even well understood, but the Nemesis System in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is proof that it's possible to do so successfully outside indie titles like Dwarf Fortress.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Song of Games and Genres

There have been a number of attempts to adapt George R.R. Martin's fantasy epic to a video game format.  Each and every time the results have been mediocre at best despite a variety of developers trying trying different approaches.  The simple fact of the matter is there are so many different characters that any video game can only hope to capture a small part of the whole story.  Let me illustrate my point based around POV characters and hypothetical games that would suitably match them.

Tywin Lannister, Rob Stark or a Stannis Baratheon POV would probably play like Total War: Westeros.  From Daenerys Targaryen's POV it's like Heroes of Might and Magic Zero.  Jamie Lannister, Sandor Clegane or Bronn are basically characters from Samurai Showdown Knight Showdown.  Pretty much everyone in King's Landing are Crusader Kings mod enthusiasts.  Meanwhile the Night's Watch are in Mount and Blade: Beyond the Wall.  Khal Drogo basically is one of the heroes from Dynasty Warriors: Essos Edition.  Myrcella Lannister is passing the time with Cyvasse Master 2000.  While Brienne of Tarth is stuck doing lots of fetch quests in a turn-based tactical RPG.  Gregor Clegane (a.k.a. "The Mountain") is some jerk going on a rampage in an open world game.  The Brotherhood Without Banners are a bunch of fellows lifted straight out of a classic RPG with the magic toned down a bit.  Arya is definitely the main character in a Telltale game.  Her brother Bran Stark holds a similar role in some weird visual novel.  In the case of their elder sister, Sansa, it's probably a variation on the indie title Long Live the Queen.  Lastly, I'm pretty sure Theon Greyjoy is trapped in a fantasy version of Gods Will be Watching (at least that's the only game I can think of that comes close to encapsulating his miserable situation).

I could go on, but I think I made my point.  A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones, if you only watch the HBO TV miniseries) is far too broad in scope and too wide ranging in themes to fit into an interactive piece of least in anything other than narrow slices confined to a single type of character POV and, by extension, game genre.