And my Game of the Year – 2010 is…

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

This would normally be the time to review the best and worst of 2010’s games, except I only played a handful of the titles which came out this year. Despite being an RPG fan, I played neither Mass Effect 2 nor Fallout: New Vegas, and despite being a strategy fan, I did not play Starcraft II.

 

That said, I liked most of the ones I did play. Highest-profile amongst them, and the one into which I sank the most time, was Civilization V – here are my thoughts on the city-states, and on the game design as a whole. I didn’t spend a huge amount of time with Resonance of Fate, the steampunkish gun-fu JRPG from tri-Ace, or Supreme Commander 2, the RTS from Gas Powered Games, but I liked what I saw, and I know I’ll return one day to finish off Resonance of Fate.

 

Ultimately, though, one game this year charmed me more than all the others. It was just right for me in every way: in its length, its pacing, the feel of its world, its gameplay mechanics, and its premise. And it alone makes me think, “I wish there were more games like that!” With that, I present:

 

Game of the Year – 2010: Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (write-up here), developed by EasyGameStation and localised by Carpe Fulgur.

 

Congratulations, guys. Keep up the good work, because I’m looking forward to what you do next.

 

Happy new year, everyone!

An extraordinary life: storytelling in Fallout 3

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

 

Warning: this post contains extensive spoilers for Fallout 3, including its ending!

***

Ask people what they enjoyed about Fallout 3 (2008), the post-apocalyptic RPG from Bethesda, and most would point to its setting, the ruined Capital Wasteland where Washington DC once stood. It’s a truly impressive world, both for its sheer scope and for the little touches that went into each area. But there was also a story far more character-driven than the game usually gets credit for. At its heart, Fallout 3’s main plotline revolved around the journey of its protagonist, the Lone Wanderer. It explored themes of hope, courage, and sacrifice, made all the stronger for their bleak backdrop. Ultimately, it’s a story I’m glad to have played.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the game world, but what stood out for me was its interconnectedness. At one point, the Lone Wanderer is trapped in a virtual reality where a vicious scientist has tormented his victims for centuries. Who would voluntarily risk a run-in with such a man? Well, later on, a quest took me to another scientist, Horace Pinkerton, a recluse established as egotistical and brilliant in equal measures. In true RPG fashion, I took the time to look at Pinkerton’s notes – and found he stole some of his equipment from the madman, as easily as taking candy “from a little girl”. How did he know where to look? Once he made it there, how did he get in? And most importantly, how did he get out? The game doesn’t elaborate on those points, preferring to leave it up to our imaginations. But it says a lot about Pinkerton: he must have been both incredibly brave (or plain arrogant), and incredibly skilful. And it hints at adventures in the wasteland beyond what we ourselves experienced.

One aspect of the world becomes very clear, very fast: its tone. The Capital did not become a Wasteland because of aliens, dragons or long-sealed ancient evil. It became that way because of people, in all our greed, our stupidity, our selfishness. And the game goes to great lengths to drive home the resulting gloom. The surroundings are desolate, of course: beyond the shattered buildings and treeless desert, what sticks in my mind is a skeleton on a subway-station bench, slumped next to a handgun and a bloodstain. It’s pretty clear what happened all those centuries ago, and why.

But what we see is just the tip of the iceberg, compared to what we do. For Fallout 3 dared to put you into situations where there was no happy ending. One side quest (which I haven’t played, but which I did read up on), involving a dispute between bigoted humans and the hideously mutated ghouls, presents RPG players with a familiar choice. Do you sign on as a hired gun for the humans, or for the ghouls? Or do you go for the peaceful solution: reconcile the two sides? Clearly, only one of these is a win-win solution. Except it’s not. If the ghouls settle their differences and move in alongside the humans, they will go on to massacre their new neighbours anyway. Today’s victims, the game tells us, may become tomorrow’s oppressors, given the opportunity.

Still, as bleak as this world is, it’s not hopeless. There are spots of light woven in here and there, as individuals try to make what difference they can: Three Dog the DJ sets up a radio station to bring news and information to the survivors of the waste; Moira the shopkeeper-cum-tinkerer decides to pen a “Wasteland Survival Guide”; Dr Madison Li sets up hydroponics labs to feed her adopted home. And then there are your own deeds. Even small acts of kindness, on your part, can make a huge difference to their recipients’ lives: give an orphaned woman the last message left by her dying father, and listen to the gratitude in her voice. Or retrieve the last Stradivarius in the world for an elderly widow, and hear the airwaves come alive with her music.

Hope and valour exist on a grander scale, too. The second thing I love about Fallout 3 is the hero(ine)’s character arc, as chronicled by the main plotline. From the very beginning, Fallout 3 is something special. The first we see of the Capital Wasteland is an operating theatre, as the Lone Wanderer is born – and the moment the Wanderer’s parents learn his/her gender and appearance is the same moment in which we choose them. As we learn how to move in the game, the Wanderer takes his or her first baby steps; the Wanderer receiving a BB gun for a birthday present is the occasion on which we learn how to aim and shoot. We’ve all sat through character generation and tutorial segments in games before, but none immersed me so much as Fallout 3’s integration of these mechanics with its story.

But it’s not until later on that we discover the significance of the Lone Wanderer’s birth. Early on, we learn the hard way: water in the game world is almost always irradiated. And during the course of the story, we eventually find out: the Lone Wanderer’s parents were working in a near-war zone to create Project Purity, a device capable of supplying enough clean water for the entire Wasteland. It could have transformed the game world, had it succeeded… but the Wanderer’s father, James, abandoned the project after the Wanderer’s mother died giving birth to their child. James didn’t throw away Project Purity and the future of the Capital Wasteland for the hell of it. He didn’t do it because he lost heart without his wife. He did it because now that his child was born, the constant attacks on the purifier were too risky for him to bear. And eventually, James gives up his own life, too, arranging an explosion so his child can flee an onrushing invasion.

This takes us to the game’s much-maligned ending. The finale confronts the Lone Wanderer with a choice. Run into an irradiated control room a la Spock and sacrifice his/her life to prevent the now almost-functional, but critically damaged purifier, from exploding? Or be a coward, and ask an accompanying soldier to lay down her own life instead? (The original ending has a nasty plot hole – you have allies who could survive the radiation, but instead of helping, they spout lame excuses about it being “your destiny” to die in there. No wonder people were mad*! The Broken Steel DLC revised this, so now the Wanderer ultimately survives even if you opt for self-sacrifice, and it finally allows you the third option of sending in a rad-immune buddy.)

But with the benefit of Broken Steel, I love the ending for how it rounds off the Lone Wanderer’s story arc. It takes the Wanderer full circle: back to the purifier, not far from where he or she entered the world. And just as the Wanderer’s birth, at the start of the game, triggered James to sacrifice the greater good for the sake of his child, the end of the game asks: can that child make good James’ sacrifice by paying the debt forward? Will the child be a true hero and ensure James didn’t die in vain? It is one of the most satisfying, moving endings I have ever played through.

Last but not least, from a storytelling perspective, I loved so many more things about Fallout 3. Some of the characters I met, such as Amata, the Lone Wanderer’s childhood friend; and Fawkes, the intelligent, principled mutant who swears friendship after you rescue him from the cell where he’s been imprisoned for centuries. The set-piece battles worthy of Hollywood. The unscripted canyon shoot-out against a gang of hit-men, which put me into Clint Eastwood’s shoes. “The world” and “the main character’s journey” would mean nothing if they were boring, but thanks to the characters I encountered and the battles I fought in the Capital Wasteland, my experience was punctuated with humour, pathos, and excitement.

I would have liked any one of Fallout 3’s storytelling elements, in itself.  The game is deservedly recognised for its world’s size and attention to detail, and that world struck a perfectly appropriate tone, dark but not hopeless. But I also loved the Lone Wanderer’s character arc, as presented through the game’s main plot. Viewed from this angle, Fallout 3 is the story of an extraordinary life, from birth to death (or near-death, if you have Broken Steel), book-ended by sacrifice. And it was a story made all the better by the other characters, both friend and foe, I encountered along the way. Putting all these elements together, Fallout 3 is one of my favourite games ever. And after 85+ hours, I can walk away with a smile.

Notes


* This interview explains why the companions were so badly worked into the original ending sequence: the ending was written before the companions were added to the game!

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

2010 is so 1991: thoughts on Civilization V

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve played Civilization V for 32 hours, according to Steam, and I’ve won my first King (hard)-level game. And with that, I think I’m ready to formulate my opinion: I like Civ V, but I don’t love it.

I would be the first to admit that I have not seen everything Civ V has to offer. I’ve only played as a bare handful of civilisations. I haven’t even touched the highest difficulty levels.  I haven’t had a proper dust-up with modern-day units yet. I have yet to achieve a cultural or space race victory. And I haven’t played the conqueror – my one domination victory, in my first practice game, came about as a result of the AI attacking a city-state in my sphere of influence (described here). But I have seen enough to evaluate how well the game caters to my preferred playstyle, as a peaceful builder who guides small, compact empires to prosperity. And from that perspective, Civilization V (2010) reminds me a bit of an updated version of the very first Civilization (1991).

Don’t take this too literally. There are many ways in which Civ V resembles IV more so than I: the effort put into discouraging players from over-expansion (via maintenance in IV, via happiness in V); the presence of culture, and national borders; different civilisations having different special abilities; levelling up military units, etc.  And there are features unique to V, such as the nifty city-states; and the use of Social Policies that are locked in at purchase, versus civics/forms of government that can be changed at any time.

But in several ways, Civ V feels like a throwback to I. One obvious similarity is the absence of a “religion” mechanic from both games: instead, it’s abstracted out to temples/cathedrals in I, and temples and Social Policies in V. Another is the diplomacy system. Civ IV gave me an easy-to-see list of all the other players in the game, together with what they thought of me and why: perhaps “-2: our close borders spark tension”, but on the other hand, “+3: our trade relations have been fair and forthright”. In Civ V? Even after the patch, I only see a bare handful of modifiers, with no numbers that would allow me to quantify their effect. And there are far fewer levers I can pull to influence my fellow leaders. “‘Til death do us part” declarations of friendship and denunciations are no substitute for the tapestry of relationships (trade, open borders, religion, common enemies, vassalisation at gunpoint, outright bribery…) in Civ IV. No, diplomacy is one aspect of Civ V that’s ripe for an expansion pack.

The other is the “one unit per hex” rule, and this I actually like. “Peter,” I can hear you point out, “‘one unit per hex’ is new to Civ V! What are you talking about?” Well, yes, it is – as a formal limit. But in practical terms, the effect is to abolish the stack of doom – and the stack of doom itself never existed in the early Civ games. Remember what happened in Civs I and II, if you stacked more than one unit in a tile (other than a city or a fortress) and they were attacked? If one defender died, they all died. So at most, you might stack artillery with something that could defend it. But that was it. You would not march around with invincible stacks of doom. So in this regard, Civ V is actually returning to the roots of the series. And it’s a welcome change: combined with the general overhaul of combat mechanics,  it allows tactics to move beyond “grab a bunch of troops and fling them at the enemy.”

Then there are other things. Cash – or, rather, gold – is king in Civ V. I can use it in diplomacy. I can use it to bribe city-states. And in particular, I can use it to rush-buy buildings and military units from day one. This is another welcome throwback to Civ I. In contrast, Civ IV only let you use gold to hurry production in the late game, and then only if you used a certain civic. The net effect was to marginalise the importance of gold in Civ IV  – sure, you didn’t want to be broke, but it was more of a “negative” constraint than a “positive” tool. Now, in Civ V, I constantly have hard choices about what to do with my gold stash. Do I use it to buy this building over here, which will allow me to speed up research/production/expansion? Or do I use it for my foreign policy, which could bring in food and culture from allied city-states? This is an interesting decision, the crux of a good strategy game. It’s another blast from the past that I’m happy to see.

But in the end, the magic of “just one more turn” is losing its hold on me, and my backlog beckons ever more invitingly. Perhaps it’s Civilization V’s fault. Perhaps it’s my fault: am I growing jaded to the series? For all the things that V did right – production values, city-states, gold, one-unit-per-hex combat, naval warfare – I still miss IV’s diplomacy and religion. At the end of the day, I get the impression that Civ V represents an experimental “bridge” beyond IV, and that it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V. I’m sure I’ll keep playing V over the coming days and weeks and months, and that any expansion packs will rekindle my interest in the game. Civ V gave me my fair share of “that’s cool” moments, and I do feel that I got my money’s worth from it. But for now, I think I can pronounce it good rather than great.

And on that note, I’d like to thank you all, the readers of Matchsticks for my Eyes, for your support! I hope you all enjoy a Merry Christmas, a fantastic holiday and a Happy New Year.

Designing victory conditions: lessons from Company of Heroes, Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy

I’ve talked about how a strategy game should ideally build to a dramatic climax, a point also made by the most recent episode of Flash of Steel. I gave several examples: Civilization, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and (going by what I’d read) Rome: Total War. The first two are turn-based strategy games, and the third uses its turn-based strategic layer to determine if you’ve won the game.

But lately, it struck me that three of the real-time strategy games I played this year, Sins of a Solar Empire with the Diplomacy expansion, Company of Heroes, and Rise of Nations, are also great examples. Other than being in the same genre, these games seemingly have little in common. But each provided a victory condition that tried to keep the late-game competitive and tense, while mitigating the usual cause of bad endgames. And each was a richer game because of it.

Start with the common problem with strategy endgames. If the only way to win is to wipe out everyone not on your team, what happens when one player pulls ahead just far enough to make the game a foregone conclusion, but not far enough to end it with a single shattering blow? The answer is, the late game turns into a long, slogging mop-up campaign, drawn out and all too often, deadly dull. All too often, this is exacerbated by micromanagement, the other bane of strategy endgames. True, you don’t always have to literally annihilate your foes to the last man. Sometimes, as in as Sins of a Solar Empire, computer opponents will capitulate when they’re almost dead. Or you may be able to win by conquering most of the world (e.g. the domination victory in Civilization IV). But getting to that “almost” can still be all too grindy.

Yet the RTS genre has already overcome these problems. My favourite example is Company of Heroes, Relic’s WW2 RTS. CoH matches default to “Victory Point Control” mode, where both sides start with a certain score (which you can select at the start of the match – higher starting scores equal longer games). And there will be an odd number of key objectives called victory points scattered around the map.  When one side has secured the majority of the VPs on the map – and because of the odd number, this will always be the case once all the VPs have been claimed – then the other side’s score will go down. Whoever’s score hits zero first is the loser.

Now, CoH’s system might not be new (objective locations have been a feature of board games and wargames for a very, very long time), but it works on so many levels. It’s thematically consistent: CoH is a game about playing WW2 commander, and the VP system forces players to get out and tussle over the key locations of the battlefield – presumably, just as real military officers would. It’s consistent with the rest of the game design, controlling key points on the map in order to win the game is the logical extension of controlling key points to get more bullets, manpower and fuel. And it automatically rules out the possibility of a grind, a slog, or a stalemate: whoever has fewer VPs, and therefore is haemorrhaging score, will lose the game unless he or she does something, fast! The Germans are dug in with machine guns and artillery near the VP? Your vanishing score says, “Tough.” It’s a nice, simple, elegant way of deciding the match, and it imposes urgency and excitement upon the late game. It’s a feature I love, and a feature I wish more games would emulate.

Other games in the genre provide “builder” victory conditions that allow players to win by diverting enough resources into their civilian economies. For example, while I haven’t played as much as I’d like of Rise of Nations, the historically-themed RTS from Big Huge Games, I have observed its Wonder victory condition. (RoN, in turn, took this concept from the Age of Empires series.) Building Wonders of the World, from the Terracotta Army to Versailles and the Space Program, is a vast undertaking. They take a lot of time, they take a lot of money, and they require you to divert your workforce from other ends. But building a Wonder then gives you, in addition to various other bonuses, Wonder points – and amassing a sufficient lead in Wonder points will trigger a countdown to victory. If the other players haven’t eroded that lead by the end of the countdown, either by tearing down your Wonders or by building Wonders of their own, then you win.

Not quite the same, but along similar lines, is Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy (the last expansion to Ironclad Games’ space opera RTS), which awards a diplomatic victory to the first player to rack up a certain number of “diplomacy points”. To accumulate diplomacy points, you have to boost relations with the other players in the game, by (A) fulfilling their missions and (B) building and deploying envoy ships to their territory. Either way, you must juggle your normal priorities with the demands of diplomacy. Do I divert my fleet to hare off on a mission? Do I use my precious resources to build envoy ships instead of frigates and cruisers and if so, how many? And do I use those resources to research bonuses for my envoy ships, instead of better weapons? (Admittedly, this has its own issues: as I discovered here, high-level computer players get such massive bonuses that turning on the diplomatic victory under those conditions can be a recipe for frustration.)

Now, out of these victory conditions, my favourite is Company of Heroes’ simple territorial control model. But the “builder” victory conditions in Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy also have their merits: they allow for different playstyles, and they force players to make hard choices about when, and whether, to pursue those forms of victory. And ultimately, the victory conditions give two key advantages to each of these three titles. They avoid drawn-out “kill ‘em all” games, and they provide tension in the form of a race: a race to capture and hold the map’s VPs, a race to build and defend enough wonders, a race to complete enough missions and send out enough envoy ships. They are lessons relevant throughout the strategy game genre.

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

Distant lands, national interests, and cold steel: impressions of Civ V’s city-states

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve now won two practice games of Civilization V, and while it’s still early days for me, so far the new city-states system (which I blogged about back before the game came out) has already given me some “wow, this is cool” moments. And in the process, the game gave me some food for thought, especially in light of the news stories of 2010.

My first game was a simple two-player affair, myself as the Siamese against AI-controlled Askia, the ruler of Songhai. We started on the same continent, and the mountain range dividing our two holdings was impassable except in two locations. I quickly secured one and packed it with soldiers. The other was held by a city-state, whose loyalty I bought with showers of gold. And while I was at it, I paid off every other city-state in the game. One fine day, Askia thought it would be a good idea to attack my strategically situated ally, and to cap things off, went on to goad me: “I just declared war on your little friend – what are you going to do about it?”

I declared war, of course. There was no way I could let an ally in such a vital location be conquered. And in a touch that impressed me, all my other city-state allies followed me to war in a “coalition of the willing”.

In the second game I won, the city-states initially didn’t play so dramatic a role. For most of the game, my city-state allies kept me well supplied with food and culture: crucial to my nation’s prosperity, yes, but individually not life-and-death stuff. But then the modern day rolled around, and along with it the need for oil and aluminium. Oil in case I needed to build up a war machine; aluminium not just for my military, but also so I could build hydro plants and spaceship factories. I had neither in my territory. But luckily, two of my city-state allies did. And so concerned was I to protect my supply that I placed defensive forces in their territories and invested in a modern, oceangoing navy that could, if needed, sail to their aid. Nobody attacked them in this game, but I know what I would have done if war broke out.

And therein lies the beauty of the city-states concept. With one simple, abstract game mechanic, Firaxis has captured a little bit of the feel of great-power diplomacy and geopolitics. Civilization V made me build and deploy expeditionary forces not for simple territorial aggrandisement – as I would have in the previous games – but so I could protect my national interests overseas. And it made me willing to treat any attack on flyspeck countries halfway around the world as an act of war directed against myself. It’s one thing to intellectually consider why real-life world leaders make the decisions they do; it’s another to understand at a gut level. And for a few hours this month, Civilization V put me into their shoes.

Trailer’s out for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Well, the trailer is out for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, On Stranger Tides. It automatically gets one star from me for being about Jack Sparrow rather than Will Generic Protagonist Turner, and a second star for having the licence to Tim Powers’ novel of the same name. I doubt the movie will have much to do with the novel and I haven’t read the book, but I’d like to — I enjoy Powers’ other works, such as Declare, and a movie adaptation would make it much easier to get hold of the novel.

 

As for the trailer itself? Yes, I know “trailers always lie”, but this lie was quite sweet in my ears. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush chewing the scenery? Self-consciously ludicrous action scenes? That glorious “ba-dah-dah-da-dum” music? Yes, please!

 

Now, please live up to the standards of the first movie…

A better way to classify games

Shooter, puzzler, platformer, strategy game, RPG – these classifications, and more, should be pretty familiar to anyone who’s spent a bit of time playing games. But what makes a shooter a shooter? What are the shared themes underpinning two seemingly different genres? What might your own favourite genres have in common?

Well, a really interesting article in last week’s issue of The Escapist seeks to answer these questions. It proposes a new system of classifying games along two axes: Action vs Strategy and Exploration vs Conflict.

  • Action vs Strategy deals with how you play the game. Action games emphasise the player’s physical skill at controlling his/her on-screen avatar. Strategy games, on the other hand, are about planning, analysis, and working out how to get the most out of the avatar(s), rather than about direct control.
  • Exploration vs Conflict, meanwhile, focuses on what you have to overcome. Does the challenge in the game come from defeating opponents who are playing the same game you are, with the same objectives? Or does it come from discovering  and overcoming the environment? The former, what Soren Johnson might call a “symmetrical” game, is Conflict. The latter is Exploration.

This chart shows the outcome, how these categories can be mixed and matched into genres (page 3 of the article explains what the acronyms stand for – ACE = Action/Conflict/Exploration, AC = Action/Conflict, etc).

 

Now, at a glance, this chart/classification system seem perfectly tailored to my own game-playing preferences. My preferred genres are RPGs (both Japanese and Western), grand strategy, and turn-based strategy – which all neatly fall into the bottom and bottom-right slices of the chart. I also play real-time strategy, adventure games, and “builder” games – all of which are adjacent to my home base in the bottom right. And the genres I am sadly inept at – platformers, shooters, driving – all have one thing in common: they’re at the top of the chart. In other words, this chart tells me I am much better at “Strategy” than at “Action” games – which matches my own observations.

How about you? Where do your favourite gaming genres fall on this chart?

Two very different characters inspired by the same person: Civ 4, The Curse of Chalion, and Isabella I of Spain

The name of Queen Isabella I of Spain should be familiar to any player of Civilization IV. And it will most likely not be a friendly familiarity. For in Civ, Isabella is a thoroughly unpleasant neighbour, a zealot with a penchant for declaring war on players who have adopted heathen faiths (i.e. anything other than what Isabella herself espouses) as their state religions. I get the feeling that while surprise might not be among the weapons in her arsenal, fear certainly is. In short, Isabella’s depiction in Civ is not a flattering one.

 

Contrast The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fantasy novel set in a land loosely inspired by late medieval Spain. One of the novel’s heroines is a young woman named Iselle, half-sister to the reigning monarch. Iselle is brave. Iselle is intelligent. Iselle believes in justice. Iselle, in short, is what royalty should be. And who seems to have inspired the character? None other than Isabella I of Spain.

 

Now, I don’t know enough about the real Isabella to comment on how closely Civ 4’s Isabella and Chalion’s Iselle resemble her. I doubt Civ 4 purports in any way to contain an accurate depiction of the real queen, and similarly, while Iselle and Isabella have similar backstories, I doubt Iselle was intended to be a fictionalised version of her namesake. (Although it is a funny thought to imagine Iselle growing up into the holy warrior of Civ 4…)

 

But the very fact Civ and Chalion aren’t trying to recreate the real Isabella is what fascinates me. This isn’t a case of two authors taking differing views of the same subject, this is a case of two works taking the same historical figure as a starting point and then going on to create two very different characters. And since it illustrates how the take on an idea is just as important as the idea itself, it’s food for thought for any prospective author.

Digital Distribution Prices: E-Books vs Games

Supreme Commander 2, VGReleases informs me, came out in the US on 2 March 2010. The PC version originally sold for US$50, and the Xbox 360 version sold for US$60. At the time, it received solid if unspectacular reviews (a Metacritic score of 77%).  On 5 November 2010 – just eight months after SupCom2 launched – I bought the game, plus an expansion (“Infinite War Battle Pack”), from Steam for the grand total of…. US$8.50, representing a discount of 83% from the initial price (and I threw in the battle pack as well!). Admittedly it was on sale at the time, but even so, the base price for the game on Steam is just US$15, which is still 70% cheaper than it was at launch. Not a bad reward for being patient enough to wait for a little under a year.

 

Compare this to a book. Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie, came out in June 2009 (according to Wikipedia). Amazon provides a hardcover “List Price” of US$25. which has been crossed out to show the difference to Amazon’s own price of US$16.50 for the hardcover. Amazon now sells the Kindle and paperback editions of the book for US$8, which represents a discount of 51.5%. If I just compare the Kindle price to the non-sale Steam price, so that I compare digital apples to apples, the Steam price is only $7 more expensive, and represents a larger percentage discount. But more importantly, I see games going on sale on digital distribution services such as Steam and Impulse far more often, and at much larger discounts, than I see books going on sale. It seems the only time books can really compete is when they get remaindered.

 

Now, I would be the first person to warn against placing too much weight on my observation. Firstly, I have not followed the e-book market particularly closely, so I am open to correction if, indeed, e-books regularly go on sale at swingeing discounts. Secondly, I do not know the market well enough to explain why this is the case, although my initial impression is that, because the e-book market is still relatively immature, pricing power has not yet shifted very much to the Amazons of the world. While I would think that the “long tail” argument would apply equally to both industries, it may be that, say, their relative cost structures make this more viable for games than books. And thirdly, the existence of libraries means that we can borrow books for free, which evens out much of this discrepancy.

 

But as far as I can tell, that discrepancy does exist. It helps explain why I tend to impulse-buy games more often than novels (non-fiction is a different story; that’s where I’ve tended to grit my teeth and buy books at full price).  And I hope that it does fade, both so I can treat myself to more books, and also – hopefully – so that authors will be able to find wider audiences.

The joy of playing with other people in Worms Reloaded

While I have been in no great hurry to play single-player Worms Reloaded, the recently-released (August) entry in Team 17’s long-running series,  multiplayer is a different story. Anyone living with me should be able to tell when I’m playing multiplayer Worms, simply by listening to how much delighted laughter rings out from the room. Of course, any game is better in multiplayer (for example, adding other humans turns diplomacy into a key element of the gameplay experience – and Worms is no exception), but there are a couple of factors in particular which stand out for Worms.

 

First is the slapstick tone of the action in a multiplayer game, as  each player’s worms open up on their foes with bazookas, grenades, and more exotic weapons such as Holy Hand Grenades and flying explosive sheep. Half the fun is when worms blow themselves up with explosive weapons, or conversely pull off utterly implausible shots across the length of the map. Here I think the turn-based nature of the game helps, because it builds up tension – oh no, what could that guy be up to on his turn? He’s lining up a shot… Can he hit? Will he hit? Will he hii— The length of each turn is just right (a minute, give or take). The bloodless but grotesquely exaggerated, Looney Tunes-esque violence is just right: explosive-but-inaccurate weapons have far more potential for comic misuse than precise ones. The colour palette is vivid and cheery (see this screenshot on Giant Bomb). But the humour is conditioned on knowing that there is an actual human being behind every one of those moves. Against the computer player, the tension might still be there, but the game now becomes a straightforward man-against-machine test of skill. Bad AI is when a computer-controlled worm blows itself up; laughter is when another human player’s worm blows itself up.

 

Second is the way in which multiplayer Worms Reloaded allows players to showcase their imaginations. Players can customise the worms on their team in a variety of ways: names, hats, tombstones, voices. So in a multiplayer match, one of my little pleasures is seeing the theme that everyone has come up with. My worms are named Julius, Brutus, Scipio, and SPQR; wear Hollywood Roman helmets; and proclaim things such as, “Am I not merciful?” (when they miss a shot), “I would rather be first in a village than second in the empire!”, and, when I dawdle too long in taking my turn, “You procrastinate like the Senate!” I’ve seen teams of worms modelled on robots, varieties of cheese, even German generals, with voices to match. And I am eager to see what players could do with some of the other Worms voice sets, such as the cod-Shakespearian (“A donkey, a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey!”).

 

Now, neither factor is unique to Worms. There are other over-the-top, goofy games out there – that said, while I am sure ones oriented towards multiplayer exist, offhand I can’t think of any. And there are other games that allow players to show off their creativity – I’m thinking of the ability to share families and lots in The Sims 3, plus character customisation in MMOGs.  But combining those two features into something approximating the simple joy of childhood play, plus good nuts-and-bolts gameplay (beyond the scope of this article, but check out the reviews for more details), worked very well for Team 17.

 

Hmm, maybe I should set aside some time this weekend for some multiplayer Worms…

US Versus UK Cover Art: Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I usually prefer UK (and, by extension, Australian) book covers to their US covers (see Discworld for an example of good British cover art), and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is no exception. Look at this UK cover: yes, it has an attention-grabbing axe and bloodstain, but the axe itself is almost photorealistically drawn and once you look past that, the detailed map says, “Fantasy novel!” without being garish about it. Now look at this US cover, and tell me it doesn’t make the book resemble a trashy slasher novel.

 

Which cover makes the book distinctive, in a good way? And which cover would you rather be seen with, in public?

Here comes the ten-minute look at Game of Thrones!

As promised by HBO, here’s the long “Inside Game of Thrones” video! It’s also up on Youtube in ten-minute and twelve-minute versions.

 

Mostly, it was the little things that stood out for me. Jaime Lannister’s ornate armour (go to 5:32 on the ten-minute video); it might not be golden but this is just as good. “Littlefinger” Baelish’s sly, mocking tone (2:13). Viserys’ creepy stare (6:19); here is the living, breathing embodiment of a mad Targaryen king. There are snippets that we’ve already seen or heard (such as Ned and Catelyn, and a certain confrontation in the streets), and a scene that I recognise from the leaked pilot script.

 

And we finally have a more precise ETA – April 2011! I look forward to hearing more about the series as we draw closer to April.

Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Storytelling in Games

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

 

If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.

 

No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.

 

What made SC2’s writing so good? If you were to read a synopsis of the game’s universe, you would find it pretty familiar if you had any previous experience with space opera (say, Larry Niven’s novels, the Wing Commander games, or even Star Wars). Your wondrous starship was originally built by long-vanished Precursors. There is a craven species, the Spathi, who echo Niven’s Pierson’s puppeteers. There are warlike species, the proud Yehat and humorously stupid Thraddash, echoing the Kzinti and Kilrathi.  There are space merchants, the Melnorme and the Druuge. There are even blue space babes, the Syreen. So far, nothing really out of the ordinary.

 

But what was out of the ordinary was the quality of the game’s writing and dialogue, which allowed SC2’s universe to transcend the dry summary I provided above. Most of the time, it was hilarious, often because it explored what a given space opera trope would REALLY look like. To name just one example, the Thraddash were not the first alien species to love a fight, but here, their entire backstory is structured around that trait, with… entertaining… results. For another example, try boasting to the Spathi about your “unique” Precursor starship. But SC2 could be serious when it wanted to. The tragic backstory of another race did not excuse its deeds in the present, but it did make me understand, even empathise, with why they chose the path they did. SC2’s writing proves that it doesn’t matter if someone else has used a concept before; the important thing is execution.

 

Beyond the writing, SC2’s gameplay also helped flesh out its alien species. Each species used a unique spacecraft in combat, with its own speed, defences, firepower, and special abilities. And these designs usually reflected the personalities established through dialogue. For example, the Spathi weren’t just cowards when you spoke to them. Their spacecraft’s most powerful weapon points backwards, so taking a Spathi ship into battle requires that you think and act as a Spathi would, in other words, that you run away. The slave-trading Druuge reveal the depths of their wickedness in battle, where their special ability allows them to recharge energy by throwing slaves into their ships’ furnaces.

 

But as good as Star Control II’s writing, dialogue and alien design were, ultimately it stands out for the gameplay-driven way in which its story unfolded. Most games that I’ve played will give you a clear objective and tell you what to do. Even in open-world games such as Brutal Legend, Fallout 3 and Oblivion, the main quest is clearly marked: Go to such-and-such a place and talk to such-and-such a person, who will tell you what to do next. Star Control II, however, gives you a scattering of clues and then makes you play detective. For example, you might be told:

 

1.     Strange signals were detected coming from the direction of Rigel;

2.     Humanity’s old allies discovered something interesting in a certain direction from Procyon;

3.     One species’ homeworld is in the Gruis constellation.

 

Following up each of these clues would lead you, in turn, to a few more hints. What might you discover at the source of the strange signal? What would the aliens at Gruis tell you? And then there’s what you’d discover from exploring worlds along the way,  A warlord might give you a device you need, if you retrieve something whose location he can’t pinpoint with any more precision than “near a yellow star in a constellation shaped like a long, thin beast”. A trader might offer to sell you information about the history of the galaxy, which you’d then use to make sense of some of the other facts you’d learned. At each step along the process, you would take notes (this game was from the days before quest journals!).  Ultimately, while you would start with a few pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, it was your responsibility to look for the rest, and once you’d found them, work out how to put them together. In other words, you would do the things that a space captain would have to do in-world: exploring, interviewing, recording and then analysing data. And with that, SC2 conveyed what it would be like to be the main character.

 

When all is said and done, Star Control II offers one of the most unique storytelling experiences I’ve seen in a game. And it provides a lesson to all game designers caught between the two sides of an old argument: is it better for a game to be well-written and packed with snappy dialogue, or to provide gameplay mechanics that allow you to feel as though you’re telling a story of your own? By excelling in both areas, Star Control II shows what a false choice this is.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! If you’d like to play Star Control 2 for yourself, you can obtain its free remake, The Ur-Quan Masters, here. There are install files available for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux.


To quickly find this, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Freebie highlight: The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve talked about the Vorkosigan Saga, the multi-award-winning science fiction series, by Lois McMaster Bujold, a fair bit on this blog, and especially in the last week. The novels are some of my favourites (and certainly my favourite science fiction), because while they raise some fascinating questions about where biotechnology and reproductive technology may take society in the future, ultimately they are about people: their journeys, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their loves, their lives.

 

And now, you can legally, and for free, download a CD containing most of the Vorkosigan novels (minus the most pivotal novel, and my personal favourite, Memory). You can find the CD here – click on either “View the Cryoburn CD” or the appropriate download link. Then, start with either Cordelia’s Honour (somewhat darker, more serious omnibus featuring the mother of the titular hero) or Young Miles (an omnibus containing two fast-paced, and very funny, adventure novels plus a more sober, moving piece of short fiction which offers a good quick way to preview the series).

 

This CD offers great, lively, intelligent, well-plotted, character-driven and thematically rich fiction at an unbeatable – zero – price. Well worth checking out.

Victoria 2: Now THAT’s detail

Victoria 2, Paradox’s historical simulation of the nineteenth-century world, is a game to which I have to take off my hat. Now, I have not played the full game — just the first game in the series and the demo of Vicky 2. I didn’t even have that much fun with the demo! But even from the demo, its ambition and detail were amazing to behold. The game models pension costs, migration driven by employment opportunities, the whole spectrum of political and religious beliefs across an entire nation, the gradual process by which government can subsidise, educate, and nurture a workforce. Raising an army is not done overnight, but requires that you spend months or years encouraging your young men to join the army through better military funding. Most strikingly, this is a game which actually tracks the flow of money through the world economy, starting from the moment gold is dug out of the ground and proceeding via the profits earned by the mine-owners and the wages paid to the miners.

Does this actually make for a good game? I don’t know, and neither do the critics. But it was enough to sorely tempt me when I saw the game being offered for 30% off at Impulse.

A sneak peek at Lois McMaster Bujold’s upcoming “Ivan book”

EDIT: My review is up!

 

No heroic tale would be complete without supporting characters: Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, Franz d’Epinay, Lieutenant William Bush, Issun… Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Miles Vorkosigan’s cousin and sometime sidekick, is more than just comic relief. He is a point-by-point foil for Miles: tall and handsome where Miles is stunted and deformed, determined to be an invisible everyman where Miles wants to be a hero, lazy where Miles is hyperactive. Yet when the chips are down, he is a brave and loyal ally – and now, following on the heels of Cryoburn (which I reviewed yesterday), Lois McMaster Bujold is working on the long-awaited novel starring Ivan. (In fact, I understand she got partway through the Ivan book, then took a hiatus to promote Cryoburn).

 

Best of all, we don’t have to wait for the book to be done in order to get a sneak peek. (Spoiler warning, obviously.) There are Youtube clips of Bujold reading Scenes #1 and #2 of the Ivan book – and although I wasn’t able to make out what she was saying due to sound quality, a couple of people have transcribed those scenes! You can read Scene #1 here and Scene #2 here.

 

Those readings certainly served their purpose for me. I waited patiently for years for an Ivan novel, and even after I learned that one was on its way, I took the news in my stride… but then I read the transcripts. After laughing aloud five or six times during those two scenes alone, I have no doubt that the series is back in its usual witty form, and that the book will be a blast. Ivan, get out of the word processor and onto the page!

 

Update: The Ivan book now has a title and a release date! Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is due out on 6 November 2012.

Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is something of an odd beast. It lacks the sparkling wit and manic energy which I typically associate with the series. In exchange, it offers excellent worldbuilding as Miles ventures to the cryogenics-saturated world of Kibou-daini on an Auditorial investigation.

 

Plot-wise, this is probably one of the weakest novels in the series. Normally, in a Miles book, it is crystal clear what is at stake and what Miles must do. Not so here. The two principal plot hooks more or less resolve themselves, and the main plotline felt muddled and only tangentially connected to the other hooks.

 

And while Bujold’s prose is as easy to read as ever, unfortunately this is also one of the least funny novels in the series. There are a couple of amusing moments in Cryoburn, but nothing compares to the dinner party, the bathtub full of ice cubes, or “Miles’ mad soliloquies”.

 

Character-wise, the book is in line with the rest of the series. As is usual for Bujold, everyone is vividly drawn, from series regulars down to the supporting cast. Jin the street urchin, Suze the tough old lady, and Raven the doctor all feel distinct, though nobody particularly resonated with me.

 

However, where Cryoburn really shines is its worldbuilding. In this book, Bujold gives us one of the most interesting settings in the series: cryogenics technology made its debut quite a few novels ago, but this is where it pays off. We see some of the implications of widespread use of cryogenics: a cranky old “revive” who can’t sell his story to the press, because there is such a glut of people like him; other revives who huddle together in themed communities set up to resemble the eras of their youths; and just what happens when cryo-storage equipment and know-how become cheap enough for anyone to get their hands on. And we see its economic effects, too, in the “cryocorps”, the industry that grew up around cryogenic storage. We see glimpses of the cryocorps’ business model, the extent of their profitability, their strategies and bright ideas. In both cases, the overall impact is perfectly tuned: not enough to drown the reader in irrelevant detail, but enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and make it clear that the author gave serious thought to these issues and did her research (in the case of the cryocorps). And Cryoburn does so good a job with the concepts introduced earlier on, I can’t wait to see the next entry in the series explore one particular innovation from this book.

 

In conclusion, Cryoburn is not the pageturner that its predecessors are, and I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point for the series: not only would a new reader not be familiar with its characters, but so much of the book’s appeal to me was that it was the payoff for concepts introduced earlier. However, that same payoff – amongst other reasons, which I’ll not describe so as to avoid spoilers! – makes Cryoburn a worthwhile read for Vorkosigan fans.

 

You can buy Cryoburn from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.