Difficulty in Demon’s Souls: what we can learn from… behavioural finance?!

This is part 3 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

 

Here’s a thought experiment to chew on. In each case, the alternatives are mathematically identical:

 

Scenario A. You can win a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either winning $2 or winning nothing. Which do you choose?

 

Scenario B. You can lose a guaranteed $1, or you can take a 50/50 chance of either losing $2 or losing nothing. Which do you choose?

 

You would expect these answers to be consistent – someone who chooses the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario A should also choose the 100%-certain outcome in Scenario B. However, this isn’t the case. On average, people will choose the certain gain in Scenario A, but run the risk of the double-sized loss in Scenario B. Why? Because, according to behavioural finance researchers, a loss is felt more acutely than an equally-sized gain (a phenomenon known as loss aversion*), hence the willingness to take the chance of an even greater loss just to avoid the agony of the small one.

 

Extrapolated to video games, loss aversion could probably explain a lot of player behaviour – abusing save/reload, anyone? It surely must explain why we feel death penalties so keenly, and since death penalties are so inescapable a part of Demon’s Souls, it helps explain why the game’s difficulty is often exaggerated.

 

Yes, I said “exaggerated”. This does not mean it’s easy; far from it. Even playing an easy class, using a walkthrough, and looking at a map, I died twice in PVE today, while PVP invaders routinely slaughter me. It does mean that the death penalty, loss of unspent souls if you fail to pull off a corpse run, is nowhere near as fearsome as it sounds. Souls might be easily lost, but they’re also easily acquired – co-op is the safest and best way, but even for a low-level character, it is not that hard to farm them. However, loss aversion would exacerbate the harshness that players perceive.

 

In my case, while having to replay a level does frustrate me, I don’t especially mind the death penalty. While I am very careful on corpse runs, I can shrug off failing and losing my souls for good. Partly, this is because I know, and thus can control for, the game’s mind tricks. Partly, this is because I’ve never lost a truly whopping number of souls – I’m always careful to return to safety and spend my souls whenever I have enough saved up. Appropriately, there’s another technical term relevant to that

 

* If you’re interested, you can read more e.g. here and here.

Demon’s Souls: Progress, progress, progress

This is part 2 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

In a game as unforgiving as Demon’s Souls, I have no pride. To me, there is no such thing as a “cheap” or a “cheesy” tactic in Demon’s Souls – either it works or it doesn’t. And in a game this unforgiving, there is no such thing as a “spoiler”. In search of advice, I will watch videos; read forums, walkthroughs, and wikis; gladly bypass trial and error.

 

It was those forum threads that led me to the Shrine of Storms, a ruined cliffside stronghold, in search of its fabled loot. I wasn’t too worried about the opposition – until then, I’d never met a trash mob I couldn’t handle with my starting spell, Soul Arrow. Sure, I’d be in trouble if tough foes survived the first couple of Soul Arrows and closed into melee range, but they were slow enough for that not to happen very often. The player character’s strength is his/her agility, and I was grateful for it.

 

The Shrine of Storms loaded up. I advanced. A skeleton sprang to its feet. I lobbed a Soul Arrow. And to my horror, the skeleton rolled at me – as nimbly as I could roll. “YOU HAVE DIED,” the game told me soon afterwards.

 

Bad enough that the skeletons were strong enough to survive a couple of Soul Arrows, and fast enough to close the distance. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) Bad enough that my rapier was about as effective as poking them with a cotton bud. (“YOU HAVE DIED.”) The icing on the cake was that my reliance on magic meant I’d never properly learned the game’s melee combat system, and thus, I had a tendency to panic and button-mash when foes got too close. “Fear is the mind-killer,” says Dune, and in Demon’s Souls, that makes it a player-killer as well. As such, I soon grew used to the aggravation of watching the skeletons turn and swagger away* while “YOU HAVE DIED” burned on my screen.

 

But I was having too much fun to give up. I practiced my swordplay against the skeletons, ran the level again and again as a blue phantom, discovered to my joy that the Shrine of Storms is in fact a great place for newbies to farm souls. Once, as a blue phantom, I even made it as far as the boss room; the host and I took down 75% of the boss’s life bar, before I discovered the hard way that the boss could hit the ledge where I was standing.

 

I decided I’d clear out the boss later. I retrieved the sword for which I had originally come, then travelled to other levels. I killed the dragon who had previously tormented me, then took down another boss (via Soul Arrow, which turned the fight into a piece of cake; I understand that boss is a lot more difficult in melee…).

 

Beating that other boss restored me to body form and allowed me to bring in blue phantoms. And with that, I was ready to return to the Shrine of Storms.  Two blue phantoms and I overpowered the early skeletons, made short work of the level’s sub-boss, pressed on. About halfway through, I lost my first blue phantom to a booby trap; it was me who set off the pressure plate, but the resulting volley of arrows impaled him instead. There was a hairy moment after that, a point-blank fight on a dangerously narrow cliffside path, but with the help of my remaining blue phantom, I made it through. We fought our way to the boss room…

 

… and promptly died. After seeing how much health I lost to the boss’s first blow, I ran around like a headless chicken and ended up trapped in a corner. On my next two attempts to reach the boss, I didn’t even get that far – both times, I died right before the boss room. The first time, the boss’s “doorman” one-shotted me; the second time, I almost won the swordfight, but “almost” wasn’t good enough.

 

I think that is the game’s way of telling me I need to try another approach. A buff spell, one that significantly reduces physical damage taken, would be a huge help in the Shrine… and as it happens, I’ve fulfilled one of the two conditions to unlock that spell. I know which level I need to visit to meet the other condition (thanks, Demon’s Souls wiki!), so it’s probably farewell to the Shrine of Storms for now.  But I will return. And when I do, stronger and quicker and better prepared, the boss had better watch out.

 

* I’m sure it was just their usual walking animation, but at that moment, it felt like a gloating, troll-faced swagger.

Demon’s Souls: Misery loves company

 

This is part 1 of my series on Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

 

1. Co-op: misery loves company

2. Progress, progress, progress

3. What difficulty in Demon’s Souls has to do with behavioural finance

4. Impressions of Dark Souls as a knight

 

Last weekend, flush with victory over the first boss of Demon’s Souls, I cheerfully declared, “Much less difficult than I was expecting!” I suspected I’d have to eat those words sooner or later, but hey, they were true at the time.

 

This weekend, Demon’s Souls fulfilled my expectations. Over the course of a circa two-hour play session, I was repeatedly BBQed by a dragon; made it past the dragon only to be carved to bits by a waiting knight; poisoned; ambushed from behind; and blew most of my precious healing items. What kept this fun rather than frustrating was that for most of this time, I was playing co-op.

 

While every game is better in co-op, this is doubly so in Demon’s Souls. This is partly due to the usual “many hands make light work” effect, partly because of what a relief it is to see friendly faces, but also partly because the game’s penalty for dying doesn’t always apply in co-op. For background, in Demon’s Souls, you can exist either in “body” or “soul” form. Dying in body form will send you into soul form, and dying in either form will make you drop all your accumulated souls, the game’s titular substitute for currency/EXP. If you die again before retrieving your souls via a corpse run, they’re gone forever.

 

Co-op works when a “soul” player leaves a marker indicating his/her availability to be summoned by a host, “body” player. The visiting soul will then drop into the host’s world as a blue phantom – and the beauty of playing a blue phantom is that in this form, you don’t lose souls from PvE deaths, making this a great, lower-stress way to explore a new level while building up a nest egg. If you die as a blue phantom, or the host dies (which results in all blue phantoms being booted), no problem – just lay down your marker again and wait for another player in body form to wander past. (I wasn’t the only one to do this, as I ran into the same blue phantom twice.)

 

I largely played my first few hours (single-player) cautiously, methodically, keeping an eye out for sudden death, and as such, they felt like hours. In contrast, those two hours of co-op flew past, laden as they were with memorable moments.

 

There were moments of endearing etiquette, when blue phantoms or the host would bow upon arrival.

 

There were moments bordering on farce, as three “mighty” warriors huddled together, cowering just out of reach of the dragon’s flame, before sprinting for their lives. (As such, this is the most realistic dragon encounter simulator I have played. You can in fact kill the dragon with enough patience, but evidently none of us had a bow with sufficient arrows.)

 

There were moments of wordless teamwork. Once, our way was blocked by a row of boulder-flinging monsters. The warrior next to me hesitated. And I realised this was a job for my spellcaster: I stepped forward, raised my silver catalyst, and began blasting away to clear our path – just as the third player present emerged from behind the boulder-tossers and caught them between hammer and anvil. This worked both ways – as a weedy spellslinging princeling, I loved having beefy, armoured knights around who could wade into melee and draw fire from me.

 

There were  moments of high adventure: the host player and I made it past the boulder-throwers and eventually came across the level’s boss, a giant, flame-lobbing spider who blocked the far end of a tunnel. (We lost the other blue phantom somewhere along the way – did he lose sight of us and disconnect in frustration? Did an unseen demon do him in? Did he fall to his death?) It was wonderful to watch the host player at work, shooting arrow after arrow at the boss, rolling left and right to avoid fireballs, taking the odd hit but always managing to heal in time. (As far as I could tell, the host was the one doing the dangerous part of the work – my contribution was limited to lobbing Soul Arrows from the back of the tunnel and hiding whenever a fireball came near me.)

 

And there was a moment of triumph, when the giant spider finally fell. “THE DEMON WAS DESTROYED” took over my screen, and souls flooded into my possession. I gave the other player the highest possible rating (I hope he/she reciprocated!), and back in my own world, took great pleasure in spending my newly acquired souls on a shield and some skill points. I didn’t push my luck after that in single-player – with that, I logged off for the night.

 

All in all, I had a great time playing Demon’s Souls co-op. And my advice to anyone scared by the thought of visiting the Kingdom of Boletaria: try it with a group! Safety in numbers might be a relative term in this game, but you’ll also enjoy camaraderie and the spectacle of seeing other brave souls in action. See you on the other side of the fog!

First impressions: Demon’s Souls, Bastion, Half-Minute Hero

Here are some of the games I started recently in lieu of pressing on with The Witcher 2

 

Demon’s Souls (PS3) – The infamously difficult action-RPG. As at the end of the first level, it’s actually much less difficult than I was expecting – it’s certainly less  frustrating than the opening sections of God Hand or The Witcher 2. It helps that I’m using a walkthrough and playing as the easiest starting class, whose ranged magic attack can OHKO most of the first level’s enemies. This doesn’t mean it’s easy. My magic takes time to lock on and cast, which leaves me vulnerable to being swarmed in close quarters; if you let attacks get past your shield or fail to dodge, you can die in a few solid hits; and if that happens, there’s the loss of time from having to replay swathes of a stage*. The one boss fight that I did was actually really cool: I ran from cover to cover taking pot shots, realised my approach wasn’t working, then pulled my sword and CHARGED! – what a thrill that was.  The online aspects of the game are also nifty – you can see ghostly outlines of other players, which once alerted me to an ambush (the ghost ran past a corner, then raised its sword to attack a foe I hadn’t seen), and touching bloodstains will let you see others’ last moments. I’m not sure how much more time I can spare for this game, but the first few hours were worth it.

 

* You can unlock shortcuts that allow you to bypass chunks of a level if you have to restart; however, there will still be some need to clear out respawned foes.

 

Bastion (PC) – Indie isometric action-RPG. I estimate I’m around halfway through, and so far, I’d consider this good but unspectacular. The game’s world is imaginative, colourfully drawn and fleshed out by omnipresent narration. Each stage feels distinct, both from an art and a gameplay perspective – some will involve a fairly long Macguffin hunt, in some you’ll find your Macguffin early but then have to flee a gauntlet of foes, and others steadily ramp up to boss battles. The combat feels fluid, as you alternate use of your shield, your various weapons, and manoeuvre. The difficulty level feels right – the mandatory stages start out reasonably easy (you can up the difficulty if you choose – I haven’t done so) while the optional stages are geared towards players who want a challenge. Yet, and this is very subjective, nothing so far has stood out enough for to consider the game “great”. I’m probably going to reserve this for when I’m too tired to play more involved titles.

 

Half-Minute Hero (PSP) – Now this is a clever concept. The flagship gameplay mode, “Hero 30”, is an 8-bit RPG boiled down into 30-second stages – level up, shop for better gear, recruit NPC allies, and then head for the boss’s lair! In practice, you’ll need more time than that, which is where one of the game’s key mechanics, paying the Goddess of Time to reset the clock, comes into play. As such, the challenge in each stage revolves around finding the right balance (on the fly!) between grinding, tackling the stage-specific challenges, allocating money between the Goddess, equipment, or other NPCs, and leaving enough time to reach the boss. A few hours in, I like its fast pace, I like its sense of humour, and just as with Recettear and Frozen Synapse, I like its original premise, and I’m already looking forward to the sequel (coming to Europe in October).

 

The Witcher 2: Strengths and weaknesses, so far

This is my second post on The Witcher 2.

 

1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)

 

I’ve now played a bit more of The Witcher 2 – I’m now up to early Act 2 – and I can elaborate on when it works best for me… and when it doesn’t.

 

My starting point is the familiar argument about whether games should focus on scripted storytelling or open-world gameplay. As an argument, this is silly – the only correct answer can be, “It depends” – but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the experience Witcher 2 offers, because the game’s strongest suit is its story. I like talking to NPCs, I like watching the more compelling NPCs in action, and I like finding out what happens next.

 

As such, the game’s prologue, steep learning curve aside, made a great first impression on me because it had such a high ratio of (quality) storytelling to gameplay: plenty of cutscenes, plenty of NPC interaction, and because it was so heavily scripted, every minute of gameplay pushed the story forward by directly advancing Geralt towards his goals.

 

In contrast, I didn’t enjoy Act 1 as much as I did the prologue because it reduced that storytelling : gameplay ratio. It did this in a couple of ways – first, the game opened up, but as a result, I spent much more time running around a town and surrounding environment that I didn’t care much for, and much less time actually progressing the story. In some games, such as Fallout 3, just wandering about in the open is a pleasure, but for me, Act 1 of The Witcher 2, with its narrow paths, was not. And crucially, the pacing of the story quests themselves sagged – while I disagree with Edge’s review of the game*, I do agree that much of Act 1 felt like a diversion. I realise these are very subjective complaints, and they carry a big disclaimer – I missed most of the side quests in Act 1, so quite possibly I made things worse for myself.

 

However, I will stand by my other bone of contention with Act 1: its difficulty spikes. By the middle of the chapter I could comfortably handle most battles, but the exceptions were still jarring. Even leaving aside boss fights, one sequence required me to fight a whole squad of guards in a little corridor – wide enough for them to swarm me, but not wide enough to take advantage of Geralt’s superior mobility. I reloaded again… and again… and again… and again… and this is where I’ll reiterate my comment from last week that the game needs a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal, for action-challenged players like me. Outside of boss fights and other scripted sequences, it’s almost impossible to die on Easy (seriously, in that corridor fight I mentioned, on Easy Geralt could stand in the middle of five guys swinging their swords and still survive), and that reduces potentially epic moments to anticlimactic clickfests. On the other hand, on Normal, non-stop wiping at that same point wasn’t just annoying. It again negated potentially epic moments (instead of “oh, cool”, my reaction became “just get it over with!”), and it was immersion-breaking, which hurt a story-driven game such as this.

 

Now that I’m up to Act 2, I’m happy to report that the game has picked up again. Without spoiling anything, the scripted sequences that open the act are strong and even after getting past those, the story density remains high – I can find, and solve, a bunch of quests all in the main hub. Some of the side quests lead into cool fights that, while minor, help flesh out Geralt as a character (the fights became extremely easy once I realised how to cheese them, but that’s a story for another day). And I really like how Act 2 actually tries to justify the usual RPG “run around a new town, helping a bunch of complete strangers” trope. The Witcher 2 has returned to form, and I hope to play more soon.

 

* I consider the score too harsh based on what I’ve seen of the game; at least as of the latest patch, the combat system is much, much better than described; I actually like the prologue “fights and QTEs” that the reviewer pans; etc etc.

The Witcher 2: first impressions

This is my first post on The Witcher 2.

 

1.  First impressions

2. Strengths and weaknesses (as of early Act 2)

 

I picked up The Witcher 2 when it went on sale a couple of weekends ago, and so far, I’m a little way through the game – I’ve finished the prologue and I can’t be far off from the end of Act 1. My first impressions: “Everything you’ve heard about this game contains a grain of truth.” Specifically:

 

Not needing to play the first game: I’ve barely touched the original game, but I’m managing well. There is a huge qualification here, though – I’ve read the stories on which the games are based, so I already know the major characters and a bit about the world.

 

Storytelling: So far, I like it, starting with the prologue, which captured a “cinematic” feel through a combination of cutscenes, QTEs and gameplay. It dragged a bit through Chapter 1 when I had to do more running around the map with fewer cutscenes to reward me, but now it seems to have picked up again. I also like TW2’s characters, starting with protagonist Geralt, who shows how to pull off the “lethal-but-principled deadpan badass” archetype. This extends to the NPCs: the king feels like a leader should, larger-than-life, sometimes generous, sometimes ruthless. As for the world, the obvious comparison is Dragon Age (disclaimer: I never got that far into DA), another brutal take on the traditional elves-and-dwarves high fantasy world. There seem to be precious few heroes in TW2; corrupt lawmen grow fat from shaking down merchants, while elves and dwarves repay human oppression with nasty insurgency. I think if you’re interested in that kind of setting, you’ll like its depiction in TW2.

 

An imposing learning curve/difficulty level: I agree with the reviewer (Todd Brakke at Gameshark) who commented that this game could do with a difficulty setting in between Easy and Normal. As a general rule, outside of boss fights, Easy feels like god mode while Normal feels like God Hand. Enemies hit hard, especially when they attack from behind! Sure, Geralt is tough enough to take any trash mob one-on-one in a fair fight – but three, or four, or five trash mobs are a completely different story. (I was completely unsurprised to learn that Demon’s Souls was one of the inspirations for the combat.) So the trick is using the tools at your disposal – stun bombs, throwing knives, buffs, crowd-control magic, and more – to ensure that 1 vs many fights aren’t fair. This is why the game’s prologue has such a steep learning curve – it hurls the player into the deep end without properly explaining those tools. Eventually I did get the hang of things, and combat is starting to become more enjoyable. On the other hand, I find boss fights perilously close to being frustrating* rather than fun, so hopefully this will improve later on.

 

Hefty system requirements: This game is indeed a beast. I have a reasonably powerful machine (i7 7200M processor, Mobility Radeon HD 5730, 4GB RAM) and I still had to turn down the settings to Low.

 

Dialogue: Yes, the characters say “ploughing” and “witcha” a lot…

 

So far, early impressions are promising, hair-pulling boss fights aside, and I look forward to uncovering more of the game’s story. I’ll keep you posted on The Witcher 2!

 

 

* Days later, I can still recall, “Trap it with the Yrden!” and, “Why are you hounding me?!”

Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Over the weekend, I finally finished Persona 3 Portable (not long after I finished my Conan the Barbarian post, in fact). In the coming weeks, watch this space for a spoiler-free review, and possibly a “Storytelling in Games” analysis piece. For now, I can say, wow, it was a very good game, maybe even a great game (I’ve yet to make up my mind). Very brief, and very spoileriffic, first thoughts on the game’s ending below the cut:

 

Continue reading “Persona 3 Portable: Finished! Initial (spoileriffic) thoughts on the ending”

Combat in Persona 3 Portable: The quick and the dead

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

As you can see above, most of my previous discussion of Persona 3: Portable has focused on one half of the gameplay: the social/high school life simulation. But what about the other half of the game, the dungeon crawl?

 

 

You’ll tackle Tartarus, the game’s dungeon, one randomly generated floor at a time. Each floor may contain chests or a portal out. It will contain the staircase leading to the next — and it will almost certainly contain groups of monsters, depicted as black blobs that wander about the dungeon floor. Bumping into these blobs will trigger a battle (no annoying random battles here, thank heavens!). They’ll chase you if you come within their sight, and if they run into you, odds are the monsters will get the first turn in the resulting battle… but strike a blob with your weapon, which is easier if you sneak up from behind, and you’ll move first.

 

Once combat begins, it looks like your typical menu-driven, turn-based JRPG: each party member* can attack, defend, use the special powers conferred by his/her inner spirit, the titular Persona, etc. Unique in the party, the main character can switch between different Personas, each with different strengths, weaknesses and powers; other party members are stuck with just the one set of abilities.

 

The twist to this system is the critical importance of targeting vulnerabilities. Attacks in the game are divided into nine types — Pierce, Slash, Fire, Electricity, Light, etc — and different party members, and different enemies, are weak against different types of attack. If a combatant is struck by an attack that targets his/her weakness, the resulting critical hit will knock him/her/it flat. And every time a foe is knocked down, the attacker will get an extra turn. Finally, if all monsters are knocked down, the party can launch a devastating “all-out attack”.

 

The significance of this is that the game encourages you to chain multiple critical hits in the same turn, culminating in an all-out attack. So if you get in the first move — remember, by striking monsters with your weapon on the dungeon map — and the party has the right damage types at its disposal, you can go through trash mobs like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western, where he could pull his gun and mow down three bandits before they even blinked. Conversely, if the monsters move first and they’re especially powerful, or you’re especially unlucky, it’s possible to wipe in a single volley of queued critical hits (luckily, monsters can’t launch all-out attacks…).

 

For most fights, this system works very well. It pushes you to prepare for battle by using a well-balanced party and keeping a varied selection of Personas on hand. It means there’s a bit of tension on the dungeon map, as you take care to sneak up on monsters, or conversely run like blazes to avoid having the monsters run into you. And given the number of trash mobs you’ll fight, it keeps ordinary battles moving at a good, brisk pace.

 

Where this system doesn’t work so well is in boss battles. It takes a long time to defeat the typical boss monster, and a simple, elegant system built for speed is not well suited for protracted pounding matches. My boss fights tend to turn into repetition of the same pattern of moves over and over – A attacks, B buffs then attacks, C debuffs then attacks, D heals. And as a result, I am often all too glad when boss fights are over.

 

Still, on the whole, I like Persona 3: Portable’s battle system. It’s not every boss fight that stretches on for too long. And even those that do are outweighed by the fun I have as I tear through the game’s ordinary encounters.

 

* This is a change from the PS2 version, in which you only directly controlled the main character — your party members had their own AI.

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – The Verdict

 

This is the fifth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s character profiles; four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); how I used different character classes in battle; and an unfortunate mishap later in the game.


 

Introduction


 

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the 2011 PSP remake of the SNES/Playstation tactical RPG, is a labour of love, and it shows wherever you look. It shows in the game’s beautiful character designs and in its soundtrack, performed by an orchestra even though players might only hear it through the tinny speakers of the PSP. It shows in the sweep of the game’s plot; in the natural sound of its mock-Shakespearean localised dialogue; in the lovingly written character profiles given to even spear carriers; and in the fluff text accompanying every bit of terrain. And it shows in features such as what is, effectively, an in-battle autosave; a perspective that can switch from top-down to isometric; and the ability to jump straight to important points in the game’s timeline during a replay instead of having to redo everything from scratch, all of which speak to thought and effort put into eliminating annoyances.

 

The gameplay

 

Most importantly, the basic in-game task, moving party members around on the grid so they can attack or use their special abilities, feels satisfying. The balance between offence and defence feels just right – blows do enough damage (generally, squishies will crumple after a few good hits, whereas heavily armoured warriors can keep fighting for longer) to keep things moving quickly and maintain tension, but not so much damage as to turn the game into an exercise in luck or frustration. Positioning matters, too: archers can shoot farther from the high ground; front-line fighters project zones of control to prevent enemies from rushing past to the weaker characters; wizards may be unable to cast spells if friendlies are in the way.

 

In between battles, you’ll choose classes and skills for your party members – in broad terms, knights tank; archers and ninja are the main damage-dealers; and mages are used for debuffs and crowd control. Archers in particular are devastating, but as not even the mightiest archer will be able to stand unsupported, it remains important to maintain a good mix of party members*.  And here, the gameplay’s main flaw reveals itself – the levelling system fails to eliminate grinding. All characters of the same class will share a level, and switching classes will change a character’s level. This works better than the traditional system found in, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, since now you only need to level a class once. Unfortunately, not only do you still need to level newly unlocked classes (of which there are quite a few) from scratch, high-level NPCs in new classes will revert back to level 1 when they join the party! By the end of the game, I was leaving even interesting-sounding new party members on the bench, because my patience for grinding had run out. And that is a frustratingly imperfect element of the system.

 

The story

 

As a storytelling experience, Tactics Ogre reaches for greatness, but doesn’t quite get there. This is not because its creators were untalented or unimaginative. Instead of  a stew of quest fantasy clichés, they attempted to give us a tale of ambition, compromise, loyalty, and love, set in a land riven by feuding pretenders – “A Game of Thrones” for the JRPG genre, if you would. The player’s choices will then drive that story down one of three branches that recombine for the game’s final act.

 

At times, this works very well. Some individual moments, in their injustice, left me shocked and appalled. In another scene, a tyrant sounds all too human, all too real, as he attempts to rationalise his misdeeds. And a  dying foe might show a hint of nobility that leaves the question of what could have been. At other times, it doesn’t. One of the two storylines I played is noticeably better than the other, which is more black-and-white and doesn’t hang together very well. Once the storylines do recombine, the plot feels rushed: key characters act on inconsistent or poorly explained motivations, some of the later twists and turns pop up out of nowhere, and good luck getting the desired outcome from one vital story decision without a FAQ. And characterisation of party members suffers as a result of the gameplay format. There are dozens of potentially recruitable characters, so they can’t be given much time in cut-scenes. (While party members do influence the ending, you can only see one character’s epilogue per game, an incomprehensible hold-over from the Playstation version and a noticeable flaw compared to Valkyria Chronicles, a game that was far inferior story-wise.) Party members do get in-battle dialogue, but consistent with other TRPGs, there’s no ability to talk to them in between battles. And this is a pity, because the one brief scene I saw where several party members hang out in town, bantering and enjoying everyday life, was done so well that I’d have loved more moments like that.

 

The verdict

 

All in all, Tactics Ogre is a very good game, and close to the borderline with greatness. Gameplay-wise, this is the highly polished epitome of turn/party-based combat,  for all it ends up too grindy as it wears on. And story-wise, while it suffers from flawed execution, it aims high enough, and gets enough right, to leave me glad that I played it. If you like turn- and party-based RPGs, and you have a PSP, I would recommend this game.

 

* I’ve seen the point made elsewhere on the internet (on a forum or by another reviewer? I can’t quite remember) that this is in contrast to Final Fantasy Tactics, where the key was mixing and matching class abilities to create unstoppable characters.

 

You can buy Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together 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.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: My playtime clocked in at around 80 hours, though there would have been times when I’d left the game on (either on AI control, or completely idle) while I did something else.

 

What I have played: The Chaos route, most of the Law route, the good ending, the first few minutes of the postgame.

 

What I haven’t played: The last few battles of the Law route, the Neutral route, most of the postgame content.

Persona 3 Portable’s setting: A pop-cultural window onto the world

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Compared to other RPGs, Persona 3’s modern-day world may seem mundane. The main character buys healing items not from armourers and apothecaries, but from the pharmacist at the shopping mall. He/she traipses through school hallways rather than half-sunken temples or bridges in the sky, and his/her haunt is the dormitory lounge rather than a castle.

 

But there are a couple of twists. First, Persona 3 is set in modern-day Japan, and to a Western gamer, odds are that will be at least a little exotic. The game takes place in the big city, so many of the differences will be muted. But there are some you’ll notice straight away. The dialogue is laden with “-san”, “-kun” and other Japanese honorifics. The main character can pray at a Shinto shrine, either to boost Academics before an exam, or divine his/her fortune and strengthen a relationship. School clubs are a Big Deal. There are even love hotels.

 

Second, Persona 3 contains a bunch of little touches that help preserve the internal consistency of that setting, and hence, the player’s suspension of disbelief. Trees change colour in between seasons. NPCs change their outfits depending on the weather and on whether they had school that day. But for something a bit more substantive, take the game’s scheduled exams, two sets a semester. They form part of the time management aspects of the game. They’re well flagged, in dialogue and on the in-game calendar. They do have an in-game effect. And so, it makes perfect sense that right before exam-time, your party members lock themselves in their rooms to study – leaving them unavailable for dungeon-crawling.

 

That said, Persona 3 mostly limits you to a single city, unlike the typical RPG, which has you travelling across cities and continents. While this is also consistent with the game’s premise – most high school students stay put in one place – it does mean that this isn’t really a game about the joy of exploration. Still, when the characters do get out of town, on holiday or on school excursions, the destinations are well-realised enough for me to delight in running around and talking to every NPC – and they’re also host to some of the funniest scenes in the game*.

 

How does that single city hold up over the course of the game? Pretty well (though not perfectly), actually, helped by the little touches and the odd change of scenery I mentioned above; by plot sequences that take place in new parts of the town; and by constant interaction with NPCs through plot sequences, other social encounters, and  even the periodically refreshed dialogue from nameless townspeople. That’s no small feat, after all the time I’ve spent with the game. I’m not that far from the end, now, and I‘ll be interested to see how the designers might wrap up the player’s experience with this world…

 

* Which, I suspect, owe more to anime tropes than to real-life Japanese culture.

Roleplaying and time management in Persona 3 Portable: Who says there’s no roleplaying in JRPGs?

This entry is part 2 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

As far as I can tell, the core of Persona 3 (refer to my initial post for the premise of the game) is its dungeon-crawling RPG combat. From a min-maxing perspective, the other, social aspects of the game ultimately seem to boil down to the bonuses they confer in the RPG element*. Even raising the main character’s stats by studying, singing karaoke or going to trendy coffeeshops will ultimately affect his/her ability to strike up relationships with certain other characters, which in turn, affects the bonuses carried into the dungeon crawl.

 

Note my use of “as far as I can tell” and “seem”. Except when looking up specific, narrow questions, I’ve departed from my usual RPG practice by minimising my use of FAQs for this game. And that is because Persona 3 is the most I’ve ever roleplayed in a single-player RPG. Back in my “intuitive gameplay” post, I talked about two different ways of looking at a game – as a set of rules to be mastered; or as a story to be acted out. And there is a certain tension between those two mindsets: when I can see that the “optimal” choice is grossly out of character, “unrealistic”, or ”ahistoric”,  this hurts my suspension of disbelief. For Persona 3, I’ve gotten around this by simply not looking up the optimal choices.

 

So, free from concern about min-maxing, I’ve been spending the game’s precious resource, time, in a way that best brings the “Japanese schoolkids” theme of the game to life. My main character, Arthur, raises his Academic stat by paying attention in class, praying at the local shrine in the afternoon, and studying in the evenings, not because I think it’s optimal, but because it’s what I think he would/should do. He raises his Charm because that stat will be used in his relationship with one of my favourite NPCs in the game, and if I want to see that dialogue, so does Arthur. And he spends his time with people whose company he enjoys, not necessarily those who’ll give him the most useful bonuses. (The one time powergaming concerns drove me to hang out with a NPC I found annoying, I imagined Arthur gritting his teeth and making noncommittal remarks the whole time.) It’s a liberating feeling to simply play “naturally” and focus on my favourite character interactions, without worrying about the minutiae of builds, boosts, and seeing every last bit of content!

 

About two and a half months have elapsed since the start of the game. Arthur is all set for a certain storyline event in a week’s time, and he’s well on track for his exams in two weeks…
* Specifically, social links will affect the EXP/levels of your created “personas”, the spirits that do the heavy lifting for you in battle.

Persona 3 Portable: A promising start

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

Plan for the day

Morning – Go to school.

Afternoon – Hit the books.

Evening – Fight monsters?!

 

The average high schooler who thinks his/her life is in turmoil has nothing on Arthur, my name for the hero of Persona 3 Portable. It’s not just that he’s a transfer student, the new kid in school. For Arthur is one of a handful with the ability to fight the “Shadows” that rob people of their will to live, and so, despite his tender age, the fate of the town is in his hands.

 

Not wholly in his hands, luckily. For backup, most visibly, Arthur has the schoolmates with whom he goes dungeon crawling – the friendly Yukari, Junpei the class clown, and cool older kids Akihiko and Mitsuru. They’ve proven their worth so far, Yukari with her healing and wind magic, Akihiko with his fists and lightning magic, Junpei with his whacking great two-handed sword, and Mitsuru radioing in directions and calling for backup if the team gets separated.

 

But building social links (“S-Links”) to others will also boost Arthur’s inner powers, and there are a lot of potential friends he can make: the elderly couple who run the local bookstore, the little girl who hangs out at the shrine on Saturdays, his buddy from the kendo team, even the person he plays MMOs with on the odd Sunday.  He doesn’t know anybody especially well yet, but he’s made a decent start.

 

It’s only been a little over a month since Arthur moved into his new school and discovered his powers, but he’s settling in well. He’s aced his midsemester exams (for which Mitsuru owes him a present). He’s making a fair few new friends. And last but not least, he’s defeated several tough bosses and plenty of lesser foes. Things are looking up for our young hero – and they’re most definitely looking up for Persona 3 Portable.

 

Tactics Ogre: A tragic misunderstanding

This is the fourth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (3) how I used different character classes in battle; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

The legend of King Arthur reaches its tragic end at the battle of Camlann, one that could have been avoided but for a stroke of ill luck. Arthur and his foe Mordred, so the story goes, sat down to negotiate. Their armies looked on, ready to pounce in the event of treachery. Sure enough, one knight pulled his sword – but it was to strike at a snake, not the king. It did not matter. The armies saw the steel, not the snake. And when it was over, Mordred was dead and Arthur lay dying.

 

Certain events in Tactics Ogre, though far, far less drastic, reminded me of Camlann all the same.

 

(Minor spoilers follow.)


At one point in Tactics Ogre, the story calls for the main character to set off on a parley. But I didn’t do this immediately. It took me a couple of hours of real time to get around to it—for one, I had to fight another story battle, and I think I must also have spent some time grinding in random battles, crafting, or rearranging my party.

 

Upon finally making it to the negotiations, up popped the party selection screen – the same one that comes up before every battle. “Hmm,” I thought. After all, Tactics Ogre is a tactical RPG – battles are the meat and potatoes of the gameplay. The obvious implication was that the day would end in bloodshed. So I did what I always do when I see that screen: I sent in the hero plus a full complement of party members, all of them armed like medieval Rambos. Sure enough, the resulting cut-scene showed the situation degenerating into violence. I shrugged, mowed down my foes, and moved on with the story.

 

And then, several days later, I learned from GameFAQs that the bloodshed could have been avoided, had I sent in the hero alone and unarmed.

 

“Wait a minute!” I thought. “How on earth was I supposed to know to do that?!” But something still bothered me. Maybe the game had given me the appropriate hint, and I’d just forgotten about it?

 

So I went back to re-watch the cut-scene before the hero left for his ill-fated parley. And sure enough, he did say that he should go alone and unarmed.

 

Oooops.

 

The game’s developers had indeed given me a hint about what to do, and I had indeed forgotten during the time it took me to get around to the parley. But even if I had remembered that line of dialogue, it would have been undermined by the game having conditioned me, by that point, to expect a fight after seeing the “party selection” screen. So moral of the story #1 is to reaffirm the hidden danger to taking time off from a game’s plot. Moral of the story #2 is, when gameplay mechanics train the player to do X in a given situation, designers should be wary about then expecting the player to do Y instead. This would all be small comfort to the generic enemies who lay dead in the snow. Sorry, guys, I’ll be sure to spare your lives on my next run!

 

At least I got an in-game title, “Bloodstained Hero”, out of the affair…

How a (now-defunct) gold-farming business actually worked

Here’s a bit of fascinating reading for anyone interested in the MMO phenomenon of gold farming – ICTs for Development profiles an actual World of Warcraft gold farming business, complete with a brief profit and loss statement. How many people work for the business? Which in-game tasks do they perform to earn their gold? How much does the business pay its staff, and what is its profit at the end of the day? Which intermediaries does it use, and what is their mark-up? The article discusses these topics, and more.

 

Note that eventually, the proprietor described in the article abandoned gold farming. The price at which he could realise 1,000 WoW gold fell from US$7.10 in March 2009 to US$3.37 in January 2010 to just US$1.00 as of the time of writing (March 2011), a pretty steep decline in just two years!

 

The same author, Richard Heeks, has also written a working paper on gold farming in general. I have only skimmed it, but it looks as though it could also be worth a look for anyone following the topic.

 

(Link courtesy of Gama Sutra)

Tactics Ogre: the building blocks of an unstoppable army

This is the third post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

In party-based RPGs, half the gameplay typically consists of combat and the other half consists of preparing for combat by designing an effective party. With its plethora of classes, skills and even non-human units, Tactics Ogre is no exception: party-building starts to feel a little like making a house out of Lego. 26+ hours in, I’ve built my team into the proverbial well-oiled machine (or should that be a Lego machine?), complete with a standard operating procedure that handles most foes without too much trouble.

 

The basic building blocks of my party would be familiar to any RPG player. Building block #1 is a row of heavily-armoured knights, projecting zones of control that slow enemy movement. But my real killing power lies with element #2 of my team, a row of archers. Ninjas rushing at me? Use archers to shoot them to bits before they can get off too many deadly melee attacks. Enemy knights? A little trickier due to their durability, but I’ve worn down many a level-boss knight with a rain of arrows.

 

One battle last night momentarily took me aback. This time around the boss was a terror knight, a sinister-looking melee class that specialises in inflicting debuffs. But they trade off durability to do so, making them much more vulnerable to archers compared to plain old knights. No, the issue was the other enemies. The shock troops leading the enemy charge weren’t knights. They weren’t ninjas. They were not human at all – they were dragons. And you won’t be surprised to hear that dragons are distressingly arrow-resistant.

 

Fortunately, I was prepared. Situations like this call for the next building block of my team: the mages whom I’ve built as debuffers par excellence. In short order, the nearest dragon was (temporarily) petrified. The second, and its javelin-lobbing handler, took a snooze. My knights and archers moved around their forms, and took up position ready for the boss. And when he came charging across the causeway, I had a mini-Agincourt waiting for him.

 

Oh, the resulting engagement didn’t go 100% according to plan. There was a moment of panic when one of the incapacitated dragons (‘temporarily’ petrified indeed!) blasted my back-row wizard and archer with a gust of flame. But it was simple enough to put the dragon back to sleep, and after that, my archers (and one crossbowman) could return to the boss. Soon enough, it was mission accomplished, using more or less standard RPG classes and tactics.

 

But Tactics Ogre offers more choices than just standard RPG classes and tactics. Here’s one example – that crossbowman I mentioned? He’s a member of a winged species, and his ability to fly around the battlefield makes him an indispensable party building block all by himself. On urban stages, he can just drop down on a rooftop vantage point, or get around a corner to take aim at an enemy from behind. Even in the open field, it’s invaluable to have someone who can quickly reach the mages and clerics in the enemy back line.

 

Then there are various support classes I’d neglected at the time of that battle. One class in the game, “dragoons”, has a special anti-dragon skill, which presumably would have let me tackle the dragons head-on instead of putting them to sleep and bypassing them for the boss.

 

But wait, why would I want to play the dragon-slayer when I could recruit the dragons? That’s exactly what another class, beast tamers, can do. Sadly, I only had one beast tamer at the time, whose level was too low to recruit dragons (and probably so low that she’d have lasted about 10 seconds on the field). But given how much hassle dragons cause me every time they show up on the enemy side, I think it’s about time I add one to my own party.

 

There are so many more classes and units available, and I’m not even up to the endgame. Berserkers, hand-to-hand classes with a splash damage special ability, appear from the start of the game. I’m still levelling a katana-armed sword master, but so far his damage output is promising. If I added a golem to my team, it’d be well-nigh invincible against physical attacks, so that could allow it to replace my knights in the front row. Rogues… well, I’m not exactly sure what rogues do, but they’re there. Tactics Ogre gives you all these potential building blocks to play with, and more.

 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to level up my beast tamers. I wonder how to say “if you can’t beat them, join them” in dragonish…

Four things Tactics Ogre does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t)

This is the second post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my impressions of the game’s (1) character profiles; (5) how I used different character classes in battle; (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game, and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

I came straight from a three-quarters-finished play-through of Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions to Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. And while I haven’t finished Tactics Ogre, either, I have played for long enough (15 or 16 hours) to see what Tactics Ogre does better – and what it doesn’t. How do these two classics of the tactical RPG genre stack up?

 

1. Class abilities make it easier to set up proper party front and back lines – The knights should be up front, the wizard and cleric should be in the back. RPG Tactics 101, right? But in FFT, there was theoretically nothing (terrain aside) to prevent making a beeline for the squishies. Now, in Tactics Ogre, certain melee classes – such as knights! – can project a one-square zone of control around themselves that prevents enemies moving past. The usefulness of this ability guarantees several knights a role in my party – and as a gameplay feature, it ensures unit positioning is of proper importance.

 

2. Debuffs are more practical – In FFT I rarely bother with debuffs and status effects. FFT usually requires the player to kill every enemy on the map to win the battle, and debuffs are so inaccurate, I might as well just go for a damage-dealing attack instead. Of course, there are exceptions – I wouldn’t have won certain rock-hard battles near the end of Chapter 2 in FFT had I not prevented some of the most powerful characters on the enemy team from attacking – but the general rule remains. But in Tactics Ogre, most battles are won by killing the enemy leader, and there are often horrifyingly resilient enemies (from armoured knights to dragons in the way). Solution: start dropping debuffs left, right, and centre! That dragon isn’t so scary when it’s asleep. And the debuffs’ decent chance to hit (so long as you invest in the appropriate skills) means that you can use them without frustration, or resorting to abusing the Chariot system.

 

3. The Chariot system reduces frustration – Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system, which allows you to rewind a battle by up to 50 turns, is basically a legitimised save/reload. Most of the time, I don’t (ab)use it. But when a story character permadies halfway through a pitched fight, then I thank heaven that I can just fire up the Chariot instead of having to restart the battle from scratch.

 

4. The levelling system is less grindy – Tactics Ogre’s levelling system is halfway between a classic RPG and the innovative system we saw in Valkyria Chronicles: experience is awarded on a class-wide basis, and every unit of the same class shares the same level. If you’ve ever spent time bringing Ladd, Alicia and Lavian in FFT up to the same level as the starting characters, or grinding multiple Arithmeticians, you will appreciate the Tactics Ogre system immediately. The Tactics Ogre system isn’t perfect – training a new class up from Level 1 is still a hassle, which makes me wish they had gone whole hog and adopted the Valkyria Chronicles system whereby all experience goes into a common pool, to be allocated between classes as the player sees fit – but it’s a big step forward from FFT.

 

Now, given that Tactics Ogre’s gameplay was remastered for the PSP version whereas FFT: War of the Lions is basically a straight port with a few frills attached, it’s not terribly surprising that the former benefits. After all, both games came out in the 90s, and a lot of water has flowed since then.

 

That said, there is one area of gameplay in which FFT does better…

 

Map variety – Whether it’s scaling hills and rooftops in a street fight, storming a fastness, picking my way between lava flows at Mount Bervenia or crossing the forks of a river, FFT has  ample map variety. In contrast, Tactics Ogre has recycled several maps so far, and several more (e.g. hilltop fortresses where you start at the base of the map and have to fight your way higher) are awfully similar.

 

For all that, both games deliver from a gameplay perspective.  Each features fast and fluid combat. In each, there’s a rush of satisfaction in first building up my characters – A learns how to be a tank par excellence, while safely behind him, B becomes a one-woman army with her bow – and then unleashing them on the battlefield. And each is good at tempting the player with just-out-of-reach toys. Right now, Tactics Ogre is making me wonder: are Ninja as good in this game as they are in FFT? What could a Witch or a Warlock do on the field of battle that my existing Wizard can’t? I look forward to finding out.

Tactics Ogre: the heroes of their own truncated stories

This is the first post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out: (2) four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); (3) how I used different character classes in battle; (4) an unfortunate mishap later in the game; and (5) my verdict on the game.

 

One hour into Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the PSP tactical RPG, and I’m already impressed. I like its art and its music, but production values are never the be-all and end-all. Its gameplay has made a good first impression, but one hour is nowhere near enough to get a feel. And the game’s protagonist, Denam Pavel, so far is a blank slate.

 

No, what impressed me so much was how the game fleshed out the most minor of its characters.

 

 

 

(Spoilers for the first few battles of the game follow.)

 

 

 

Your very first real opponent during the game’s tutorial is Bapal the Mercenary, who threatens the heroes in decidedly non-standard English (“There’s two thousand Goth on that one’s head, boys! Half the purse to him what brings him down!”) and who claims to know “a man from [your homeland] when I see one!”… only to completely mis-identify the person he’s referring to. I wrote him off as a none-too-bright thug – suitable fodder for a tutorial battle – and soon enough, my NPC allies wrote him off the face of the earth.

 

Next up is a knight named Sir Agares, who blusters about “rebel swine” and how “a craven who would choose lucre over loyalty deserves only one reward”. I dismissed Agares as a pompous fool, and sent him to join his mercenary compatriot.

 

Once the battles were over, and I was back on the world map, I took a look at the in-game character profiles. There were heroes and heroines, lords and kings and knights. And right at the bottom, there were entries for Bapal and Agares. Hmm, what could they say?

 

Bapal the Mercenary

 

At the start of the war he led a group of bandits based in the Phorampa Wildwood, but a desire to defend his homeland prompted him to enlist as a man-at-arms.

 

Though an experienced fighter, he lacked an understanding of the art of warfare, and was often mocked by other soldiers. In an attempt to prove himself, he led an offensive against partisans at Almorica Castle.

 

However, his poor reputation was only compounded when he was slain by those he sought to bring to justice. He met his end at the hands of Denam, the Hero of Golyat himself.”

 

Fodder for a tutorial battle, yes, but now Bapal seemed more pathetic than contemptible. What about Agares?

 

Sir Agares

 

He was brother to Baronet Bazin of Auslan, a town in the Coritanae marches. Sir Agares was sent to reinforce the Almorica garrison, who were struggling to hold off attacks by the Duke’s men.

 

Despite his noble upbringing, he was an approachable and well-respected commander.

 

He led the defence of Almorica Castle in the place of the absent Consul Obdilord, but was slain by Denam Pavel.”

 

I did not feel quite so smug after reading that.

 

My next battle was against Orba Brondel, the wizard. As he lay dying on the grasses of the Tynemouth Hill, his last words were a lament: “This is not the place to die.” After the battle, I checked his profile:

 

The Magus Orba

 

He was the son of renowned architect Selba Brondel. Selba created many famed buildings, such as Hellingham Palace, also known as the Hanging Gardens. Orba taught at the Coritanae Academy of Arts while painting numerous works in his spare time. One of these, named ‘Opalescent Clouds,’ was presented to the late King Dorgalua and now hangs in Helm Castle.

 

Orba was a major proponent of the nationalism espoused by Hierophant Balbatos, and he volunteered to take up arms soon after war broke out. He encountered Resistance forces at Tynemouth while en route to Almorica, and was slain by Denam Pavel.”

 

Now, from the viewpoint of the player and the heroes, these characters are utter non-entities. From a gameplay perspective,  their only function is to give you a not-particularly-tough leader to target in each battle. From a plot perspective, they may as well have been nameless red shirts: they appear once each, get two or three lines, and then die at the player’s hands. You can play the game without ever needing to learn about Orba’s hobby for painting or the esteem in which Agares’ soldiers held him.

 

But these characters do matter to the overall storytelling experience. Take the time to read the profiles, and you’ll discover three patriots willing to fight for their country, who lived three distinct lives to varying degrees of fulfilment – ex-bandit, lordling, amateur but accomplished painter – until the respective days they met Denam Pavel. From a thematic perspective, this serves two purposes. One, it reinforces that each of us is the hero of our own story. And two, it’s a subtle way to hint at the pity of war, which brings those stories to such sudden ends. (I strongly suspect that the tragedy of war will end up being a major theme, in which case this is one way the game brings it across.) Not too bad, for a bunch of one-off foes who don’t even get their own character artwork! My hat is off to the game’s creators for their attention to detail here, and I have high hopes that the rest of the game will live up to this promising first impression.

Skyrim: now THIS is how to do music in a trailer

Not long after I talked about Bethesda’s unorthodox “promotion” for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim yesterday, I watched the game’s trailer, and I have to highlight one thing I absolutely loved — its music.

 

The trailer itself begins as fairly typical fantasy fare, but at circa 0:55, the on-screen action hits its stride, and at 1:10, an absolutely glorious vocal arrangement of the classic Morrowind theme kicks in.  The original version of the theme was quiet, hopeful, uplifting; this version is bold, triumphant, heroic. They’re both superbly suited for Epic Fantasy Adventures, and the Skyrim version is the perfect complement to the trailer’s visuals. That trailer has managed the rare feat of getting me excited for the underlying product, and it’s no small thanks to its music.

Mass Effect: Thoughts on the Paragon/Renegade system

Right now, I’m about halfway through the original Mass Effect, an RPG whose morality system was one of its signature innovations. Traditionally, RPGs have a good/evil scale; your decisions push you up or down that scale; and those decisions, all too often, take the nature of “save puppy / ignore puppy / kill puppy and wave its corpse in its owner’s face” (the last option becoming known as “chaotic stupid”/ “stupid evil”). Mass Effect tried to move past this by giving you the choice as to whether to be a conventional, violence-as-a-last-resort, squeaky-clean hero (Paragon), or a ruthless antihero (Renegade). And furthermore, it put Paragon and Renegade points on two separate axes – they can only go up, never go down – which, in theory, allows you to react in different ways to different situations. So, for example, I could pile up Paragon points by using non-lethal means to overpower a swarm of mind-controlled enemies, then earn some Renegade points by summarily executing a prisoner. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t quite perfect.

 

First, being a Renegade still sometimes involves (verbally) kicking puppies. Sometimes, the distinction between being Paragon and Renegade conversation choices breaks down along one of two axes:

 

  • Are you polite and understanding, or are you an abrasive jerk?

 

  • Are you open-minded towards aliens (whom, by and large, the game depicts as Folks Just Like Us) or do you hate anyone who’s not a human being?

 

Most “reasonable” people, in-universe, would take the Paragon route under those circumstances.  And this weakens the concept that “Renegade” simply means you’re willing to take nasty decisions for the greater good.

 

Second, it still punishes players who don’t want to respond in the same way every time. The bigger a Paragon or Renegade you are, the more points you can invest in your Charm and Intimidate skills (respectively). These skills are what actually matters for game purposes: to get the optimum outcome from various conversations and quests, you’ll typically need sufficient Charm or sufficient Intimidate. The problem is that, as a result, you have an incentive to exclusively focus on one or the other: there are no prizes for having a little bit in each. So while I’ve pumped my Charm skill almost to the max, I have just a handful of points in Intimidate, and from a powergaming perspective, it would have better if I’d ignored Intimidate entirely. I want to play the game as a hero to most and a merciless menacing brute to those who deserve it, but having to split points between Charm and Intimidate discourages me from doing so.

 

Now, neither issue is a gamebreaker. There are plenty of Renegade options that are pragmatic or blunt rather than outright nasty; plenty of Renegade and Paragon points to go around (apparently, you can get to 75% in each on a first playthrough); and I could still be both Charming and Intimidating (to a certain extent, determined by just how many P/R points I had) if I were willing to sacrifice combat effectiveness by pouring my precious skill points into those two areas instead. But they’re still flies in an innovative ointment.

 

How could Bioware have implemented the system differently? Making politeness and xenophobia separate from Paragon/Renegade would have been the easy way to resolve my first complaint. The second complaint is a little thornier: Bioware could have used a single Speech skill a la Fallout; or made Charm and Intimidate complements instead of substitutes (i.e. I can charm person A but I have to intimidate person B).  As it turned out, Bioware did neither for Mass Effect 2 – based on what I’ve read, ME2 does away with Charm/Intimidate entirely and instead simply uses your Paragon/Renegade level, modified by a “Negotiation” bonus.

 

Now, I’m having enough fun with Mass Effect, and I’ve heard enough good things about the sequel, that I’ll probably pick up ME2 once a PC version with the DLC quests becomes available for a cheap price. But I am curious as to how well ME2 addresses my issues. Any impressions, folks?

The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.

 

I’m not actually that great at playing games.

 

Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?

 

The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?

 

The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.

 

Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.

 

Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.

 

Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.

 

Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.

 

As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.

 

Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…

 

* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

Tactics Ogre – European release only a month away

To my pleasant surprise, Square Enix has announced that Tactics Ogre for PSP will come out in Europe on 25 February, a little over a month away and only ten days after its US release. (press release courtesy of Gamershell). As an added bonus, it’ll come in a “premium edition” with an artbook and a mini-soundtrack CD. As I plan to import the game from a UK retailer (assuming, of course, favourable reviews and/or word of mouth), it’s encouraging to hear I won’t have to wait too long.

Mass Effect: That guy looks familiar…

I’ve played a little bit more Mass Effect, enough to start growing fond of some of the game’s characters, dialogue and alien species but nowhere near enough to give a definitive verdict on the game. But one thing has already jumped out at me.

 

This is a volus, the game’s obligatory space merchant species:

 

And this is a toy depicting Dogbert from the Dilbert comic strip:

 

 

The resemblance is striking. Who’d have thought that megalomanical Terran cartoon dogs had managed to propagate across the galaxy?

Carpe Fulgur’s next game is Chantelise; Recettear sells 100,000 copies

Carpe Fulgur’s next release will be Chantelise, a 2006 hack-and-slash game from EasyGameStation (more details on Chantelise here). I have to wonder whether it’ll enjoy the same success as Recettear, given that Recettear had a unique premise to hook RPG players who otherwise may not have taken notice of “an indie game from Japan”. Still, worth keeping an eye on. Chantelise is just one of the titles Carpe Fulgur has planned for 2011, so maybe we’ll also see an English release of Territoire? (According to Google’s translation, the Territoire demo is already available in Japanese – check out the EasyGameStation website here, click Download and then the first link.)

 

Meanwhile, Recettear has now sold over 100,000 copies! Granted, most of those sales were heavily discounted – for example, during the Thanksgiving Steam sale, Recettear was effectively being sold for $1 ($5 spread over five games in a bundle pack), but 100,000 people playing a niche indie game is still pretty impressive.

 

What does this mean in dollar terms? A while back,  I estimated Carpe Fulgur would have seen a little under ~US$500,000 in revenue (based on 26,000 units sold, half at $18 and half at $20), so if I update my numbers to assume 13,000 pre-orders @ $18, 17,000 sold for the full price of $20, 60,000 @ $1, and 10,000 @ $10 (the current Steam sale price – it was $5 on a daily sale, but let’s keep things simple), this gives us total ex-Japan revenue for Recettear of $700,000. Carpe Fulgur also mentions that its share of Recettear sales proceeds – in other words, its gross profit margin – is slightly under 25% (vs my earlier guesstimate of 33%), with the bulk of the money going to EasyGameStation. If we assume, say, 22.5%, then multiplying by $700,000 leaves $157,500 to pay salaries, tax and any other bills. Assuming minimal expenses, that equates to $52,500 for each of Carpe Fulgur’s three members. This isn’t that far from my earlier estimate of ~$55,000 from 26,000 copies, because the higher number of (mostly discounted) sales netted out against my too-high gross margin, and is still a respectable figure.Of course, the most important thing is how it affects the viability of the business, and there, Carpe Fulgur sounds pleased as punch.

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.

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.

Only a few months left to wait for Tactics Ogre PSP (in the US)

Square Enix has scheduled the US release of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) for 15 February! A quick Google search couldn’t turn up any information on a European or PAL release date, but hopefully it will follow shortly thereafter. I look forward to the release!

Fallout 3, Star Paladin Cross, and the power of the player’s imagination

Any story — whether prose, a tall tale, a movie, or a game — is a two-way experience. There is the story that the creator is trying to tell, and there is the story that the reader/listener/viewer/player experiences, shaped by his or her own beliefs, life experience, values, tastes… and, crucially, imagination.

As my case in point, I present Fallout 3. As do many other RPGs, Fallout 3 offers a selection of NPC allies who can accompany you on your journeys. And one such companion is  Star Paladin Cross, a power-armoured soldier with an unyielding devotion to her cause. Now, normally, I love the Lawful Good Lady of War archetype — see Agrias Oaks, Balsa, or even Brienne of Tarth. By this logic, Cross should have been one of my favourite NPCs in the game. But unfortunately, as written by Bethesda, Cross has all the personality of a broken answering machine. She has neither motivation (beyond duty) nor backstory nor nuance, just canned saying after canned saying after canned saying. After the fifth time I heard, “There is a foul stench on the wind — let us not tarry for long,” I clicked through Cross’ dialogue as quickly as I could — but that did not save me from her “In the words of Brother Theus, a brother well-equipped is a brother keeping to his duty,” every time I brought up her inventory.

So far, so bad. But the key phrase in the above paragraph is, “as written by Bethesda.” For the magic ingredient was my imagination. In my imagination, Cross transformed into a stern but benevolent auntie: ready to defend her ward with minigun and laser from those who would do him harm; ready to give advice, passed down from her own elders, on equipment and tactics; ready to proffer praise for doing the right thing. During what must have been a particularly despondent time for my player character (those of you who’ve finished the game can probably guess what I’m talking about), I even imagined Cross keeping vigil by my PC’s side while he slept. Cross, in short, turned from a walking bundle of stats and hit points with a few repeated-to-death lines into a character I cared about, and who felt as though she had a human connection with my PC, through the power of imagination.

What are your own tales of how your imagination shaped a story for the better?

(As I write this post, I’m still on holiday…… albeit sick and miserable. Well, the silver lining to my current situation is that it gives me the time to update the blog…)

 

(edited to add the sentence beginning, “She has neither…” now that I’m feeling more lucid.)

Fallout 3 finished – time to rummage around in the backlog once more!

After 80 hours, I finished Fallout 3 last night. While I can see why people were angry with the ending in its original state, those flaws didn’t detract from what I liked about it. I’ve put the postgame content added by the Broken Steel DLC to one side, though, as I’m all Fallenout for now. Over the next week or two, I plan to write up why I liked Fallout 3 so much as a storytelling experience; watch this space!

 

Now I’m wondering what to move onto next. I have a bunch of other RPGs in my backlog: I didn’t get very far into either Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs the Soulless Army (PS2) or Dragon Age (PS3). And I ran into analysis paralysis during chargen with the last non-Fallout Western RPGs I tried to play: Mass Effect (PC) and Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC). Then there are the non-RPGs (for instance, I still haven’t played the original Bioshock), novels, TV and movies, non-fiction… well, the beauty of a backlog is that it’s better to have too much choice rather than too little!

Fallout 3: So near and yet so…

I haven’t yet finished Fallout 3, but I love the game. It is one of my favourite games of all time, and so when I came home today, I was eager to proceed with the main story questline. The ending, I thought, looked tantalisingly close.

 

Imagine my reaction when the game repeatedly crashed to desktop after one story scene. I adjusted my graphics up, I adjusted my graphics down, I turned mods off, and I turned them on again. I reset my key bindings, verified the integrity of local files on Steam, waited in-game, cleared the cache. And each time, the game crashed. Perhaps making matters worse, the game was generally pretty solid for me until now.

 

Now, I was lucky enough to find, via the Google cache, a thread on a dead forum in which someone worked out how to use the console commands to bypass the problematic segments. But I think I understand exactly how Tom Chick felt in this review of Fallout: New Vegas.