A Game of Thrones: the publicity rolls on and on

More appetisers for those of us looking forward to HBO’s Game of Thrones! On the Making Game of Thrones site, HBO has recently uploaded twelve large stills that were originally featured in Entertainment Weekly, plus another short (15-second) teaser. On Sunday 5 December, US time, there will also be a fifteen-minute “Making Of” video!

 

I have not analysed the images or the trailer in any detail, but they look great to me upon first glance. Ned and Catelyn look older and fleshier than I’d imagined them, but of course differences between my mental images, and those of the creators of the series, are inevitable. Jaime looks fine in the still image; however, I don’t think a still can really do the character justice. The key to depicting Jaime on screen is his combination of magnetism and arrogance, and this requires that we can see him in motion. So I look forward to future trailers/promotional videos that feature the Kingslayer.

 

(In other news, I’m back from holiday! I hope to post a review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn soon.)

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!

Anime review from my archives: Fate/stay night

FATE/STAY NIGHT


Long ago, three sorcerers created a plot coupon, which they dubbed the Holy Grail. It is powerful enough to grant any wish — but to claim it, one must compete against six other sorcerers, each contestant, or “Master”, summoning a mythological hero (“Servant”) to be his or her champion.  Now, in one Japanese city, the fifth such bout is about to begin, and a young man, Emiya Shirou is about to be caught up…

 

Frustration is not seeing an unredeemably bad book, or anime, or game. No, to be truly maddening, it must display some kind of potential, or promise that it could have been something great, and then throw it away. Fate/stay night exemplifies this. It has an extremely cool premise. It has a handful of excellent characters, most notably the prickly, haughty, and brilliant sorceress Rin Tohsaka and her Servant, the sarcastic Archer. It has decent music, and the most striking visual effect I have ever seen in anime (a wasteland littered with thousands of swords, gigantic gears turning in the background).

 

Unfortunately, the good characters, including all those with any depth, are soon either marginalised or outright killed off. Instead, the focus is on an infuriating main character, who goes beyond “generic milquetoast young male hero” to “idiot who prattles about being the ‘protector of justice’, and insists on rushing into every fight, even though this puts his friends in even greater danger, as they now have to work around him.” Even though he becomes slightly less annoying in the second half of the series, he would still have been enough to sink the whole show by himself. Unfortunately, he’s not the only thing wrong. His two starting female companions are just as bad: one is a servile doormat who waits on him hand and foot, the other is an annoying, shrill shrew. They, too, are eventually marginalised, but this is too little, too late.

 

It’s not just the characters that are deficient. The plotting is similarly atrocious. After the show introduces the premise to us, it settles into a routine that others have compared to Dragonball: “villain-of-the-month appears; seemingly invincible VOTM calls out the name of a visually spectacular special attack, and beats back protagonists; as all hope seems lost, protagonists counter with an even flashier deus ex machina, and defeat VOTM; protagaonists ‘relax’ in a bad romantic comedy episode, at the end of which the next VOTM appears; repeat.” Minor characters walk in and out with little rhyme or reason, beyond giving effect to the VOTM plotting, and aren’t really developed even where they are interesting enough to merit it; one turns out, with no foreshadowing, to be the ultimate villain, out to destroy the world for the sheer hell of it!

 

Even the action scenes stop becoming “cheesily entertaining” and just become stupid after a while, courtesy of the show’s reliance on deus ex machinae, shouted attack names, and overused stock footage of characters shouting and swinging their swords, followed by bright lights. You know it’s bad when you cheer and laugh every time the villain lands a blow on the hero! Finally, the Protagonist Powers manage to sabotage one of the series’ redeeming moments, by cheapening to worthlessness the sacrifice that one character makes.

 

All in all, Fate/stay night stands as an ignominious example of how not to treat a good premise: had, say, Roger Zelazny done it, this could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is the worst series I have ever watched to completion, a poor-to-mediocre show made watchable only by the occasional brilliant moment, idea, or glimpse of a good character — and one can get those by simply reading spoilers on Wikipedia or fansites.

 

You can buy Fate/stay night on Amazon here (though I’m not sure why you’d want to).

 

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.

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.)

Freebie highlight from my archives: “The Only Thing We Learn”, by Cyril Kornbluth

Do you like space opera, high fantasy, and other tales about bold heroes single-handedly bringing down mighty tyrants? And do you like story worlds that have been shaped by the ebb and flow of history?

 

If yes, then check out this short story by Cyril Kornbluth, “The Only Thing We Learn”.

More gaming humour: The heaven and hell of game developers

There is a joke about European national stereotypes (visible at the top of this page, but you can find variants all over the Internet): which nationality would fulfil which occupation in heaven and hell?

 

This Stolen Pixels webcomic is the gaming version.

Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep


Vernor Vinge
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep”

Off on holidays – see you all in a few weeks’ time!

Okay folks, I’m flying out tomorrow for a holiday! Thus, I will not post daily for the next three weeks or so.

That said, I have a few reviews from my archives which will go up on coming weekends. Also, I plan to write a few feature articles and post them when I do have access. If you read my “Storytelling in Dominions 3” post at Flash of Steel, hopefully you’ll enjoy my upcoming articles just as much. So keep checking back every so often, and I’ll see you all at the end of November!

Another Ambitious Space Game: Shores of Hazeron

Last week, I mentioned Artemis, the starship bridge simulator. This week, I present another ambitious space game, spotted by DocLazy at the Quarter to Three forums. Shores of Hazeron seems to be a first-person cross between SimCity, Master of Orion, Wing Commander and Dwarf Fortress. You design, build, and skipper spaceships, land on planets and explore them in first person, and build the cities that fuel your interstellar jaunts. The game’s ambition impresses and intimidates me at the same time.

For example, consider the amount of work needed just to get into space if you opt to start your own empire.  First you need to hunt animals or gather plant fibres to craft your imperial flag. Then you need to build a city, mine stone, lay roads, set up farms, wait for citizens to move in… Eventually you bootstrap your way to an aircraft factory where you can build a space rocket. Mission accomplished! Or… not. Because if you want to build a proper starship, you have to gather two types of handwavium. And to do that, you need to jump into your primitive rocket ship, explore your home star system, and build a moon base to harvest the handwavium. After that, you will finally have the resources you need for spacecraft. Spaceward, ho!

You can see why I don’t have the time to jump in right now. That said, I still look forward to giving Shores of Hazeron a try after my holiday. Anything that sounds this cool on paper is worth a try!

(By the way, speaking of Artemis, the full game costs $60 but you can get a copy free if you send the designer a video recording of yourself and your buddies playing the demo. The media page is regularly updated with the latest videos, too. So if you have a buddy or five who’d like fifteen minutes of fame…)

Storytelling in Dominions 3 – now up at Flash of Steel!

My Storytelling in Dominions 3 post, part of my Storytelling in Games feature series, is now up at Flash of Steel! Check out my guest post to see how Dominions 3, from Illwinter and Shrapnel Games, illustrates the techniques a strategy game can use to tell an effective story and bring across the feel of an epic, high-magic fantasy novel, all without dialogue or cut-scenes.

 

Meanwhile, if you came here via Flash of Steel: welcome, and I hope you liked my guest post! You can navigate this site in chronological order, but if you’d like to see what I have to say on a specific topic, you can click the relevant category on the right-hand side of the page. You can also click the “reviews” and “features” tabs at the top of this page to see. I plan to keep writing “Storytelling in Games” features over time, so check back at this blog from time to time, or subscribe to email updates at the right-hand side of this page.

 

Whichever category you’re in, I hope you have fun!

Don’t judge these books by their covers: Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga; Glen Cook’s Black Company

As promised, I bought Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn today. And one thing struck me immediately: the cover is, for a change, not horrendous.  J M W Turner it’s not, but I have seen a lot worse.

 

I know, I know, ragging on science fiction and fantasy novels for their covers is like shooting fish in a barrel (link courtesy of Rocketpunk Manifesto). So I will focus on just two series that I absolutely love, but whose covers (in the editions I have) make me want to whip out the brown paper for fear of being seen with them in public.

 

One is Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga itself. This cover says it all. (Thankfully, I don’t actually have that edition; I have this marginally less bad omnibus.) Split Infinities has plenty more examples, and makes the point that the covers repel readers who might otherwise pick up the intelligent, character-driven stories within.

 

The other is the Black Company series, by Glen Cook. Again, I’ll let one cover do the speaking for me. To add insult to injury, the Black Company novels were recently re-released in omnibus form – with much better covers.

 

So what would I consider “good” cover art? I’ve previously held up Discworld as one good example. Others include the clean, elegant look that Bloomsbury took with the “grown-up” Harry Potter covers, and the simple design on the more recent UK edition of A Game of Thrones. I just wish there were more of it around…

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn is out!

Glancing at my “What I’m Looking Forward To” post from September, I realised that I clean forgot to mention one of the novels that I was keenly anticipating — Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

 

Well, the anticipation is almost over, for Cryoburn has been released. But the key word is almost; not only do I need to buy the book (I know what I’ll be doing at lunchtime tomorrow!), but I’m going to save it for the upcoming plane trip. Well, if I waited all these years for Miles Vorkosigan’s latest adventure, what are a few more days

Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

Firstly, as mentioned in the Three Moves Ahead podcast: at the scale at which 4X games (and probably most other strategy games) take place, you never come face to face with your victims. Nowhere is the saying that “one death is a tragedy, but a million are a statistic” truer than in gaming. Any RPG worth its salt will drive home the consequences of your evil actions, whether they be acts of mass murder such as detonating a nuclear bomb or planting a biological weapon, or “merely” kidnapping a baby. But in Civilization, an atrocity really is just a statistic. In Civilization IV, there’s a civic (social system) named “Slavery” which allows you to speed up a city’s construction by sacrificing population. You can probably imagine what this means in human terms: overseers flogging slaves bloody, monuments rising in the background as exhausted and half-starved labourers breathe their last. In game terms? Your city’s population goes down by a few points. The same goes for wars of aggression and dispossession.

 

Conversely, the squad-level strategy games (X-Com) and tactical RPGs (Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics) do not have this problem, at least when it comes to your own soldiers. In these games, instead of a vast empire, you only control a few, very distinct characters at one time. As a result, you grow attached to your soldiers. You’ll move heaven and earth to rescue an injured member of your squad, sometimes even at the expense of your objectives (as memorably described here by Rob Zacny). If all else fails, there is always the “reload” button, and I assure you I’m not the only one who abuses that. Feeling bad for leading my soldiers to their deaths in TRPGs resembles agonising over moral choices in RPGs, but is far removed from gleeful conquest sprees in 4X games. And that is a direct consequence of the scale of each of these genres.

 

Secondly, strategy games (and 4X games) are usually zero-sum. The game runs for a finite time before coming to an end, and ultimately there can be only one winning player or team. If my rival in Civilization IV is close to winning the space race, and thus, the game, it is in my interest to unleash a barrage of nuclear missiles to slow down his/her progress. The folly of this approach in real life is obvious. But in Civilization, I don’t care how much suffering I cause so long as I meet my victory conditions, because then the game will be over. This also applies to domestic policy. Because strategy games, unlike real life, are not open-ended, the well-being of my citizens is irrelevant except insofar as I enjoy playing a benevolent ruler, or to the extent that it contributes to my win.

 

Thirdly, crime, in this context, does pay. The size of a national economy in real life is determined by factors including the amount of labour employed (how many people have jobs and how many hours are they working?), the amount of capital employed (what tools, plant and infrastructure are they using?), and, crucially, the productivity of each hour worked and of each dollar of capital (one person with modern machinery can probably do the work of 100 Bronze Age labourers; bridges to nowhere might cost a lot, but they don’t contribute much to productivity). Games, though, tend to make raw population the most important metric, and they tie the population an empire can support to how much territory it controls. This has many consequences for the way in which they model reality, some of which I’ll discuss in future posts. But for current purposes, the key implication is that if a larger nation is richer, more successful, and ultimately more likely to win the game, then I have an incentive to gobble up as many neighbours as I can in a quest for Lebensraum (subject to any checks and balances in the game, such as badboy/infamy in Europa Universalis or corruption/upkeep in Civilization).

 

In conclusion, several things explain why we so often resort to conquest, aggression, slavery, and tyranny in strategy (especially 4X) games. Saying “it’s just a game” is no answer, because it fails to explain why we play other genres that offer moral choice, such as RPGs, more humanely than we play strategy games. And just because these things happened in real life, and they are presented as options in the game, doesn’t itself explain why we then choose those options. But we can point to other factors that do answer that question: we choose them when our victims are depersonalised and reduced to numbers on a map screen; when the game has a definite end, so we don’t have to worry about ongoing or long-term consequences so long as we win; and when aggression does, in fact, make it easier to win because the game’s economic model places territory and population foremost in determining national power.

 

Do these factors set our behaviour in stone, then? Not necessarily. Each can be addressed by other genres, and even by merely changing the way we design grand strategy and 4X games. Depersonalisation is not an issue with squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, and even when the game takes place at a scale where we never encounter individuals, developers can try to make us aware of the toll of our actions – that is my limited understanding of Introversion Software’s DEFCON. The players don’t care about anything except victory? I would think that ongoing games, such as MMOs, would require a more long-term attitude – and even though most games can’t be ongoing, why not set up a scoring system to give bonus points to happy, well-managed empires (Civilization actually does this), or to players who refrain from wars of aggression? Your economic model encourages territorial expansionism? Play up the role of technology, institutions, governance and human capital to reward players who invest in nation-building as opposed to nation-grabbing. For the player of a strategy game (particularly a 4X game), power often corrupts. But by understanding why, we can design games so as to reduce that temptation, provide players with more interesting choices – and encourage them to build empires that deserve to stand the test of time.

 

 

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

Another game joins the backlog: AI War

Since Arcen Games’ AI War, which I’ve previously mentioned, is currently 50% off at Steam and Impulse, I took the plunge and bought a copy. I’m still in the midst of the tutorial, but one look at the game’s very extensive wiki is enough to make me look forward to getting the chance to play.

 

I also really like the game’s conceit: you, the human playing against the computer, are in fact leading the remnants of humanity against a mighty empire of AIs. And while initially your rag-tag forces are simply too small for the AIs to notice, progressing through the game by seizing territory, destroying AI installations or building superweapons will make the AIs progressively more and more alarmed and hence, more and more lethal. Thus, the game becomes about trade-offs: conquer just enough territory to give yourself the resources you need to fight the AIs, but don’t run so wild that the AIs wake up and squash you like a pancake. This seems to me to be a pretty nifty way of fusing gameplay mechanics with the game’s subject matter, and I look forward to seeing how it pans out.

Storytelling in Games: “What’s it all about?” Or, the importance of gameplay mechanics

This entry is part 2 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.

 

“What’s the story all about?”

 

At its heart, every story or creative work comes down to that deceptively simple question. Deceptively, because “what a story is about” encompasses many things:

 

  • It includes the capsule summary: “Star Wars is a space opera about a dreamy kid who turns out to be the saviour of the galaxy.” “Yes, Minister is about a British politician who’s constantly thwarted by his chief civil servant.”

 

  • It includes the general feel of the work: “Band of Brothers is about what it would be like to be a US paratrooper in World War 2.” “The Black Company is about what it would be like to be a foot soldier in a world dominated by immortal wizards.”

 

  • And it includes theme, the central ideas that underpin the story: “Fallout 3 is a game about sacrifice.” “Lord of the Rings is about the ability of power to corrupt; and the fading of beauty from the world; and that even after the defeat of evil, the world will never be the same again.” Or, to return to an earlier example, “Yes, Minister is about the grubby little compromises needed in order to stay in power; and what a weak thing human nature is.”

 

Ultimately, “what it’s about” is what the reader, viewer or player takes away from the experience once it’s all over. It is the sum of plot and characterisation and worldbuilding and prose, motifs and messages – and, relevantly, gameplay mechanics. And this is the big strength of games as a storytelling medium: it adds a new layer to the experience.

 

To be sure, gameplay can’t provide plot or dialogue. And it’s not a panacea: sometimes it works at cross-purposes to other aspects of the storytelling experience. In his twopart series, “Theme is Not Meaning”, Soren Johnson gives some examples: while Civilization is ostensibly a game about history, its mechanics are as far removed from history as you can get. Civilisations can instigate a neat revolution on command to shake up their social systems; while rise and fall are replaced by static borders that only change in response to external invasion. The net effect, to quote Soren: “… the games mechanics tell us less about world history than they do about what it would be like to be part of a league of ancient gods, who pit their subjects against each other for fun.

 

But consider what gameplay can do, when it does work together with the rest of the game’s narrative elements:

 

  • Gameplay can be used to flesh out characters: in Valkyria Chronicles, Marina the loner sniper will sometimes take a penalty if she’s too close to fellow squaddies, while ladies’ man Salinas can receive bonuses from being near female comrades. How well would I have remembered those two minor characters had their personality quirks not had in-game effects?

 

  • Gameplay excels at worldbuilding: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior showed us what a post-apocalyptic world would look like, but it’s even more effective to discover that world for ourselves by wandering around in Fallout 3, being poisoned by radiation with each gulp of water we drink; and reading the journal of a nurse dying from radiation sickness after the bombs fell, or the notes of a man who resorted to slave labour in his hunger to rebuild civilisation.

 

  • Gameplay is, I think, second to none at creating a “feel” or “mood”: we may read epic, high-magic fantasy novels, but to get the experience of being a warlord in one of their worlds, nothing beats playing Dominions 3. Star Control 2 (aka The Ur-Quan Masters) captures the experience of being an space captain, boldly going where no explorer has gone before, in a way that a book or a TV series or a movie can’t.

 

  • Gameplay can even bring across theme: UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense is a game about sacrifice and struggle in the face of an overwhelming foe.

 

In short, gameplay is one of the most powerful storytelling tools around. In response to the original question, “So, what’s the story all about?”, for any other medium, we would point to the experience created by words and images and sounds. When the mechanics of a game are at their best, we should point to the experience created by words and images and sounds… and to what we actually did.

 

To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Calling all wannabe starship bridge officers! Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator

Artemis: Starship Bridge Simulator is one of the more entertaining game ideas I’ve seen in some time. Six players get together around a LAN, with each player taking on a specific starship bridge officer role: Weapons, Communications, Science (sensors), Engineering, Helm or Captain. You can see gameplay videos here.

 

I also love the developer’s explanation as to why this game was designed for LAN, not internet, play:

 

I always wanted the players to be in one room together, just like a spaceship bridge. I want the captain to be able to push the helmsman aside and shout “Full power, DAMN you!!!”

 

Give it a look if you’re a space opera fan!

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?

 

But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?

 

Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..

 

Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.

 

On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

The State of the Matchsticks — October 2010

I’ve been blogging on Matchsticks for my Eyes for about a month and a half, during which time I’ve been updating pretty much daily, usually on games or books but sometimes on anime, movies or TV as well. What’s coming up next for this site?

 

About a week ago, I added indexes of my reviews and features (see the links at the top of this page) – I do plan to do some more posts in those two areas, and in particular, I’m working on my Storytelling in Games series. Hopefully I’ll be able to add at least one more Storytelling in Games entry over the next week or so. And while I will be away travelling for most of November (starting at the end of next week) and as such, won’t be updating daily during that time, I will do my best to post a longer review or feature each week while I’m away.

 

Thanks for your support, all! It’s been very encouraging to see my traffic crawling gradually upwards. :D

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!

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.

 

Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.

 

But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.

 

Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.

 

Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.

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.

How much would it cost to start a game development company?

I’ve previously guesstimated the amount of sales revenue Carpe Fulgur would have received from Recettear, and discussed the finances of Arcen Games, the developer of AI War. Today, I found a series of posts estimating how much it would cost to set up a game development company with a six-person team (everything from salaries to legal costs to rent), and how many units you would need to sell in order to break even. It’s an interesting read if you ever wondered how easy (or hard) it would be for an indy studio to keep its head above water.

Kirby’s Epic Yarn: awww!

Kirby’s Epic Yarn for Wii is one of the cutest, most adorable games I have seen in some time. You can check out gameplay footage here at Giantbomb. I particularly love how Kirby’s eyes seem to float as a result of inertia when he jumps or bobs up and down. Sackboy from LittleBigPlanet had better watch out, lest he lose his crown as cute platformer mascot…

What I’ve just read: Lustrum, by Robert Harris

Tonight, I finished Robert Harris’ Lustrum (released in the US as Conspirata), the second novel in his Cicero trilogy (the first was Imperium). It was an enjoyable, fast-paced read, although I doubt I’ll reread it any time soon. There were two particular things that I liked about the book.

 

One, Caesar is a villain for a change. And as a villain, he makes a fine nemesis for Cicero: menacing, mercilessly hungry for power, capable of bouncing back Hydra-like from every defeat. Making Caesar the villain, I think, also adds a note of dramatic irony to the novels: the reader is perfectly aware that it will be Caesar who has the last laugh by becoming history’s best-known Roman, and that Caesar will be the one who eventually pulls down the Republic.

 

And two, while I still do not know that much Roman history, I am finally reaching the point where I was able to get the most out of the book. You know how sometimes, when you’re a fan of a given work, you might watch an adaptation and be thrilled when you spot a shout-out to the original, or when you know what’ll happen next because you read the book? That was pretty much how I felt. So I was happy to see Lucullus, the successful general turned to decadence in his retirement, showing off his fish ponds. I rubbed my hands together when I read that the rites of the Good Goddess would take place at Caesar’s house, because I had a feeling about what was coming up. I muttered, “Uh oh,” to myself when Fulvia made a cameo. In other words, the book came along at the right time for me, after I had learned a bit about Rome.

 

All in all, the book was well worth the price I paid, and I look forward to the final novel in Harris’ Cicero trilogy.

One of those funny little coincidences…

I started getting into Napoleonic-era naval fiction (Hornblower, Aubrey & Maturin) earlier this year.In the last few weeks, looking at Sydney’s colonial-era buildings — such as Cadman’s Cottage; or Fort Denison, the round little construction jutting out from the midst of Sydney Harbour — made me think that it would be cool to see a Napoleonic story where the heroes visit Australia.

 

Cut to today, when upon finishing The Mauritius Command, the fourth Aubrey & Maturin novel, I looked at the blurb for Desolation Island, the next book in the series:

 

Jack and Stephen are dispatched to restore order after popular unrest unseats New South Wales governor William Bligh, the ill-fated captain of the mutinous Bounty.

 

Coooool. I look forward to reading — assuming the blurb does not lie — about Aubrey & Maturin down under!

Storytelling in Games: An Introduction

This entry is part 1 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.

 

Ever since the first men and women huddled in fire-lit caves, telling – and enjoying – stories has been part of the human experience. And as we mastered technology, we unlocked new ways to tell stories: the written word, radio, film, television, and most recently, video games. Each medium brought its own techniques – prose, sound effects, camerawork, visual effects, CGI – while also building on the techniques introduced by previous media.

 

Games are no exception. Like movies, they are an audio-visual product, and as such they (typically) contain dialogue presented as text, voice-acted or both; graphics; and sound and music. But they add a new dimension: interactivity. Now, the actual gameplay mechanics become one more technique in the storyteller’s repertoire.

 

As such, games offer two types of storytelling experiences. On the one hand, there is the traditional “I have a yarn, and let me tell it to you” experience seen in every medium. In games, this manifests itself in backstory, cut-scenes, narration and scripted sequences. Let’s call this Type I, scripted, storytelling. On the other, there is the game used as a toolbox or backdrop, which you can then use to enact your own tale. When you excitedly babble about your virtual adventures, when characters you care about and situations that leave you on the edge of your seat emerge on their own, that is a form of storytelling unique to games. Call it Type II, mechanics-driven, storytelling.

 

Now, some players prefer one form of storytelling to the other. But to me, they’re equally valid. While I think every game’s mechanics should at least complement the experience that the designers want the player to take away (type II or mechanics-driven storytelling), good writing (type I or scripted) can still be an invaluable part of that experience.. And for that reason, over time, I plan to write a feature series about games that told great stories, whether scripted, mechanics-driven or both. For well-done storytelling, and the worlds of wonder that it creates, are what separate the great games from the merely good, and greatness is something that always deserves to be discussed and feted.

 

To quickly find this, or other posts in my Storytelling in Games series, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Rise of Nations first impressions: A font of ideas for later games?

Today I picked up Robert Harris’ Lustrum, a novel told from the POV of Cicero’s secretary and sequel to Imperium; Rise of Nations, the 2003 RTS by Big Huge Games, and its expansion pack; and a non-fiction book (Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580) that looked cheap, was on a topic that sounded intriguing, and had some promising back-cover blurbs.

So far I’ve taken the plunge into Rise of Nations, and as I played very few RTS of that era (I burned out on the genre in the 90s, then came back to it more recently with games such as Sins of Solar Empire and Company of Heroes), it’s interesting to view it with fresh eyes. And along the way, I see ideas that could have been forebears to concepts that I’ve already seen in more modern games. For one, RoN’s economy might be peon-based, but it’s about as automated as can be while still being peon-based: resources are inexhaustible, idle peons will move to mines with free slots, etc. Could this have inspired the peon-less modern games such as Sins of a Solar Empire, where you gave planets build orders and they would auto-spawn construction ships accordingly? Then there are the little things such as auto-formations and auto-explore that I’ve grown used to in Sins; it’s a relief to have them in RoN as well. And last of all, there are the ground units that auto-morph into transport ships when ordered onto the water, a concept which came up again in Civilization V.

While it’s still early days, I look forward to playing more RoN – and to finally finishing Fallout 3, now that I’ve been tidying up side quests one after another.

Where are all the steampunk games?

Along with zombies, steampunk is probably the main wave sweeping through speculative fiction right now. Locus magazine (September ’10) and Tor.com (last year) have run steampunk months, and Tor.com is following up with a “steampunk fortnight”; more and more steampunk novels have hit the shelves in the last couple of years, such as Scott Westerfeld’s YA piece Leviathan (which has a new sequel, Behemoth), and even a steampunk/zombie hybrid (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker); and I even saw a steampunk table set aside at Kinokuniya Books, although it wasn’t labelled as such.

What I wonder, then, is how long this will take to trickle into other media – particularly games. Not only is steampunk cool, but more importantly, it doesn’t have the “how do I make a workable game out of this?” practicality problems of, say, hard science fiction. Good luck trying to make a game about interstellar space opera without FTL – but airships and steam-powered gadgetry should work in any genre of game. Yet I can’t think of that many high-profile examples. Arcanum (2001 RPG set in an high fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution) was the obvious poster child for Western/PC steampunk titles. Representing Japan and JRPGs, I can point to Final Fantasy VI (1994). And for upcoming games, there’s Bioshock Infinite (FPS). But all in all, steampunk is a drop in the gaming ocean compared to, say, space marines or Tolkienesque fantasy. Where are all the other cool steampunk RPGs that could exist in some other dimension? Strategy, too, could do with more steampunk: offhand I can only think of the Jules Verne scenario for Fantastic Worlds (the Civilization II expansion pack) and the Vinci from Rise of Legends. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If we look at other genres, where’s my Sid Meier’s Pirates!/Space Rangers 2 with airships?

Game devs, are you listening? There’s a very rich vein to be mined, and it’s filled with steam…

Cowboy Bebop: How to flesh out characters in a single sublime moment

Characterisation is vital to a good story. And storytellers can enlighten us about characters and their relationships over hundreds of pages, in elaborate flashbacks, in grand, dramatic revelations.

 

But sometimes, a single eloquent moment can tell us as much as all the above.

 

My case in point here is the third episode of Cowboy Bebop, “Honky Tonk Women”. When we first see our two heroes in this episode, the freebooting bounty hunters Spike and Jet, they’re making their way into an orbiting casino:

 

Jet: “They’ll kick us out if you win too much.”

Spike: “Thanks, Mom, but if you didn’t want me to win, you shouldn’t have brought me here.”

 

Of course, trouble eventually starts. And when Jet sees that Spike is in the midst of the ensuing brawl, he lets out the groan of a frustrated parent: “Oh, Spiiike…”, followed soon enough by, “I told you not to win too much!”

 

And from those few lines, we can deduce so much about the characters and their relationship. We can infer Spike is hot-tempered, prone to getting the two of them into trouble. We can infer Jet is the responsible one. And, best of all, we can infer that the two of them know each other well enough for Jet to automatically assume that the trouble was Spike’s fault for not listening to his advice. It’s these touches that make Bebop, all these years later, still the best anime I’ve ever seen.

The Dance with Dragons draws closer

The latest news on A Dance with Dragons is that GRRM has five part-chapters left to write, and that his publisher “[hopes] to have a finished manuscript by Christmas.”

My head knows I shouldn’t get too hopeful. After all, we’ve been here before: GRRM went on a roll in the middle of ’09, and A Feast for Crows came out back in ’05. My heart, now, that’s a different thing. My heart remembers the thrill of buying AFFC for myself, that I bought it on a Tuesday, that it was on my way down to class. My heart is what draws me to click on every ASOIAF-related thread in the hopes that it’ll contain an announcement that ADWD is finished. My heart is what makes me hope that this time, with 8+ POVs already done and good progress made on a particularly sticky plot element (the “Meereenese Knot”), it’ll be for real.

(In other words, this post could have been subtitled, “What it means to be a fan…”)