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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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

Freebie highlight: The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold

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

 

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

 

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

Victoria 2: Now THAT’s detail

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

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

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

EDIT: My review is up!

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You can buy Cryoburn from Amazon here.

 

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

 

 

Why can’t all stores have mascots as adorable as Steam’s?

I didn’t buy anything during the soon-to-be-over Steam sale (24-29 November), but that was no fault of the adorable mascots used to promote the sale. Here they are:

Onto the holidays!

A time to share with friends

I want that one!

Mascots seated at computers

Unfortunately, if we assume that there was a new picture every day, then that means there would have been six pictures overall – and I only have four. Does anyone know where the remaining pictures, if any, might be found?

 

ETA: Courtesy of Talorc at Quarter to Three, here are the remaining two:

 

Wishlist

 

For me, every Friday is black

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.

%d bloggers like this: