Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EuropaUniversalisIV_Coverart_lowrez_shrunkEuropa Universalis IV is an upcoming grand strategy game by Paradox Development Studio, set during the early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1800). When it was announced last year, it immediately caught my eye: I’m a long-time player of Paradox games (including the previous Europa Universalis titles); and to me, the game’s period is one of the most fascinating in history – its rich mix of global interactions ultimately laid the groundwork for our modern, industrialised world. So with the game due out in August 2013, just a couple of months away, the time seemed ripe for a chat with the developers. Read on for my email Q&A with Thomas Johansson, project lead for Europa Universalis IV.

 

Europa Univeralis IV and other Paradox games

 

Peter Sahui: Paradox Development Studio’s last major release, Crusader Kings II, has also probably been its most successful to date (both critically, and in terms of its ability to break out beyond the traditional PDS niche). What lessons did you learn from CK2’s success, and how are you applying them to EU4?

 

Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4
Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4

Thomas Johansson: Crusader Kings II’s two biggest strengths were that it was well polished and we had worked hard on improving the interface. We worked hard with the tutorial, the hint system and to make it a very polished release. With Europa Universalis IV, we are aiming to do even better! Our goal is our most polished release to date and have the best interfaces we have ever created. The main focus of the whole development team is polishing the game and refining the interfaces.

What I also believe has really helped Crusader Kings II is that it was a breakthrough for gamers to realize that the game creates stories that you want to tell other people about. So the simple answer would be that it is a game that makes people talk about it, because they want to share their dramatic events, the intrigue, backstabbing and romances with their friends. Because it constantly surprises you. Just when you thought you had everything going and an easy road to power, money and conquering new territories – then you get stabbed in the back, your wife gets murdered and your sister steals your throne. Just like life… ;)

So the fact that the storytelling came across strong with Crusader Kings II, we hope that people can see that Europa Universalis IV also allows you yourself to create the stories when playing the game. You attack your neighbours, alliances gets broken, you get an incompetent ruler and need to get creative on how to handle his/hers strength and weaknesses while keeping your territory hungry opponents at bay. Continue reading “Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson”

What five games say about violence

“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett

 

I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.

 

violence-games-table-v2

 

(Note: each game’s violence is largely directed against human enemies, such as mercenaries, cultists, soldiers, or police/city watchmen, as in the quote at the top of the page. Also, there are a few bosses, in both senses of the word; but most enemies are low-ranking grunts.)

 

My comments, and mild spoilers, below. Continue reading “What five games say about violence”

Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Q&A with Jess Haskins

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

GOIO Adv Mode Banner

 

Last year, I wrote about Guns of Icarus Online, an interesting, atmospheric shooter set on board opposing steam/dieselpunk airships. Since then, developer Muse Games has unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited paid expansion, Adventure mode. Muse’s stated plan for Adventure includes three key elements:

 

1. PVE and co-op gameplay, unlocked at the Kickstarter’s threshold of $100,000;

 

2. An in-game economy and faction system, flagged as Muse’s first major stretch goal ($350,000)

 

3. Worldbuilding tools, flagged as the second stretch goal ($500,000).

 

Muse has stated that, should it secure more than $100,000 but less than the full $500,000, all Kickstarter backers will receive a “season pass” that will entitle them to future elements of Adventure Mode as and when they are released.

 

Read on for my email Q&A with Jess Haskins, Designer and Chief Nomenclator at Muse:

Continue reading “Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Q&A with Jess Haskins”

Age of Wonders III Q&A with Lennart Sas

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III

Age_of_Wonders_III_Worldmap_ElfCity

 

As promised, here’s the Age of Wonders III Q&A with designer Lennart Sas of Triumph Studios!

 

By way of introduction, Age of Wonders is a high fantasy, turn-based strategy series that has been around since the late 1990s. In AoW, players build up their cities, recruit armies of soldiers and elves, cannons and dragons, and then pit them against rivals in a tactical combat minigame, a la Master of Magic. Fond memories of the earlier games, Triumph’s promise of further improvements, and gorgeous early screenshots all piqued my interest in Age of Wonders III; and it didn’t hurt that the most recent AoW game, Shadow Magic, held up well when I replayed it to prepare for this interview. Sadly I wasn’t able to include every question sent in (I received some separately from the comments to my original post), but I hope this Q&A will address some of what you guys (and I) had in mind. Read on…

Continue reading “Age of Wonders III Q&A with Lennart Sas”

At the Gates Q&A with Jon Shafer!

At the Gates banner

 

Civilization V designer Jon Shafer has unveiled his latest project on Kickstarter: At the Gates, a 4X strategy game that casts the player as a barbarian chief out to pick the carcass of the crumbling Roman Empire. The game sets out to fix one of the biggest problems in strategy gaming, the boring middle/late game, and its promised features include:

 

1. An emphasis on supply: armies will have only a limited capacity to live off the land, making them reliant on supply trains and friendly cities;

 

2. A dynamic map: resources will deplete over time (placing players under greater and greater pressure as the game goes on); seasons will affect the map as rivers freeze and food stockpiles dwindle during winter;

 

3. Asymmetric non-player factions: the Romans are still on the map, play by different rules to the barbarians, and won’t give up without a fight.

 

This all sounded very interesting to me, and Jon was kind enough to sit down for an email interview. Read on:

 

Continue reading “At the Gates Q&A with Jon Shafer!”

The Best Games of 2012

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Happy Ne1st Place Award Ribbonw Year, everyone!

 

2013 has dawned, and it’s time to review the best of last year’s games (that I played). This year I’ve opted to break from the traditional “best RPG”, “best strategy”, etc format normally used in Game of the Year rankings. For one, it papers over the vast differences that exist within any genre: Dark Souls is not Skyrim is not Mass Effect. For another, there are sometimes multiple standout games within the same genre. So instead, I’ve opted to recognise games for their special achievements. Here are 2012’s exemplars:

 

Continue reading “The Best Games of 2012”

Love, Hate, and Stories: The Visual Novels of Christine Love

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

To what heights – and depths – of emotion can we be moved by text in a game? This is the question posed by two of the best games I’ve played recently: Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story.

 

Perhaps I shouldn’t call them games so much as I should call them interactive works of epistolary fiction, in which the player pieces together a story from documents and messages. The two titles contain very little in the way of abstract systems – apart from a couple of puzzles, there are no rules to be mastered here. This doesn’t mean the player is uninvolved! While both games rely on plenty of text, they also deploy that interactivity to good effect. They would not work in any other medium, something we’ll see with Digital.

Continue reading “Love, Hate, and Stories: The Visual Novels of Christine Love”

Armageddon Empires: lessons from a five-year-old indie strategy game

The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.

 

Two high-profile strategy games came out recently, Civilization V: Gods and Kings and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and I might as well spoil my forthcoming reviews by saying I like both of them. Each offers incremental but tangible improvements over its predecessor; each is a worthy addition to its franchise. However, for sheer enjoyment, they might just be trumped by a third title I discovered around the same time: Armageddon Empires, the 2007 board/collectible card game-inspired, turn-based strategy title from Vic Davis and his one-man studio Cryptic Comet.

 

By way of background, AE takes place on a future Earth devastated by a four-way war between humans, mutants, and two invading alien armies. Players explore a randomly generated map, gather resources, amass armies and heroes, research better equipment, and ultimately crush their opponents. In other words, AE is a 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game, the post-apocalypse’s answer to Civilization. However, whereas conventional 4X games allow players to build anything they have researched and can afford, AE represents available units and structures as cards – players are limited to building what they have in their hand at any one time.  Certain card types can be created and added to a hand in mid-match, but the basic building blocks of gameplay – tanks, troops, fortresses, heroes – must be included in a deck before a match (hence the board game/CCG element)*.

 

That’s the waiter’s description – so what are the chef’s secrets?

 

My invincible endgame army.

 

The first thing that makes AE special is its twist on the genre formula: most strategy games are built around sprawl, but AE is built around scarcity. Most of the wasteland is just that, useless and barren, save for a few resource-gathering sites. Armies are finite, limited by deck size. New units are produced from one source (the player’s hand of cards – though they can then be deployed to any friendly base), so no juggling multiple cities, factories, or build queues. This has several implications. First, as Kieron Gillen pointed out, it’s consistent with the game’s post-apocalyptic theme: it stands to reason that in this world, there just is not that much to go around. Second, it does away with the usual bane of the strategy genre, the “I have to babysit all this?!” syndrome. Last of all, when players can form a stack of doom out of four units (see the screenshot above) and (at least on the default settings) there are no more than two or three main armies to manage, this doesn’t just affect the gameplay mechanics (“fewer, but more interesting decisions”) – it also makes every stack more distinct, and hence easier to identify, easier to grow attached to. (This is a topic to which I’ll return.)

AE’s second distinctive feature is that, like Distant Worlds and Conquest of Elysium 3, it gets exploration right. Every game map is bound to contain a few special locations (the number can be tweaked at startup), and these run the gamut. Named, especially juicy resource-gathering sites: the Camps (+3 manpower, whoo!), the Slave Pit and its overseers, the cannibal-infested Destroyed City. Abandoned strongholds: the White Base**, the Crashed Mothership, the Mecha Design Lab. Hidden goodies: a desiccated corpse still clutching a suitcase nuke. This works from a mechanical perspective: it encourages early-game exploration, rewards players for investing in recon units, and offers a trade-off: do I muster troops to take out a defended site, or do I use them to hit one of the other players? But crucially, it also adds to the theme. Scavenging is part and parcel of any post-apocalyptic world, and AE’s specific choice of locations adds further flavour. What do the slave pits and cannibal ruins tell us about the catastrophe that befell the world? What does the gaudy casino defended by gangsters tell us about how some survivors have managed to make their living? And just who was that poor devil with the suitcase nuke?

 

New inventions that my scientist can cook up.

 

The third element that makes AE special is the broadest and most intangible of the three, but also possibly the most important: this game is evocative. For me, every single-player video game is at least partly an exercise in imagination, in temporarily convincing me that I’m not just making pixels blink on a screen – I’m building a city, piloting a spaceship,  saving the world. And this is where AE shines. Partly, this is thanks to the factors I discussed above. Exploration brings the game’s world alive, and the relative scarcity of pieces in play means that (a little like a squad-based game or tactical RPG) it’s easy to construct narratives about the Vengeance mech you always sent where the fighting was fiercest, or the plucky marines who seized the alien HQ with a surprise landing. Partly, this is due to the way so many game mechanics revolve around hero units, giving AE a human face. New inventions (see the above screenshot – better vehicle armour, man-portable laser cannon, tactical and strategic nukes…) don’t spring from a well of “science points” – they come from scientist heroes, who have to roll dice against their skills. That suitcase nuke won’t magically walk to another player’s base – a saboteur hero, such as the humans’ Valentine Kusanagi**, has to infiltrate the hex and make a successful roll. Partly, this is due to inspired card art. The Colossus mech is one of the scariest units in the game, and to see why, look at the screenshot below. That thing has to be the size of a skyscraper! Partly, it’s due to the way different game mechanics interact in clear and intuitive ways: my scouts found a nest of survivors in a destroyed city, which let me call in a tactician and some Imperial Marines, who secured a forward outpost, which I used as an airbase to launch a nuclear strike and win the game. Partly, it’s due to… I could go on, but the point is AE is so much more than the sum of its parts. I walk away from every match feeling like I enacted a heroic story, and that’s one of the best things I can say about a game.

 

The fruits of science. The Machine Empire’s Colossus is not something I want to face in battle… which is why I have its name written on a hydrogen bomb, bottom right.

 

One might wonder why, if AE is so good and has been around for five years, it isn’t also better known. To be sure, it’s not perfect. There’s no in-game tutorial, and while it’s a rare game whose controls I can’t figure out just by messing around, AE’s are sufficiently unintuitive to require reading the manual or a how-to-play guide (I recommend Bill Harris’). Its interface leaves something to be desired, even by indie strategy game standards, and so does its coding – I’ve had to abandon a couple of matches due to glitches. But I don’t think the problem is the rough edges – none of them seriously hurts the gameplay. I think the problem is precisely that AE has been around for five years. It was very much ahead of its time: despite its glowing critical reception, it was not only a TBS, but an indie TBS for the PC, in the days before iPads, hip indie bundles, and the recent renaissance of small/mid-market games.

 

And that really is a shame, because five years on, AE doesn’t just “hold up” – it shines as an example of what this genre can do. More than a very good game, more than a possibly great game, AE is a unique game, packed with lessons in design. This is one game I think every strategy aficionado, and certainly every strategy designer, should play.

 

* There are a couple of exceptions, but this holds true as a general rule.

 

** I also like the shout-outs that Vic Davis scattered throughout the game!

 

Resources

 

Official website, where you can download a demo or buy the game

How-to-play guide, by Bill Harris

 

We hope you enjoyed this retrospective! To quickly find this post, and others like it, click the“features” tab at the top of this page.

Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

 

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

 

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

 

 

Type 1: the “squad-based strategy game with RPG elements”

 

 

Typified by the Jagged Alliance series and the first three X-Com games, this subgenre is largely PC-based (notwithstanding the odd console port) and driven by Western developers. These games share two overarching attributes. First, they emphasise the “strategy” part of “strategy/RPG”, and second, they’re closer to the “realistic” than to the “cinematic” end of the spectrum (at least compared to the other categories!). These manifest in a few ways:

 

  • There isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. Different troopers have different statistics – marksmanship, strength, etc – and, in Jagged Alliance 2, different passive bonuses (e.g. night operations or automatic weapons). However, soldiers lack RPG-style active abilities, and they usually don’t have classes – they certainly don’t in X-Com and JA. What does distinguish soldiers is their equipment (which, in the absence of classes, can usually be freely assigned). You won’t mistake a rifleman, a machine gunner, and an anti-tank specialist!

 

  • The same applies to the enemies you fight. In JA2, a black-shirted commando will be both better armed and a better shot than a yellow-shirted militiaman, but actual boss enemies and special abilities (with the exception of a handful in X-Com – psionics and Chrysalids) are rare.

 

  • In the absence of “gamey” levels of health, life is cheap. X-Com, where the most heavily armoured veteran could die to a single unlucky shot, took this to extremes – but even in JA2, a single turn’s volley fire could be lethal. Conversely, the lack of character customisation means that losing one trooper is not the end of the world – especially not in X-Com, with its never-ending pool of recruits! (I seem to recall JA2 was a bit harsher on this front – not only were there finite mercenaries available, but losing too many would make it hard to recruit more. As such, X-Com was best played without reloading, but I doubt JA2 would be so amenable.)

 

  • In the defining games of the genre, there is no scripted campaign – in X-Com and Jagged Alliance, you choose where and when to take the field. This fits with the conceit of these games – you’re the overall commander, in charge of far more than just battle tactics.

 

  • Combat typically requires you to kill/capture every enemy present. However, the battlefields are large, what you can see is limited to your soldiers’ line of sight, and the enemy could be anywhere. As such, battles tend to unfold as a sweep of the map.

 

This subgenre has never regained its 1990s glory days (hence PC gamers lamenting the “death” of squad-based strategy/RPGs), notwithstanding the odd 2000s release such as Silent Storm. However, signs of life remain. As a largely faithful remake of X-Com, Xenonauts falls squarely in this category, and if it lives up to its promising alpha build, that would deliver a welcome breath of air.

 

Type 2: the “tactics game with RPG elements”

 

Fire Emblem (various Nintendo platforms) and Valkyria Chronicles (PS3 for the original game, PSP for the sequels) form a second subgenre, console-based and driven by Japanese developers. (I suspect Jeanne d’Arc for PSP would also fall into this category, but I haven’t played enough to be sure.) What sets these aside from Type 1 games is that they’re a little more stylised, a little more “game-y”, a little more RPG-like. Specifically:

 

  • As with Type 1 games, there still isn’t much in the way of character customisation or special abilities. However, in RPG fashion, realism now plays second fiddle to game logic. FE/VC characters are much more distinct than X-Com troopers, and their abilities and weapons are delineated by class. A “shock trooper” in Valkyria Chronicles will always use a submachine gun rather than a rifle, an engineer will never be able to use a grenade launcher, and so on. Fire Emblem even cheerfully throws in a rock/paper/scissors dynamic between axe-, sword-, and spear-wielding classes.

 

  • Meanwhile, much like trash mobs in an RPG, individual enemies in Type 2 games tend to be clearly weaker than the player’s squad members. However, watch out for bosses!

 

  • In Fire Emblem, characters can still die easily in the hands of a careless player. However, as with Type 1 games, the lack of character customisation means that the loss of one character is not the show-stopper it might otherwise be. (Valkyria Chronicles is a little more forgiving – it gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic.)

 

  • Gameplay consists entirely of a scripted campaign with set battles – no strategic metagame here.

 

  • Battles still revolve around sweeping a large map, but this plays out slightly differently. Your objectives are different – most levels require you to capture a specified piece of turf, rather than just clearing out the enemy. However, since enemies typically don’t “wake up” until you move close enough, this encourages you (especially in Fire Emblem) to play slowly and carefully, so as not to trigger an overwhelming enemy response. The result, in Fire Emblem, was precise, meticulous gameplay as I checked enemy characters’ movement ranges, lined up the party in safe areas, and then quickly moved in for the kill. (Valkyria Chronicles was a little different in that its scoring system worked by speed, so it was often “optimal” to run past enemy soldiers and beeline for the objective, but I tended to only play this way when I knew a map very well.)

 

This genre is doing a bit better than Type 1. Valkyria Chronicles never saw a PS3 sequel (2 and 3 came out for PSP, and 3 never made it to the West), but Fire Emblem: Awakening has been announced for 3DS. With luck, we’ll see more of these games in the future.

 

Type 3: the “role-playing game with tactical elements”

 

 

A third subgenre, also primarily console/Japanese, includes Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX/PSP), Tactics Ogre (originally SNES/PSX, but I’m mainly thinking of the PSP remake), Front Mission (various), and Disgaea (various). The dividing line between this and Type 2 can be a little blurry, but in general, the key feature of these games is that they emphasise the “RPG” part of “tactical RPG”.

 

  • By this, I mean Type 3 games share traditional RPGs’ emphasis on character development. Out of battle, there’s plenty of time spent on allocating skill points, navigating often-baroque class trees (this class guide for FFT says it all), and building a super-team. In battle, where a Type 1 or Type 2 character would be limited to moving, attacking, and maybe unlocking doors, Type 3 characters constantly fire off special attacks and unique abilities. This also extends to enemies – regular enemies, not just bosses, frequently have their own nasty abilities.

 

  • Conversely, while some of these games do allow for permanent death (FFT, Tactics Ogre), building up characters takes so much time and effort that I think players would have to be crazy not to reload in the event of their characters dying. (Other games, such as Disgaea, sidestep this problem by not having perma-death in the first place.)

 

  • As with RPGs and Type 2 games, there is a scripted campaign with a set storyline and battles to play through.

 

  • The “tactical” part is still present: battles are played out on strategy-style grid maps and positioning remains a consideration (for example, Tactics Ogre, which encouraged you to use terrain and heavily armoured knights’ special abilities to wall off squishy mages and archers). However, the maps are typically smaller than in Types 1-2, and enemies are typically more aggressive about coming out to meet you. As such, there’s no more “sweeping the battlefield” dynamic.

 

Out of the three subgenres, this one is probably doing the best. While the broader JRPG genre largely disappeared during the HD console era, this subgenre never went away. The PSP in particular is a mecca (FFT, Tactics Ogre, ports of Disgaea 1 and 2…), and new/ported Disgaea games continue to appear (e.g. Disgaea 4 came out for PS3 last year, and Disgaea 3 has made it to Vita). I look forward to seeing, and playing, many more in the future.

 

 

Within these categories, different games have added their own unique twists. For example, the genius of Valkyria Chronicles lay in its control scheme. You didn’t move soldiers by clicking squares on a grid – you took direct control of the selected soldier, using the PS3’s analogue stick to run him or her behind sandbags, into trenches, out of cover and into the open. The camera wasn’t locked isometric – it followed each soldier from a third-person perspective. You didn’t choose targets by selecting them from a list or highlighting their square – you hit a button to bring up a pair of crosshairs, then swung the crosshairs over a selected foe, and finally “pulled” the trigger. Now, VC was still a strategy game, not a shooter – once you lined up a shot, whether it hit was determined by the soldier’s class, equipment and special abilities, not by player skill. Yet, by bringing the immediacy and excitement of an action game, the control scheme contributed tremendously to the overall experience.

 

For another example, consider Disgaea, which relies heavily on terrain and movement. Many battles contain “geo panels” that give a special modifier to anyone standing on them – for example, automatic healing (or automatic damage!) every turn, a bonus to attack, an all-around bonus to enemies, and so on. These special effects are generated by geo symbols, pyramid-shaped objects that also appear on the map. And not only are the geo symbols destructible, but party members can pick other characters (friends and foes) and geo symbols up, then throw them around the map. Many levels rely on this! For example, if 90% of a map is coated in red panels, and two geo symbols placed on the red panels give enemies on red a 6x bonus, trying to play as if the game were FFT would be suicide. The solution: line up a daisy chain of, say, six characters. Have #5 lift #6, have #4 lift #5 (who is still carrying #6), and so on. Eventually, #1 throws #2, who throws #3… all the way to the point where #6 can reach and destroy a “3x enemy boost” geo symbol in one turn, before the computer gets to use those nasty bonuses. Does this make story levels puzzle-like? Probably. But it is an interesting mechanic in its own right, and it does distinguish the game from the rest of the genre.

 

This takes us back to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which stands out because of the way it blends multiple games and subgenres. The way it breaks down soldiers into classes, with their own equipment loadouts and special abilities, is straight out of Type 3 games. So is the ability to unlock additional, more advanced classes later on. But its frequent use of an action game-style camera reminds me of nothing so much as the intent behind Valkyria Chronicles’ control scheme (or perhaps the Gallop brothers’ cancelled Dreamland Chronicles, which was to have used similar controls), and the frequency of character death is a (key) holdover from the original X-Com. As such, I don’t think it’s possible to draw apples-and-apples comparisons between Firaxis’ XCOM and the originals, or between XCOM and Xenonauts – but this doesn’t bother me in the least. While Firaxis is diverging significantly from the originals’ design, it also seems to be cross-pollinating several excellent strains of squad-level gameplay. We’ll see in a few months’ time how well this works out, but for now I am eager to see what Firaxis can do.

 

And if I had to conclude on one thought, that would be it: eagerness. Whether these games fall into one big genre or three related ones, at their best they combine the strengths of strategy games and RPGs. They offer the satisfaction of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring an opponent; intricate plots – and a focus on named, persistent characters. Just as great characters make great fiction, the stories that arise through gameplay become all the richer when they star characters whom we have nurtured, whom we can identify and remember. I remember the almost-dead warrior in FFT who ended one of the toughest boss fights in the game with one last desperate jump. I could almost feel the desperation in Valkyria Chronicles when three soldiers tried to hold off an enemy tank, and when I got control of my own tank and sent it to their relief, I certainly felt the power. And I remember the fallen heroes of X-Com and Fire Emblem, including veterans who had been with me since the start of the game and who finally gave their lives near the end. I remember these and more.

 

At the end of the day, it’s no coincidence so many of my favourites fall into the categories described above – PC and console, Western and Japanese. I look forward to seeing more of all these in the future, and I hope that if you’re a pure PC or pure console gamer, if you’re familiar with some but not all of the above games, I’ll have piqued your interest ­in the rest

Persona 3 Portable: The Retrospective Verdict

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Persona 3 & 4

 

 

2006 was a big year for video games. That year, two of the current generation of consoles launched: the Playstation 3 and the Wii. The rival Xbox 360 launched the previous year, but 2006 saw the debut of one of its signature franchises, Gears of War.  And the king of the previous generation, the Playstation 2, was at its zenith. In 2006, Capcom released the stunning (and superb) Okami; Square Enix gave us Final Fantasy XII… and in Japan, Atlus released Persona 3, the latest instalment in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. When Persona 3 made its way to the West in 2007, it received a glowing reception; when I finally played the game, last year, I expected the world of it. It did not disappoint.

 

To be sure, Persona 3 received a few coats of paint in between 2007 and 2011. An enhanced PS2 version, Persona 3: FES, added an epilogue and tweaked the core game; the PSP port I played, Persona 3: Portable, added an alternate, female protagonist and imported some of Persona 4’s gameplay enhancements (though it also had to replace in-engine cutscenes with still art and “talking heads”). But the core of the game has been the same throughout. You guide a modern-day high schooler through one year of his (or her) life, allocating precious time slots between studying, shopping, socialising with one of ~20 people – school buddies, an elderly couple, a little kid, and more – and, uniquely for a teenager, dungeon crawling. The “social simulator” and “dungeon crawler” halves of the game are linked: the main character derives his/her combat abilities from guardian spirits called Personas. Each Persona, and each possible character relationship, is assigned to a given “arcana”, and the stronger a friendship, the stronger a newly created Persona of that arcana will be.

 

Battling monsters: one half of the game.

 

This design has several implications:

 

First, it brings Persona 3’s gameplay in line with its subject. Regardless of story, the gameplay in most RPGs (Japanese or Western) usually skews towards combat – but with its social simulation, its evenings spent doing homework, and its bites grabbed on the way home from school, Persona 3 conveys how its teenaged hero actually lives.

 

Second, the need to manage time weaves interesting choice into the fabric of gameplay. Do I hang out with character A, because I want a Persona of the relevant arcana to clear this stretch of the game? Do I push him to Tuesday so I can see character B instead? Should I spend my evening dungeon-crawling, or should I hit the books instead?

 

Third, more subtly, it fosters roleplaying. In a video game, we roleplay by making choices: Do I back this side in a dispute, or that side? Do I obey my lord, or follow my own conscience? These choices are typically discrete: the end of a quest might offer multiple solutions, or the main plot might branch off at specified points. In Persona 3’s case, the plot might be linear, but the constant stream of choices allows players the same opportunity. Yes, you can approach it as an exercise in powergaming… but it was far more rewarding for me to decide “as my character would”, spending time with NPCs I liked, and behaving consistently with the personality I imagined him to have.

 

Hanging out in town: the other half of Persona 3.

 

None of the game’s elements is perfect. As a dungeon crawler, it suffers from some overly long and tedious late-game boss fights. As a social simulator, it loses a bit of interesting tension once you max out the main character’s stats around the halfway mark. And its main plot suffers from several flaws. Gameplay and story segregation create occasional plot holes; the plot is weakened by a reliance on in-universe logic (think “Captain, we have to replace the dilithium crystals!”) rather than character conflict; and it labours under a fundamental contradiction: it takes itself very seriously at the same time that it revolves around superpowered teenagers.

 

But ultimately, those flaws are minor compared to what Persona 3 does right. It’s a very good dungeon crawler, a very good social simulator/time management game, and most of all, it delivers the most precious attribute in an RPG: it made me care. It made me care about its world, the world I explored every time I sent the main character through town in search of a friend or a coffee. And through great dialogue and voice acting, it made me care about its characters. Their story arcs more than made up for my complaints about the main plot: not all were great, but some were hilarious, others moving. From the first hour of gameplay, I laughed at their antics; when the story turned sombre, I felt for them. And through their unfolding stories, the game was able to convey some surprisingly meaningful themes.

 

Yukari is one of the many well-realised characters in Persona 3.

 

Evidently, a lot of players agreed with me. Not every game enjoys the recognition that it deserves, but this saga has a happy ending. The Persona franchise has gone from strength to strength: a PS2 sequel, Persona 4, came out in 2008, and in the limited time I’ve spent with it, it addresses every complaint I have about Persona 3. A PS Vita port, Persona 4: Golden, and a PS3 fighting game, Persona Arena, are both due out later this year. And most recently, Persona 3: FES has been re-released as a Playstation Network download for PS3. For anyone with a Sony platform, these games are easily accessible.

 

That’s a good thing. This is one game that every RPG aficionado should play, even those who normally don’t enjoy Japanese RPGs. With its marriage of a great concept and good execution, Persona 3: Portable wasn’t just one of the best games I played last year – it’s one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Highly recommended.

 

We hope you enjoyed this retrospective/review! To quickly find this post, and our other articles, click the “reviews” or “features” tabs at the top of this page.

 

Resources

 

Buy Persona 3: FES (PS2) from Amazon US

Buy Persona 3: Portable (PSP) from Amazon US

 

The basis of my review

 

Length of time spent with the game: Over 96 hours (!!!).

 

What I have played: Finished the male protagonist’s route.

 

What I have not played: The female protagonist’s route.

A history of heroes: storytelling in Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria

This entry is part 6 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.

 

 
(Note: this article contains moderate spoilers for the game.)

 

Elaborate backstories are part and parcel of speculative fiction. Fantasy’s defining work, Lord of the Rings, is above all a work of worldbuilding, while science fiction authors have long created detailed “future histories” to tie their works together. Given the extent to which RPGs grew out of this literary genre, it’s no surprise that RPG designers followed suit – a trend at its most visible in the lore codices of recent titles such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age. But in my opinion, few games have done it as well as a little-known 2006 Playstation 2 JRPG, Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria (developed by tri-Ace and published by Square Enix).

 

Very, very, very loosely inspired by Norse mythology, VP2 followed the adventures of Alicia, an exiled princess sharing a body with the valkyrie Silmeria*. The game offered a lengthy plot featuring wrathful gods, magic MacGuffins, swordsmen and sorcerers – but if the plot were all VP2 had, I would not be writing this post. It simply wasn’t that great for the first two-thirds of the game, though it did pick up sharply towards the end. Rather more satisfying was VP2’s character growth: Alicia went from a frightened girl dependent on Silmeria (this wallpaper says it all) to a mature, confident heroine, complete with new voice clips in battle. But while this was rewarding, it was still anything but groundbreaking – after all, character growth is the bread and butter of fiction.

 

Where VP2 uniquely shone was the way it brought its world, past and present, to life. Part of this was a combination of art design and music. The soundtrack was serene as you traversed the sunlit idyll of the Kythena Plains; ponderous in a dark, haunted forest and lilting in a magical one; chirpy in the metropolis of Villnore and ethereal as you crossed Bifrost, the breathtakingly spectacular bridge to the heavens. Even ruins, the stock setting of fantasy RPGs, were distinct: when Alicia journeyed through a half-submerged temple, the pensive music echoed the lost splendour around her – very different from the conventionally heroic theme that accompanied a trip through an ancient volcano.

 

And the wonders of VP2’s world were more than skin deep. While your party included plenty of storyline characters, you could also recruit up to 20 einherjar – the spirits of long-dead warriors, chosen by Silmeria to fight for the gods – randomly chosen from a pool of 40. The storyline characters (who appeared in the game’s plentiful cut-scenes) were far more fleshed-out than any one einherjar (who had only a few lines of dialogue apiece**). But as a group, I think the einherjar received by far the better deal. That was because each character, storyline or einherjar, had backstory in the form of a character profile accessed from the party screen – and the einherjar backstories, spread over a thousand years of in-game history, were extensively woven together. They interwove with the towns you visited in-game (your party might include a given location’s mythical founders), but more importantly, they interwove with each other. If you read the profiles of two or three einherjar, you might find that they’d journeyed together in their youth; split up to take opposite sides in a war; and met their separate ends after that. A kingdom home to four or five einherjar in one generation might disappear a hundred years later, brought down by an einherjar from a rival land; that conqueror in turn might die ignominiously to a poisoned arrow.

 

This would have been impressive enough on its own. But there was also a second, deeper layer: the profiles weren’t always true. For instance, this is what the game had to say about Woltar the sorcerer, who joined in one of the earliest dungeons:

 

A ruthless alchemist who kidnapped the Queen of Crell Monferaigne in 746 C.C. Hiding out in the hinterland of Salerno, Woltar was rumoured to have spent his days and nights engrossed in horrifying experiments. However, in 752 C.C. he was found and punished by officers from Crell Monferaigne. A month after the queen was rescued from her prison, she took her own life by throwing herself  from atop the castle wall.

 

The mental images are horrific – but false. Here’s what really happened: Woltar and the queen eloped. They lived happily and even had a daughter together, before the king’s men found Woltar, killed him, and brought the queen back, only for her to kill herself out of grief for her lover. Their daughter’s ending was no happier, as you found out if you recruited her: she was murdered years later on the orders of her stepbrother, the prince.

 

The tragic tale of Woltar and family was just the tip of the iceberg. The einherjar backstories were packed with sorrow: the woman who, believing false accusations, arranged for her sister’s death – and who killed herself upon discovering the truth; friends who met on the battlefield after supporting rival kings; the loyal sorcerer whose suspicious liege abandoned him to torture and death. And while the game played fast and loose with its Norse inspiration, this was one area where it felt absolutely true to my knowledge of myths from round the world – look at how few of the ancient Greek heroes made it to a happy ending.

 

But the einherjar backstories weren’t just about sorrow, containing as they did other emotions that we should feel in the presence of epics. These were warriors brave enough to be chosen as the champions of the gods, and thus, heroism – and triumph even in death – were prominent: the friends whose sacrifice saved their home from conquest; the trio who sealed off the gateway to the netherworld, something which could probably have made a story in its own right. There was even poetic justice: the sorcerer responsible for the deaths of four other einherjar never got to enjoy his triumph, courtesy of an arrow through the heart. His assassin? None other than another einherjar.

 

Unfortunately, despite all the above, rock-solid gameplay*** and praise from the critics, VP2 never achieved even the cult-classic status of its predecessor. Sales (according to VGchartz’ estimates) were measly, and even within the JRPG genre, it seems to have ended up little more than an obscure footnote. But it left its impression on me. Long after details of gameplay and plot faded from my mind, I remember the game’s locations, beautiful, diverse, and filled with character. I remember the game’s spiderweb of einherjar relationships, complex and deep enough to do any novelist proud. I remember how enthralled I was to see the pitiless history of VP2’s world played out through the lives and deaths of the einherjar; and I remember the emotions their stories provoked. True, this is not a method that could be used by many games, given how the valkyrie/einherjar conceit tied in with the game’s lore – but VP2 made the most of it. To this day, I’m glad to have experienced VP2’s storytelling, and it remains one of my favourite games.

 

 

* An invention of the game, not an actual mythological figure.

 

** Unlike the first game, where every character you recruited was an einherjar, each of whom received an introductory cut-scene of his/her own.

 

*** To be fair, sometimes it was a bit too rock-solid – the game was rather hard.

 

Resources

 

Eurogamer review

Order Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria from Amazon (US)

 

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

My Game of the Year – 2011 is…

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

2011 was a good year in gaming. Just counting new releases, I enjoyed all of:

 

  1. Bastion (PC), an isometric action game with pretty art design and an original world;
  2. Dark Souls (PS3), which (so far – I haven’t played enough to form a verdict) offers a promising mix of finely tuned challenge and great drop-in co-op gameplay;
  3. Frozen Synapse (PC), a stylish and clever squad-based indie strategy game;
  4. Section 8: Prejudice (PC), a bargain-priced team-based shooter. This is a genre I wouldn’t normally touch, but I had a great time roving around Prejudice’s battlefields as an engineer-medic-tank commander, a role that could survive my lack of reflexes;
  5. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP),  the modern remake of Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s tactical roleplaying game; and
  6. Total War: Shogun 2 (PC), the latest and – by far – most polished instalment of the long-running historical strategy series.

 

One title, though, managed to stand out from the pack. One title was the best example of its genre I’d seen in years. One title is my Game of the Year. I present to you:

 

Game of the Year – 2011: Total War: Shogun 2 (review here), developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. This truly deserves the “strategy” label: it’s packed with interesting and well-executed sub-systems (diplomacy, realm management, campaign manoeuvre, and battlefield tactics), well-paced, and blessed with a clever computer player. With this, CA has addressed every complaint I’ve had – and redeemed its mistakes – as far back as Rome: Total War.

 

And there is one more with a similar appeal:

 

Runner-up: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (review here), developed and published by Square Enix. This is the pinnacle of the “traditional” turn-based TRPG genre; built around combat that’s fluidly lethal without being frustrating, it then tries to sand away every little annoyance in the genre – from unskippable random battles to unclear camera angles – and tell a story more meaningful and mature than “kill the foozle, save the world”. It doesn’t quite succeed at those two goals, but it aims high and comes close to its mark, something I appreciate all the more after going back to older, cruder TRPGs.

 

Well done, Creative Assembly and Square Enix. And Happy New Year to all of you!

A game that could have been: Emperor of the Fading Suns

If I had a penny for every game set in outer space, I’d be writing this post from somewhere sunnier and sandier. How many first-person shooters have cast us as Angry McShootsalot, the space marine? And how many RPGs and 4X games have treated us to  “classic space opera” universes, the sort familiar to anyone who’s seen Star Trek or Star Wars, or read a Larry Niven novel? This extends to gameplay conventions. If you’ve played Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires, you know the formula – players start with a single world at the dawn of the age of interstellar travel, then colonise virgin territory until eventually the whole galaxy is claimed. Technology progresses in a smooth upward line. The real fighting is all done in space; ground combat is abstracted to ‘bring troop transports and roll the dice’. Everything is clean and crisp and futuristic.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in an original version of outer space… well, at least I’d have one cent, courtesy of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS), the 1996 turn-based strategy game from Holistic Design, Inc (HDI). Set in the same universe as Fading Suns, HDI’s pen-and-paper RPG,  EFS falls into the broad 4X genre defined by classics such as Civilization and the games I listed above, but carved out a space all its own. In EFS, the main conflict was human against human, though there was an alien menace in the background. And there was nothing crisp or clean or futuristic about its universe, filled with princes, priests, psionics and peasants in what’s usually described as “a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40,000”.

 

The princes were the players, competing to become emperor of the 40 “known worlds” that were all that was left of a once-thriving interstellar society.  40 worlds might not sound like a lot… but unlike other 4X games, where a world would be defined by a few numbers, in EFS each had its own unique, Civilization-sized hex grid map. Each had its own layout of continents, islands, oceans. Each had its own assortment of resources: fertile farmlands, oil-rich deserts and seas, mountain ranges containing ore and gemstones. They had different terrain palettes, and a very different feel – you would not mistake snowy Delphi, capital of the Atreides-knockoff House Hawkwood, for the jungle world Severus, capital of the Harkonnen-knockoff House Decados.

 

EFS’ combat system also emphasised the planetary level. Ground and space battles were fought Civ-style (without tactical combat) between stacks of up to 20 units at a time, with different units excelling at different phases of battle – for example, artillery could shoot first and target any unit, but would be vulnerable in “direct” or “close” combat. While there were relatively few types of space unit, the game’s lavish technology tree offered ground units aplenty, starting with basic tanks and self-propelled guns, and culminating in power-armoured assault legions, genetically engineered warbeasts, and hover tanks. Capital spacecraft (cruisers and dreadnoughts) could bombard enemy stacks before you sent in the ground troops, but they couldn’t hit every unit, and planet-to-space batteries – perhaps protected by the planetary shield! – could shoot back. Thus, to invade a world, gaining space superiority wasn’t enough – you had to land troops to establish a beachhead and fight your way across the surface, all the while keeping up a flow of new ground units from your homeworlds. As a result, EFS, better than any other game I’ve played, captures just how colossal an undertaking a planetary invasion would be.

 

EFS’ uniqueness extended to its victory conditions. To start with, players could trade favours to win control of what was left of the Imperial ministries (space fleets, spies, border garrisons) – every 10 turns, the players would elect one of their number to be the regent, the one in charge of handing out these offices. To win the game, you had to first be voted regent, then declare yourself emperor. Instead of putting you through the tedium of steamrolling every other claimant to the throne, EFS “just” required you to be confirmed by a final vote after another 10 turns.

 

And this was when the game was at its most exciting. To vote for regent or emperor, you needed two things. First, each player’s voting rights were represented by five sceptres – actual units on the map – and these could be stolen from one another (or from certain NPC factions). More sceptres, more votes. Second, you needed a noble in the capital to cast your vote. You started with five nobles – four on your homeworld, one in the capital – and if they all died, it was game over. Now, for most of the game, the capital was a neutral zone where assassins could strike, but overt conflict was forbidden. But once the regent crossed the Rubicon, that prohibition was lifted. Rival armies would converge on the capital to slaughter each other’s nobles while safeguarding their own. Battle fleets would take up position to stop the armies arriving. Blood would run in the streets, as neglected garrisons were overrun by their more prepared rivals. And hanging over your head was the looming deadline of that second vote. That was how a race for the imperial throne should feel. And that was how a strategy endgame should play.

 

To cap things off, EFS was also highly moddable: it had a map editor and it stored rules and unit data in Notepad-editable files. If you thought the common artillery unit was too powerful, or that special forces legions should be able to live off the land, you could change it yourself. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Ambitious mods upped the challenge, reshaped the game’s economy, changed the combat rules, added whole new classes of units that could fight in space or on the ground.

 

Unfortunately, EFS also had its fair share of flaws. The game was quite clearly not a finished, let alone a polished, product.  Vestigial, unimplemented features remain to tantalise the player – for example, you could throw your weight behind one Church sect or another, which had absolutely no effect but implies that the designers intended players to stack papal elections in their favour. And while the game did come with multiplayer, its AI barely knew how to play. Rather, my most challenging single-player experience came from a fan-made scenario that lumbered me with internal foes (a frail economy and a rebellious populace), in a prophetic flash-forward to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian Invasion.

 

For whatever reason, EFS did not succeed in the marketplace, and ultimately it made little impression on the genre. You will see plenty of Civilization or Master of Orion retrospectives and sequels, but none for EFS. Years later, the potential of the franchise glimmered again when HDI announced a spin-off project, Fading Suns: Noble Armada. Rather than being a 4X title, Noble Armada followed in the footsteps of “freelance starship commander” games such as Elite. Set during the peace following the emperor’s accession, it would have allowed players to venture into unknown space, trading, fighting, exploring and questing at the head of a small fleet. And Noble Armada made it quite far through the development process: I remember playing a pre-release demo, buggy and crash-prone but tantalisingly fun. But sadly, this flicker of hope never came to fruition. Noble Armada bounced from one publisher to another, before finally dying, never to see the light of day. With it died the Fading Suns franchise on the computer.

 

Nowadays, Emperor of the Fading Suns is a dusty entry on abandonware sites, and a fond memory in the minds of fans. It’s a sad fate for a game that, with a bit more polish and a better AI, would have been one of the best strategy games ever made. As it is, it’s still a gem, albeit a flawed one. It’s a unique experience, both in terms of game mechanics and flavour. And for a player looking for immersion rather than a competitive single-player experience, it still holds up very well. I wish it were both better known and more widely imitated. I can’t do anything about the latter, but with this post, I hope I can do something about the former.

 

Resources

 

Video tutorial (Nova mod)

Hyperion mod – my mod of choice when I played EFS

Nova mod – no personal experience with this but a lot of players like it

 

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

The price of heroism: storytelling in X-Com

This entry is part 5 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.

 

 

Almost every game out there casts the player as a hero: someone who accomplishes great feats in the face of extraordinary odds. By the time we finish, we’ll have vanquished tyrants, terrorists, aliens and ancient evils. But few titles have had gameplay mechanics that convey heroism better than X-Com: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown), the 1994 strategy game from Microprose where you led a multinational force – soldiers, scientists, pilots and purchasing officers – against an alien invasion. And X-Com managed this without a single line of dialogue or scripted plot event.

 

First, being a squad-level game gave X-Com an immediate advantage: it was built around individual characters. It was individual characters whose stats, ranging from marksmanship to carrying capacity to reaction speed, you pored over at base. It was individual characters whom you controlled in battle, telling this one to take cover behind a wall, while his sergeant prepared a grenade and a tank scouted ahead. It was individuals you named for friends and colleagues (you could freely rename soldiers), individuals who saved the day with lucky shots and well-placed grenades, and individuals whose progress you followed as their stats and kill counts inched higher with every mission.

 

So far, so good. But I could say the same of any RPG, tactical RPG or squad-level game. Thus, while the focus on individual feats was necessary to X-Com’s storytelling appeal, it was not sufficient.  And this was where the “overwhelming odds” part of the formula became important.

 

For in X-Com, those feats came at a terrible cost in lives. Think of any science fiction scene where human soldiers plink away at armoured monstrosities, only to be slaughtered once the aliens open fire; that’s what the start of X-Com felt like, especially when the aliens showed up with heavy weapons. As your technology improved – once your soldiers started bringing home alien guns and grenades for your scientists to reverse-engineer, once your workshops began turning out armour made from the same material as UFO hulls – the situation did grow less dire, and by the endgame, the balance shifted decisively in favour of a human player who brought an “A” squad loaded with the game’s most powerful weapons.

 

Yet that lethality never completely disappeared, because even with the best armour in the game, one (un)lucky shot could still kill. You may have become better at preventing the aliens from ever getting the chance to move and shoot, but your finest marksman, your most seasoned veteran would die as quickly as the raw recruit once the aliens drew a bead on him or her.  As a result, this was one game where it was so tempting to reach for the reload button when something went wrong – but where it was equally rewarding to resist that urge. For it was that sense of overcoming the odds, of bouncing back from slaughter and catastrophe, which made victory in X-Com so sweet.

 

I remember Swordlily the sniper, a key player on my “A” team and one who steadily rose through the ranks. I gave her one of the most accurate weapons I had, and a suit of advanced armour to keep her intact. Then one day, an alien fired a shot right into the transport plane – where she should have been safe, at the far end of the troop compartment – and killed her where she stood.

 

I remember the time three soldiers, the last survivors of their ten-strong squad, straggled across a field to storm a giant UFO by themselves – and won.

 

I remember when the aliens came swarming in to assault an outpost manned by my “B” squad, undergunned and underskilled rookies. A guided missile sped around a corner and right into the midst of my defensive layout, turning half the squad to ash. One survivor, wounded and panicked, dropped her gun. But right opposite her was the less fortunate soldier who had carried my squad’s missile launcher. So on my next turn, once she pulled herself together, I sent her racing out of her hiding spot. Across the hallway she ran. With a few clicks, she grabbed the dead man’s launcher. With a few more, she returned fire with a missile of her own. And it worked. I salvaged that battle and saved the base. Not a bad accomplishment considering the odds – and it rested on one soldier’s courage.

 

If that isn’t a tale of heroism, one that X-Com made possible as so few other games could have done, I don’t know what is.

 

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Total War? Only for the undiplomatic: the lessons of Shogun 2

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Update: You can find my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

Total War: Shogun 2: A diplomatic victory, but not in the way you’d think

I’ve now finished the Total War: Shogun 2 campaign (short length, Hard campaign difficulty and Normal battle difficulty, playing as the Shimazu), and I can update one of my earlier impressions. In my previous post, I mentioned that getting too close to the finish line would trigger “realm divide” – a final showdown, with “almost every single computer player in the game [declaring] war” on the human.  It turns out this is not quite correct: even after realm divide I was able to stay on good terms with several allies both large and small. How did I pull this off?

You see, realm divide’s effect is indirect – it works by lowering the human player’s relationship with the AI  players. This negative modifier is big to begin with, and grows turn after turn after turn (there is a cap, but it’s ridiculously large). When that relationship becomes sufficiently negative, the computer will declare war1.

The trick, then, is to pile on every positive modifier possible. Research techs (such as the tea ceremony) that grant a bonus to diplomacy, and keep your daimyo’s honour high so everyone will be more fond of you. Then bribe your chosen buddies to get the ball rolling. Once they’ll agree to it, wed their daughters (or vice-versa) for another, large positive modifier. Strike an alliance for a further boost to relations. Exchange hostages – in my case, an eight-year-old grandson – for yet another boost. And for good measure, declare war on their current enemies (you’ll fight them anyway once the realm divides) for a final bonus.

The net effect: I never had to take on more than a handful of enemy factions, and the ones I did fight were usually busy with wars on other fronts as well! Good relationships bought me the time to win the game before my allies, too, turned on me.  In other words, diplomacy made the final war manageable before I fired the first shot. That is how it should work in a game like this.

How Shogun 2’s diplomacy stacks up to other games

Seeing diplomacy done properly in Shogun 2 underscores how weak it was in the previous Total War games. Afterwards, I loaded up Empire: Total War – from 2009, just two years ago – to compare the available diplomatic options, and boy, has Shogun 2 come a long way since then. Empire has barely any tools I can use to influence a relationship – I can give gifts, I can return land, and, uh, that’s about it – and the options which are there, in my experience, do not work nearly so well as they do in Shogun 2. Suicidal computer players, ahoy!

Shogun 2 also showed up the weakness in the diplomatic system of another game, one you might not immediately think of: Civilization V. Its predecessor, Civ IV, is much like Shogun 2 in that it provides plenty of ways to butter up a computer player, from trade to missionaries and shared faith to open borders. Civ V is a big step back from that. It offers a bare handful of ways to influence a relationship (I can sign “declarations of friendship”, denounce people I don’t like, and… what else?); those features present are poorly documented; and the computer’s attitude can feel infuriatingly random. This was not helped by a design decision to make diplomacy feel more like interacting with other humans – who are explicitly out to win, who are harder to read, and who are more prone to treachery – and less like the application of a game system. Firaxis undid some of the damage in a patch that allowed you to see some of the factors underlying the computer’s attitude, but the lack of diplomatic tools remains. The overall result, as I wrote around Christmas 2010, is an unpleasant throwback to Civ I, a game that’s 20 years old this year.

In contrast, Shogun 2 does appear to owe something to another game renowned for its diplomacy: Galactic Civilizations II, the 2006 4X game from Stardock. I only played a moderate amount of GalCiv2, but I did observe that like Civ IV and Shogun 2, it offered plenty of tools to influence relationships – including techs that conferred a bonus to diplomacy, an idea that Shogun 2 may well have picked up from here.

What makes Shogun 2’s diplomacy work – lessons for other strategy games

What underpins the successful diplomacy in Shogun 2 is the clear link between investment and payoff. In an RPG, if I spend points on my speech skill, that visibly pays off when I unlock new dialogue options. In Shogun 2, if I spend my money raising an army, that visibly pays off when I take my new recruits and use them to conquer my neighbour. And in Shogun 2, if I spend my money on bribes/gifts to other factions, my in-game time researching the tea ceremony when I could be researching gunpowder, and my real-world time messing around in diplomacy screens, that visibly pays off in a secure border and healthy profits from trade.

In turn, this is the result of both successful design and execution. From a design perspective, Shogun 2 provides players with a whole menu of options, most of which involve a tradeoff of some kind (the “investment” part of the equation), while making it very difficult to take on everyone at once in the endgame, especially in the absence of trade income (the “payoff” part of the equation). And from an execution standpoint, these tools work because the diplomatic AI in Shogun 2 is not – at least, in my experience so far – the spiteful and bloody-minded brute that it is in so many other games. Offer a good enough deal, and it will accept. Treat it well enough, and it will be your staunch ally for years.

The benefits to gameplay are real. Good in-game diplomacy means less whack-a-mole, more choices, more strategy. More intangibly, it contributes to immersion and suspension of disbelief. RPGs have party members and non-violent quest solutions, adventure games and shooters have sidekicks and snappy dialogue, Gondor had Rohan, and strategy games should have proper alliances. If even so martial a game as Shogun 2 can succeed here, then other strategy games should follow suit and offer us the rewards of jaw-jaw.

  1. I believe, but do not know for a fact, that realm divide makes the computer more willing to go to war when the relationship is negative (whereas pre-realm divide, a computer player that hates my guts may be more willing to keep the peace). This is conjecture, though, based on how quickly the computer is willing to attack, post realm-divide, once the relationship becomes low enough.

Pricing AI War and Tidalis: Chris Park of Arcen Games speaks

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the differing pricing strategies that Matrix Games, Shrapnel Games and Paradox Interactive use for their respective catalogues of niche strategy games. Matrix and Shrapnel keep prices high and discounts rare, while Paradox titles are discounted far more frequently and have a lower base price once they’ve been out for a while. But I was also curious about the pricing strategy followed by another company, Arcen Games. AI War, Arcen’s first title, is deep, intricate and indie, but it and its expansions also frequently sell at a discount, and AI War’s base price of US$20 is also much lower than the typical price for AAA retail releases. So I decided to ask Chris Park, the founder of Arcen, about how useful Arcen finds discounting. With his permission, his reply is quoted below:

 

“Hi Peter,

Good to hear from you. I think that a variety of models can work, as you yourself pointed out, but in the case of Arcen we’re pretty much dependent on the occasional discount sales in order to stay in business.  Not to put too fine a point on it. ;)

In an average month with no discounts, we tend to bring in anywhere from 33% to 90% of our operating costs, which at best means we’re still losing money.  In the months where we do a discount, we tend to bring in between 300% to 550% of our operating costs, which more than makes up for it.  We tend to do discounts every 2-3 months, as you may have noticed, which keeps us usually on a growth track and quite comfortable.  Last summer when we had some financial difficulties, it was partly because our summer discounts had fallen to about 200%, which was not what we needed.

In a broad sense, it’s definitely true that the discount sales help to keep ongoing visibility for our games, but I think that’s only possible when it’s also paired with the free-for-existing-customers updates.  That lets people feel like the game is something current that they are buying (which it is), rather than just a game from 2009 that we are wringing out the last drops of money from.  For us, this has meant that in terms of AI War revenue, our 2010 income was slightly more than 4x our 2009 AI War revenue.  So far, our 2011 revenue for AI War is already about 1.5x our 2009 numbers, so it’s growing even faster now.

A lot of that comes from our expansions, or our ongoing updates, or our ongoing periodic discounts that let us get floods of new players that are excited about the game.  For our company specifically, I don’t think this would work without all three of those factors, honestly.  That puts us… in a really unusual situation as a game developer, anyway.  Normally sales start way higher and then trend off after a month or two, but ours is backwards and spread out over two years so far.”

 

This made me wonder whether there was any difference between AI War and Arcen’s other title, the casual/puzzle game Tidalis, when it came to the effectiveness of discounting. Surely, going by the Matrix/Shrapnel logic, discounts would be more effective for the “mass market” title than for the deep strategy game? But the answer to my follow-up question came as a surprise:

 

“My pleasure, and I’m glad the info was useful. Bear in mind that not nearly every indie game developer is in this sort of situation.  We are one of but dozens of successful business models I’ve seen, and I can’t claim that one is really better than another.  Instead, I think it’s a matter of each indie finding what works for their specific titles and their development style.

And that can even vary by title, too.  Case in point: the effectiveness of discounts has indeed been quite lower with Tidalis compared to AI War.  Being casual-on-the-surface and having a price point of $9.99, which people already associate with being low, are I think the two key things that make that not work as well.

Or another way to look at it, I suppose, is that it’s simply not that big a hit with the “Steam crowd” or the other hardcore distribution sites.  So putting it on discount makes a lot less difference there since that audience that is so discount-reactive is less interested in the game to begin with.  The depth is there, but it’s masked by a surface that is off-putting to many hardcore gamers, we found.

I don’t mind if you quote the whole thing, that’s just fine — just bear in mind that I don’t speak for all indies, and a lot of them that I know use business models that are utterly at odds with mine.  Indies are a very non-homogeneous part of the industry in practically every way, heh!”

 

Now, as Chris points out, Arcen is just one data point, taking my total to four (including the original three of Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox). But it’s a fascinating data point, and I found it a real eye-opener as to the factors that can influence both the choice and the effectiveness of pricing strategies.

 

(Incidentally, I own both AI War+its expansions and Tidalis, some of which I bought at a discount and others of which I bought at nearly full price. I haven’t yet played AI War beyond its tutorials, but Tidalis has been love at first sight from what I’ve played so far, and I think it would be a shame for hardcore gamers to overlook it without even a glance. I hope to write more about Arcen’s titles as I play further.)

 

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Pricing Niche Strategy Games: Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox

For some time, I’ve kept my eye on a space-opera 4X game by the name of Distant Worlds, developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games. This game (based on what I’ve read) could best be described as Master of Orion III done right. As is typical for the genre, Distant Worlds casts you as an aspiring galactic emperor, out to subjugate the galaxy through the efforts of your colonists, scientists, businesspeople, and when all else fails, your soldiers. Less typically, the game expects you to delegate much of your authority to a computer-controlled viceroy, which apparently allows it to aim for an especially epic scale. It apparently even does a good job with little touches such as minor species that can be swept up into the larger empires, and with establishing backstory through in-game events. But for all my interest, I’ve never bought Distant Worlds. Why? Because it usually goes for its full price of $40, on top of which there’s also a $20 expansion pack. And that money would buy me a whole lot of other games or books instead*.

 

Admittedly, Distant Worlds is a new game; it only came out in March 2010. What about older titles? Here, we can consider Dominions 3, developed by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel Games, which sells for $55 despite being released back in 2006. Now, I love Dominions 3. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and well worth the money I paid for it. But $55 is still a fair bit of money, comparable to the price of a brand-new AAA game.

 

Whenever I see this topic come up, the standard response is that the Matrices and Shrapnels of this world charge the prices they do because their customers are a small, but price-insensitive, niche. In other words, if I am so hardcore a strategy player that I’ll buy Dominions 3 in the first place, then I’m so hardcore that I’ll pay $55 for it; on the other hand, if I wouldn’t play that kind of game at all, then no discount would help. And this is a reasonable point. While, say, Recettear managed to sell over 100,000 copies with the aid of heavy discounting, (A) Recettear is far more mainstream than Dominions 3, and (B) many of those cut-price sales brought in very little money. (If you’re interested in the maths behind price, units sold and revenue, I have a brief writeup in an appendix at the bottom of this post.)

 

But a third company, Paradox Interactive, would seem to disprove the “our game will only appeal to a few people, so we need to charge a premium price” approach. Paradox’s games are also very deep, very dense, and very niche, yet Paradox takes a very different approach to pricing and discounting. Paradox’s latest title, Victoria 2 (2010), also currently has an official price of $40 – but one site offers it (in download form) at a temporarily discounted price of $20, and another offers it (as a boxed copy) for a regular price of A$19.50. And Victoria 2 is by no means unique. I regularly see Paradox-published games (both internally and externally developed) go on sale with hefty discounts, often but not always to coincide with the launch of a new game. Paradox’s older games also have much lower base prices (Europa Universalis III Complete goes for $20, though it’s missing the latest two expansion packs.) So the Paradox brass certainly seems to believe that it makes more money this way.

 

Why might Paradox’s approach be so different from that of Matrix and Shrapnel? I can think of several explanations.

 

  • One, as I understand it, both Matrix and Shrapnel are primarily wargame publishers, but from what I can tell, wargames are generally also pretty expensive. (I’m not a wargamer, but this is based on my looking at the prices of wargames and hearing periodic complaints on the subject.) Perhaps Matrix and Shrapnel are accustomed to pricing for that market, and just apply the same principles to other strategy games? Perhaps their usual audience is accustomed to paying higher prices even for non-wargames? Perhaps it’s both?

 

  • Two is the nature of Paradox’s product offering compared to the other two. Shrapnel doesn’t publish that many games in the Dominions series (in addition to 3 itself, there’s just Dominions 2, which seems to be no longer available), and Distant Worlds is its developer’s only game. In contrast, Paradox has plenty of games in its historical series, which complement rather than replace each other, and it constantly releases new titles and expansion packs. So by discounting, say, the Renaissance/Age of Discovery/Enlightenment game Europa Universalis III, Paradox is building brand awareness for its medieval game, its Roman game, its Victorian-era game and its World War 2 game. To some extent, this is supported by my observation that games that Paradox publishes, but doesn’t develop, don’t seem to go on sale as often as Paradox’s own titles. Given that, say, there are only two titles in the externally developed Mount & Blade series (plus a third one in the works) and the first game was made obsolete by the second, and that there’s only one Sword of the Stars game (plus an upcoming sequel), there’s less need to promote these by discounting. (That said, their base prices are also cheap – Sword of the Stars Complete goes for just $20.)

 

  • The other remaining alternative, of course, is that one business or another is mistaken: either Paradox is leaving money on the table with its lower-priced back catalogue and frequent, large discounts, or Matrix and Shrapnel are losing business with their high prices and infrequent, small discounts.

 

I have my own suspicions as to the answer: I’ve bought a bunch of cheap or heavily discounted titles from Paradox that I would not have bought for full price, so Paradox has forgone little or no revenue from me. In contrast, as mentioned above, Distant Worlds’ price tag is what has kept me from buying it. And my instinct tells me that pricing games in the belief they’ll only appeal to a tiny niche may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I’m just one customer; I’m biased (cheap games benefit me!); and most importantly, I don’t have any hard data (for the Matrix/Shrapnel/Paradox end of the gaming spectrum) to verify my guess. So at this stage, I think, the jury is still out.

 

If anyone reading this is from one of the abovenamed publishers, or has experience with pricing niche video games, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

* To be fair to Matrix, I just discovered that the game had gone on sale (down to $27) over Christmas 2010.

 

** If the data’s available, there are plenty more examples of niche games I’d like to hear about. How has, say, Arcen Games done with its frequent sales on AI War?

 

 

Appendix: Product pricing, sales revenue, and profit


How much should we charge to maximise profit? (This isn’t the same as maximising revenue, as we’ll see.)

 

At the revenue line, revenue = price * number of units sold. So I should be indifferent between selling 5 items for $20 each or 2 items for $50 each, a ratio of 2.5:1.

 

At the profit line, it becomes a little trickier because now I have to deduct the incremental cost of selling each additional unit***: Profit = (Price – Variable Cost) * number of units sold. If each item I sell costs me an incremental $10, now I have to sell 8 copies for $20 each (making a $10 profit on each) to make the same profit as I would from two $50 sales (which would give me a $40 profit on each, for $80 total), a far less favourable ratio of 4:1.

 

However, when it comes to games distributed in download form, I think it’s reasonable to assume that, other than the retailers’ (Steam, Impulse, etc) fee, there is a minimal cost to sell additional units. (And in any case, my understanding is the retailers’ fee is typically a variable amount – say, 40% of the item’s price – rather than a fixed sum.) So for present purposes, we can probably treat revenue maximisation as the sensible policy to pursue.

 

*** Strictly speaking, when I talk about “profit” in this section, I’m referring to “contribution margin” – that is, revenue minus variable cost.

 

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The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

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

 

I’m not actually that great at playing games.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And my Game of the Year – 2010 is…

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Happy new year, everyone!

An extraordinary life: storytelling in Fallout 3

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

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

 

 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

 

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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.

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.