Well, here’s the second half of this – over 8,500 words of long-winded, self-indulgent claptrap! Seriously, taking this chunk and the one last week I basically wrote a dissertation on ‘stuff I think about games’. Anyway – without any further ado, days 16-30 of the 30 Day Video Game Challenge. If you want days 1-15, you’ll find them here.
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Day 16 – Your favourite main character from a video game.
I thought about this, no fooling, for about 24 hours. I think my problem with the question relates a lot to my thoughts on Spec Ops with regards to player ownership of characters. Some of it comes from my secret rule in these things to ‘not keep hitting the same games over and over again’. So, I can’t say Guybrush Threepwood (although he’s a genuine candidate) because Monkey Island was in my last answer and it shows up again later. I can’t say Commander Shepard (although again, a strong choice). So, I’m going to say – Zak McKracken.
It’s not so much the character himself (although he is funny, wry and very likable). It’s mainly that I absolutely love his name (say it out loud, it’s like having a delicious mouthful of cocko-puffs. Wait, coco-puffs. I meat to say coco puffs. MEANT. GOD). The name of the entire game is just fantastic – Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Shame there isn’t a question for ‘best name for a game’ because that would definitely be it.
The real reason though is that he represents for me my first step into a larger world – the world of Lucasfilm point and click adventure games. I missed out on Maniac Mansion, and the Labyrinth point and click game was too rudimentary to really inflame my passions for the potential. Zak McKracken though was a great introduction, right down to its feelies. I used to very much enjoy seeing what Zak had to say when I did unusual things within the game world – putting his pet goldfish in his table lamp and switching it on, for example. The whole game is full of a very vibrant energy – I don’t want to call it wacky, but it was somewhere in the vicinity of that.
Zak McKracken thus led me, my little hand in his, towards a world which contained the Monkey Island games, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Loom. It’s thanks to Zak that I played Maniac Mansion and The Dig. There were a lot of shitty point and click games out there by the time the genre died, but Lucasfilm made the best and I enjoyed every last minute of each of them.
Day 17 – Most evil villain from a video game
This was an easy one for me – there’s only one villain or boss in a game that has seriously made me say ‘this guy is messed up’ and had something to back it up with in terms of game mechanics. And that’s Scarecrow from Batman: Arkham Asylum.
As I said above I try not to hit on the same games too often in these posts, but really it was only the terrible croc sections in Arkham Asylum I spoke about before. This is something different – it’s the high point that shows just how bad Croc is in comparison. For those who haven’t played AA yet, you probably want to stop reading at this point because I’m going to thoroughly spoil perhaps the single most interesting, exciting and downright joyful (as a game experience) part of what is an extremely fun game.
Scarecrow is a former psychiatrist turned criminal psycho. He uses his background in medicine to create a potent fear gas that causes the person subjected to it to experience vivid hallucinations. They experience visions that draw from the darkest, most twisted parts of their own psyche. For Batman, that mental terrain is treacherous enough without pharmaceutical assistance, and Arkham Asylum really plays on that. The Scarecrow sequences are departures from the rest of the game, putting you into nightmare scenarios where scale and size are misleading, and Euclidean geometry is distorted. And then you’re made to deal with bits of your sanity drifting away as you lose your grip on the mental constructs that are being created around you. It’s gloriously well done and probably my favourite part of the whole game.
This is the first Scarecrow section:
The first thing about it is that it blends, initially, seamlessly with the game itself to make you unsure about what’s real and what’s not. And then, after a minute or two of slow buildup it just goes BANANAS. And there’s no closure here – you don’t *win*, so for a good chunk of the rest of the game you have that shoe hanging over you and you know at some point something else is going to happen but you don’t know when and maybe that was it there no that wasn’t it but wait AND THEN:
And that’s not even it then! There’s a third, incredibly cathartic fight:
And that provides all the needed closure and rounds it off in a very satisfying way.
Seriously, that’s how you do a villain in a game. There are lessons to be learned here.
Day 18 – Your favourite side-character from a video game.
This is an easy one again – it’s Clementine from The Walking Dead game.
This is going to be a spoilery entry, so I will say two things – one is that while I will try to avoid giving away anything that happens beyond the first episode, it’s difficult to talk about this particular game without contextualising it. The second is – it’s regularly 60% off in the Steam Store – £8.39 for one of the genuinely great narrative experiences of 2012. Seriously, it’s not a great *game* but it is an absolutely fantastic *experience* and if you haven’t got it already you should treat yourself.
Clementine is the little girl you discover very early on in the first episode. You find her hiding from walkers up in a tree-house, and you become her surrogate father as you try to navigate the post apocalyptic, zombie-infested landscape. When the character was introduced, I rolled my eyes so far back in my head it probably looked like I was possessed by a dark spirit. I mean, come on – a kid? Seriously? What is it with Americans and their tedious sentimentalising of children? I don’t like children. At all. If I get any say in it, I will actively avoid their presence. I am of the Bill Hicks school of childhood relations – you’re not a person until you’re in my phonebook.
Anyway, I thought ‘Shit, so this is the game? An escort quest for some kid I’m supposed to care about? Maybe there will be an opportunity to trip her up later so I can distract some pursuing dead long enough to get away’
I was a tough sell, in other words.
I don’t even know how it happened, but as the game went on I started to feel genuinely protective towards Clementine. She was exactly the right combination of innocent, strong, funny, sad and fragile to make me engage with the character. The design of the game itself reinforces your relationship with her, with dialog choices occasionally coming up with a ‘Clementine will remember you said that notification when you’ve reached some element of a story branch. Every so often that would come up and I’d think ‘Shit, I wish she hadn’t heard that’ or ‘God, I wish she hadn’t seen that’. That’s a mark of genuinely good characterisation. It’s not unique to her by any stretch of the imagination – I developed strong feelings for or against a number of the characters in the game. It’s very fitting that a comic/TV show that is ostensibly about zombies but actually about *people* should make managing character relationships such a satisfying game mechanic.
Clementine is pitch perfect throughout – when she does annoying things, you get to chastise her and then feel like a dick for it. When she gets sad and maudlin it never seems forced, contrived or artificial. Great dialog is paired with excellent voice acting into a single quality package.
This is important in this particular game, because the effectiveness of the amazing ending is very much balanced on your relationship with Clementine. If you clicked idly through all the dialog and never really paid attention, you’ll just shrug and say ‘shitty game’. If you didn’t, then – well. I’m not ashamed to admit I wept like a fucking baby.
A small spoilery video from the first episode:
It was hard to find a video for this one – Youtube is full of dipshits giving their horrible commentary over the videos and ‘you may also like’ lists that give away the ending. I think this one avoids both but if you haven’t played episode one I’d say ‘buy it and play it instead’
Day 19 – Your least favourite character in a video game
This one is going back in time a fair bit, but it’s Dizzy from the bafflingly popular Dizzy games. Jesus Christ, I hated this fucking egg. I hated the people who liked him. Most of all, I hated the constant refrains from the gaming press that kept banging on about how the Dizzy games were great examples of pitch-perfect gaming. They weren’t! They were *awful*. I recently watched Yahtzee Croshaw do a Let’s Play of one of the Dizzy games, and – yeesh. It was just harrowing.
And yet, the games remain lauded – in the archives of Your Sinclair, there are four (FOUR) Dizzy games listed in their top 50 ever:
1) Fantasy World Dizzy at #25
2) Treasure Island Dizzy at #16
3) Magicland Dizzy at #12
4) Dizzy at #5
This was back in the early days of Spectrum gaming of course, but it’s not like that excuses it. Timeless classics like Manic Miner, Knight Lore, Skool Daze, Head over Heels, Chuckie Egg, Bubble Bobble and Laser Squad had all been released by the time this list was put in place. ‘They were from a different time’ isn’t a valid excuse for venerating games that were absolute shit. I know that’s not so much about the character, but I really, really hate and hated Dizzy and all his Dark Works.
Thankfully, the attempt to Kickstart a new Dizzy game (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/theolivertwins/dizzy-returns) met with crushing failure. Fuck you, egg. Fuck you.
Day 20 – Hottest video game character
Urgh, really? This is the topic? Well… alright, I guess. But I’m not answering without a lecture, so buckle up.
The gaming industry is almost chronically misogynist. I know there are market pressures and such that dictate the need for tit-jiggle physics and glisten engines, but that’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If you want to get away from the need to pitch AAA titles almost exclusively to teenage boys, then you’re going to have to start designing games that aren’t a turn-off for teenage girls. There are women gamers of course who persevere through it all – some can just shrug it off, and others rail against the stereotypes and get branded as bitches for their efforts. Others don’t seem especially bothered either way.
Others just – don’t play. They see what’s on offer and think ‘this isn’t aimed at me’ and they go off and do other things. Male gamers rant and rave at the thought they are participating within and perpetuating the continuation of an extremely negative environment. In the froth and spittle such arguments provoke you can hear the faint echo of the truth – they know it’s true, they’re ashamed of it, but defensiveness will out. There’s also an element in anything that will rail against the idea of their special club-house being more inclusive. I’m usually reasonably happy to consider two sides of an issue, but this is one where I think only one side is remotely credible.
It’s not a thing all male gamers are guilty of of course. But when you have people unironically saying (as someone did to me not that long ago) that ‘I see the point but they’re being whores about the way they’re saying it’ you can see the problem runs deep. The language of gaming smack-downs is violently regressive and the imagery of the more ‘poetic’ comments is extremely discriminatory. It’s not an environment that I’m happy being in for the most part, and I’m a relatively affluent white guy who is not directly targeted by any of the comments. I played a random game of L4D where our team leader kept shouting out about ‘noob whores’ until I shot him repeatedly in the back of the head. After we resurrected him from a cupboard he started gabbling something in his foreign heathen language until a smoker got him. It was pretty satisfying standing there beside him while the life ebbed out of him, shooting at any of the other survivors who were coming to save him. I stopped playing L4D random pickup games after that.
The objectification of the portrayal of women in games is part of this problem.
Some guys like to play the victim and say ‘Oh come on, men are objectified too’, but in saying that they show the depth to which they do not understand this problem. In games, men are objectified for male wish fulfilment. In games, women are also objectified *for male wish fulfilment*. So we end up with fetishist portrayals such as Bayonetta, Lara Croft or Ivy from Soul Calibur, and then lists like this say ‘rate the hottest video game character’
So, fuck you list – I’m going to answer but on *my* terms. For this I want someone who is strong and confident, and clearly able to survive whether I’m there to help her or not. I want someone who is not fetishized or objectified or clearly meant as ‘eye candy'. That eliminates 95% of protagonists and about 80% of side characters.
So who are we left with? A sad list indeed. So I’m going to say – Specialist Traynor from Mass Effect 3. She gets double points for only being romance-able if Shepard is a woman, and you rarely see that kind of explicit sexual preference stated in games. If you try to romance her as a male Shepard she’ll say ‘Sorry, not that into dicks, thanks’. She’s not a hugely important character, but she is credible, competent, funny and emotionally warm and relate-able. Even the romance scenes in the game (such as they are) are more about sexuality than sexualisation. Other candidates for this were Alyx Vance from Half Life 2, and Zoey from L4D – Traynor wins the award though for actively being a romance-able character without being a ludicrous caricature. Anyway, no video here but here is this depressing list.
Day 21 – Your favourite cinematic from a video game
On the whole, I’m not a fan of cinematics. For most games they seem to be put together by frustrated movie writers who don’t want to be working in games. They’re disconnected from the game mechanics, and dump so much exposition on you that you end up drowning in it. The best game cinematics are those that are a reward for playing the game, and a chance to breathe after doing something significant (Deus Ex and Mass Effect excel in this). The worst cinematics prop up a terrible story by making you watch an unconvincing movie before you get to actually have fun (Grand Theft Auto and Dead Rising being particularly egregious examples). Even the great ones though rarely truly link up game and story.
And then there’s the Left 4 Dead intro which is, to my mind, a masterclass in game cinematics. A lot of people have said L4D doesn’t have a story, which isn’t true. What it doesn’t have is an *obvious* one – the game is stuffed to the gunnels with environmental clues, scenery hints and such as to what’s happening and what has happened. It’s a zombie apocalypse so the story isn’t much more complicated than ‘shit be going crazy, yo’, but it’s there. Given though that the story is so simple, why is this cinematic so effective?
It starts off by setting the scene, introducing the main characters and giving some context as to how and why you start off on the roof of the No Mercy hospital. But more than that, it’s the best tutorial as to the key mechanics of the game. Seriously, it’s crazy just how much game payload is packed into that – the fact witches are genuinely frightening and light will enrage them; the need for players to stick together and help each other against hunters and smokers; the raw power of a tank and the fact it’ll start tossing cars and chunks of road at you. It even manages to show one of the triggers for an in-game panic event and how pipe bombs work. It’s easy to miss how much game impact it packs in there because at the same time it’s teaching you it is also showing intense, pitched zombie fun.
And then just as the cathartic ‘we made it moment’ comes along you get Bill pointing out ‘Son, all we did is make it across the street’ as the camera pans out on an infested city and you know that you’re going to have to contend with all of that stuff as you make your way to safety.
Seriously, it’s such a good cinematic that nobody should be allowed to make one unless they’ve written an essay on it.
Day 22 – Your favourite song from a video game
Well, there are two extremely strong candidates for this – the first is the ever fantastic Still Alive from the end of Portal , but I imagine approximately 120% of the people who get this far through the challenge will name that. The second is the beautiful and haunting Leaving Earth from Mass Effect 3 , but I have harped on about Mass Effect quite enough already.
So, I am going to slightly expand the scope of this and talk about ‘favourite musical style’, and that would be an old Amiga game called Wings. This was for a long time my favourite ever Amiga game, and I felt a rare feeling of warmth in my black heart when I found out the makers had launched an (ultimately unsuccessful) kickstarter for it. I think it was what normal people call ‘joy’.
Anyway, it’s not just the music but the whole aesthetic of Wings that is wonderful, so evocative of the first World War. Every mission begins with a ‘squadron’ diary which contains some personal insights from the airfield in France. Some of it is genuinely quite affecting, and a good part of that is the pitch perfect, accordion/piano heavy music that accompanies it. Each mission is prefaced with a little ‘silent movie’ style dialog screen which gets a more rousing ‘tally ho’ theme to go with it. None of the music is especially stunning technically, but it’s all very evocative. Even now, I can whistle almost all of the refrains, and sometimes find myself doing just that.
You’ll get to hear each of the main themes from the game on this video, but you might need to hunt through for them. But in the process, you’ll get a pretty good feel for the whole package and just how coherent it was. Wings was a rare gem of a game that managed to rise well above its relatively simplistic minigame design to be a game experience I will never forget.
Day 23 – Game with the best graphics or art style
Taking a short break from marking to answer this one – it’s got to be the Curse of Monkey Island, although Professor Layton was a close runner-up.
I have always loved the Monkey Island games, and MI1 and MI2 are justly lauded. But, for me, it was Curse of Monkey Island where it became all but perfect. The addition of Dominic Armato as voice talent was an inspired choice – I can’t even play the original classic games without his voice intoning the words in my head. But the change in art style was equally great. It was genuinely like playing a Monkey Island cartoon. I’ve wondered many times since then why Disney don’t just give us a series of games whereby we just play through beautifully animated point and click versions of their classic movies like I’ve always wanted. I guess the answer is ‘point and click isn’t seen as commercially viable any more’, but man, come on. I’ll back you guys up. You know I’m good for it.
Anyway, Curse hit a sweet spot when computers were just becoming powerful enough to offer high fidelity graphics but not *quite* powerful enough for the fully texture-mapped resomolutions of modern 3D gaming. As a consequence it managed to both stand out and tower over what other games were doing at the time. In that respect it was very much like Dragon’s Lair in 1983. In other respects, it wasn’t because Dragon’s Lair was a criminally bad game and Curse of Monkey Island wasn’t.
Sadly, Escape from Monkey Island pretty much killed my love affair with the series. When the objective is ‘find a lucrative contract for some pirates’ and the puzzle is ‘keep looking once you’ve found the contract so that you find an ‘*extremely* lucrative contract” then you know the ol’ magic is gone.
Day 24 – Favourite Gaming Genre
I’ve lost affection for them in recent years, mainly because they’re so bound up in swords and sorcery, but roleplaying games have always had a very strong attraction for me. Way back in the dark ages, I played a version of Rogue on my spectrum and while it was more roll than role, I found it very compelling to picture myself exploring these winding, ever changing corridors and facing these vicious, intractable foes. When I got my C64, I had the joy of encountering a whole pile of games that offered more meaningful options for choosing how I engaged with the world. The first really addictive RPG I remember playing was an old SSI game called Demon’s Winter – it wasn’t a great game by any stretch of the imagination but it was surprisingly rich and flexible. If you wanted a kung-fu fighting sorcerer knight you could have one, just by finding the right trainers in the right places. You could get a boat and sail to faraway lands, and it even had a kind of Dwarven Workshop where you could commission bespoke magical items.
Anyway, this was one of the precursors to what became perhaps the defining game series of my youth – the AD&D Gold Box adventure games. Holy shit, there was so much adventure in those and I played through a whole bunch of them start to finish. Champions of Krynn was the first one I played, because like most geeky kids at the time I was hugely into the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman Dragonlance books. I got it for Christmas one year along with Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds, and I played the hell out of all three. That led to Death Knights of Krynn and then later Dark Queen of Krynn (on the amiga). Along the way I played a whole pile of other games, sometimes only tangentially related (anyone remember Hillsfar??).
It wasn’t just the gold box games I loved though – I was also a fan of Origin, who did the deep and intense (but also incredibly complex and slow-paced) Knights of Legend, and the obscure but hugely fun Elite-RPG Space Rogue. Their games came with novellas and thick, lore filled manuals which was always great. I loved feelies – the fact that you don’t get a *box* for games now what with Steam bestriding distribution like a colossus is perhaps the only price of progress that I’m not entirely happy paying.
Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 were in many ways the perfection of these kind of games, and combined amazing stories with fun gameplay. It only went downhill after that – Neverwinter Nights had such a bad campaign to it that it ruined the potential of the engine for me. The story in NWN2 was a little better, but it was set in such a bland and uninteresting world that I just couldn’t get into it. In later years, my affection for RPGs ebbed away due to how generic and utterly mundane fantasy had become. The occasional break from orcs and dragons presented by things like Knights of the Old Republic and such were too far apart to keep the ol’ pecker up.
There are precious few ‘pure’ games made like they used to be – Dragon Age is probably the closest, but while I played that to the end I can’t say at any time I really felt like I was doing anything other than going through the motions. Anyway, It’s all ‘action RPGs’ or ‘first person RPGs’ now. Even Mass Effect, for all its RPG elements, was really more like a shooter by the last of the trilogy. Game styles generally are converging I feel into a kind of generic ‘first person shooter with RPG elements’. That’s not bad, I loved Fallout 3, but I do miss the days when I would spend a few hours rolling up a party and then taking them into areas unknown to see what treasures lay within.
It may not seem like much, but I experienced great adventure within this:
Day 25 – Your Favourite Console
No, no console. Consoles suck. I mean yeah I have a DS which is great and I really like my Xbox, but I don’t have any actual feelings of lust or love for them. No, but there *is* a computer. It was called the Amiga, and it was a machine I actually loved. Seriously, this thing was so ahead of its time we should still be using their descendants now. Commodore, who owned the system, should have become kings of the world. Unfortunately, mismanagement by the corporation meant that it lost ground to inferior rivals and the platform was eventually was sold off. The brand ended up being kicked from disinterested owner to disinterested owner until it was little more than a soft, spongey mass of nothing. By the time anyone had the wherewithall to do anything with the technology, it was already too late.
But man, if you had an Amiga it was a genuinely revolutionary experience. Fucking rainbows came out of the floppy drive when you switched it on. Loading up workbench was accompanied by the tender fellatio of chocolate unicorns. When you loaded up a game, your eyes were gently massaged by cartoon faeries. When you switched it off, the long, sustained chord at the end of A Day In The Life played and filled your entire existence with sadness and loss.
Byte Magazine in 1994 summed it up:
The Amiga was so far ahead of its time that almost nobody—including Commodore’s marketing department—could fully articulate what it was all about. Today, it’s obvious the Amiga was the first multimedia computer, but in those days it was derided as a game machine because few people grasped the importance of advanced graphics, sound, and video. Nine years later, vendors are still struggling to make systems that work like 1985 Amigas.
The Amiga was the only computer system I ever fell in love with. There are plenty old duffers of my age who will say that of the spectrum, or of the c64, or even the BBC micro. I did very much like my spectrum, and I got a lot of joy out of my c64. But the amiga was always the target of my desire. My father had one when I had my c64 – it was an A500, and I remember being awe-struck at what it could do. A couple of years later my parents got me an A600 of my very own, and it was everything I had dreamed it would be. My father later upgraded to an A1200 and I, of course, had to be upgraded too. I don’t think he ever minded – we were Amiga Men. We Understood.
Day 26 – Your favourite games development company
I like to avoid saying too many ‘obvious’ things in these answers, and the obvious one here is Valve. We all know Valve is great and they do wonderful things – but that’s my point. We all *know* Valve is great. So instead I’m going to name Infocom here.
Infocom were responsible for the most finely crafted text adventures in the 80s – I was never very good at them and I rarely managed much in the way of significant progress before the next game came along and distracted me. However, that was entirely a failing on my part – a long (and continuing) fascination with text as a gaming medium has given me a deeper and richer understanding of just how good Infocom actually were. At the time, it was really difficult for most people to see how innovative they managed to be because all their improvements happened under the hood. With new text engines their parsing got better, the disambiguation became cleaner and the depth of their game worlds became more substantial. Along with that, the quality of the writing improved and the nuance of their stories became subtler and more sophisticated. Even just the compression technologies they employed to fit the amount of text they did into their games was astoundingly innovative. However, when you booted up the newest game all you saw was the same text output. In a world where flashy graphics are the wow factor so many people look for, they couldn’t really hope to compete.
I guess the thing I liked most about Infocom was how unabashedly optimistic they were about computer games. At a time when computer games were derided as useless time-wastes for bone-idle children, they developed and popularised a whole genre of games that were something more. They made games for *literate* people – for people who enjoyed reading and thinking. ‘Second person thinkers’ as Jason Scott put it in his Get Lamp documentary. As games became more and more graphical and adrenaline filled it became even more difficult for Infocom to hold out. They went from being one of the biggest and most popular game developers to being a commercial footnote. However, despite their disappearance they managed to plant a spark in many of us that never went away. Almost all of the development in this area now is hobbyist, but that turns out to have been the thing that was perhaps best for the medium. Free of the need to actually ‘sell’ games, text adventure development is undergoing an almost constant Renaissance – popularity may be decreasing, but the depth and quality of the work is only improving.
Infocom weren’t the first. They weren’t the most prolific – but they were I think unique at the time in seeing the true potential of computer games and making a spirited attempt to take the industry along for the ride.
Anyway, here’s your video – the fantastic Get Lamp from Jason Scott:
And just in case you’re interested, the equally fantastic Digital Antiquarian blog which talks about Infocom a fair deal:
And just for the hell of it, another shameless plug of my text adventures paper in the Computer Games Journal.
Day 27 – An upcoming game you’re looking forward to
I’m going to name two here, because I backed both on Kickstarter. One is Star Citizen, which is a ‘sequel of sorts’ to the fantastic Wing Commander series. There aren’t enough genuinely good starship based shooters around – Wing Commander filled a niche in that it was high quality action tied to a (sometimes comically badly acted) campaign that made me feel like I was part of something that mattered. It was also one of the few games that managed consequences right – there were whole chunks of the game that you’d only play through if you succeeded, or failed, a certain number of missions. One particularly galling example of that is in, I think, Wing Commander Prophecy where if you fail too many missions you end the game on a lone suicide run, protecting a portal through which an endless wave of enemies pour. It is in every sense a futile, impossible mission – but it’s all to buy humanity a little time to evacuate. First time I saw that, well – I held the line. It was my fault Earth was in danger after all. I held the line.
That kind of branching is expensive to develop of course, and we don’t see enough of it nowadays. I have high hopes for Star Citizen, which you can read about at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cig/star-citizen.
The Elite: Dangerous (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1461411552/elite-dangerous) kickstarter is one I’m less excited about, but mainly because Braben has been banging on and on for years about doing a sequel to Elite and never following through. Since Elite 2: Frontier was such a buggy, disappointing pile of horse-shit I can’t say I have high hopes. Plus, I resent Elite: Dangerous because it’s the reason I am no longer one slap up in a slapbet with Someone.
The second game is Torment, which is also a ‘sequel of sorts’, this time to Planescape: Torment. It’s another Kickstarter which you can read about here:
I *still* haven’t finished Planescape although each time I start again I get a little bit farther. It’s one of those games that demands more time than I really have available – the depth of the story and the relationships between the factions is all incredible and absorbing, but it’s not something you can really appreciate in perhaps a 30m chunk. Plus, as a *game* it really shows its age. I know, even without finishing it, that Planescape: Torment is/was something special. I’m hoping its kickstarted progeny will capture that depth and nuance and update it to something that appeals more to modern design sensibilities.
Anyway, here’s your video:
Day 28 – The worst sequel to a game
Oh man, I have been saving this one up.
Way back when Civ 5 was announced I was in the middle of my doctorate. When I heard the news I posted on Facebook ‘Shit. Well… I guess I didn’t really want this PhD anyway’. It was a little joke about how I expected the release of Civ 5 would suck up so much of my time and attention that the only logical outcome was my burning out of my research. It was all but inevitable that I would become some kind of travelling Civ 5 professional. I’d go from town to town, hustling the locals in the saloons until the sheriff grabbed his shotgun and chased me on to the next group of suckers.
I was psyched for it. Like… *really* psyched. Civilization is an amazing game series – the only weak link in the chain was Civilization 3, and even that became very playable after a couple of expansion packs. Other than that it’s a series that has very few flaws and I was expecting great things from its fifth iteration. I read the gossip, thought it all sounded great. Even the stuff that was questionable (one unit per tile, as an example) I had faith that they’d make it work. I mean, it’s not like they’d just put the franchise in the hands of some incompetent, brain-damaged monkey, right?
Jon Shafer was that monkey, and he ruined Civ 5. If the Hague had jurisdiction over video games, Jon Shafer would have been executed for committing a war crime.
Now, there are people who will tell you Civ 5 was good. They’re wrong. It might be enjoyable for a brief period of time as you soak in the novelty, but as a sustainable game experience (like Civ is supposed to be) it fails in every single way. Every design decision was a step backwards save for two – the new resource model and the ‘talent’ based civics system. Even the latter of those though is an example of a good idea not really carried out to completion. A good system would have given me meaningful choice as to my civics rather than just having them be a time delayed path through a set menu.
Everything else? Terrible. One unit per tile would work great in a tactical wargame but it’s a tedious inconvenience in a civilization manager. I spent so much time micromanaging unit placement that in the end I just stopped building units. Civ bonuses are stupidly unbalanced – the Songhai civilization get three times as much gold from barbarian villages, which is basically just ‘free expansion forever’ since the villages spawn up constantly and take no effort to clear. The AI is chronically bad, presenting no challenge to any moderately experienced player. The diplomacy may as well be rolling a dice for all the sense it makes. I’m informed that there’s all sorts of clever stuff happening underneath the surface, but if there’s one game design lesson I’ve taken to heart over the years it’s that complexity that cannot be perceived or managed is indecipherable from randomness.
Civ 5 is Civ for dummies. It’s another game design truism that there is no game so complicated that people won’t complain of dumbing down if you streamline it. Just because that’s true it doesn’t inoculate designers from the allegation of stripping away the depth and complexity. Civ 5 removes your ability to meaningfully manage your economy, removes the need to manage civ growth versus costs, removes the ability for playing as a tech broker, and more besides. Happiness is a global resource rather than something that you actually need to worry about. If there are more happy people, empire wide, than unhappy people then BOOM bonuses are yours. Wonders become incredibly mundane when all they do is add to a global variable in some ‘baby’s first civ management game’.
And then, to top it all off, it’s SO SLOW. A game this dumbed down should not grind to a halt so easily. The newest patch at least identified that it was the city states that caused it, so playing a medium sized map without city states is at least tolerable. The fact that there is such a terrible experience in the ‘default’, out of the box game is symptomatic of the deeper issues.
I think the biggest issue with it is that Jon Shafer wasn’t making a game for Civ fans. He was making a game for idiots. His contempt for those that play it is evident in the very Apple-esque limitations in the interface. Why the hell do I have a size limit on the name of my civilization? We have been the ‘Draconian Empire’ for over a decade – why the hell do I have to change that now? Why do I have a hard limit of six when it comes to queueing up construction? What possible reason other than Apple-esque contempt for different workflows can there be for insisting that everyone conforms to some ‘approved method’? And man, don’t even get me started on the interface – the fact that you have to go into build, select a thing, come out of the selection, tick a box, and then go back in to queue things up is the kind of retarded bullshit that should have been picked up on in day one of play testing. Why don’t I get an option to name cities before they’re built? Making me go into the city screen to change it after I’ve placed it ignores the fact that someone who renamed their civilization might perhaps also like to name their cities by default too.
As I say, some of you may enjoy Civ 5. I know a couple of people who are likely to respond to this with exactly that. I don’t want to offend you guys, but I think of ‘liking civ 5’ as a character flaw on a par with molesting children or voting Tory. No offense.
I’m not even putting a video for this one. Fuck Civ 5.
Day 29 – Most obscure game you’ve ever played
Man, I played my first games way back in the early 80s. I could list the ten biggest blockbusters of back then and the chances are only a handful of you will have heard of them. But ‘obscure’ by itself isn’t really a good identifier. Some things are obscure because they are lost to time (most of the games I grew up with). Some are obscure because they just weren’t any good. So like I sometimes do, I am going to ‘reinterpret’ this question as ‘Obscure but still worth playing’. For that, I’m naming Alter Ego.
Way back in 1986, a psychologist by the name of Peter Favaro developed a vignette based text game called Alter Ego. Unlike most text games it didn’t focus on puzzles or the gathering of treasure, it focused on someone having to navigate their way through life, start to finish. You got presented with a list of cards, you picked a card and encountered a scenario. You’d choose an emotional response and an action, and based on your personal characteristics you’d progress in particular ways. If you have been consistently hysterical but try to be calm and measured in a confrontation, you’ll be told ‘You tried but failed’, except in a usually well written and entertaining few paragraphs. The sole reward in the game is progression through a virtual life, and the only end destination is death. Some of the stories you encounter are genuinely unsettling, and unusual for games of the time it included numerous elements of a sexual nature – especially in the chapters on adolescence and such.
For all its simplicity of design, it’s an incredibly absorbing game that I play occasionally even now. I shelled out the princely sum of £4 to buy a version of it for my Galaxy Note – I’m pretty sure the version they sell is lacking a lot of the original story elements, but that may be my memory playing tricks on me. There are moments in it that are surprisingly resonant in terms of emotional payload – one such story that always sticks in my mind (and has for years) is a scenario in which you as a young child are told that the local ‘scary old witch’ is rumoured to be dead. You can join in with the celebration or you can go see how she is. If you choose the latter you find out that she’s too old to change her light bulbs and is stuck sitting in the dark because she has no family left. Then you get to choose whether to leave or actually help her out. It’s not a complex story, but surprisingly affecting because the writing in the game is so warm, friendly and generates a powerful empathic response.
The only criticisms I have of it really are that it’s very much a product of its time. You can’t choose to play as someone who’s gay, for example. You can’t play as someone who’s black, or an immigrant, or any other significant variations. It’s also very American, and its worst vignette is the one that ties your ability to answer questions on American history to your character’s intellectual development score. These are minor objections, and even now it’s a genuinely deep and rewarding game.
Here’s a video of someone playing it, but I’d advise doing it with the sound off. There wasn’t a lot of sound in the original anyway.
I’d recommend though instead though that you give this web version a try:
Seriously, give it a try. I’d love to know what people think of it. It’s perhaps sad that so many of my childhood memories are tied up in computer games and such, but Alter Ego is an incredibly important part of that.
Day 30 – The last game you bought
God, way to end it on a low guys. This is a very boring question, with a very boring answer. If we mean PC games, then it was whatever was last on a Steam Sale that I vaguely liked the look of. I don’t even remember, man. It doesn’t work like that now – who *buys games* as a conscious decision? You just – react to sales. It’s a bit like with Amazon and their one-click system – every day is like a little Christmas because I reflexively ordered something and forgot that I had. If we include mobile phones, I guess it was Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village, which I bought because I very much liked their Game Dev Story.
Neither of those are interesting answers though, so I’m going to reinterpret again and invert the question… ‘the last game I didn’t buy’.
It’s no secret I loved Mass Effect, and I thought Mass Effect 3 was the best of the bunch. However, my Mass Effect 3 experience, while totally legal didn’t involve me buying it. It’s not because I couldn’t afford it, because I could. It’s not because I didn’t want to pay the money, because I did.
I didn’t buy it for one reason, and that was Origin.
Look, I know ‘competition is good’ and all of that, and that Valve’s stranglehold on digital distribution is blah blah blah blah. Whatever. I know there are several competing services all with fine games on them. I know all this. I just don’t care. If your game isn’t on Steam, I’m not going to buy it. Not only am I not going to buy it, I’m actively going to *not buy it*. You will turn me from someone who is actually trying to buy your game into someone who will refuse to buy it just by trying to force me away from Steam. This isn’t even related particularly to just how *bad* Origin is. It’s just that the benefit Steam offers me is a single, coherent location from which I can play my games. Every new ‘service’ that serves to abstract me away from my game library is an extra inconvenience that gets in the way of having a central repository. Steam has earned its place. It’s where all my games are now. If I have to open up another service to get access to another game, I’m not going to bother. I did buy Project Zomboid a while ago on some other digital distribution system. You know how often I played it? Once, because if it’s not on Steam it may as well be stored on a series of stone tablets hidden up a mountain somewhere. I don’t even remember the *name* of the service, much less what login I chose for it.
Bringing it back to Mass Effect 3 for a moment – the worst thing is that Origin is an inferior experience. Even just trying to buy DLC for Mass Effect 2 is a pain in the cornhole. It’s a system designed around distrust and suspicion – that’s unsurprising given in how little regard EA hold their customers, but since it’s not something I *have* to deal with it’s something I’m not *going* to deal with. I know Valve make so much money from Steam that it gives all the MBAs in the world big stiff hardons, but every attempt you make to try and capture some of that market makes me resent you more. You are offering nothing in terms of extra value, you are just fragmenting what is already a perfectly workable system. By all means give people the choice to use *alternatives* to Steam, but don’t withhold your game like it’s sex with a recalcitrant spouse – it just makes you look pathetic.
I know Steam comes in for a lot of flak, and if people don’t want to use it I get it. But I like it. Hell, I love it – there is nothing about it that causes me any real angst. For me, part of what makes it appealing is that it genuinely works as a layer that improves my gaming experience. EA crud their systems up with always online DRM and mandatory multiplayer. Steam just seems to be designed by people who love games, trying to make it easier for other people who love games to manage the game collections that they love. Whether that’s the real incentive behind the system or not, I am very much on board with treating your customers like customers and not the enemy.
As a side note, isn’t it ironic that those who play illegal versions of games get an experience that is so much better? No DRM, no requirement for a CD to be in the drive – no need for Origin with EA games. It is not a sensible system for corporations to incentivise those who are paying nothing and punish those who are paying everything. And yet, that’s the arrangement that reigns supreme.
I’ll buy Mass Effect 3 when it’s released on Steam, and not a second before.
* * *
That’s it! 30 days of rambling over! Next week we will return to our usually scheduled blog posts about Epitaph. In the meantime, I just wanted to say that this post took us over 200,000 words on the Textual Intercourse blog! We’ve got enough content here to choke several very large horses if we wanted to. Not that we would. Man, don’t go putting that evil on us. What the hell is wrong with you?
 How many Freudians does it take to change a lightbulb? Two, one to hold the ladder, and the other to change the cock. I mean, father! I MEAN LIGHTBULB!
 Although in my play through of Game Dev Story I created an action RPG cartoon game which I called ‘Toon Raider’. That made me feel pretty happy.
 Yes, I know I’ve been hawking my insult generator a lot recently but you know. Shut up.
 It’s okay to be racist if you’re being *ironic*.
 For the most part – there are exceptions.
 When people say ‘I like to play as a woman rather than a man because if I’m going to be staring at an arse for the entire game I’d rather it was a woman’s’
 As they pleasingly do in the voice enabled remasters.
 Because Curse of Monkey Island showed exactly how it should be done.
 Well, perhaps not exactly like *I’ve* always wanted. That wouldn’t exactly help their family friendly image.
 Provided they are sad enough to wax lyrical about old computing systems
 Very, very slowly
 Very little joke, some might say
 Judging it by the standards of the time, of course. Civ 1 won’t stand up to scrutiny any more, but it was like concentrated crack back in the day.
 Only feekies without computers played outside.
 And I guess people with friends, but I couldn’t say for sure since I was only able to observe other people at a distance through my high powered binoculars.
 Obviously despite having a totally legal Mass Effect 3 experience, I wasn’t able to partake in multiplayer even if I wanted to. Tying progress or success in a single player game into multiplayer is a dick move.
 It’s not.
 Don’t you think?
 Way over