Thursday, 9 September 2010

What Dune 2 taught me about Gaming: Part 2

Much of my youth was spent unable to put into words exactly what it was which made me so enthusiastic about games. Even now I have find it very hard to articulate what I love about games to the people I love. Dune 2 was the first game where I encountered this problem, where I couldn't explain what I liked about it with a simple sentence like 'its fun' or 'its looks cool'.

*image took from a scan at the amazing Amiga Magazine Rack

I showed the game to anyone who was stupid enough to give me the impression they might listen to me, but time after time the way my parents and my peers seemed unmoved by Dune 2 to totally confused me. I wasn't equipped mentally to make the simple leap that what was awesome to me wasn't automatically be awesome to others.

But there was somewhere where  I knew there were people who 'got' games. Amiga power is considered to have been one of the great magazines of its generation. Some might pick holes at its professionalism at times, but there was no denying the passion that went into it.
Just like me I felt the writers didn't care who's name you threw onto a box, or if the graphics were flashy they cared about the game itself.
Just like me it felt these were people who felt a sense of belonging of being one of the tribe, who felt there was something special about games.
But unlike me they had found their voice, and they were shouting from the rooftops.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

What Dune 2 taught me about Gaming: Part 1

Its 1993 Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner are stinking up the screen and the charts, John Major (Aka Pantsman) is Prime Minister, there's a weird new football division called the Premier League, and I'm trying to persuade my friend Lee that Dune 2 on the Amiga is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

My Amiga was a thing of wonder to me,and as I sat there with my A500+ it would seem implausible to me that the company behind it was already in a slow decline. In December Doom was released on the PC in all its 3D glory, changing the face of gaming and driving another nail into the Amiga's coffin. By April 1994 the fight was over and Commodore would be bankrupt and the Amiga dead.

At age 11 such things didn't register with me, nor would they have really mattered to me because at that moment all that mattered to me was I had a new game. Games typically cost around £30 which since I got £1.10 pocket money meant they were a huge investment for me. I spent months scanning issues of Amiga Power before making a decision on a which one i was going to buy next. I typically got 2-3 games a year and the wait was unbearable, though I soon realized that if I didn't spend my lunch money It virtually doubled my spending power. I mean whats a bit of food compared to a new game?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

When bad storytelling can be good

Allot of bad things have been said about the story of Starcraft 2 but I enjoyed it immensely.

Looking back at it after finishing the campaign i can see why people have problems with it. It's not exactly original, and to say the characters are broadly drawn would be a understatement.

I won't say people are 'missing the point' but i think part of what worked for me came from not the cut scenes themselves but from the way they sat in context with the game play itself.
Blizzard are perhaps the one company who better than any other can balance difficulty close to perfection, creating levels where failure rarely created frustration and victory allways brought a rush of adrenaline.
I played through the campaign on hard difficulty and just beating a mission felt like a genuine achievement.
Anyone who's ever played sport or even been a just avid fan knows that surge of chemicals and emotions which causes strangers to hug each other, shout like animals, and cry like babies.

Viewed through the context of the adrenaline high of a victory the story of Starcraft 2 works allot better than it does looking at it in isolation, or after beating a mission without being genuinely challenged.
I know what I'm saying basically amounts to 'you have to be on a adrenaline high to enjoy the story' but I'm not sure that's a invalid approach if the game is well crafted enough to consistently produce it.

Overall I feel the story was a good fit for the gameplay, and considering that one of the prime accusations levelled against many videogames is that they fail to achieve that I'm happy to say for me at least Blizzard did a good job.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Who have i forgotten?

After the death of Harvey Pekar  and the sadness and tributes which have flowed (and rightly so) to him from the comics community it has made me wondering if gaming has any such unsung heroes.
The medium is so young that few practitioners have been active more than a decade or so and much of the specialist medias coverage focuses on commercial successful designers.

It feels the legacy of people like Miyamoto is assured, his contribution to gaming remembered every time Mario appears.
Its good to see now that far greater efforts are being made to catalog and preserve the source code of games and the hardware they have been played on but much of the progress made here seem to be undermined by commercial interests.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and its sequel could turn out to have been breakthrough titles in terms of cultural and commercial success, but with the fallout of the Infinity Ward's mass staff exodus it feels unlikely that much information concerning its production will ever see the light of day. This secrecy seems to affect small studios just as badly as big ones certainly compared to other media .

I have some anxiety that we too early in the mediums growth to have scholars who can speak with the necessary authority to highlight and bring to prominence those who would slip between the cracks of mainstream gaming media's coverage.

So who have i forgotten?

Well the problem is i'm in no position to know, and until the game industry operates with greater transparency the number of people who might be able to shed some light on the question will remain low.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Dragon Age 2: Brave or Foolish (time will tell)

So Bioware have decided to announce that unlike the almost blank slate we were presented with in the original Dragon Age 2's player character will be a fully voiced and back storied individual named Hawke.

Obviously the Bioware forums are now full of cries that its the end of the RPG, and the wailing and nashing of teeth.

The main grievance seems to be that Hawke is “not MY character”.
One of the most loved things about Dragon Age Origins (DAO) was that it allowed the players to experience the world from the perspective of one a number 'Origins'. Each Origin gave a glimpse into the way the land operated, and made it far easier to for players to feel a sense of building a personal narrative in some as they wandered the roads of a strange new land.

The withdrawal of this perceived freedom was bound to lead to a backlash, and when you add to the mix DAO's open ended and vague conclusion, plus the expectation that many had that they would be able to move their character to the new game (just as Bioware had allowed in Mass Effect) then its not surprising that many feel betrayed.

The best stories need a rich and believable context to take place within, and in many ways it seems DAO was designed to allow players to build this sense of context, to immerse themselves in a world and the people who inhabited it.

Looking at the preview/press release on Game Informer the single most interesting detail to me is
“Dragon Age II is not about killing an ancient evil or about quelling another blight”
The idea to take a step back from one of the biggest tropes of the fantasy genre feels pretty brave in many ways. But you only have to look to the Hobbit which is far more a tale about the life and adventures of Bilbo than it is about the slaying of a dragon, to see that this can be a very successful approach.

I remain hopeful that DA2 could perhaps be The Hobbit to DAO's The Silmarillion.
A personal journey through a time in a character's life and things which are personally significant, rather than a tale of epic deeds and arch evils.
Obviously to someone searching for a sandbox RPG this is a disappointment but Bioware have been drifting from that template for a while now and perhaps its time for another studio to pick up that particular torch.

Explorers and Storytellers

Seeing the discussion over at Brainy Gamer and the discussion of Deux Ex's 10th anniversary on RPS and Kieron Gillens Review of Replay, it seems there is a genuine desire within the gaming community to more fully explore the history of the medium.

In a Art form as young as games there is still a bias towards chronicling the advances that are made in the techniques. Part of this I'm sure comes from the way that genre in games is defined more by mechanics than content, when people talk about Halo they don't describe it as Science Fiction they describe it as a First Person Shooter.

One of the clearest descriptions of the way any art advances I've come across was in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.
McCloud postulates that all art can be divided into 6 steps:

  1. Idea/Purpose:
  2. Form
  3. Idiom
  4. Structure
  5. Craft
  6. Surface

and that most creatives focus on one of the first two steps Idea/Purpose or Form. He calls these two types Explorers, and Storytellers. Explorer focus on exploring what the form is capable of, and Storytellers focus on using the medium to effectively express their message.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The World needs more Death cats

I've haven't seen anything as gloriously chaotic as death cat for a long while.

Courtesy of Tom Francis of PC Gamer :
People make maps in Team Fortress 2 specifically for grinding achievements. Bleak, joyless rooms of endlessly spawning bots and resupply crates, where people don’t play the game, they game it. But in one of these, achievement_all_v4, the author’s added a surprise. A violent, horrific, hilarious surprise of biblical proportions

Regardless of the intent it been seized upon as a hugely entertaining way of dealing with a practice that much of the TF2 community disproves of. Why make a angry forum post when you can unleash a cat with laser beam eyes.

Just watching it makes me wonder if admin's & dev's couldn't use more interactive and visible ways of dealing with unintended player behaviour.

Dragon Age Awakening Mini Review

Mini Review of the expansion to Dragon Age Origins Sub 500 words, no nonsense /go!


-The old holy trinity of RPG (tank healer & DPS) is still present but the ability to respec a character makes a hugely positive change. In any RPG stories are important, Awakening gives you the ability to experience that story with the characters who's personality you like and who's background stories intrigue you, not just whoever makes a effective setup. This is a huge step in the right direction.

-The new skills & sub classes make far more play styles viable, and noticeably multi-target and controlling abilities which were before limited to certain classes are now more spread out.

-Exploring the companions stories has been made easier by some minor refinement to the gifts system, with more hints being given about the character's preferences.

-Crafting is improved by the addition of runecrafting but the ability to not create a party in the games safe 'camp' area and access crafting skills at the same point where the resources for them can be found is annoying.

-One negative issue is that some very important plot decisions are made very early with little information and are irreversible.

-Overall I would say the voice work and writing are actually stronger than the original, Sigrun is my favourite, witty, humane and believable.

-Noticeably none of the characters are as pivotal to the main plot as some in the original were and this is generally for the better. Awakening maintains feels more like being part of a rag tag band rather than a group of all star hero's.

-The pacing of the story isn't quite right, it builds and builds then climaxes suddenly without resolving much of what it set in motion.

- A issue I had with the original and which continues here is that the credits roll too fast. Origins gave us a chance to chat with the companions after the main quest finished and offered some closure but Awakening skips even that. After being immersed in such rich world I wanted to see in game how decisions had affected it but instead the credits rolled the moment the final boss hit the floor. This adds to the feeling Awakening should have been the 1st act to a longer story & who knows perhaps in time it could be.

-This is half a great story. You wont regret what it gives you ,but you may be frustrated by the amount.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Repeat after me : You are in a game

Games more than any other medium are constantly asking people to suspend their disbelief, constantly signaling to the player 'you are in a game'.

This is probably just part of the baggage which comes along with being a interactive medium. As long as games need to convey visually none visual information addressing the audience directly will always be a necessary part of it.
Some of the most prominent designers in this generation of games seem to have reacted by either trying to maintain immersion and keeping as minimal user interface (UI) as possible, or going to the other extreme and speaking directly to the audience and constantly knowingly making references to games and pop culture.

The Metal Gear series is often picked out as one of the games which most employs the most sophisticated post modern approach but sadly the fact I've never owned a Playstation which mean I can't really comment on that series, instead the example which pops to my mind most obviously is Blizzard's insanely successful Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW).
WoW is overt about both its nature as a game and it's place in a wider cultural context.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Do we expect to much from DLC?

The Return to Ostagar downloadable content pack to EA's Fantasy RPG Dragon Age:Origins has been one of the most universally criticized and trashed bit of DLC since the the Oblivion horse armor raised its ugly head back in 2006.

My Play through of Dragon Age was interrupted by some major upheavals in my life at the start of the year, now returning to it a few months later I decided to give in to my completist tendencies and grab all its Downloadable content and expansion's including Return to Ostagar.

Most of the reviews Ive read have been pretty unequivocal about how they felt about it, but what really should i have expected from it? In EA's words:
A return to the battlefields of Ostagar, now thick with darkspawn encamped amidst the snow
An opportunity to reclaim the lost arms and armor of a king
A second chance to add Dog to your party

And after playing it that's pretty much what it delivers.

Nothing more. But also nothing less. I think the best thing i can say is rarely are press statements so literally true.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Firmly Behind The Zeitgeist

Finally got around to watching the final episode of lost, all things considered they did a commendable job of tying everything up.

Alot of people gave up on the 2nd series, I won't claim I had any foresight that those midpoint seasons were just a blip.
It was nothing more than simple habit which kept me watching, the show had become a weekly tradition with me & my then girlfriend. We didn't see each other that often and so little things which added some routine became rituals for us.
And although that relationship came to a end and many of the things we shared ultimately became tainted by the bitterness of our breakup i kept watching Lost not out of the habit which had defined my early exposure to it, but because it was just damn good.

All in all its a great example of what can happen if creators are allowed to make mistakes and then shown faith that they can learn from them.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Deep Stress: My Experience's with Neptunes Pride

Neptune's pride is a very strange game. A pure game. A exhausting game.
And one I certainly wouldn't describe as a fun game. But it is a game worth playing (at least once)

Developed by Iron Helmet games a company formed by former Irrational Games employees. NP's is a web based 4x strategy game.

To quote them:
"Neptune's Pride is multiplayer game of Strategy, Intrigue and Galactic Conquest!The game is a real-time game played over several weeks. You can log in at any time of the day to check the progress of your fleets, view the results of battles and issue new orders. Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate!"
The game's rule set is very strict, cold hard numbers determine the outcome of combat with no tactical elements and nothing left to chance the game is purely strategic.

Quentin smith put it well in his excellent write up for GameSetWatch when he said:
"If I have 30 ships defending against your 45, I will lose the fight. If my empire of 20 star systems is invaded by your empire of 30 star systems, I will slowly but surely lose territory to you"

This very no nonsense combat system plus and a equally harsh and unforgiving diplomacy system provides a perfect catalyst for human drama. Both Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer have produced engrossing play diary's of a UK games journo battle royal with the game. Just as no plan ever survives contact with the enemy the plaudits Neptune's Pride initially received has slowly waned as more people have got their hands on the games beta, and slowly that old cliched question 'but is it fun?' has reared its ugly head.

Well to cut a long story short, no its not. To give a longer and more relevant answer, it's not but the reason why it isn't fun is interesting in itself.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Once more into the Bloging Breech

Ive always liked the idea of writing a blog but I've never been able to keep to it.

I'm not sure if its a product of my dyslexia or just something everyone experiences to one extent or another, but in my mind my thoughts are crystal clear & flow easily but as soon as i try to put it down on paper(or on screen) it stagnates and deadens.

This year I've decided to give it another try with 2 major differences:
1. No set subject matter: If I'm interested in it ill talk about it, i won't try and just stick to one thing.
2. Don't try and be journalistic: I may occasionally ramble slightly and my formatting and spelling may be far from perfect but if it allows me to write frequently, and avoids hitting any writing brick walls then so be it.

So i announce my intention to (e)publish and (quite possibly) be damned.