Thursday, September 30, 2010

BG2 isn't the definitive RPG

I'm sorry to have to burst this bubble for some people, but it's completely necessary. As I've stated before, I was/am a big fan of Baldur's Gate 2, but I think it's time to put to rest the concept that BG2 is the ideal RPG. This seems to be a disturbingly common train of thought for RPG fans, and it appears it has been for a while. I recently chanced upon a link to an old preview video of Dragon Age: Origins...

Seriously, how many times did they have to say "Baldur's Gate" in that video? I vaguely remembering that they seemed to be harping on about it a lot when I first watched it (which was quite some time ago), but it really hit home for me watching it recently.  Do RPG fans really still need to cling to a game released ten years ago as the be-all and end-all of what RPGs should be? I surely hope not. Yes, it does some things really well, but it's not the epitome of class in all areas. The game was great for its time, as was the entire series, but isn't it time people stopped letting one game define our entire concept of what RPGs should be like?

I'm going to focus primarily on BG2 in these posts, as it is generally regarded as the definitive chapter of the Baldur's Gate saga. There are points where I will touch on the series as a whole, but for the sake of brevity, I'll try to direct my focus. Now curiously, this is partially going to be a list of some of the things that BG2 does right, but I'm also going to address why those things don't really hold much sway, or shouldn't be copied for future RPGs. It's also a pretty long post as there is a lot to cover.

Baldur's Gate was D&D (specifically 2nd Edition aka AD&D, and to some RPG players, AD&D is roleplaying. For me, that's a very narrow mindset. As someone who is mostly an outsider to D&D, the backlash against 3rd edition and 4th edition upon their release appeared significant. Many players seemed to be greatly attached to the mechanics of AD&D, and did not want to give them up for anything. Now, this may be anecdotal, but other mechanics are frequently viewed with skepticism, and players immediately want the combat mechanics to be broken apart for them so they can know their insides.

A well-perused tome for many pen and paper RPG players

Forgotten Realms
The Forgotten Realms, or Faerun, is probably the most popular D&D setting. I don't have any statistics, but I'd hazard a guess that the number of campaigns, books and computer games set in Faerun is far more than any other setting by a significant amount. There are a massive number of established and popular characters within the setting, and the player gets to meet several of those figures within BG2. There's some definite fan service in their appearance, as there's no real reason for your character (even as a Bhaalspawn) to cross paths with so many famous people except simply to cater for fan desires to interact with them.

Ideal level curve
BG2 puts the player across the ideal level curve for a grand adventure in D&D terms. Warriors don't start off as a fledgling weakling who can die to a single blow, and mages aren't ever stuck only being able to cast two spells a day. Even better, by the end of the game you're a powerful (but not unstoppable) character capable of overcoming some of the more potent dangers that exist within a classic fantasy world. Now, this is a well-picked scope for the game, but the reason it works is because of my next point...

The game starts off with you fighting goblins, but this soon gives way to fighting more dangerous beasts. Golems, trolls, vampires, liches, demons, beholders and even dragons are put in your path before the game finishes, and you triumph over all of them. Now, the fights aren't necessarily easy, but they fit the aforemention level curve and showcase the improvement of your character. People love killing amazing enemies, and dragons are up there with the best things to put in a player's way. Players love killing a variety of different things, as it gives a sense of achievement, even if it's somewhat artificial. 

If you simply pitted the player against increasingly more difficult versions of the same looking enemies with more and more abilities, it doesn't feel as special to them. Players get an artificial sense of achievement through art style and diversity of enemies; the enemies could behave almost identically but look different and players will treat the enemy with a new level of respect. Yes, unfortunately we are that gullible, because players like to kill things that look cooler and more deadly. Don't believe me? Then why do people keep levelling up their characters to reach maximum level in WoW? Why is it exciting to go to a new in Azeroth and kill new enemies that have exactly the same simplistic AI as the ones you've been killing up until now?

Yay! It's dragon-killing time!

Drow seem to be like crack for many D&D fans. Heck, fantasy fans in general. Dark elves, or fallen elves or their equivalent are extremely common in many settings, for some reason that I simply don't get. Letting the player visit the Underdark, one massive underground dungeon home to Drow and countless other classic enemies, will automatically score points with fans. It's cool, but it's fan service.

Even Bethesda loves "Dark Elves"

Now, many of these are reasonable for a game to include, but the problem is that they're not entirely transferable to other RPGs in general, especially ones set in a new intellectual property. The effect of the ideal level curve is transferable, because that can be implemented by different level mechanics outside of D&D. Implementing a good level curve is great for RPGs that involve levelling, because making the player feel more powerful as they progress without ever making them feel too weak or powerful is generally a good thing.

A large bestiary is the other widely applicable characteristic, more monsters will typically translate to "more fun" for the players. Of course, it is more work to create creatures than back in the 2D isometric days of BG2, as gamers now expect detailed and complete 3d models complete with "realistic" animations befitting their size, anatomy and actions. It's harder, but players will get a kick out of fighting different enemies as they go through the game.

So, let's consider some of the other elements of the game, like its character and gameplay...

The Protagonist
The player is "special", adhering to the classic "chosen one" trope that has plagued fantasy stories for years. Admittedly it is a little better presented in BG2's case than many others, but it's still there and very clear. Turning a cliche into an acceptable cliche is an achievement, certainly, but not one that games should try to replicate. Besides, does it feel more empowering for a player to be a chosen one who realises their destiny, or to be an ordinary person who rises to greatness of their own skill and talent?

BG2 pretty much established in-game RPG romance with its three female leads: Jaheira, Viconia and Aerie. This basically set the standard for RPGs since that time, and players now expect to be able to have a romance with one or more NPCs in their games. Regardless, BG2 gave RPG players their first virtual romance experience, and many seem to still cling to this fondly. It's almost a little bit disturbing that some seem to treat it like a real-life romance, falling into the same trap of comparing each new romantic interest with their first. On that note, Baldur's Gate pretty much re-established the RPG genre when it was released, so there's probably no small amount of "this was my first real RPG" nostalgia associated with the game as well.

Jaheira and Jaheira 2.0

I'm a big fan of choice in games, and in RPGs in particular, but in BG2 most of what we get is "choice-lite" or "character-defining choice". There are few decisions that actually effect the lore of the gameworld itself, despite the game being extremely high-powered towards the end - most of the effects the player has on the game world are pre-determined. Modern RPGs really outshine BG2 in this regard, actually giving consequences as a result of the player's choices.

BG2's combat really doesn't have all that much depth, especially when it comes to the warrior classes, who basically just get pointed in the direction of an enemy and swing away without the player's input. As mages level up, they have the ability to gain a moderate repetoire of spells, but unless you're playing a sorceror, you have to pre-plan every encounter or select a very diverse range of spells because you have to memorise them ahead of time. You can't simply start a combat and pick the appropriate spell for the encounter, meaning that it's possible for your mage to either end the fight in a matter of seconds or have virtually no impact. Admittedly this is an inherent weakness of AD&D, but it's far less enjoyable than DAO's system where you can choose any spell out of those you know to adapt to the situation, and every class has abilities that you can choose to use at specific moments - you're rarely forced to be passive like you might have to be in a BG2 fight.

BG2 Dragon sucker punch

Now, in all of this, I'm not taking anything away from BG2. It's still a well-crafted game and should be played by everyone who considers themselves a fan of RPGs.  However, it's important to understand that some of the things that made it great were fan-service, and cannot or should not be repeated across other RPGs. There are elements of its design than have been surpassed by modern titles, and it's essential to realise the strengths and weakness of both old and new games in order to make games better.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Antagonists: Mass Effect

Mass Effect was a bold step in RPG production, a new setting, a new style, an adoption of FPS mechanics into an RPG, a highly cinematic experience with a fully voiced protagonist. The game wasn't perfect, but it certainly made a big impact on the gaming scene. I also felt it offered a fairly interesting antagonist to the player, and one worthy of discussion.  So here's a plot spoiler and a long post warning before I dive into an overview...

Mass Effect puts you in the role of Commander Shepard, an elite space soldier. The game starts off with a trial mission to become a Spectre (SPECial Tactics and REconnaisance) - a select group of individuals operating for the good of the (multi-species) galaxy. The aim of the mission is simple: retrieve a Prothean Beacon. This is a device from an ancient space travelling race (the Protheans) who has provided much of the technology for the advancement of all races in the galaxy.

However, this simple mission goes wrong when your Spectre ally and new mentor Nihilius is assassinated by another Spectre named Saren as he attempts to destroy a human colony on the planet of Eden Prime. Even worse, the beacon is destroyed, but not before it caused Shepard to have visions of death and the destruction of all life in the galaxy.  In light of this, Shepard's petition to join the Spectres is denied, and without proof, Saren is free to do as he pleases. Undeterred, Shepard finds evidence of Saren's wrongdoing. He is stricken of his spectre status, and Shepard is given a place among the spectres with the explicit purpose of hunting him and his army of sentient machines (known as Geth).

Whoops, I think you broke it.

Through a series of missions, Shepard discovers that the visions from the beacon are a warning of an ancient race called the Reapers, who will destroy all life in the galaxy. The key to their return is something called "The Conduit", which Saren is searching for. Shepard must track leads in order to find Saren and the location of The Conduit, overcoming the dangers of his allies.

Shepard eventually travels to the planet Virmire, where it is revealed that Saren's ship, Sovereign, is itself a Reaper! The Reapers are giant sentient machines with technology far beyond anything else in the galaxy. Worse still, its presence takes over the mind of people, bending them to its will. Shepard speaks with the machine, who turns back to attack the planet.  Shepard and Saren fight, and Saren declares he is trying to save life by allying with Sovereign.

Saren and Geth on Virmire

Shepard eventually tracks Saren to the planet Ilos, to discover that The Conduit is a secret means to gain access to the central point of the galaxy, a giant structure known as The Citadel. The Citadel is actually the means for the Reapers to return, and Sovereign's role is to signal for the Reapers to attack. However, the Protheans altered the Citadel so that this signal could not be sent. Sovereign must attack The Citadel and send the signal manually, but needs Saren's assistance in order to do so. Shepard fights to the control room of the Citadel to find and confront Saren. Saren dies, but is possessed by Sovereign through cybernetic implants that were helping control Saren's mind and actions. This weakens Sovereign's shields and allows the Reaper to be destroyed by the human space fleet, saving the galaxy from the Reaper threat... for the time being.

So we have a fairly epic plot about saving the galaxy from an ancient evil, and we're again put in the position of having two antagonists.  We have Saren, whom the players comes to dislike from their early interactions and Saren's hatred of Shepard and humans in general. Saren is presented quite deliberately as a villain and an obnoxious character to provide the player with extra impetus for hunting him down. It happens not only through direct interaction, but also the tale of your Captain, who previously suffered as a result of Saren's actions.

Saren in full obnoxious hologram glory

After this initial flurry Saren is joined by the threat of the Reapers, who will return because of his actions. The main quest lines revolve around following Saren's footsteps and trying to discover the same information he is seeking. The game attemps to reinforce Saren as the threat multiple times through your interactions with his henchmen during these quests.  There are vague allusions to Saren controlling the minds of those onboard Sovereign, and then even after they leave the ship.

Yet Saren still feels a little distant in these interactions. He's off somewhere, doing something, but we're not sure what. Then we get the message to head to Saren's base on Virmire... but he's not there either.  At least not until after we speak with Sovereign through a terminal and discover it is a Reaper. Virmire is one of the highlights of the game for many reasons: The great interaction with Sovereign, being forced to abandon one of your squadmates to die, and a confrontation with Saren.

No amount of plot armor is going to save them from that

Interactions help to make a good antagonist. It's good to know your enemy and a little about the motives behind their actions. Saren proves to be distant for quite some time, but when you finally confront him, you get to face a foe deluded that he can save people by allying with the Reapers. He still hates humans and murdered civilians, but he thinks he will save others by helping Sovereign.

This is pushed again when you meet him for the final battle, as he repeats his claims of trying to save lives. However, here it is actually possible to convince Saren that he himself has become brainwashed (or indoctrinated, if you wish to use the lore terminology) by Sovereign to blindly obey its every command. If you do so, Saren will commit suicide in an attempt to stop Sovereign's plans. I felt this was a very nice roleplaying touch, as it showed that the villain still possessed some essence of virtue. He displayed regret that he had allowed himself to become Sovereign's tool, and left a slight doubt about his true character and which of his actions were at Sovereign's behest.

"He just doesn't seem like himself anymore!"

Another interesting point is that Sovereign is the true threat as the catalyst for the return of the Reapers, yet its true identity is hidden from us for most of the game. However, if you replay the game, there are hints given along the way that suggest and support this. Yet it serves as part of the greater threat of the Reapers that we learn more about as the game progresses, and one that the player becomes driven to defeat. Perhaps the desire to stop the Reapers is an even greater driving force than Saren, which makes Sovereign's reveal more powerful. However, it is not Sovereign itself that makes the finale meaningful, it's the threat of the complete and utter destruction of the entire galaxy. This is only moments away if Shepard does not win, and that is what makes the climatic battle with Sovereign a triumph. Saving the galaxy might be a somewhat common story, but the presentation means that the player is completely engaged to achieve it.

Bye bye, Sovereign

The antagonists of Mass Effect are a little distant and removed from the player for much of the game, yet due to some key interactions they play out as powerful and effective enemies within the game's climax. Saren in particular could perhaps have done with a little more exposure to drive the player towards his defeat, but the overarching threat of the Reapers means this is not entirely necessary. The sense of victory after the final fight is still up there with the best games around.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Party members have opinions too

In a short progress update for The Shattered War today, I've been working on getting party member interjections working seamlessly within conversations.  This isn't actually as simple as at sounds given the way that conversations work in Dragon Age. 

Ideally, conversations have a "stage" positioning all the actors at particular locations in a level. This allows for things like camera cuts and character animations to make the conversation more cinematic.  However, this also requires that every participant in the conversation be mapped to a particular stage location. This mapping causes a problem when dealing with party members, as a particular party member could be in varying locations (depending on party order) and they could be absent entirely if the player has chosen to leave them out of their party!

Mannequins and cameras abound

As such, there are generic "henchmen" actors that can be assigned to a particular stage location, but I had to find out the means to allow my new party members to be treated in this manner. Thanks to the helpful TimelordDC in this thread, I was able to correct this issue and I can now happily create conversations where party members interrupt. Of course, their interruptions may not always be welcomed by those you are talking to...

Sometimes it's not easy to make friends

This means that I've been able to turn my concentration to the real task at hand for me today, which is getting a side quest finished. I'm quietly hopeful that I'll have it done before the day is out.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I'm suffering a sore hand from a sports injury that makes it slightly frustrating to type (read: it hurts when I use the index finger on my left hand), so I've been trying to do things that don't involve me typing.  Do you know how hard it is to temporarily stop touch typing?

Anyway, as a result, I decided that it would be nice to have a couple of large images with shots from The Shattered War.  For those who have a keen interest in the project, I've created two wallpapers for people to decorate their desktop.

Keldrin: Orlesian Mage and Grey Warden

Fort Velen

It's possible to download them in 1920x1200 or 1680x1050 resolution. If people like them, then I'll look at producing more as development continues. (Alternate download available through Photobucket)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


In a stroke of good fortune, I was lucky enough to win the first Dragon Age Community contest! This great initiative from a dedicated group of the people from the Dragon Age community is designed to help modders for the game get additional resources to help improve their creations for the game.

My entry was called "Hillside Village" and I showed one screenshot of it in my post yesterday. This level will be present in The Shattered War, though I won't reveal too much about the location itself just yet!

Entrance to the village

A full download of all the levels submitted for the contest can be found here.  There were some really creative entries in this competition, so I must commend the efforts of everyone who entered. I'm actually hoping to update my entry if I'm able to make a few fixes regarding some props not being drawn from a long distance. This is a fairly minor issue, and the level could be used quite happily as is, but if I'm able to address it, then I think it will be worth it.

An overheard view of the village

So after working on level design for quite a while now, I've recently returned to doing some writing and creating more dialogue for The Shattered War. After all, there's no use having a pleasant village if it isn't populated! Stay tuned for more updates...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Trees are not barcodes

Yet unfortunately sometimes in DAO they end up looking like them.  There's a strange and inconsistent bug in the toolset that means sometimes trees look terrible from a distance. It appears to be an issue in generating the billboards for different levels of detail. For those that didn't understand that sentence, from a distance, trees are not exactly the same as they are close up (hence they have a reduced level of detail), and are often reduced to being represented by two-dimensional images (sometimes known as billboards). When these billboard images aren't generated correctly for some reason, you can end up with something that looks like the image below.

Trees with barcodes

Some might say "just ignore it" or "it's not that bad", but for anyone who knows me or my modding habits, that's simply not good enough. To have such a blatant error in a level isn't acceptable for me.

Now, with a recent level I was working on (for both The Shattered War and the first DAO community contest), I reached a point where I could not eradicate this problem. No matter how many attempts I made to get the toolset to recreate the billboards, they always ended up corrupted. I wasted hours trying different ways to fix it. However, my stubbornness eventually paid off. I eventually decided to look at what was going on, and found that the process of generating tree information creates two types of files: .spt files (tree locations) and .dds files (texture files).

Loading up an earlier version of the level which had less detail but did not suffer from barcode trees, I used the "Post Trees" mechanism to create the tree information for the level.  I copied the .dds files to a safe directory, and loaded up the latest version of my level. I then used that to recreate the tree information again.  However, once this was done, I was able to copy my saved .dds files from the previous step (specifically the ones containing the billboards) to the relevant directory.  With this done, I started up the game... and voilĂ ! The tree barcodes had disappeared.

People are more fun than trees

While I haven't tested it, I imagine that it's not even necessary to backup your level files at an early stage. This is just a guess, but I imagine it would be possible to create a new empty level and simply add one of each of the vegetation types that you have in your working level. Then generate the tree texture information and copy it to the desired location, simply making sure that the files are named in accordance with the naming scheme of the toolset.

Ideally I wouldn't have to resort to this trick/hack, but it delivered a working level. I'd like to hope that it looks reasonably pretty as well.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What's the point?

I recently read an interesting post regarding games. It was: "Everything in a video game should happen in some form of advancing the action." Now, given this was in a discussion of RPGs, my immediate reaction was to profoundly disagree. However, before I hit the "reply" button, I realised that this somewhat hasty post actually raised a very interesting question - what is the aim of a video game? So in this 100th post for my blog, I'd like to discuss precisely that topic.

Someone could quite easily ask what is the point of a book, movie, piece of art, or many other forms of media, and people would give vastly different answers. In all cases, there are many elements that go into making these creations, and in some cases, there might be an underlying theme or agenda that it is trying to advocate or explore. Political and social issues are often addressed in these forms, but games have yet to delve deep into this realm, at least not as a key message within their delivery. But that's not to say that they could not do so in the future, even though this may raise issues of social responsibility if this starts to happen on any significant scale.

No, this wasn't just about aliens and mechasuits

Regardless, is there one thing that every aspect of a video game should try to support? Do other forms of media/art have a single thing which every aspect should attempt to reinforce? I've read that the driving force of a book should be the author's premise - a key element, value or moral that they are trying to convey - and that each element of the writing should support this premise. I imagine I would find it hard to identify a premise behind most games, it just doesn't seem particularly applicable. This isn't to say that games can't pose some interesting moral and social questions for players as part of their experience (and some games have done this), but they aren't currently used as a defining aspect of games at this point in time.

Coming from my inherently biased viewpoint, my first reaction was a desire to argue that the driving force of a game should be narrative, but I almost immediately realised this was also a grossly flawed perspective. There's no (real) story to games like Doom, Unreal Tournament 2K4, or DotA, or most puzzle, racing, sport, or even multiplayer-centric games. However, that doesn't make them bad games. In fact, games can be fantastic while containing absolutely no narrative elements whatsoever. Narrative can be a strong aspect of a game that can help make it great, but it is not the be-all and end-all of what makes a great game. People don't spend countless hours dispatching enemies online in their favourite FPS due to any narrative reason, they do it because it is fun.

Games are not these

If I had to give a catch-all that could be applied to every game, then I believe this should be it: "Everything in a video game should happen in some form of advancing the player's engagement." A game designer should at every stage be attempting to keep a player engaged with the act of playing their game, whether through gameplay, graphics, story, dialogue, sound, cinematics, level design, items, achievements, or any other aspect that makes up the complete package of a game. If a player is engrossed in their gaming experience, then this is an indication that all the elements that form to make it fit together in s seamless package that demands the player's continued attention. If someone still wants to keep playing even though they've been glued to their screen for hours on end, then that is the sign of a well-crafted game, no matter what the genre.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Antagonists: Dragon Age Origins

I'll happily admit that I'm a huge fan of Dragon Age Origins (DAO), but I'm not afraid to point out that it does have weaknesses. Unfortunately, one of those weaknesses is its antagonist.  Perhaps I should say antagonists, as the game almost has two. Plot spoilers ahead...

The game begins with an "origin story" of your choosing - a backstory you play that details how you come to join the Grey Wardens, a famous order of warriors. Regardless of your choice of origin, you end up at Ostagar to prepare for a great battle. Hideous creatures known as darkspawn threaten to spill out into the land of Ferelden, consuming it in an event that has happened four times previously, called a "blight". This is marked by the appearance of a fearsome beast known as an archdemon, a dragon corrupted by the "taint" that makes darkspawn monstrosities. However, this creature has not been seen yet, and in an attempt to stem the tide of these creatures in its absence, the King, his chief tactician (Teryn Loghain), and the Grey Wardens make a stand to stop the blight before it starts. The Grey Wardens are famed for ending the blights whenever they have occurred and bravely face off against darkspawn wherever they are found. However, the battle goes badly, and is lost as Loghain retreats from the field instead of marshaling his forces to save the King.

You and a junior Grey Warden named Alistair are the only survivors of the Grey Wardens from the nation of Ferelden, and the order is blamed by Loghain for the defeat and declared traitors to the crown. Thus it falls to you to gather armies to help defeat the blight and eventually confront Loghain over his betrayal at Ostagar. Yet Loghain and his ally, Arl Howe, dog your efforts along the way by attempting to kill and capture you. They even send a deadly assassin after you... but you defeat him and can even have him join your party.

Zevran. Not quite as ridiculously awesome as you.

Eventually, with the assistance of another noble named Arl Eamon you call for a Landsmeet - a meeting of all the important nobles in Ferelden. Here you unmask Alistair as the bastard brother of the former King, someone with a claim to the throne. You argue to either place him or the Queen (who also happens to be Teryn Loghain's daughter) on the throne... or both.  However, in order to do so, you must defeat Loghain in combat and take control of Ferelden away from him.

With this done, the blight is truly upon the country as the Archdemon appears. While you have seen it only in visions in your sleep (due to the Grey Wardens possessing a small amount of the darkspawn "taint"), you must fight your way to the top of the tallest tower in Ferelden's capital and defeat it in order to end the blight.

It's a dragon. Only uglier.

As I said at the start of this post, DAO has weak antagonists.  It is almost a sad fact that the game's secondary antagonist, Loghain, is a more powerful force in the game's narrative. Loghain's betrayal and his actions divide players, for the player is given the chance to kill him or have him join the Grey Wardens after the events of the Landsmeet. Some consider he deserves death for his crimes and ambition, whereas others argue that he did what he thought was necessary to preserve Ferelden in a time of great strife.  This makes Loghain an excellent character, but unfortunately he still doesn't quite manage to become a strong antagonist.

Loghain considers the Warden a pest, but does little to act directly against them, preferring to let others deal with the issue. He is more concerned with ensuring that he is able to rule Ferelden effectively than killing the Warden, and therefore does not draw a great deal of ire from the player. He has you declared traitor and attempts to kill you, but from his perspective this is done to secure his position rather than out of direct malice. The player is left to rely on these indirect attempts on their life, Loghain's complicity in slavery and Alistair's personal grudge to provide the impetus for disliking Loghain. Unfortunately, none of them really feel so strong that they provide a true drive to dispatch him.

This said, in a way Loghain's failing as a direct antagonist to the player is actually a good thing. His attempt to bring the player undone is not what defines his character, as his desire to dispatch the Warden pales in insignificance compared with his desire to see Ferelden prosper. It makes him an excellent and complex character, but not entirely the grand enemy you might expect.

Loghain: villain or misguided hero? You be the judge.

The main problem with Loghain not playing a strong antagonist role is that DAO's final battle with the archdemon is against an antagonist that has no character. The archdemon is little more than a faceless creature that you must defeat simply because it is evil and its continued existence will destroy Ferelden. This is not to say that all antagonists need to have a personal relationship with the protagonist, but the archdemon's greatest failing is that it is a "classic" nemesis with no morals, no purpose, and no goals except to be "evil" and destroy. Even worse, it does not really appear in the game until the game's final few hours apart from a few discussions about the archdemon and the aforemention dream sequence. 

As such, the player has nothing directly invested in the archdemon's defeat except for the moral duty of being the hero to save Ferelden. The player has incentive for this noble cause and the self-serving desire to not die in the blight, but there is very little else to make the fight more personal for the player, meaning that the final fight of the game lacks the punch that the gripping and forceful climax of a game so desperately calls for. The player still gets a great sense of victory from the fight, but far less than if the archdemon had been more than a simple beast.

With a complex character who does not act as a true antagonist and a faceless evil creature, DAO almost manages to tick a lot of boxes when it comes to the checklist of creating a great antagonist. Its problem is that those ticks are spread across two characters rather than one, and split in such a way that you don't quite ever get that feeling of overcoming a truly great and memorable adversary.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sorry, what?!?

It was brought to my attention today that I should no longer pay any heed to "professional" review sites whatsoever. Why, you ask? Because of IGN UK's 10/10 review and rating of Halo: Reach. As an admission of bias, I must confess that I have disliked Halo ever since I played it through on a PC. So you may want to take my opinions on the game itself with a fair amount of salt. I could explain at length why I think the Halo series as a whole is horrendously overrated and the only valuable thing it did was make FPS games accessible for the console. However, I won't get sidetracked by that argument.

My complaint is not with the series itself, but the disgraceful (and increasing) trend of "professional" review sites dishing out high scores to games even while identifying significant weaknesses. This trend is why I now feel forced to resort to Zero Punctuation for a decent review. His acidic tone along with his crass language and imagery may not be to everyone's tastes, but at least when I'm watching one of his reviews, I know that the flaws in a game will be clearly (and usually brutally) identified. His review of Halo 3 (very strong language alert) pointed out many of the things that I thought were rather prominent flaws in the game.

At least Halo gave us Red vs Blue

Hrm, it seems I accidentally got sidetracked on an anti-Halo rant despite my assertions that I wasn't going to do so. I'd apologise, but I'll instead tell you to hold onto your seats as we get onto the meat on IGN's "review" and focus on some key quotes. Note that I've not played the game, I'm just going on what has been explicitly stated in the review.

Regarding the "campaign that stands as one of Halo's best": "it's certainly more direct than the incoherent tangle of lore that was Halo 3 it's no more engaging."  And, "the rest of Noble team [apart from the player] are little better than a grab-bag of cliches". This is waved away because "if you're playing Halo for a well-told story you're frankly in the wrong place". Sorry, I know I rate story more highly than most people, but if you're presenting a campaign that is supposed to have a story, then it had better not be "sci-fi pulp that takes itself too seriously".

Then the review mentions the "nine or so hours that it'll take to crack the campaign on Heroic". So playing on the second hardest difficulty, the game is about at long as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a game that despite its brilliance was also criticised for being too short.

Next up we have "an amazing array of set-pieces, and if Bungie is perhaps a little too keen on aping the highlights of its last nine years it does at least seem determined to bring its experience to make them shine like never before". Wait... what? We're being given recycled and touched-up set pieces from the previous games in the series?

But it gets worse, because "the level design is Bungie's best, and while the blend of open battlefields and labyrinth interiors may be superficially familiar it's never been as well executed as Reach's set. If you've a favourite moment from Halos gone it's likely to be referenced here". So not only does Reach copy set-pieces, but levels as well? Exactly what is the game doing that is original?

Let's jump the warthog. Again.

So keeping all the above in mind, exactly as what point did Halo Reach demonstrate that it was worthy of a score like 10/10? I know that the Australian review scored it 9/10 and the US review gave 9.5/10, but based on these few quotes, it hasn't demonstrated it's worthy of those scores either. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I actually like the Australian review more for its more candid take on the game, despite the somewhat casual delivery of the review.

What is the point of having review sites if they do not accurately and impartially address the faults within games and then mark them down in the rating scores that are delivered? More importantly, if review sites cannot provide an adequate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of games, then why should gamers bother reading them?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Consoles != Dumbing Down

There was a time back in the days of the PS2 and the original XBox that I might have accepted the argument that consoles weren't played by "real gamers". But not any more. The technical increases in the power of consoles and the popularity of console gaming means that PC gamers can no longer get on their high horse of superiority and declare that console gamers are "kids" or don't want games with any depth.

I can't provide a definitive reason for the rise in popularity in console gaming compared to PC gaming, as there are many factors that have potentially contributed to this: PC piracy, gaming becoming "mainstream", affordability of consoles, and many more besides. Regardless of the reason, consoles have truly become a proper gaming system in their own right, and the superiority espoused by PC gamers needs to come to an end. For me personally, there are some games I'll get on PC, but others I'll buy on console. Console gamers are not necessarily after a "simpler" gaming experience.

It doesn't have to be one or the other

But don't take my word for it... compare the recent statistics that have been gathered on Mass Effect 2 playthroughs on both PC and XBox360. Now, I could write a whole post on how these results are interesting and the insights that these could provide for design issues, but that's been discussed elsewhere. This is a massive trove of information on player choice and preference (more people play soldier than all the other classes combined and 80% of Shepards are male?!?), but I was interested in the differences between console and PC gamers.

Across millions of playthrough, PC gamers spent about an hour longer to finish the game (not much considering the average playtime was around 30 hours), whereas XBox players did about 10% more loyalty missions on average (which pretty much amounts to 1 more). However, most PC players did Miranda's (touchy-feely plot) quest, whereas console players tended not to, but console players favoured the combat-focused mission for Grunt's loyalty.

It's hard to draw conclusions based on a simple loyalty mission choice. Do console players like Miranda's character less and Grunt's character more? Or was it the emotionally charged story of finding Miranda's sister that they didn't care for?  Perhaps PC players didn't particularly like Grunt's personality or maybe thought an unstable Krogan might be more dangerous for their enemies? Maybe less PC players didn't even let him out of his tank?  There are plenty of reasons why either of these decisions could have been made, so I'm not sure it would be responsible to try and draw conclusion on the rationale behind the differences in these choices.

Grunt: Krogan extraordinaire and console gamer favourite

While these differences are interesting, there's no clear difference in choice that indicates a "bored" audience on the console market. Some gamers who decry ME2 as "not being an RPG" would probably argue that is because the game is already "dumbed down" to suit the console audience, but I'd argue that these statistics but a bullet right to the head of that argument. Mass Effect 2 still has a lot of dialogue in it, and only 15% of that dialogue was skipped by players (unfortunately there's no PC/console breakdown of that statistic). It appears from this information that console players are every bit as dedicated to experiencing a good story as the PC gamers.

In short, if you ever feel the urge to insult a proponent of your non-favoured system, please reconsider. There are advantages and disadvantages of both platforms, and people should recognise that. There's no reason that there has to be an "us" and "them" mentality among gamers playing a multi-platform game on different systems. After all, we're all gamers, right? The games themselves should be the important thing, and not the choice of hardware on which we play them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Antagonists: Planescape Torment

Planescape: Torment was a game that wanted to be a novel. The amount of words in this game is huge by any standard, and anyone who isn't keen on reading will never finish it. Created by Black Isle using BioWare's Infinity Engine, the game now looks very dated, but this doesn't actually detract from the game in a huge way. Perhaps this is because in no small part because there is so much that happens within the game that is described in text rather than shown, constantly reinforcing that it is the writing that makes this game special. It also features one magnificent antagonist... so heed the spoiler warning and tune out now if you ever want to play this game!  I'll give a quick disclaimer that this is one of the longest posts I've done, but there is a lot to discuss here.

The game starts off with you getting over a small illness: death. That's right, you're immortal, and in fact, the game hinges around this characteristic. You are "The Nameless One", waking up in a morgue, without any memory of how you got here, what you were doing, or anything about your former life. Your only assistance is in the form of a talking, floating skull named Morte. If this sounds a little bizarre, that's because it is. The Planescape D&D setting is perhaps one of the more confusing creations you might come across, for it is a place where your very thoughts and actions can cause things to come into being. As an example, throughout the game, you can tell people that your name is "Adahn". If you do so enough, then a person actually named Adahn magically pops into existence.

Starting off dead... Well, that's... different.

Searching for answers on how you came to be in the morgue, you find you were dumped there by a man named Pharod. Lacking any other leads, you decide to seek him out. After a series of events including an encounter with a collective entity of sentient rats, you discover Pharod, who gives you a few precious clues to follow. After leaving, the player is privy to a short cutscene where Pharod is beset and killed by creatures called Shadows. These soon begin to attack The Nameless One as well, seemingly acting as an agent for a more sinister enemy.

You eventually discover that your immortality may have been caused by a night hag named Ravel Puzzlewell, who is currently imprisoned in a magical maze by the ruler of the city, a mysterious being known as the Lady of Pain. After a series of trials, The Nameless One finds his way to Ravel, to find that she was indeed the one who made him immortal. It turns out that his mortality was separated from him so he could never die permanently (see, I told you Planescape was weird), but that with each death, he loses some of his memory. She send him to the fallen angel Trias to try and find his mortality.

A being introduced as "The Transcendent One" kills Ravel after the player leaves Ravel's maze, and appears to be the greater evil commanding the Shadows to kill The Nameless One. The player frees Trias who claims to not be able to not know the answer, but instead directs The Nameless One to other planes, where they eventually discover that their mortality is in a place called "The Fortress of Regrets". It is revealed that Trias lied and has betrayed The Nameless One in a past life as well as this one. After defeating Trias, The Nameless One discovers that the entrance to this Fortress is in The Mortuary, where the player began the game.

Shadows, the dangerous allies of your enemy

Once there, the player encounters three of his past incarnations: one practical, one good, and one paranoid. The "good" incarnation is the original, who made himself immortal after committing terrible deeds and wishing to avoid retribution after death and correct the evil he had wrought. These previous incarnations have left the clues that have allowed him to travel his current path and learn about his past and reach this place. However, upon reaching his mortality, the player finds that it is in fact the mysterious being known as The Transcedent One that has been trying to kill him all this time. His mortality has come to enjoy freedom and wishes to erase all of The Nameless One's memories to live in peace. The Nameless One can kill or convince his mortality to rejoin with him, finally allowing the him to "defeat" his enemy - ultimately dying and receiving the retribution he tried so hard to avoid.

Yes, that is honestly the condensed version of the story, and even that leaves out a lot of points.  There are around 800,000 words of text in the game, so trying to distill it down to key aspects is no simple task. Due to this massive amount of text (and a few other reasons) Torment is a unique proposition in that it doesn't obey lots of standard conventions. For one, it is extremely hard to die permanently - in most cases death will simply cause you to be reincarnated not far from where you died, with everything else pretty much as it was. This alone means the "challenge" of the game is unusual, forcing the game to rely on its narrative more than a game where your death means a reload. So how does this affect the game's antagonist?

Yes, the game has a lot of dialogue

For one, defining the game's antagonist is a curious prospect, because in reality, the main character is the protagonist and the antagonists. Yes, I said antagonists, because it's not just the Transcendent One that stands in the player's way. The previous incarnations of The Nameless One both assist and hinder the player, feeding misinformation and outright lies as well as truths; setting traps as well as laying the trail of breadcrumbs for them to follow. The clues left behind are mysterious and reveal the truth of the situation in disjointed fragments, constantly leaving the player trying to find out more. The player quickly deduces that The Nameless One left some clues for himself in a Momento style scenario, but just as in the movie, it's unclear as to exactly how accurate those clues are.

From the moment the player sees Pharod murdered by Shadows, the game takes a darker turn. There is very obviously something or someone trying to kill The Nameless One, but the player isn't exactly sure why. There is a sense of constant malice, and there is still an essence of danger despite the Nameless One being immortal. Oddly enough, it is the lack of information about your antagonist that makes him such a great "villain". The game is more a journey of discovery where the pieces of a puzzle eventually fall into place than a traditional adventure with a villain you are striving to defeat. After all, the eventual aim of the protagonist is to find a means to die, an aim that requires some fairly serious motivation on the part of the player.

Closing the book on the game and The Nameless One's life

It is this nature of the game's narrative that makes The Transcendent One an effective villain. The story revolves around the fact that you're trying to find out what happened to you, to discover who did the terrible thing of giving you immortality that causes you to lose your memory and to harm the lives of those people whose fates have become inextricably (or in one case, quite intentionally and deviously) linked to your own. The villain initially appears to be attempting to kill you for its own inscrutable means rather than directly opposing you, and all your instincts and the advice you receive indicate that you should run rather than attempting to attack what appears to be an incredibly powerful being. The plot twist that eventually reveals that you must instead face that opponent, and that opponent is in fact part of you makes it all the more powerful a reveal.

The fact that the player is pushed towards avoiding confrontation makes the antagonist an interesting proposition. The player is somewhat fearful of The Transcendent One despite being immortal, and doesn't have any direct reason to hate it except for basic self-preservation. But given The Transcendent One seems content to not act directly against The Nameless One, it almost raises the tension further, raising the question "Why?" Why is The Transcendent One, who is shown to be extremely powerful, not attempting to kill the player, when it seemingly possesses the power to do so? The actions, or rather, the lack thereof, of the antagonist serve to provoke the player's curiosity rather than ire. In an excellent example of writing helping shape the design of a game, this means that they wish to find out about their enemy rather than simply kill them, which is exactly the tone of the entire game and precisely what the plot requires.

Planescape: Torment features an unusual antagonist befitting an unusual game. It revolves around the main character and the reconciliation of their past, which due to the fantastical nature of the setting provides an exposition of what would otherwise be an internal struggle. The desire of the protagonist to avoid responsibility for past actions is what placed the player in their initial predicament, giving them the sombre task of facing up to the required judgment for the countless lives that have been destroyed as a result of the both selfish and noble goal of trying to cheat death and correct those mistakes. All of these aspects combine to make Planescape: Torment interesting and thought provoking, not to mention a great game.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why mod?

I was recently asked the following question: "What is that makes you want to do modding?" Surprisingly, this isn't an easy question to answer, as there are many reasons to do so.  In today's slightly narcissistic post, I'd like to discuss some of the things that keep me coming back to my game-related projects.

I've always the artistic process of creation in many forms. Be it writing, drawing, digital art or music, the desire to create something new and interesting was always a great appeal to me.  The process of game creation allows many of those aspects to be combined into an interactive format for players.

While this is arguably a subset of my first point, it's a major factor behind my interest in RPGs. The attraction of an intricate tale and interesting characters is a very powerful drawcard for me, so the narrative strength of an RPG is a natural choice. It's like creating a choose-your-own adventure novel as well as a game. 

A Love of Gaming
I have had a passion for games ever since I was a child, playing games many people wouldn't recognise (has anyone ever heard of Repton or Citadel?) and have embraced the massive improvements in technology that has allowed for increasingly amazing games.

This might seem like an odd reason, but I take a great deal of joy in creating something that I feel is well-crafted. There is a reason I'll spend hours putting the finishing touches on a level, proofreading and editing dialogue, playtesting, and all the other little touches to make it "just right". 

Delivering to Gamers
There's something special about making a gamer happy and hearing how much they enjoyed playing something you've made. The enjoyment of creation and subsequently seeing your efforts played by people is a great reward.

The Industry
Lastly, I love working on creating games, and I'd love to be able to get paid to do it. I treat my modding work as somewhat of an on-going resume towards this goal, in the hope that it will demonstrate my skills and dedication to a prospective employer.

So, there are some of the key reasons that keep me coming back to create levels, adventures and gaming experiences for players. I imagine some of my reasons would be common, but I'd be interested to know the driving force behind others who create games. But for me, the above are why I keep trying to improve my work and look for ways to perfect scenes like the work in progress below...

 A small rural village

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Roll Credits

You defeat the Big Bad at the of the game, sit through the stirring epilogue recounting your triumph, and then kick back as the credits roll. Then suddenly... the music playing in the credits jolts you out of your reverie. Why? Because it doesn't fit.

I recently saw a complaint about the "30 Seconds to Mars" track "War" which plays in the credits of Dragon Age. Now, I'm not going to get into an argument over the merits of the song or the band itself, because that gets into personal taste over music, and that's not the point of this post. Now, there are those who will say "it's in the credits, you can just skip it". That is entirely correct, but some people don't want to skip the credits. There's the desire to see the names roll past on the off chance you might have interacted with one of them, to watch concept art while thematic music plays, and I'm sure there are other reasons people have.  Unfortunately, this 30 Seconds to Mars song makes watching the credits a jarring experience.

I know you probably don't watch these. I frequently do.

The problem is that it doesn't fit musically with the rest of the game. Arguably, the lyrics fit from a thematic standpoint, but the song itself feels almost as out of place as if they'd had Marilyn Manson, just like they did in the promotional trailers. Now, I'm not saying that all credits music has to be exactly the same, and it doesn't necessarily need to be the same orchestral sound as throughout the rest of the game, although I'd probably argue that would have been the best fit for Dragon Age.

Other games have had songs in their credits that didn't feature in the game, but still match the overall tone of the game. M4 Part 2 by Faunts (Mass Effect) had a definite synth/sci-fi feel that meshed with the songs that were part of the game, Late Goodbye by Poets of the Fall (Max Payne 2) had a dark melancholy tone befitting the film noir style, Time Only Knows (Sands of Time) and I Still Love You (The Two Thrones) both had strong musical influences matching the rest of the soundtracks from their respective games.

The impact that can be made by something as seemingly trivial as the music used in the credits of a game is rather surprising. First and last impressions are curious things.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Public Service Announcement

For anyone who hasn't seen it, check out this video. It discusses a court case in the US relating to gaming, and attempts to heavily restrict game content. The future of gaming in America has a huge effect on the gaming industry around the world, so even though I'm not from America, the ramifications if gaming loses are massive. I can't possibly see how games could ever get stomped, but the fact that it's even become this much of an issue concerns me.

I cannot comprehend how anyone could consider games to not have artistic merit. Such people obviously have no concept of the creativity required to develop a game. Design, art style, narrative, characters, game mechanics, environments, cinematics, and so many more things combine to make a game. The art required to create a game is varied, meaningful and requires great dedication, and if more people could realise that, there would be a greater understanding of video games by players and the general population.