Category Archives: Games

World Action and Adventure (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Pointless Tables)

On a recent visit to the mall to go see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (which was very entertaining, despite including nothing from the last volume of the comics) I stopped in to one of those sports memorabilia stores that also has a small section of comic books and Magic: the Gathering cards and their ilk.  While there, I discovered this wonderful roleplaying supplement from 1985 for a game called World Action and Adventure.  This book is so obscure, I couldn’t even find a picture of the cover on the first 14 pages of Google Images.

We'll have to make due with Quasimodo (page 13)

The supplement, which is subtitled “Actor’s Book of Characters,” is not something that I would typically associate with a product named “World Action and Adventure.”  I mean, that’s a title that you look at, and you know exactly what you’re getting.  There’s gonna be action.  There’s gonna be adventure.  They’re going to be together.  The action is going to be… worldly?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that you can’t go about calling a game “World Action and Adventure,” and duping people expecting some manner of Indiana Jones-style romp through – well, the world, I guess – into purchasing a book filled with bland descriptions of different careers throughout the ages and various tables to aid players in selected said careers for their characters.

That’s right, it’s not enough to decide “I want my character to be a baseball player.”  Nope, you have to choose to be an athlete.  Then, you get to either roll on a table, or choose on the table, depending on the results rolled on a completely different table at the beginning of the book (of which there are seven, one of which the DM specifies at the beginning of the whole process).  Then you get to read such brilliant descriptions as, “Basketball can be a rough game.  The players there have the same span of years that they can play as their football counterparts.  But when a top basketball star is on the court, he is the highest paid professional athlete in the United States.  Earnings of one million per year are the rewards for the best of the basketball athletes.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love randomized character generation, but this whole thing is an exercise in pointlessness.  In “World Action and Adventure” (which, by the way, calls its players “actors,” calls the GM the “Action Guide,” and features a back-of-New-York-Times-bestselleresque picture of the game’s creator, Gregory L. Kinney, on what appears to be his yacht, wearing what appears to be an epically douchey expression) I want to roll up a character capable of taking on Nazis or fighting evil voodoo witch doctors, not accurately filing tax reports or executing a bitchin’ triple-axel (that’s a thing, right?).

If anyone has any information on this game or how it came about or who this G. Kinney guy is, it would be very much appreciated.  To give you the ultimate sense of how pretentious this book is, I leave you with the following quotes, which are taken in order, in their entirety, as presented on the “World Wisdom” page, which comes just after the table of contents:

“The great creative individual . . . is capable of more wisdom and virtue than collective man ever can be.” – John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

“One man with courage makes a majority.” – Andrew Jackson (1767-1845)

“Act well at the moment, and you have performed a good action to all eternity.” – Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) [I have this sinking suspicion that Kinney though he was talking about acting in the sense of theater, but I could just be projecting]

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island . . . and best of all, you can enjoy these riches every day of your life.” – Walt Disney (1901-1966)

“Patriotism is the same as the love of humanity.” – Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” – Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

“As life is action and passion, it is required of man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at peril of being judged not to have lived.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. [so perhaps Kinney used Action in the title simply in the sense of the act of doing anything, be it exciting or or otherwise?]

“God so loved the world . . .” – excerpt from John 3:16

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Variant Rules: Curvy Battleship

Here’s one for all you Battleship afficionados out there.  A nice set of variant rules to spice up an old classic and add all new levels of strategy and depth to an already highly entertaining game.  Battleship, I feel, is an underappreciated gem of old school wargaming, and one with a general lack of variants and mods.

The way Curvy Battleship works is thus. Each player still has the 5 classic ships (I will use the following names and numbers of pegs, Patrol Boat – 2, Submarine – 3, Destroyer – 3, Battleship – 4, Carrier – 5).  However, rather than representing the ships with the traditional game pieces, each ship is represented by white “miss” pegs. This requires that the player remembers exactly which peg corresponds to spots on which ship, but this is a mild inconvenience, and it is necessary considering the one major difference between Classic and Curvy Battleship.

Curvy Battleship ships, as may be deduced from the title, need not conform to the traditional straight shape, but can turn, at will, to any adjacent square.  That is to say, a carrier may occupy any 5 squares, as long as each peg is adjacent to the previous peg. This path can curve diagonally as well.

I played a great game of this earlier today with Kevin, with whom I developed this variant, and lost handily, falling to his strategy of mostly ignoring the curvy rules, and misleading me with straight ships (which quite goes against his character). The fact that my ships resembled a certain recognizable yet mostly inappropriate pattern probably also helped spell my demise.

I am only half-joking.

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Mass Effect: “Game”

If Mass Effect does nothing else (and it does plenty), it shows the importance of solid gameplay.  The game seems like the result of some designer attempting to shoehorn gameplay into his totally awesome science fiction story which, frankly, would have been better suited for film than a video game.

The folks at Bioware obviously have a very specific story they are trying to tell, which they try to cover up with the illusion of deep an meaningful player “choice,” although this usually boils down to whether or not you will pursue side quests and whether you will try to get a villain to join you before he inevitably refuses and draws a gun, or just skip the middleman and order your squadmates to attack.  When you’re not running around and navigating conversation trees (which is what they are, no matter how they try to dress them up as “Incredible, real-time character interaction”), you’re running around weilding one of four types of weapons, occasionally pausing the game to use the Force/biotics or to switch to a new type of weapon.  Most of the combat is just “shoot the big guy, shoot the big guy, use ‘warp’ on the big guy, wait for ‘warp’ to recharge, while shooting the big guy, big guy goes down, move on to next biggest guy.”  It’s not terrible, but there’s nothing innovative about this system, and this kind of thing has been done much better in other games (I’m thinking particularly of squad-based shooters “Star Wars: Republic Commando” and “Brothers in Arms”).

This picture is to keep you on guard.

Although combat is bland and uninspired, it pales in comparison to the sections of the game where you’re driving the Mako, an obstensively off-road vehicle that handles something like Stephen Hawking on speed, except Stephen Hawking would probably be able to aim a gun at an angle greater than 10 degrees from the horizontal.  Undoubtedly the worst, most grating, experience I’ve had so far has been a portion where I had to drive the Mako through several groups of rocket troopers and armatures where I was not allowed to save in between.  It was fun in that “OK, this is my character performing what is needed to complete the mission, even though the gameplay kind of sucks” way, but it ceased to be that when the third group killed me and sent me back to the beginning of the level, with my squad standing just outside the vehicle.  This section spawned a few questions I would like to ask Bioware:

  1. Since when am I in combat if nobody is shooting at me, and there are no enemies on the radar?
  2. What is the tactical advantage of a land vehicle that cannot shoot up when every race we could possibly be fighting have some sort of airborne unit?
  3. Why can the car jump when the humans can’t?
  4. Look at every single driving game ever.  Do you know how they differ from you?  They understand that vehicles are not people, and do not move like them.  Stop trying to make us control cars with the joysticks, please.

That last one was more of a demand than a question, but I just needed to round out that list.  Honestly, though, nothing brings me out the experience than suddenly going from cool, composed ship commander to epileptic student driver.

Now I’m going to go against what I said earlier about Mass Effect working better as a movie and talk about my favorite part of the game.  The Codex, for those not in the know, is where information about the setting is stored as you discover it.  But more than just a reminder of things you’ve learned in the game, it has tons and tons of background information that’s handily set aside for those who wish to delve into it, a lot of which is narrated.  I think even more than the plot and the characters, I’m in love with the world that the game is set in.  You never fight in ship-to-ship combat in game, but there is a lot of information about exactly how such a confrontation would go down, going in detail into heat signatures, weapon systems, and common tactics used in different scenarios.  This is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, if instead of hinting at the backstory through the plot, Tolkien simply attached an encyclopedia that was instantly updated with a few pages of history every time the reader saw a new name or location.  I find myself hoarding Codex entries so after each mission I can return to my ship and read through a big chunk of them all at once, bringing whole new levels of depth into the setting.  The world is extremely well crafted, and it’s really a shame that the gameplay and interactive options don’t do it justice.

Next time, hopefully I’ll have finished the game (I think I only have an hour or two left), or I may write about something else.  I wonder what my throng of undoubtedly sexy female readers would prefer.


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Mass Effect: First Thoughts

A friend of mine recently lent me his copy of Mass Effect, the science fiction action roleplaying game released by Bioware for the XBox 360 back in 2008.  I’ve since clocked in around 8 hours on my first playthrough, not counting deaths and reloads, and I get the feeling I’m nearing the conclusion.  For this post I won’t put in any spoilers, but try to simply touch on the gameplay and give some of my impressions.

The first aspect of this game that really made an impression was the cinematic storytelling.  The cutscenes, which are all partially interactive, are well-acted, and the story they tell is genuinely riveting.  Rather than giving the player a list of conversation topics, or a list of canned responses as most games of this type are apt to do, in Mass Effect the player is allowed to choose between several different tones of message.  So, during a conversation, the player may choose “It’s hopeless,” but Commander Shepard (the player’s avatar in game) might say something like “It’s a lost cause, what can we possibly do about it?”

In theory this reduces screen clutter and makes conversations move along at a decent clip, but in practice it makes the player unclear on what exactly Shepard will do next.  While playing the game, I have said something that sounded like it would come out understanding, but in disagreement, only to have Commander Shepard shout down my team mate until he was so intimidated we left the conversation tree. (SPOILER ALERT: I left him for dead later, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.)

The conversation trees are also home to some of the worst railroading in the game, where the designers give the player the thinly veiled illusion of choice, when really all responses lead to the same dialogue or tone.  In one glaring example, two NPCs where arguing about a certain topic concerning the Genophage, and all of my input into the situation was pre-determined to side with one of the NPCs, even though I agreed with the other one.  It’s lazy game design, and it lead to what is supposed to be an emotional scene which actually made me feel frustrated and disconnected from the experience.

Outside of conversation, the gameplay is fairly solid, if not a bit bland.  Combat seems like it’s trying too hard to be Gears of War, with an added roleplaying element, although the cover system is too clunky and it takes too long to enter and leave cover to make it useful (granted, the fact that your allies take the good cover and charge headlong into rockets doesn’t help the situation).  I am grateful that red triangles appear over my enemies, because otherwise I would have no way to see them at the distances at which I am usually fighting, although that may be because of my ten-year-old college-dorm-room tv’s crappy resolution compared to what the game was designed for.

That feels like enough for now.  My next post I’ll probably touch on the Codex and the Mako, unless inspiration strikes and I decide to do something other than write about a game that everybody and his mother has beaten three times.

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Blogs of the Round Table: Denouement

Denouement, besides being one of the rare words to not return pornography on page 12 of a Google Image search (although that status may have been lost by the time of your reading this, so proceed with caution), is also one of the many things that video games do poorly.  This month’s topic for Blogs of the Round Table is also probably the worst one for me to write a post about, especially as my first entry into the discussion.  To quote the website:

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

I really should be doing schoolwork right now…

How the denouement is factored into game design is highly dependent on the type of game we are working with.  For our purposes there are three big categories of games, those for which story is a major factor (“Story Games” from here on out, e.g. Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Fallout), those for which story is there to support the gameplay (“Action Games” for lack of a better term, e.g. Halo, Gears of War, Command & Conquer), and those for which story is either non-existent, or a purely emergent part of gameplay (“Crunch Games”, e.g. sports games, Civilization, Total War).

Currently, we mostly see denouement in the story games, for the obvious reason that they are trying to tell a story, and thus conforming to traditional story-telling techniques.  More often than not, however, we see a cutscene at the end, or an opening up of a freeform world which is left relatively unchanged from prior to the climax.  In a book or a film, the denouement is where we see the plot resolved, where the characters get their rewards, and where we see the world as affected by the events of the story.  Limiting the big payoff to a non-interactive cutscene or freedom to roam the countryside takes away a lot of the emotional impact of the denouement.

Implementing denouement into gameplay for a story game should be relatively easy.  Most story games have some sort of conversation system.  Gameplay does not really need to be affected in any way to bring denouement into the picture, simply change the gameworld as appropriate (raze cities, bring magic back to the Mystical Forest of Lor Leliel, bring the guards back from the front lines to the cities, whatever), and make sure that NPCs can describe or comment on the changes substantially.  The reason this is not done very effectively now is because it involves creation of content, which is already difficult enough with today’s graphics systems.  If the story calls for a town to be destroyed, nobody wants to pay an artist to create a new, destroyed version of the town, as well as the writer to rescript several dozen dialogue trees to take into account the change.  In this case, either the story would be rewritten, the changes would be made much less drastic in game than portrayed in the story, or the game will simply end in a cut scene.  Really, there’s not much that can be done to improve the denouement of a story game that is not being done already on a much cheaper scale.

“Action Games” (and I will use the term in quotes to distinguish from the recognized genre) are a different beast.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t play Halo for the deep and involving story (actually I don’t play Halo at all, but that’s another post).  Short of implementing new gameplay mechanics, there really isn’t much option for expanding the story beyond the thrilling conclusion.  Once you destroy Halo (I’m speculating here, I assume this is how the first game ends), there’s not much else for you to do gameplay-wise.  I suppose one could walk around the mothership or start training new recruits, but very few people are going to want to keep playing if the game becomes “talk to the officers, they will congratulate you and let you know how Earth is doing.”  For “action games,” cutscenes are appropriate.

Crunch games are another beast entirely.  I use the term here mainly to refer to turn-based-strategy games and sports games, although I’m sure there are other types of game in the category.  Take for example the Madden games.  The biggest draw to these games for me has always been the Franchise mode.  There is no overarching story here, other than “you are coaching a football team,” but through gameplay, wins and losses, trades and recruits, the player builds the story of his coach.  Similarly, for TBS games, there is very little story to begin with, but the player creates the story of his empire through victories on the battlefield (or techs researched, city improvements, what have you).  With sports games, there is no real denouement possible beyond “you have retired, and now you are a sportscaster” or “you have died.”

For a strategy game, however, I often find that the game ends as things become interesting.  Once I build my perfect empire, what happens next?  With my enemies crushed or allied to me, what do I do with my military?  Do I maintain the troops, but use them as a purely defensive force?  Do I occasionally send forces in to keep the other countries in check?  What kind of economy does my country support now that I am the only global superpower?  What exactly does a “space race” victory entail?  For large scale 4X games like this, there is a lot of unexplored territory for what happens next.  Perhaps it is beyond the scope of a game like Civilization or Rome: Total War to portray not only the rise, but the fall of a glorious empire.  A game where great powers arise and then stagnate from the inside before falling to outside invasion, or descend into civil war, would be extremely satisfying to the history buff in me, and would bring closure to a game which would normally end with total conquest and immediate victory.

I don’t know of any video games that do this successfully, but if one exists, it could be my favorite video game of all time except for Portal.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.

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Left 4 Dead 2, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Valve

Remember the computer games of the 90’s?  Remember when a videogame was successful,  sequel could be expected within the year, often on the very same engine as the first game?  I don’t – I was too busy clicking various parts of the screen on Castles 2 until I either got to fight something, or build something – but I’ve heard it was great.  The first two Fallout games came out in 1997 and 1998, a year apart.  Warcraft came out in 1994, with Warcraft II following in ’95.  Command & Conquer: Red Alert came out in 1996, one year after its predecessor.  The first four games in that series were all released within a six year timespan, including various expansions and spin-off titles.  All of these games are today considered classics, and in every case the sequel is lauded over the original game.

I’ve never heard of any protests against this kind of development cycle in the golden age of PC gaming.  A developer made a game, it’s critically and commercially successful, and they make another game very quickly, which fans are more than willing to shell out [insert 90s equivalent of $60 here].  So why the sudden protests against Valve releasing Left 4 Dead 2 so soon after the first title?

Well, the internet’s a funny thing.  Valve, you see, were the developers behind the Half-Life series, Team Fortress 2, and Portal, all of which were hailed as brilliant, all for different reasons.  With Team Fortress 2, one of the major draws was Valve’s commitment to releasing free downloadable content (DLC) for the game fairly regularly.  Within the lifespan of the game, these updates have included new weapons, new class abilities, new maps, new gamemodes, and, most recently, new hats.  Now, disgruntled fans claim that Gabe Newell, managing director of Valve Corporation, promised consistent updates to the game, which exists almost in its entirety in multiplayer cooperative mode, including new weapons, characters, infected, and campaigns.  So far, this video is the only real evidence I’ve seen to support these claims:

Choosing to overlook the blatant unprofessionalism of this video for a moment, the “promises” made here all sound like these people don’t have any concrete plan.  There are no promises made, only vague “maybes” and “probablys”.  Many customers feel that, because of these claims that Valve might sometime put out DLC for Left 4 Dead, and hopes to do it on a regular basis, they are somehow entitled to these things, because they purchased the game based on that knowledge.  Their fear is that, with Left 4 Dead 2 coming out only a year after the original release, Valve will stop updating the original game, thereby going back on their promises.  Even if all support were to cease after L4D2, Valve has already released DLC that included a new gameplay type and maps, and with even more on the way.

But support will not cease with the release of L4D2.  Gabe Newell has stated many, many times that he still wants the L4D community to be supported, and this includes new releases for the original game, as well as modding tools becoming available.  Other companies have proven that it is possible for old games to garner support, the clearest example to me being the original Everquest, which is still getting expansions even after its sequel came out in 2004.

And either way, basing a buying decision off of pre-release hype is a very dangerous route to go, anyway, as Peter Molyneux proves time and time again (still can’t get Dungeon Keeper working, by the way).  As a general rule, any developer will lie through his or her teeth to sell a game.  Not that they’re all necessarily corporate scum, often they are just very enthusiastic about a new product, and take the “OMG this game is gonna be awesome look at all this stuff we’ll hopefully get done and bug-free in the next four months!!!!!!”  In this respect, Valve has been historically, and is being now, very responsible when it comes to promises (Half Life 2: Episode 3 excluded, which is OK, since I have yet to finish Half-Life 2.  Take your time, guys!)  Not buying a new game because the last one was a disappointment is valid.  Organizing a boycott and clamoring on about “consumers’ rights” is nonsense.

American colonists boycotted English tea because they thought they were being unfairly taxed.  Gandhi boycotted foreign goods because he felt they were contributing to Britain’s domination of India.  Several countries boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s military aggression in the Middle East.  41,497 people (as of this writing) are boycotting a video game because it came out too soon after another, similar videogame.

Discuss, which of these groups do you think needs to rethink its priorities?

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Dungeon Keeper for Vista: Review

I’ve recently felt the urge to play the classic game Dungeon Keeper on my six-month-old laptop, which just so happens to run Vista (the same way some people just so happen to be born without arms or legs).  So I dug out the ol’ compact disk (needs MS-DOS or Windows 95 or higher) popped it in the cd tray and bam!  The install took all of five seconds (no, I’m pretty sure my computer can handle DirectX 3).  I go into the directory, double-click the icon, and receive a splash screen featuring the demon Horney, getting myself prepped for some serious anti-dungeoneering and…

The game crashes to desktop.  No matter what I do.  Three installs, one as administrator, changing all sorts of settings, nothing works.  Booting it under WINE over on my Linux partition doesn’t work either (in fact, it doesn’t even return to my 1440 x 900 resolution, just stays at 640 x 480, a resolution in which the window to change the resolution does not display the “OK” button) .  Even when I put it into my ancient XP desktop computer, I get as far as the world map before getting some sort of monitor sync error (and I’ve played this game on XP machines before).  You’d think somebody would have a patch or something for this, but there’s not even a user-made one from someone who’s cracked the game.  I am eternally frustrated.

Courtesy of Randall Munroe

This comic comes to mind.

Incidentally, Velthur, I still have your copy of Dungeon Keeper.


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Slaves to Armok and the Food Service Industry

“Cody, why have you gone so long without updating?” I can hear my undulating throng of fangirls screaming right now.  Well relax.  The reasons are two-fold.  One, I’ve been working all weekend.  Which would have been news enough, I know.

The second reason, is a little game called Slaves to Armok 2: Dwarf Fortress.

Better known simply as Dwarf Fortress. To those unfamiliar, Dwarf Fortress is the sequel to a game that was never actually released and really didn’t share anything in common with its successor at all.  In the game, you take control of a party of seven dwarves, who set out to mine the mountains dry of valuable minerals and establish a long-lasting, profitable fortress, all lovingly rendered in colored extended ASCII characters.

That is, of course, a gross over-simplification.  The game has been lauded since it was first released in 2006 for its depth and complexity.  The dwarves have minds of their own, and develop relationships, attitudes, diseases, etc. all on their own.  The player assigns tasks, and then the dwarves go about it according to their skills and personalities.  The gameworld, although rendered, shall we say, not un-hideously, is governed by complex algorithms detailing water and magma flow, and structures can collapse if there is too much open space beneath them.

I’ve probably clocked at least eight hours into the game, and I haven’t even scratched the surface.  Of course, an hour of that was mostly getting past the interface/graphics.  But it’s a good sign when, after coming home from a twenty-hour work weekend, you lay down, exhausted, and open your laptop to fiddle around for maybe ten or fifteen minutes before falling asleep, and end up sinking two hours, unwillingly, into the game.  And all this from an alpha game.

Click here to see a short after-action report to get a better idea as to the complexities of the game.  That’s the article that sent me down this path of no return.  The game has no winning condition.  Hence its tag-line, “Losing Is Fun.”  If the text graphics are intimidating, there are always user-made graphics-sets that you can download.  I’d link them, but I can’t be bothered with that when there’s Dwarf Fortress to play.

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