Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Real Moral Choice

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Moral choices, when present in video games, seem to mostly boil down to either saintly behavior or satanic cruelty. Will I save the little sisters from their cruel bonds, or will I tear them into pieces for my own purposes (BioShock)? Should I give the woman her baby for free or threaten its life so she’ll fork over a few gold coins (Neverwinter Nights)? Do I want to end up with a halo or some really gnarly horns (Fable 2)?

I’ve only played about two hours of Dragon Age: Origins, just enough to get through one of the origin stories the game offers, but in that limited amount of time I was presented with the first real moral challenge I have ever faced in a video game. I was a young female elven rogue whose wedding day was ruined by a cruel human noble interposing himself on our modest ceremony. Elves in the world of Dragon Age were, in recent history, an enslaved people. Since we’re still treated as second-class citizens, no one raised much of an outcry when a group of armed men broke up my wedding day and took me and several other women hostage.

With the help of a childhood friend, I broke out, killing the human guards who got in my way. I managed to rescue most of my friends before anything terrible happened to them, but one of the women and my husband-to-be were killed. When I finally reached the so-called noble, he and a group of his men were standing over the sobbing form of one of my closest friends. I gripped my sword in mute fury as the man turned to face me. And that’s when I reached a moment, purely in dialogue, that was more difficult than any series of jumps or room full of well-armed enemies in other games.

The man presented me with a choice: I could fight him, and maybe I would win, but if I killed him his father would probably storm the slum where I lived, killing most of the people I grew up with and burning their homes to the ground. Or I could just walk away, a little richer, and pretend that these atrocities never took place.

I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a longer time to make a dialogue decision. There was no right answer, no clear moral solution. I wanted to do the right thing, but I had no idea what that was.

I told him I would walk away if he let the women go. He refused, saying that he would still be keeping them for the night, all of them but me. That’s when I stabbed him in the gut. It felt good, but I had no idea whether I had done the right thing. I might have doomed us all. Only time would tell.

And that moment, with all of the actual, real-life internal conflict that it elicited from me, was one of the most impressive video game moments of my life. I haven’t played much more of Dragon Age since then, but if that’s all I get out of it I will consider this game an important milestone in video games: a game that finally establishes that morality is not a simple thing, with one good answer and one evil one. Finally, I was asked to make a decision and I had no idea what to do. This shows that games are finally maturing, and that difficulty is no longer just a question of game mechanics. This was challenging to my conscience instead of my reflexes, just like any real, difficult moral choice.

Monday, November 23, 2009

There’s a Time and a Place

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Most video games are set in one of a few familiar time periods: World War 2, the present day, or the future (usually either of the dystopian or war-torn variety). Many fantasy games are set in what is essentially a mythologized version of medieval Europe or Japan. Very few games step outside these established temporal settings.

This is part of what makes Assassin’s Creed 2 such a breath of fresh air. The title is set in Renaissance-era Italy, complete with some of the most famous landmarks and figures that inhabited it. I spent this weekend climbing to the top of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and chatting it up with Leonardo da Vinci. There is enough accuracy and detail worked into the game to reach that holy grail of narrative video games: suspension of disbelief. The original Assassin’s Creed was a less polished game, but the strength of the setting was not among its faults. Having seen Ubisoft’s recreations of 12th Century Jerusalem and 15th Century Florence, I can’t wait to see where, and perhaps more importantly when, the Assassin’s Creed games will go next.

Even in games that have very little basis in reality, a change in temporal setting can add a great deal to the experience. Think of the visual style of BioShock: if it hadn’t been set in 1960, the art deco aesthetic and old-fashioned clothing on the splicers might never have been, the songs on the jukebox would have been completely different, and the atmosphere of the game just wouldn’t have felt so fresh. Breaking apart from the typical medieval European fantasy setting, Jade Empire managed to present a unique role-playing game by placing the player in a mythological version of ancient China. It’s no coincidence that the settings of these games are all so well praised. In an industry replete with cookie-cutter worlds, a simple shift in time and place can yield scores of new ideas and experiences.

Think of all the untapped potential on maps and in history books. When will we see a role-playing game based on Egyptian mythology? A western-style shooter in late 19th Century Australia? How about a survival horror game in a factory town in the American Midwest during the Great Depression? Why do we keep revisiting the same times and places, when there is so much more to see and do?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Falling off the Dragon

by C.T. Hutt

Oh my god! Is it Friday?

Crap, I think it really is. That would explain why I am at work at least. I don’t understand, what the hell happened? The last thing I remember it was Saturday morning, I was at a Best Buy purchasing a copy of Dragon Age: Origins, but then it’s all a blank. What happened to my week? Why haven’t I shaved? Man, my joints ache like I’ve spent days sitting in an office chair. I’m exhausted, when was the last time I got a full night’s rest? The last time I remember feeling like this was in the middle of my World of Warcraft addiction back in college. This can only mean one thing. I must have had a relapse.

Wait, now I remember. I’ve spent the last week enthralled in Bioware’s latest time vacuum. Oh god, I thought I was past this. Can I really be blamed though? The game play for this title is magnificent, it’s challenging and varied. Success requires tactical considerations and careful planning. The characters are compelling and the voice acting is flawless. And there is a plot, an honest to god plot that I actually find engrossing. Presented with a game that involves a story arc and character development, can I really be blamed for a little slip? Who’s got a problem? You’ve got a problem. Don’t judge me!

Who doesn’t enjoy a good fantasy RPG? You remember Baldur’s Gate right? Dragon Age manages to combine writing in the tradition of Baldur’s Gate with the same playability that has made WoW an international hit. Ask the other bloggers, I am not the only one who thinks so, the net is littered with praise for this title. The familiar landscapes in the game fall a little short for me, but nothing is perfect. See, you see that? I found some fault in the game; I’ve totally got this under control.

Now if you will excuse me, it is Friday afternoon and I need to go home, to uh, walk my cat, I mean brush my plants, no wait I need to water the cats. Yeah, that’s it…

Monday, November 16, 2009

You’re Speaking My Language

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Gamers, like kids and drunks, say the darndest things. Just last night I sat down to play Mario Kart Wii with a few friends. This was only the second time any of us had ever played this incarnation of the game, but we were having a blast just learning the courses and the new power-ups. As we chatted about the mechanics of the game and shouted obscenities at one another, I took note of some of the stranger sentences that sprung unbidden from our mouths:

“I think that if you’re in the air when you get POW’d, you don’t spin out.”

“The lightning storm works like a hot potato! Ram somebody!”

An outsider would surely think us mad, but such is the nature of video games and their effect on language. One of the great beauties of language is its adaptability. Lacking the needed terms to describe a given situation causes players to create their own. When Shakespeare didn’t have a word that worked for one of his plays, he invented one. I’m not saying that words like “POW’d” have quite the same puissance as Shakespeare’s invented words, but they still serve a linguistic purpose. I know that when I played Neverwinter Nights online, terms like PhK and FoD were bandied about, and no one looked askance. We all spoke the same language; our communal terms helped to define us as a community.

(They’re spells, for the curious. Phantasmal Killer and Finger of Death. Both bad news.)

I’ve never played World of Warcraft, and when two of my in-recovery friends speak of their halcyon days in Azeroth they are completely incomprehensible to me. (Chris grows more understandable with each passing day.) I’ve picked up a few words here and there, maybe enough to get around, find a bathroom and even a bite to eat. From the Penny Arcade comic below, for example, I’m pretty sure aggro is aggression and DoT is damage over time. Many gamers use terms like nub, newb or noob to mean someone who is either new to a game or acting like they are. But Omen? Raidwipe? L2P? MT? I need a translator, someone who has walked these lands before.
Whether it’s yelling at a friend to use their star power or complaining about shotty spam, video games do more than take us to new locations. They teach us new, bizarre languages and rule sets that only make sense in the context of the game. We talk about the gaming community as a whole, and the communities that arise around specific genres and games, and nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in these communal languages. It’s a testament to the power of video games that this never strikes us as odd: just like our own native languages seem like the norm to us, the languages of the games we play become perfectly natural over time. It’s only when we walk into a room of people playing a strange game that we realize just how bizarre this phenomenon can be.

So what’s the strangest thing a game has ever driven you to say? Have you ever paused to wonder just how such a sentence left your lips? I know I have.

Friday, November 13, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Starcraft

by C.T. Hutt

A light snow falls on the good simple folk doing their business downtown. Amid the bustle of the marketplace is a seasonal spirit of good cheer, bright wreaths hang from shop doors and colorful garlands frame every window. Gentlemen tip their hats to each other and good ladies curtsy as they pass. It’s a magical time filled with hope for the future and warm memories of Christmases past. And what’s this? All the excited children are gathered around the window of Old Man Bestbuy’s Software Shoppe. See them press their adorable little faces against the glass and watch with doe-like eyes as the newest toy goes on display. Is it the latest model train? Or perhaps a lovable stuffed bear? No, this year it’s Dragon Age: Origins developed by Bioware.

“Callooh! Callay!” The children shout.

See them dance in the street and flare their little nostrils against the window pane. How very adorable the entire scene is, except this is not a Dickens novel and those are not children, that’s me and Daniel and we are in our mid twenties.

We may not be as cute as we were when we were kids, but unlike our mannerisms, our stance toward vegetables, and our general outlook on life and the world around us, our enthusiasm for video games has refused to grow up even a little bit. Also, who the hell asked you what’s cute? Take a hike, buddy.

There is more to enjoy about video games then just playing them. While that is, of course, their primary function as entertainment, I would put forward that the anticipation is an important part of the fun. In the often humdrum monotony of our adult lives, having a few things that we are genuinely excited about is invaluable. It gives us something to monitor and study that is fun rather than vital to the operations of our lives, like the market or the news. Even after a particular title has been played to its completion and retired, it gives us something to talk about (or write about at great length) for years to come.

This child-like enthusiasm is not without its pitfalls. Along with this juvenile “need” to have a particular title comes a childish tantrum when our desires are not met. For example, ever since Blizzard’s announcement of Starcraft 2 back in the late eighteen hundreds, I have been beside myself with anticipation for its release. True to form, Blizzard has dangled this sumptuous carrot in front of its avid fan base for years now and every time we think it is in biting range, they announce another delay. So far they have been completely un-responsive to my letters claiming that if they don’t finish developing it I will hold my breath until I pass out. Daniel is equally unsympathetic to my woe; every time I pout about this subject he enjoys a hearty laugh at my expense. This is hyperbole of course, but I do feel an irrational frustration that I am forced to wait for this release. It’s the same frustration I felt in 1999 waiting for the original Starcraft, and 1995 waiting for Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness. That was fourteen years ago, I was twelve, and it still feels exactly the same. It may be frustration, but in all honesty it is a fun sort of frustration.

We fixate on these games; we follow their development with great interest, play them, and then analyze everything about them. And why? Partially because of the reasons we have so often espoused here at Press Pause to Reflect, that video games are a socially important artistic medium worthy of attention and respect. Also, we simply enjoy the act of playing video games. But aside from these reasons, there is the fact that it just feels good to have something in the often dour and serious world of adulthood that makes us feel like kids dancing in the street, excited for the next big thing.

Monday, November 9, 2009

It Takes Two

by C.T. Hutt

I spent a good portion of this last weekend wandering the dry and desolate plains of Borderlands. Borderlands, like so many other first person shooters, presents gamers with a sea of repetitious enemies, inane quests, and a paper thin storyline set in an all too familiar landscape. To Gearbox Software’s credit, the game does employ an interesting A Scanner Darkly-esque visual style, but Borderlands brings little else to the oversaturated FPS market. Why then was I so content to spend hours this weekend parked on my keister whittling away at my meager quotient of free time? The answer is quite simple: I was playing with a friend.

While Daniel has had the opportunity to play the Xbox Live version of Borderlands with some complete strangers (an experience he affectionately refers to as “Bro”derlands) we are both agreed that the best way to enjoy this game is in off-line co-op mode. Sure, the screen is split which creates some visual challenges, but so what? Exploring Pandora and searching for the next great gun or level up is simply more fun with a buddy.

Even the most mundane mission can be entertaining with some company. Case in point: Your objective is to follow a green dot and pick up a cog so that we can re-start the town’s snow cone maker (I don’t know what we were restarting, I never read the quest descriptions). This quest would be completely boring if it weren’t for my crippling incompetence behind the wheel. When I take a wrong turn and crash our vehicle into an explosive pit filled with monstrous ant spiders, things become more exciting. A one man army firefight is pretty interesting, but we see that in pretty much every FPS. Toss in the dynamics of having to rescue your partner or work together to bring down a colossal foe and the experience becomes much more engaging. Co-operative play makes humdrum games like Borderlands pretty fun and it makes solid games, like the new demo for Left 4 Dead 2, a complete blast.

The NES, Sega, and other Bronze Age consoles bear little in common with the sleek machines which now dominate the market. However, in their enduring wisdom the founding developers made sure that early consoles came with two controller ports. Single player games were fine, but if you ever wanted to get the most out of your system you would need to acquire one thing that not even the most skilled manufacturer can build for you: a companion.

I think this was a very forward-looking move on the part of developers. The best things in life are the ones we share with other people. If video games were ever to attain widespread popularity they would have to evolve to be more inclusive. Challenges abound as, unfortunately, one of the dangers of the video game medium is isolation. On top of the limitations of a split screen, many game genres don’t readily lend themselves to co-operative play. Static storyline RPGs, for example, are almost exclusively a single player affair. Fighting and sports games are, by their definition, a contest rather than a shared effort. Many puzzle games, tower defenders, and even platformers which practically beg for a cooperative element, simply do not have room for more than one gamer at a time.

Fortunately, as the medium matures so has its ability to bring more and more people into the mix. The curious platformer/puzzle game LittleBigPlanet is a fine illustration of how co-operative play has come along; you couldn’t pull moves like that in Super Mario Brothers, no sir.

While I have plenty of gripes about trends in the video game industry (see paragraph 1), I am encouraged to see more high quality games which have a co-operative element. I wish that Borderlands and many games like it would provide a better single player experience but, barring that, I will settle for a well polished cooperative element. Online play with friends is fun too, but it will never replace a timely high-five after you and your friend beat the big boss together.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Fool Me Twice

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

I've been suckered into buying copious amounts of downloadable content for long enough. I purchased Fallout 3 when it first came out (the ridiculously expensive edition that comes with a broken clock), and dutifully bought each additional adventure as it was released. I'd already completed the main storyline, so I waited until all the packs were out to actually play through them. I don't have any problem with the content itself: I think the various additional adventures were well done, and particularly enjoyed the variety they presented in play style, atmosphere and setting. That being said, I felt a bit of a fool when they announced the "Game of the Year" edition of Fallout 3, with all the additional content at the same price point as the original game. I got a lot of enjoyment out of my time with the game, but waiting clearly would have served me better.

I didn't buy LittleBigPlanet when it first came out because I didn't have a Playstation 3. Now I do, and I was lucky enough to get onboard with the "Game of the Year" edition of that game, which comes with a pile of downloadable content already on the game disc. This feels like a small personal success. It's clear that this is becoming the new model for video games with extensive downloadable content plans. Release the game, release the add-ons over a few months, then re-release the game with all the add-ons.

So here comes Dragon Age: Origins, a game that seems specifically designed to empty my wallet. A spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate 2, you say? A dark, epic fantasy inspired by Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire? Be still my heart. The only reason I don't own the super fancy mega edition is because I barely resisted purchasing a brand new computer this month to play the thing. I know I want to play it, my soul cries out for me to play it, but I also know that it will be best on the PC. That's how I experienced the Baldur's Gate games, and that's how I want to experience Dragon Age. Even so, it's hard to resist its siren song.

But there's something soothing my hungry soul. The game has only just released, and there's already paid downloadable content out for it, with a plan for a lot more. To me, this says that one day in the not too distant future, there will be some sort of complete edition, perhaps another "Game of the Year" if it wins any such awards, and by then a computer to run it will be considerably less expensive. I may miss out on the experience for now, but I'll comfort myself with the fact that I wasn't suckered into a long, drawn-out scheme to part me from my money. And when I finally play the game, all those additional quests and dungeons will already be there, rife with possibilities, treasure, and intricate plotlines. There might even be a few dragons left.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Lay Waste to the Wasteland

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands and Brütal Legend. I’ve been having a blast with both, though they represent entirely different schools of game design. The difference lies in the ambitions of each product. Brütal Legend tries to do a lot with mixed results, while Borderlands is more focused and, as a result, better executed.

Borderlands only sets out to do a few things: it wants to be a good first-person shooter, it wants to provide a fun co-operative experience, and it wants to inspire a Diablo-esque fixation with collecting better loot and leveling up. It does all that, and looks great besides, with a visual style torn straight out of a comic book. My expectations were met almost perfectly. Even the story, what little there is of it, seems to fit the mood of the game: your character is a vault hunter, seeking lost riches and artifacts on an alien world, and you spend most of your time in the game gathering riches, weapons, and other treasures. You’re looking for treasure so you can find more treasure. That’s the game in a nutshell. The game becomes repetitive, but no more so than Diablo and its sequel. It’s a winning formula.

Brütal Legend has no such focus; it wants to do everything. Set in the ancient, mythical land of heavy metal, it starts as an action game, with an axe for melee attacks and a guitar calling down lightning and pyrotechnics on enemies. Combos are learned, weapon upgrades are purchased. Only then it’s a driving and shooting game, complete with speed boosts, ramps and on-board machine guns. This transitions into an open world exploration game, with plenty of collectibles to find. Sometimes it’s a rhythm game, where a quick Guitar Hero-style solo can be used to raise an ancient relic from the ground or literally melt the faces of your enemies. Then come the strategy elements, which range from ordering a few minions around on a mission to full-blown real-time strategy mayhem, complete with troop upgrades and resource management. These are called stage battles, and your resources are your fans, which rise up from the ground when they hear the presence of heavy metal.

It’s a very creative game, and it overflows with incredible moments. I discovered a guitar solo, for example, which summons a flaming zeppelin from the sky to crash and explode wherever you’re standing. That’s just as awesome as it sounds. The environments are as face-melting as the solos, from walls of amps set into craggy cliff faces to mountains of bone and ice, with trees made of hot rod tailpipes. And the writing is fantastic in its variety as well: the game is inspiring, sad, dramatic and hilarious, all in turn or occasionally at once.

In playing both Brütal Legend and Borderlands, I found myself wondering which school of thought resulted in a better game. Borderlands is a much more polished experience, to be sure, and some of the different gameplay modes in Brütal Legend fell a little flat, though I enjoyed the real-time strategy elements more than I expected to. Borderlands, however, offers very little in the way of variety. The game is played the same way throughout, there are only a few types of enemies, and the majority of the game takes place in cracked desert wastelands. Borderlands is a very satisfying game, but in many ways Brütal Legend is a more exciting one. The game is laced with madness, humor, and drama, and there are new and exciting ideas around every (flaming, metallic) corner. It may not succeed at everything it tries, but it does so many different things that it hardly matters. I’ve really been enjoying Borderlands, but I think that Brütal Legend has a lot more to offer. Borderlands will feel familiar, while Brütal Legend will surprise you. And looking back on the games I’ve loved, it’s those memorable, surprising moments that withstand the test of time.