Rosebuds And Gaming’s Citizen Kane

I honestly thought we were past this.

Peak Gaming’s Citizen Kane was somewhere around the early 2000s, but the question’s mostly, but not entirely, died off. It flares up now and again – someone thoughtlessly asks What Is/Will Be Gaming’s Citizen Kane, everyone is embarrassed for them, and then we all get on with our day, or perhaps some review reaches for it as a comparison, usually one in a second-tier publication no-one takes seriously for game reviews. Any kind of insight we could have got from the question has long since dried up – if indeed there was any at all. And everyone remembers that time one guy said it was Metroid Prime.

The answer that I used to agree with most was Ico, but these days I have a better answer. The question, as phrased, isn’t legitimate. The question people are actually trying to ask isn’t legitimate either. The assumptions underlying the question aren’t legitimate either. Honestly, Gaming’s Citizen Kane probably isn’t even a video game. Asking What Is Gaming’s Citizen Kane is a symptom of such a profound misunderstanding of what’s happened over the last decade and what’s likely to come that it would take an entire article to remedy, minus a couple of opening paragraphs.

The way I understand what people are trying to ask, unpacking the unspoken assumptions as I go, is something like this: Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece, was a smash hit, inventing new forms of filmmaking to tell a story difficult, if not impossible, to tell in other media. It’s still admired and debated by critics to this day, and is seen as a high watermark for the form. So what would the Citizen Kane of gaming look like? The problem is that of those assumptions, what’s true is irrelevant, and what’s relevant isn’t true.

Firstly, Citizen Kane wasn’t a smash at all – it didn’t make its money back. While it was nominated for an Oscar, it was mostly forgotten by critics until it started to appear on television in the ’50s. It’s popularly held that William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul from which Citizen Kane draws some of its plot points, pushed to have the movie suppressed, but truth is he didn’t have to work that hard: the film was artsy and sombre in a time when movie audiences, frazzled by war in Europe, were more in the mood for simple escapism. Its ‘inventive’ cinematography was, according to Welles, chiefly due to ignorance – its framing and experimentalism worked because Welles had both good taste and no idea how to make a movie. While critics adore it, this critical and scholarly attention only came decades later, and it’s far from the first film seen as a high watermark for movie-making. (The first, arguably, was 1915’s Birth of a Nation, a retelling of the post-Civil War era involving blackface actors menacing white women, being driven off by the heroic KKK. There were widespread protests.)

Why should we care what gaming’s Citizen Kane might look like, if even film’s Citizen Kane doesn’t look like Citizen Kane? Citizen Kane was a film of its time, of a specific moment in history. and it’s ridiculous to think its specific pattern of influence on the film industry will be replicated in another medium. Here’s the thing: the games industry is mostly driven by Americans, and many of these fledgling critics grew up on Siskel and Ebert. Ebert, in particular, adored Citizen Kane. It’s understandable that these games critics would reach for a metaphor that makes sense to them, asking not about replicating the circumstances of a 1940s movie but instead about cultural legitimacy. (It’s also understandable that they’d try to bring their medium back to their inspirations, and a lot of feelings were hurt when Ebert indicated he wasn’t interested.) What games critics are really asking is “when will we have a game worth dissecting like Siskel and Ebert had Citizen Kane?”, and for that question Ico, or Bioshock, is a pretty good answer.

But even this question isn’t legitimate. Pac-Man had huge cultural legitimacy – the chomping yellow circle is part of the lexicon, sometimes standing in for relentless consumerism or 80’s greed, sometimes just to represent video games. For a while now, any worthwhile critic with an itch to dissect a complex, poignant game has had plenty of muses – Civilization, SimCity, Space Invaders, countless others. Not everyone working in the games media over the decade was a hack, so why would critics in the early 2000s ask when would a game come along they could get stuck into when they were surrounded by them?

Well, at the time, who could blame them? It was the days of Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney who smelled blood in the water and made a brief but (for gamers, at least) distressing career out of being a moral crusader, popping up after every school massacre to point out that the shooter played games, or at least probably did. He disappeared after the one-two punch of being called out by an anchor for jumping to conclusions, and then getting disbarred in Florida. The games of the time were astonishingly adolescent in ways that we haven’t really let go of – in those days, hit games embraced the id, or at least tried to look enough like GTA3 that you’d get noticed. The craft was almost entirely about technical mastery, the art built by people who spent most of their lives at work and subsequently never grew up. In this environment it’s not surprising the games press would start asking if things would ever get better. Their mistake is they assumed games would need to change first.

What we discovered, at least since the Wii came out, is that the form of cultural legitimacy Western culture takes most seriously is profitability. Games aren’t much more mature these days. Most creators accept at least that they’re working in an art form now, but the highest-selling games are still adolescent power fantasies like Call of Duty. What’s changed, though, is that nearly every form of expression has been touched by the internet revolution, and like most revolutions we’re starting to see blood spilled. Most of the cultural industries, at this point, have noticed that games have already adjusted. The heavy hitters make tons of money – over the internet! – and unlike in other industries, smaller creators are doing better than ever as well. The various parties in the industry fight, absolutely, but no-one’s holding the industry hostage for the sake of a dying business model. The way games journalists write has changed too. While some might put the renewed market for meaty criticism down to Bioshock, we’ve had New Games Journalism and pieces like the excellent Bow, Nigger since the 2000s. BioShock is not the game that launched a thousand chin-scratchers as much as it was the first notable release after massive profits changed the relationship the wider world had to games. Seeing the huge response to the Wii, to record-breaking sales, and seeing the wider world trying to get a handle on this suddenly important thing and posing questions about the art form as an art form emboldened writers to tackle those questions. Once they started, it was tough to go back to saying “that’s just how games are”, and eventually, writers who played games and also had cultural legitimacy tackled these topics as well.

It appears the first was author Tom Bissell, who compared two of his addictions in the early 2000s, the GTA series and cocaine, in a 2010 piece for respected British newspaper The Guardian. We didn’t look back. Games Have Arrived at cultural legitimacy: museums scramble to put together curation policies for games; cultural commentators discuss how games portray their areas of interest; pop-culture critics compare games to movies and books. So what if games are sometimes found wanting? Most of these critics are happy to point out things games do better than other media: how emergent behaviours form as a result of a game’s design that would take a particularly pretentious artist months to replicate; how easily we discard gender roles in the name of player choice; how effortlessly the medium handles horror and evokes a sense of place. The fear was that gaming would become a cultural backwater, like comics, only fit to be mined for ideas for other, more beloved media. At this point it seems unlikely that’ll ever happen. The field’s too vibrant, too well-loved.

We didn’t need a Citizen Kane to find a place in the wider culture. In the end, it was just another film.

Depending on how cynical I am on the day, I’ll claim that either gaming, as an art form, or gamers, as a collective, are Citizen Kane. Gaming is black-and-white, inventive and infuriating in equal measure, chasing a twist that doesn’t actually matter. (In Citizen Kane’s final speech, Jerry Thompson, the reporter investigating Kane’s final words, gives up, declaring that he doesn’t think any word can explain a man’s life.) Games are inventive and iconoclastic, an entire industry impossibly built on constant novelty. There’s a reason why other industries marvel at how quickly gaming pivoted to mobile platforms and internet distribution, and more than a few industries have lamented they need their own Steam.

If I’m feeling cynical, I’ll say: Gamers are like Charles Foster Kane, starting out with noble intentions but succumbing to selfishness and vindictiveness against anyone who makes demands of them, however reasonable. They’ll cheat on people they profess to love if it saves them even a little bit of heartache, when they’re not forcing those they claim to love into doing things they don’t want to do to make their #1 fans happy. They demand things to be just so, and those demands grow so preposterous that they lock themselves in a suffocating house that’s just how they like it instead of learning to live with compromise. They’ll blame everyone else for their problems. Those noble intentions are still there, that passion still smoulders deep inside, but it’s buried under so much horseshit that it’s hard to care.

However, I’ll then say I agree with Mr. Thompson. You can’t sum up something as complex as what videogames have become with a single comparison. As cute as it is to compare gaming with Citizen Kane, we don’t need to hide behind metaphor to explore the subject, not any more. Which is why people mostly stopped asking what is Gaming’s Citizen Kane, although it still gets my hackles up. Honestly. I thought we were past this.

Advertisements

The Secret Life of Adventure Games

Good evening. Let us pretend that it is evening, because it is a civilised time to be appreciating culture, and I am sure that you wish to make the very best impression. Ah, but of course, you’re not interested in how I think of you; you’re here to make sense of the title. The Secret Life Of Adventure Games. You may be thinking, ‘How complex can they be? GET LAMP, TURN LAMP ON, LIGHT LAMP, LIGHT CANDLE IN LAMP, surely?’ Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Aren’t adventure games dead? How can they have a secret life when they don’t have a known one?’ That, my friend, is the question I intend to answer. If you’ll follow me to our first exhibit, I’ll explain.

Certainly, adventure games rapidly became unprofitable, but the audience never went away, and their demand was satisfied by other genres taking on adventure games as refugees. Within a surprising number of popular games lie the roots of the adventure games of old, dressed up for an audience that knew it didn’t like adventure games but craved the gameplay it specialised in. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that adventure games appealed to two different audiences, and that… duality caused no end of confusion as people picked over the bones of the genre. One famous theory, popularised by seminal gaming site Old Man Murray, is that adventure games died because their puzzles became increasingly illogical; undoubtedly true, but the old classics had plenty of questionable puzzles of their own, and it was considered part of the territory. Another popular theory is that the release of Cyan Worlds’ Myst, one of the best-selling PC games of all time, trained players to expect gorgeous rendered scenes with highly abstract puzzles, instead of the more integrated puzzles typical of the genre; while Myst was a smashing success, no-one, including Cyan, managed to bottle that lightning, which suggests that the market wasn’t clamouring for more Myst-like adventures after all. A third comes from Grim Fandango designer Tim Schafer: that the industry caught up to adventure game storytelling. This is certainly true – Grim Fandango was released well after Valve’s Half-Life, a highly influential FPS with a simple but well-executed story. But these theories don’t quite capture the full picture; there is a key insight missing.

Ah! Speaking of Tim Schafer, here we are at our first exhibit: Psychonauts, designed by Schafer after leaving Lucasarts for his own studio, Double Fine. The box, you’ll notice, calls it a ‘platformer’, but this is somewhat misleading: within the platformer shell lies the beating heart of an adventure game. Schafer’s solution for the demise of the genre and his inability to sell new entires to publishers was to hide the adventure game in a less threatening form – as the excellent level design gets more ambitious, the game retreats to more typical adventure gameplay, with inventories and items and whatnot. Certainly a brave attempt, and to its credit Psychonauts does some things rather well. I’d imagine its more expressive levels, based on characters with psychological disorders, wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable or expressive without that more story-driven approach. Unfortunately, the outer shell, the platforming, wasn’t nearly as polished, and it caused Double Fine’s first publisher, Majesco, no end of worries. The game was released to critical acclaim and disastrous sales, so I’m not sure it’s fair to call it an entirely successful experiment. Still, it does have much to recommend it, and it’s thought-provoking, which is why we keep it up the front.

Let us move on to the second exhibit; now you’ve seen an example of how a popular genre can have an adventure game nested inside it, I’d like you to consider the possibility of what adventure games would have looked like had they taken on the action gameplay of their contemporaries. Ah, I see you’re looking around. Yes, we’re travelling to the Survival Horror section; in fact the games that set the template for the genre, Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark and Human’s Clock Tower, were fully-fledged adventure games, albeit ones with more active antagonists than is usual for the genre. The game that everyone remembers, however, is Capcom’s Resident Evil, and that game’s clumsy controls, frustrating combat and nonsensical puzzles are considered as much a part of the genre as the monsters. As the genre evolved, however, it became clear that the clumsy controls and combat were a big part of the horror – a character that was capable of acting in ways the player wanted wasn’t really threatened. Resident Evil embraced this revelation, becoming a third-person shooter; its main competitor, the more psychological Silent Hill, took a rather different tack.

This is the second exhibit I wanted to show you: 2009’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, for the Wii, the survival horror game that brings its latent adventure heritage furthest to the fore. Shattered Memories, in fact, contains no combat at all, and surprisingly, no inventory. The main character, Harry Mason, has a phone equipped with a camera, providing players with a note-taking function, but much of the game is essentially a 3D adventure game, including some very clever puzzles built entirely around observing the environment and making deductions (and, it must be said, some that “take advantage” of the Wii’s motion control to, say, shake something out of a bottle). The chase sequences so common to the genre have been relegated to Silent Hill‘s traditional nightmare world, a twisted alternate reality which in this game features no puzzles but a surplus of monsters. Many players felt, however, that the adventure sections held too little threat, and that this undercut the horror of the game. Ah well. Thankfully, the game was pitched as an experiment, and Silent Hill, as a franchise, isn’t going anywhere. Certainly a fine thing, as the survival horror genre is not quite as lively as it once was. Come along; our next exhibit is also a Wii game.

It is curious how the Wii has been host to a few adventure games, is it not? The more natural pointer certainly makes a good substitute for the mouse, and is far less unwieldy to control a cursor with than an analog stick. What’s curious is that publishers appeared to be more willing to take a chance with adventure games on the Wii than they would be on the more quote-unquote ‘hardcore’ systems. Demographics are critically important to understanding the secret life of adventure games, and our next exhibit is a good example of how important demographics are.

Here we are: Capcom’s Zack and Wiki. The developers spoke, in pre-release interviews, of their admiration for Sierra adventures of old, now quite out of fashion. Zack and Wiki was an attempt to marry this trial-and-error puzzle solving with modern sensibilities, and it does something quite clever to achieve this: every location is a self-contained level. Players could restart levels at any time, and many puzzles had multiple solutions, which scored varying amounts of points. This had the advantage of allowing very complex puzzles with lots of items, without nearly as much complexity. Players could trust that they had all the tools required at their disposal, and if they made a fatal mistake, they’d be brought back to the start of the level, instead of having to replay puzzles they’d already solved correctly (after all, a big part of the Sierra design philosophy was to discern not only a solution to a problem, but the right one). The game even included collectibles and secrets to encourage replaying levels and trying new solutions. A very creative effort, with a couple of fatal flaws. Some of the motion controls worked poorly, particularly towards the end; certainly frustrating, especially since the problem crops up most often during the swordfights in the final level. But the game’s greatest flaw was its refusal to acknowledge a target demographic: it was an adventure game with difficult, contemplative gameplay, while resembling nothing so much as a Saturday morning cartoon brought to life. The game, as a result, failed to find an audience, and did quite poorly despite its seeming appeal and pre-release hype. You might find the existence of any hype at all unusual; our fourth exhibit should hopefully clear up some questions. Let’s move on, shall we?

By this point in the industry’s life it had become quite clear that a compelling setting and story was a selling point for any game, not just adventures – Irrational’s Bioshock being the most famous example of a game that sold itself on its setting and impressed thanks to its story. You may recall me mentioning Tim Schafer saying as much earlier. However, Bioshock took pains to hide its story-driven nature in its promotion; partially because it likely wasn’t written at the time, but also because ‘stories’ turned its target demographic off. But players have many motivations for playing games, and action-packed thrill rides only satisfy a handful of those motivations – unlike Schafer’s assertions, adventure games were much better at satisfying the more contemplative player than many other genres, and for those players the industry never ‘caught up’. There’s still genuine nostalgia for these games, as Zack and Wiki‘s developers admitted; Cavia’s final release, the action adventure Nier, even included a section that abruptly morphs into a text adventure. Players wistful for the ‘old days’ of more contemplative fare generally subsisted on puzzle games and action games such as the Zelda series, where a sharp mind was as much of an asset as a quick finger. But our time together is brief, alas; while we have Zelda on display, I am sure you are overly familiar with it already, and we have other games to discuss. If we take a left, we’ll see the fourth exhibit I’d like to show you today.

Yes, Capcom’s Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Quite the success for Capcom, on the DS, where its portable nature made it ideal for whiling away minutes on public transport. Interestingly, its legacy is not adventure games at all, but the peculiarly Japanese genre of ‘visual novels’, novels designed to be read in a video game format, and often containing some limited interactivity. It’s a well-known franchise in Japan, where its parody of the Japanese court system has captured the imagination of the public; in the West, more used to adversarial courtrooms, it’s seen as a weird conceit. While the plot of the games are certainly not high literature, and the puzzles (at least the ones using inventory items, referred to in-game as ‘evidence’) aren’t very good at supporting multiple lines of reasoning, the main draw of the game is the cross-examination mechanic. As a defence lawyer, the player is able to cross-examine testimony, reviewing it, attempting to press witnesses on details, until they say something that contradicts evidence you’ve collected. This method of turning dialogue into a puzzle is iconic to the Ace Attorney series, and it’s immensely satisfying as it both drives the plot and makes you feel like a participant. There are similar adventure games on the Nintendo DS, such as Hotel Dusk, that don’t include new mechanics; despite Hotel Dusk‘s distinctive art style and appealing story, it didn’t perform nearly as well as the Ace Attorney series has. Come with me; we have two more exhibits to see, and they’re right next to each other.

Ace Attorney succeeded where Hotel Dusk did not because Ace Attorney brought a new mechanic to the table. Certainly, both games had their frustrations, their inability for players to communicate their intentions clearly, but Ace Attorney also had the cross-examination which got away from the more rigid puzzles to something more acceptable. This is the secret life of adventure games: they’ve been hiding in plain sight, trying out new mechanics to try and catch up for the innovation they failed to do in their heyday. In the meantime, the game industry got increasingly concerned with what is called, for want of a better term, ludo-narrative dissonance – where the story and mechanics tell the player two different things. As game designers have forced themselves to resolve this problem, adventure games have found themselves at the cusp of their reintroduction. In the adventure genre, ludo-narrative dissonance is a fatal flaw; for the first time since the golden age of adventure gaming, the best designers are concerned with problems that plague adventure games, even if they’re thinking about their own storytelling efforts. Adventure games, built by savvy designers, reap the rewards just the same.

Our last two exhibits demonstrate the start-of-the-art in adventure gaming: Valve’s Portal 2 and Team Bondi’s LA Noire. Portal 2 takes the puzzle concepts from its predecessor and spins it out into an adventure game – the artificial test chambers from the first game still exist, but they’re bookended by traversing large, open spaces that tell a story about Aperture Science, its operation, and its history; meanwhile, the twitchier puzzles from the first game are almost absent in its followup. While there isn’t much in the way of dialogue, thanks to the silent protagonist, there’s a lot in the way of monologues, which are as sharp as the best of gaming has to offer. As icing on the cake, they’re written by the former authors of Old Man Murray; their distaste for illogical adventure game puzzles in the Old Man Murray days is reflected in the highly mechanic-driven, logical puzzles of Portal 2. They mocked their contemporaries who believed that Myst killed the adventure genre, but Myst and Portal 2 share many similarities: Myst draws its puzzles from the environment, with pieces that all move in predictable ways. Both have a preference for using the environment to drive narrative – Portal uses the ruins of Aperture Science, while Myst uses artifacts, particularly in the brothers’ rooms in each Age. Of course, Portal has consistent mechanics that it intends for you to pick up quickly, while Myst‘s puzzles are all universally of poking at systems until you understand them. The audience that preferred the puzzles in adventure games and treated the story only as clues will find a lot to like in Valve’s effort.

For those who preferred the wide-ranging narrative adventure games provided, another game, released the same month, points towards another potential future for the genre. LA Noire is Team Bondi’s debut, and final, effort, although Team Bondi itself is a reconstituted Team Soho, developers of The Getaway, and LA Noire can be seen as a more ambitious take on the same concept. It adds an open world design and mission structure, including some light gunplay and chase scenes (though this is rarely the focus, and the game thoughtfully allows players who get stuck on any of the action sequences to skip it). The chief gameplay, however, is to investigate crimescenes, looking for clues, and to question, and later interrogate, witnesses and suspects. Investigation works much like a traditional adventure game, albeit one set in a fully realised 3D world; questioning and interrogation, however, is the game’s new mechanic, and it’s brought to life by special face motion-capture technology Team Bondi pioneered. When witnesses answer your questions, you’re given the option to press them for further details, or to expose their lie if you have the appropriate evidence. As your protagonist has something of an attitude problem, choosing a less extreme response to contain him is frequently a good idea – but too much of that leads to missing clues. Here’s where the motion capture becomes essential – because every witness and suspect is a motion-capture performance, players can watch a witnesses’ body language to try and catch them in a lie. Team Bondi took this further, and introduce witnesses who have very good reasons to be nervous; the effect is to force players to pay attention to what they’re supposed to be doing. The effect is slightly spoiled by the freedom of the open world, including the ability to run over passengers, but the core gameplay is cutting-edge gaming with an oldschool heart.

Ah, that’ll be the closing bell. As you can see, many games have made a play for the hearts of the old adventure game lovers, with varying success, and the future for games that put away the guns for a contemplative experience is brighter than ever. The adventure game’s secret life won’t be a secret for too much longer.

Thank you for coming, and do come visit again when our new exhibit opens: “On The Cutting Edge Of Interactive Fiction”. I’m sure you’ll enjoy i– SLAM

The Redemption of Althalus

Every few years I re-read David and Leigh Eddings’ The Redemption of Althalus. I’m not sure why — I suspect it’s partially comfort food, in that it’s a solidly put together, self-contained story that condenses the Eddings formula down to a single novel. I suspect that the latter half was intended to be a little more expansive; it feels strangely abbreviated, though it’s hard to imagine exactly where cuts were made. Still, it’s an enjoyable read, and my opinion is that, if you’re going to read a David Eddings story, you might as well read a self-contained one, and that you probably are only going to make it through one before it starts to feel very familiar.

What I like about it is that it shifts genres; I’ve noticed that I tend to enjoy works that mess with the tone of the story rather more than I should. I enjoyed Australia, despite it being a bloated mess, because it started off as one film and smoothly ended up as a completely different film. I enjoyed Dogma for its constant tonal shifts, and Groundhog Day is in my opinion one of the best movies ever made (although I’m apparently not alone in that opinion.)

Redemption of Althalus isn’t as extreme as Groundhog Day, but it does a lap of speculative fiction; it starts off as a story about a singular hero, transitions into myth, then into one about strangers thrown together by fate, then a military fantasy, and then quickly through political intrigue, a heist, and finally science fiction. It’s that last twist that I love the most, and it’s handled contrary to how you’d expect.

More

Violation For The Lulz

What I was thinking about while idly making an ice-cream float: there are interesting parallels between 4chan and rape culture.

That was a sentence I never thought I’d write.

4chan is, as you probably know from the Internet, a website where the users are anonymous. Rape culture, as you’re probably aware as well considering the demographic I’m cultivating here, was what Penny Arcade was accused of perpetuating. Since then, I’ve tried to understand what the hell that’s supposed to mean, as I tend to  with ideas I don’t understand very well. While an interesting concept (I resonated with the point that there’s a profound unfairness that women and not men are told to be careful walking around, on well-lit streets, at night) so far my conclusions are:

  • It’s a terrible name, designed to raise hackles rather than an accurate description;
  • it requires a degree in gender studies to really have much of an idea about this or indeed any modern feminism;
  • you’re apparently perpetuating it, and therefore a terrible person, if you don’t understand it;
    • you’re a terrible person if you don’t have a degree in gender studies;
  • it’s usually introduced to an unfamiliar audience as part of an accusation, which is never the best way to introduce a difficult concept, because it looks like you’re either making shit up for the sake of an argument or turning your ideas into an enemy to be torn down;
  • that two major elements are an acceptance of violation of boundaries and a lack of respect for consent, especially as it applies to women.

I’m going to skip over the interesting-to-me-and-no-one-else question of consent being withdrawn mid-coitus, and how that may relate to Ancient Greece.

Apparently, most rapists aren’t skeevy guys who wear their pants around their ankles; they are more or less normal looking people who violate other’s boundaries and steal consent. Rape culture is apparently the idea that most of us are complicit in this happening because of reasons.

This is where 4chan comes in – Anonymous do what they do, hacking, invading other people’s computers and lives, maintaining horrifically malicious campaigns of harrassment, and spreading child porn, ‘for the lulz’, an apt admission of psychopathy if ever there was one. Certainly, not all of Anonymous are like this, only a portion, and some do worthwhile things, such as worry at Scientology, and make lolcats. The problem is: how do we tell the psychopaths and kiddie fiddlers apart from the rest? They’re all Anonymous. In fact it’s likely that some of the lolcat makers are also posting child porn.

In a way, they’re complicit, by being a part of that community. They contribute to a culture which turns a blind eye to the awful things it enables. The big difference between the two is that one celebrates violating others so long as it conforms to their community’s expectations.

 

The ice-cream float was delicious, by the way. We call it a ‘spider’, though I never make it right.

Rift: Planes of Whatever

Thanks to my PAX visit, I got a beta key for Rift: Planes of Telara, but I’ve only now been able to work out how to resume downloads and pull down the seven gigabyte file on my Australian internet.

Rift is a DIKU-derived MMORPG – that is, it’s a lot like World of Warcraft, and they’ve been playing themselves up as WoW 2.0. I don’t think this will work – there certainly seems to be a lot of people playing Rift that are angry at Cataclysm, but then considering this is a game that is defining itself as ‘not Warcraft’ that’s hardly surprising. I’ve seen this before – hell, I’ve run across angry ex-Puzzle Pirates players in A Tale In The Desert. It means very little, and frankly this is probably good timing for WoW, as the 4.1 patch, with easier access to better gear that will trivialise a lot of the content, will likely come out just as the shininess is coming off Rift.

But anyway: the game is a lot like WoW. I haven’t yet done any instances, but it appears to be using what’s called the ‘holy trinity’ – one player, the ‘tank’, holds the attention of the monsters, one player, the ‘healer’, keeps that other player alive, and the other three, the ‘damage dealers’, get to kill it. The holy trinity is fundamentally flawed – tanking and healing are demanding job, while damage dealing isn’t; damage dealing has a clear analogue in the solo play, but tanking and healing don’t. Rift is at least unique in that there’s something for tanks to do while soloing, but more on that later. It is a cooldown-based combat system; you have a large (almost unmanageably large) suite of abilities, you can only use one of them a second, and many abilities can’t be used for a number of seconds after they’re used. Much of its design is either lifted straight from WoW (‘notoriety’, a reputation system that defines ‘tiers’ of notoriety which you level to by earning points for performing quests and killing specific enemies), is an iteration of something in WoW (the ‘soul trees’ are WoW talent trees with extra spice) or are more broadly part of the DIKU milieu (the terrible ‘kill X monster’ quests).

This is problematic because it’s got to compete against WoW. MMOs are not like other games in that the older generation still compete against the younger generation. WoW has an active user base and significant network effects, and building a game that invites comparisons to WoW only serves to remind people that all their friends are playing WoW still. BioWare’s CEO can’t understand why people would build MMOs that don’t follow in WoW’s footsteps, and this is the big reason why: you want people to be saying ‘it’s really nothing like WoW’ because until you have 12 million subscribers, WoW’s network effects are going to make people quit your game. WoW, like nearly every game Blizzard does, is a genre killer: a game you can’t beat by iteration. You have to reinvent the wheel, throw out much of the genre, to make something that’s not as polished as Blizzard’s effort (which is understandable – they are the undisputed masters of polish in the industry, ever since Warcraft 2) but is so vibrant and fresh that it’s worth playing anyway.

Its big feature is its iteration of Warhammer Online’s public quest system, the titular rifts. These spawn randomly across the map, in six elemental flavours and three levels of severity. In WAR, public quests were theoretically unique but had more or less the same format: 1) do a massive number of menial tasks; 2) fight elite monsters; 3) fight a boss. It’s a somewhat similar format here, although the first stage goes quickly, but some clever tweaks make the concept work: rifts award unique rewards that can’t be acquired elsewhere and are relevant for higher-level characters; they spawn, rather than always being present, so you get players converging on rifts and making the later stages go quickly; and while they rarely award items, they mostly award a currency, which means players don’t feel cheated by random dice rolls while still getting the thrill of good luck. (World of Warcraft’s dungeon points system is a similar kind of thing.)

The most severe form of rift gets its own title, an invasion. These are zone-wide and involve streams of monsters and, frequently, unique mechanics. It’s here that tanks get to shine – because the vast majority of these monsters are very dangerous, and damage dealers are drawn towards the invasions, tanks are genuinely useful in stemming the tide of invading monsters. The rifts are almost universally done well, and it’s rightly a highlight of the game.

The other aspect of the game that’s new (or, at least, new to me) is the Artifact system. You gather artifacts (lore books, loot from invasion bosses, and items scattered around the world) which slot into artifact sets, and which I assume provide rewards. It’s an elegant way of rewarding Explorer types, like myself; I like the prospect of running around the world and finding a bonus under a tree branch somewhere. There also appears to be achievements for solving puzzles placed in the world, which is very tempting.

It’s a shame the rest of it is so flawed. The beginner quest line, or at least the Guardian one, is a series of ‘kill x monster’ and ‘collect x item’ quests, until you get out into a suspiciously empty battlefield and can fire catapults and steal horses, although, alas, only briefly. There is a plot going on here, but it’s presented entirely through quest text, and is pretty uninspiring. There’s a bad guy who turns up to complain at you, and apparently technology is evil in this world. In this department it’s significantly behind WoW – while WoW still has quest text, it does a cute thing where nearly every conflict involves a bunch of NPCs fighting. You see it, and you immediately recognise two sides that are in conflict, and you’re on the side of the guys with green names. It has NPCs that announce things, it has dialogue, it has a whole bunch of tools that allows you to get the gist of what’s going on without having to read the quest text. The game’s balanced much more harshly than WoW is, but that doesn’t make it any less tedious.

The character customisation system is problematic, as well. Cosmetically, it’s fine; you have lots of different armour types, although most of the female plate tends towards battle bikinis and miniskirts, and you can dye it and mess with it as you like. There’s a specific slot for ‘planar forces’, which confer elemental protection and stat bonuses, that only come from rifts, neatly reinforcing the focus of the game. But ability customisation is something of a mess. You can choose three ‘souls’, of eight, which are specialisations for your class. Souls define playstyle, which is problematic because you pick your souls before you get to play much of the game. Each soul is split into ‘branches’, a Diablo-like skill tree (in that most of the abilities scale depending on how many points you have in the tree), and ‘roots’, which unlock new moves based on how many points you’ve spent. The problem is that each soul needs to be more or less complete, and so you get instances where certain combinations of ‘recommended’ souls have weird overlaps. On the warrior character I created, I have three different basic attacks, one of which expects two weapons equipped, another a two-handed weapon. I don’t have three hands. Once you choose your three souls, you’re stuck with them for at least 10 levels – while there’s a way to earn new ‘roles’, which let you have a different set of three souls equipped, you don’t actually earn any new souls for some time. If you mess up your choice at the start of the game, you have no recourse for quite a while.

The other problem with this system is that it seems very likely that players will math out the theoretical best combination of souls, and thus anyone who isn’t using that combination is a scrub. This always happens. It’s harmful for Rift because there’s only four classes and thus only four potential best builds; it’s less problematic for WoW because many classes have a couple. I haven’t spotted any way that Rift defends against this happening.

I’ve also got issues with the difficulty of parsing the gameworld – it can be difficult, at times, to work out where enemies are, particularly in rift fights, which is either a graphical or interface failure. I imagine clickable nameplates would alleviate this issue, but it might just be because they’re kind of dark.

I think the biggest problem Trion has, though, is not WoW. Trion needs to be tossing and turning at night at the looming of Guild Wars 2, because most of the issues here? Not a problem in GW2. That game starts off with a character creation sequence that involves giving your character a backstory, and thus the game has some plot customisation ala Mass Effect. It starts off with a massive, public battle, where you do one ‘kill x monsters’ and ‘save x citizens’ before, at least on the Human side, you go straight into defending a keep and then a massive, pitched battle. The game starts with a bang, not a whimper. Every quest is public – quests give currency towards plot advancement, and because they’re public the quests are justified using events and context, much like WoW is doing, except that completing quests makes the world change, starting something else that’s new and somewhat different. The holy trinity is dead – every player can heal, and most can tank, which lets players choose what they’re good at and take over for players they’re saddled with. Unlike its predecessor, it’s mostly persistent; the single-player plot is instanced, but most of your questing is done with other players out in the world. It’s class-based, which means there’s less of a chance of the theoretical build buggering up character customisation. Every selling point Rift has is something Guild Wars 2 does better – or, in the case of being WoW 2.0, something Guild Wars 2 genuinely does.

World of Warcraft: Breaking Down

I’ve found most of my PC gaming time divided between Minecraft and World of Warcraft, which explains both the lack of consistency in my posting here and how come my cat’s learnt to operate the can opener on her own.

As you may be aware, the third expansion to World of Warcraft, entitled Cataclysm, came out late last year. Its premise was that the game’s setting, Azeroth, has had numerous natural disasters take place thanks to an ancient, mad dragon’s idea of redecorating, suspiciously localised around the worst zones in the game and all those blank bits on the map. In truth, it was an excuse to retrofit the clunky design of World of Warcraft 1.0, back when Blizzard didn’t really have any idea what they were doing with the game and threw in a few mechanics to see what stuck. There’s a few odd design choices that managed to survive — technically every spell has an elemental flavour to it but you’d never guess from the gameplay — but the intent was, with the old mechanics cleared away, players would able to focus on the fun of exploring Azeroth, collecting equipment and defeating bosses, all in a nicely polished packaged.

It’s been two months and the forums are still in revolt. This may be because Blizzard have actually started to moderate the forum now, and their more vocal players have had difficulty adjusting to communicating with any semblance of civility (the original intent was to tie posts to real names, a common tactic for reminding users to be civil). But Cataclysm has included some very curious design decisions, that work against what Blizzard appear to want for the game.

As always, advancement in World of Warcraft up until the end-game is about completing quests. Cataclysm contains two bands of quests – the first is the redesigned Azeroth, a fat chunk of content from character creation to around level 58 to 60, where the Burning Crusade expansion begins. (You can start the Burning Crusade quests at level 58, and you run out of quests in Azeroth at level 60.) The second starts at level 80 (unlike the previous expansions, there’s no overlap between the start of Cataclysm and the end of the previous expansion) and continues until level 85. These quests are undoubtedly more engaging than what’s come before – while there’s still kill quests, it usually asks you to do a couple of other things while you’re heading that way – collect arrows, use a bag of fertiliser on plants, that sort of thing. Usually when you’re nearly done with an area it’ll mix things up and give you a vehicle (one wonderful quest towards the high end puts you in a giant flaming ball in front of an army of annoying gnomes, and tells you to come back when you’ve run over a thousand of them, which goes far too quickly) or put you on a flying animal and give you bombs to throw at the enemy below. In the early quests, before you’ve unlocked the ability to purchase a mount, they’ll even give you a free ride to the next town.

There’s two problems with the new quests. The low-level band is entertaining enough and guides the player from place to place, but it does a poor job of introducing players to what high-level play looks like. Players can reach 85 without ever being exposed to half of the game’s mechanics. I don’t expect them to master the game’s mechanics, not by a long shot, but if they want an introduction to group play they’ve either got to embarrass themselves in front of strangers or do their own independent research. What’s worse is that the quests they replaced managed, in a very crude way, to do something like that – they were frequently too hard for players to do on their own, so they had to figure it out with the help of others. That kind of trial and error is mostly gone from the game, but it leaves players without a way to expose themselves to mechanics they’re expected to know by heart when they start doing end-game dungeons. The high-level band has a different problem – the quest structure here is the same as the low-level band, a few quests at a time drip-fed throughout the zone, but the circumstances are wildly different. In the low-level zones, there’s about 30-40 quests per zone, and the storylines are contained mostly to that zone. It’s relatively easy to keep track of what’s going on in the story, and low-level players don’t have to go far out of their way to work on their professions, visit a dungeon or join a battleground. The high-level zones, in contrast, have as many as 150 quests, drip-fed a couple at a time. It’s very difficult to keep track of the zone-wide storyline when it’s so spread out across so many bite-sized portions, with no way to get a refresher. In addition, high-level players generally have more demands on their playtime, as they have more options, which makes it a lot easier to lose track of what’s going on in the story. Making things worse was that the quests that guided players to the new dungeons were at the very end of quest chains, while the dungeons were tuned for players at the start of the chain. (To begin with, you couldn’t even visit the dungeon via the popular Dungeon Finder tool unless you’d been close to its entrance, so players were encouraged to take their characters and hoof it to the dungeon entrance purely so they could do it while it was still relevant to them, and then be told later to go to the dungeon and kill a boss they’d killed hours ago. This system was suspended soon after, and it is probably for the best.) In addition, there are several towns that only start offering important opportunities to end-game players that, once again, have finished the long quest chains, so you can’t just leave once you out-level the place.

Upon reaching the end-game, the expectation is that players would run the dungeons that unlock from reaching the level cap to prepare for the ‘heroic’ dungeons, remixed versions of the dungeons introduced in the expansion (as well as two dungeons from the original game. These dungeons contain better items, and even if you don’t get them, you still earn points that can be spent on acquiring similar items. This is a refinement of the system introduced in the previous expansion, and it’s a neat way to mitigate the random chance factor; even if there’s nothing for you in the dungeon you’re running, or you’re very unlucky, eventually you’ll be able to buy an upgrade right out. It’s not realistic, but anything that cuts down on the spectre of RNG  is fine by me.

Unfortunately, it all went wrong; some players managed to find themselves with nothing left to buy a month after release, while others found the heroic dungeons far too hard and got stuck in a limbo state where they didn’t have any content that they could do that was worth doing. The poor training I mentioned earlier is certainly one of the culprits. Unlike the previous expansion, heroics in Cataclysm are quite demanding, requiring frequent use of abilities that went all but ignored for the past year and a half – abilities that knock monsters out of the fight temporarily, that remove buffs from them, and that interrupt the casting of more lethal spells. These abilities are almost never used in solo play, and the game never communicates why the abilities are useful. This wouldn’t be so bad – after all, the game’s been like this for six years – if Blizzard hadn’t taken steps to encourage players that their problem was the potency of their equipment and not that they’re playing poorly.

Access to heroics is gained by wearing gear with a high enough ‘item level’. This doesn’t take into account that some equipment is entirely unsuited for heroics, specifically PvP gear, and generally has quite an impressively high item level that the game doesn’t notice at all. The gap between gear obtained through normal dungeons, through heroic dungeons, and through raids is substantial – some players are reporting that they do twice the damage wearing raid gear than they did wearing gear from normal dungeons. With a gap that large, and with the game gating heroic dungeons behind the quality of one’s gear, players are naturally going to assume that any problems they’re having are based on what kind of gear they have on, especially considering ‘getting better gear’ renders the challenges trivial so it looks an awful lot like ‘get better gear’ solves the problem. So the game appears, from the standpoint of a player who’s not very skilled, to be completely unbalanced; and because the game doesn’t provide training for any role that doesn’t involve dealing damage, players playing those roles are going to start off much less skilled. It’s not surprising that the game continually has a shortage of tanks and healers.

It’s shocking that this is probably the most vulnerable World of Warcraft has been in some time, considering the amount of effort and attention was put into most of the game; Blizzard will eventually fix some of these problems (they’ve already acknowledged that asking players to visit the dungeons before they can run them, and gating heroic dungeons behind item levels, were mistakes) but any company that comes along with a different way of doing things has a very good chance of stealing a chunk of Blizzard’s playerbase.

Unfortunately, the only game that’s coming out while World of Warcraft is so vulnerable is Rift: Planes of Telara, which appears to have taken probably too many cues from the way Blizzard goes about things and probably too few from what about World of Warcraft actually resonated with people. I’d like to talk about the game with some authority, but the beta is an 8 gig download and their downloader doesn’t have any way to pause and resume downloads.

Tron: Legacy

I saw Tron: Legacy a few weeks back and I’m still thinking about it now. So at least by some measure, it’s a success.

That’s not to say that it’s an entirely successful film – it’s got its problems, chief among them being a lack of real development in the story. The heroes want something, and then they pretty much go and get it. Two things did jump out at me, while I was watching it – firstly, that I can’t really recall a supporting female character in an action film having as much personality as Quorra, the AI with the pageboy haircut you might have seen on posters. She even gets a little arc. The second thing is how surprised I was at some of the ideas the movie was tossing off like it wasn’t a thing – a big driver of the early, real-world scenes is the tension between open source and proprietary software, a conflict I would have bet money would never appear in a Disney film. The narrative potential of the digital lifeforms introduced in this film, the ISOs, is massive: they more or less appear to be programs, but they’re capable of thinking and learning. The idea of tension between users and programs, touched on in the first movie and exploited again in the second. And what could they do with the advancements in game design, in technology, and in how we see computers? When Tron was made, computers were interesting and starting to appear in homes, and games were simple affairs. Nowadays, they are ubiquitous. Nearly everyone has a computer on their person – nearly everyone, even in third-world countries. Games have evolved incredibly, as well, to the point where the moribund moneychurner that is the boardgame market suddenly has a whole bunch of Germans making new games and a whole bunch of Americans looking to spruce up the old standbys. What ideas could they raid and stick into the new setting? What would the Internet look like ‘from the inside’?

There’s material enough for three or four really interesting films here. It’s a shame that what plot the movie had was mostly the sort of thing we can see in any other movie, that of a father and a son re-connecting. Rumours suggest the inevitable sequel is going down the same route. The movie invents a scenario to humanise computers, giving what happens to them a human element that we can relate to, and then squanders it by making it a blue-and-orange (seriously, this is a computer world without the obligatory terminal green, and it would have been nice if the orange had been amber) backdrop for a pretty straightforward reunion story. It’s hard to know what happened. It’s possible everyone played it safe to test the franchise, and once it has recognition, they’ve laid down a bunch of ideas they can explore as they want. It’s possible executive meddling cut out a lot of the script, and I’m picking up on the pieces they never bothered to remove. It’s possible the writers are hacks, and this stuff is all accidental.

I will, however, probably go to see the sequel, which means that whatever they did, it worked.

Previous Older Entries