Friday, 4 June 2010

Secondary Concerns

I can't think of another game so destroyed by its dialogue as Splinter Cell: Conviction; not by bad lines alone (which are nothing novel in gaming) but by the way Ubisoft's designers and programmers used them. It could live on, maybe, as a cautionary tale in design meetings: "your idea would poison our game, sure as secondary dialogue killed Conviction!" It struck me because secondary dialogue is a subject I know a little about.

Secondary dialogue, or situational dialogue, means lines shouted by the doomed, samefaced individuals who jump boldly in front of the player's gun; lines like "You just fucked with the wrong Russian!" or "You shot me right in my Russian knees!" or "I die, so far from my homeland, Russia!" (I'm not making fun of the nice Russian dude who commented on my last post; a lot of shooter villains are Russian.) The lines will stay more like 5-7 words long, because the gamer is in the shooting-people business, not the listening-to-monologues business. (The casting business?) Sandbox games offer more flexibility for the writer, but feature more NPC personas and many more lines to write. Basically, this is the low-rent dialogue, the writing done in bulk by interns, assistant writers, and whoever else steps in when the overworked lead writer doesn't have time to stare at an Excel spreadsheet that demands 5 different lines for 40 different actions for 50 different personas. And I was one of those interns*!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

VVVVVV's Lesson

If you want to set friends at each others' throats over a game, there's no better question than "how hard was it?" You're asking "how much did the game frustrate you," or, finally, "how much do you suck at playing games?" The conversation enters a death spiral as one party says old games aren't playable, another says every good game is hard, another says that real men play Wizardry, and someone or everyone is called a "baby."

But it doesn't have to be like this! If everyone plays Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV, the world might be mended.

There's a sequence in VVVVVV that deserves to be famous. Everyone who plays the game will remember it; Kieron Gillen already wrote about it. It's the titular sequence of rooms called Veni, Vidi, Vici!*, and in it you learn how to play games again.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Assassin's Creed 2 Was Never Good

Why do so many new games begin badly? Final Fantasy XIII forced me to watch the endless squabbling of a crew of adult babies irritating enough to star in their own anime series; Mass Effect 2 made me sit through a lengthy pseudo-cinematic where my Shepard died saving a character I would gladly vent out an airlock. Some developers must have the idea that gamers should be impressed by a mandatory, barely-interactive narrative introduction, then made to slog through interminable tutorials on subjects that were formerly consigned to a thing we used to call "the manual". The director Samuel Fuller said that he began every film gripping his audience "by the balls"; game developers often seem more interested in hand-holding.

It's as if nobody considered that the creators of older games with one-page plot scrawls and brief instructions might have actually known what they were doing when they brought the player to the fun part of the game as fast as they could. It's weird that "sink or swim" is now considered retro design. Do you remember when you first get a gun in that diner in the original Silent Hill, the radio starts buzzing, and then a winged monstrosity crashes through the window and comes straight at you? And nobody had even told you how to use the gun? (R2 + X, as anyone who's covered wars before can tell you.) Now that was some scary shit.

I mention this because AC2 has an awful beginning.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Sound Strategy in Starcraft II

The UI in Starcraft II is a beautiful display. Like everything else (except the ladder), it's so refined that its excellence barely registers. It's not subtle: big blocky forms house unit data, an animated portrait, and the minimap on the lower quarter of the screen, while a bar at the top shows a standard RTS info ticker (resources, supply cap, etc.) It retains the look of the original Starcraft UI, but decorates it with race-specific touches. If the image to the left was an animated .gif, you could see the Zerg tentacles gripping the HUD undulate.

Unlike some other cumbersome Blizzard UIs (Diablo comes to mind), the SC interface has a legitimate claim to all that screen real estate. More than anything, Starcraft is a game about managing a huge volume of information: directing units on the battlefield while continuing to spend resources, noticing when buildings and research back in your base are completed, scouting for enemy expansions on the minimap, and keeping tabs on innumerable micro and macro concerns. But the UI couldn't be large enough (and if it were, your eyes couldn't watch enough of it) to tell you everything you want to know. The SC UI doesn't try to make you watch all this information; often, it lets you hear it.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Starcraft II's Biggest Flaw

A revised (read: better) version of this article can be read here.

I've been in the Starcraft II beta for a couple of weeks now. For the most part, it's the gleaming, precision-engineered RTS you expect. But there's an issue with the coverage the game has received so far; most previewers seem to have missed that a big piece of the game's multiplayer is seriously not working, and it's unlikely Blizzard will fix it before release.

Before I go into that major flaw, I'll guess why this hasn't been written up in a major gaming outlet (so far as I've read). Many articles I've read wind up sounding a bit like Tom Chick here: "pretty enough, but it seems impossible to win against those hardcore kids online, etc." Other writers don't seem to understand the RTS genre at all ("a crucial area where SC differs from other strategy games is that you need to assign [workers] to build things"? "The focus of the game is pretty much solely economic strategy"?). Most "first impressions" pieces read like their authors didn't spend more than an hour or two playing online. I assume that's why none of them mention that the game's ladder system is completely hosed.    

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Best Story in Mass Effect 2

Major spoilers for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age follow. Bonus spoiler:  Baldur's Gate.

There's no shortage of fights to pick over Mass Effect 2. Minigames supplant grinding, character quests largely replace a traditional second act, and greater ease of use means fewer stats. Shepard's decisions scale down: she may choose to let a friend commit murder in ME2, but in ME she saved or exterminated an entire species. But none of these changes, however awful/great, had much effect on the game's writing, which remains the reason I play every game Bioware releases. 

The fight I want to start is about character and consequence. To me, the game nearly sabotages a compelling narrative by allowing players to cruise through conversations with little fear of hard negative outcomes. (You have to try hard to screw up in ME2.) It undermines fine characterization by granting the player too much control over others. (Most people do whatever Shepard wants.) Its greatest moments -- and it's a good game -- come when it revisits older RPG traditions, sets limits on the player's influence, and suggests more than it shows.   

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Future Is A Grind

Jesse Schell's DICE presentation has been circulating recently, and clever responses have already been written. Nevertheless, I'd like to break it down one more time to discuss why it conflicts so strongly with the creative impulses we gamers benefit from.

His advice is like telling novelists that they could learn a lot from marketing copy. Advertisements are much smarter and more efficient about their use of words than novels are, right? Ads get their hooks into people right away, play on their anxieties and dreams, and move product fast; books take a while to get going, don't sell themselves so well, and appeal to niche audiences. People supposedly value books for their "escapism," but advertisements are making crazy money by relating to people's real lives. I predict that in the future, every book will be written on the back of a cereal box, and the toy inside the box will be a merchandising tie-in.