Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Quo Vadimus

A couple springs ago, I logged into Quarter to Three and saw that I had a private message from Troy Goodfellow. I’d run across his name when I was researching another piece I’d written for The Escapist, but I didn’t know much more about him. He liked an article I’d done for them, and wanted to tell me so.

I don’t know many writers who go out of their way to drop messages of appreciation to their juniors, but Troy does. He was willing to chat a bit with me over the next few months, and provide advice and counsel when I needed it. And then at some point he brought me in to help out with a feature series he was running, and shortly thereafter he brought me onto Three Moves Ahead to fill in for Julian and Bruce.

Freelancing often comes down to who you know, and whether or not they like you. Troy reached out to me and opened far more doors than I could have hoped for, starting with his invitation to become a regular 3MA panelist. He vouched for me to editors, and he helped me build an identity and reputation. He is generous with his assistance to those he believes in, and I am very lucky to have won his confidence. There are not many so generous with help in so competitive a field, and games writing is losing more than you might think as Troy transitions to a career in PR.

On his way out the door, he has given me some more amazing opportunities and responsibilities. The one I want to talk about right now is Three Moves Ahead.

Continuity and Change

When 3MA began, it had four incredibly qualified panelists on hand to discuss strategy games. Julian has a very deep well of experience from which he can draw when it comes board games. Troy and Tom Chick know the strategy genre better than any other writers in the US, and more importantly, they can communicate their understanding to readers and listeners. Bruce knows wargames inside and out, and has a logician’s approach to discussion.

Had that group continued to have the type of conversations it did in the first half of 3MA’s life, I would likely never have been a part of it, and the show would be none the worse. They were a great panel and I still consider many of their episodes to be the gold standard against which I judge those I’ve been a part of.

But other commitments made it hard for four or even three of the panelists to record together, and their busy work schedules made it very hard for them to coalesce around a topic on short-notice. Remember that I came aboard as a semi-regular fill-in, and one of the great advantages Troy had in working with me is that I was chronically under-employed and was willing to crash-research a game or a topic. Until joining 3MA, I had never considered myself a strategy gamer. It just happened to be a genre where I spent a third of my gaming time. But I liked 3MA, I was honored to be helping out, and I was learning a lot. I dug into the genre so that I could make more valuable contributions. But I don’t flatter myself in to thinking that I bring what Tom or Bruce does to an episode.

So as I take over the show, one of my goals is to get the mixture of panelists closer to how it was in earlier episodes. It’s a better show when we have a larger group of intelligent people examining the topic at hand. Hopefully Tom and Bruce can help out from time-to-time, but I’m also hoping to add enough depth to the bench that the show is less dependent on me and Julian. In this vein, I’m also hoping to have longer fuses on each 3MA, so that we can better prepare for a topic. If we can get these two things right, I am certain 3MA will be as good as it’s ever been.

All that said, I have different tastes and views than Troy. My definition of what constitutes a strategy game is probably closer to Tom Chick’s heretical “everything is a strategy game.” While I’d never do an episode on Bioshock 2 like he wanted, I might do an episode on the Brothers in Arms series. Not all my favorite games are strategy games, but almost all my favorite games have significant strategic or tactical elements. From time to time, I will beg your forgiveness as I try to catch glimpses of strategy existing outside its natural habitat.

Likewise, it is inevitable that my increasing interest in board games, and Julian’s knowledge of the format, will result in board games playing a larger role on the show. However, I will try and ensure that board games come up in the context of theme shows where  they might be relevant, or when we uncover a particularly interesting game.

Beyond that, you should also expect more classic game analysis. Frankly, we haven’t really scratched the surface of games that are worth revisiting. If we can get the planning right, there’s a wealth of rich topics waiting to receive attention. Episodes like this will also allow Troy to rejoin us on a regular basis.

These are small changes, but I think they could have a major impact on the show. I have other plans in the works: a site for the show, better production equipment and practices, and perhaps even taking the show twice  monthly if it means we can make better preparations and and deliver a better product. But some of these are minor changes, and others are just ideas, not plans. In the last analysis, 3MA answers to two groups: the panel, and the audience. I want those of us who record 3MA to be proud of our effort, and I want those of us who listen to it to come away feeling like it’s as interesting and thought-provoking as ever.

I don’t entirely know what that will entail, which is why I want your input and suggestions. In the meantime I am, as ever, honored by Troy’s trust, and the goodwill of the listeners who have been offering their congratulations and best-wishes since we made the announcement. I will do my best to live up to the standard he set.

I’m Big in Herring

What do you get when you put my busy schedule together with GameShark’s technological sophistication? Timeliness, my friends. Like this review of Patrician IV (NA release date: September 21).

GameShark assigned the game to me while I was digging myself out of a massive hole, and it went to the back of the line. Truth be told, it wasn’t something I was particularly excited to play, and so I installed it feeling nothing beyond professional obligation and unprofessional annoyance.

Naturally, it turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

Bioshock 2 Closing Thoughts

Over at Gamers With Jobs, I just posted a piece breaking down the story that unfolds in the last half of Bioshock 2. It’s called “We Are Utopia” and you should look it over. It does contain plentiful spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing, but personally I enjoy reading analysis more than I care about preserving the secrecy of the plot.

The only thing I had to leave out is how great the gameplay is during the finale of Bioshock 2. From the midway point onward, Subject Delta has an incredible array of tools to use against his enemies, and the level design and enemy design creates a lot of different ways for encounters to go. In Fontaine Futuristics, with my health and ammo levels rapidly running down, I had to face off a Big Sister and save two Little Sisters with a scant amount of resources to use.

So I turned a couple of the rogue Alpha-series protectors against a Big Daddy, killing the Daddy, and then rescued the Little Sister. This brought the deadly Big Sister out of hiding, and I spent a minute frantically laying traps. Once I was ready, I hovered close to the remaining Big Daddy and waited for the Big Sister. Sure enough, in the course of our brawl she angered the Big Daddy, and they started going after each other. As the Daddy was ground down, another Alpha happened on the scene, and I fed him into the fray. The Big Daddy went down, and the Big Sister charged at the Alpha. While they were slugging it out, I scooped up the Little Sister and saved her. Only now did I turn and face the Big Sister, who was badly weakened by her battles.

It was a great sequence, because it was all about using a combination of my powers and enemy behavior to arrange a really intricate series of encounters. It was so different from the running battles and slugging matches that marked much of the rest of the game. The end of the game was full of similar creative destruction.

The strength of the gameplay let me power through to the finale, but it was still the characters of Bioshock 2 who won me over. When the credits finally rolled, all I could do was marvel at how gracefully Bioshock 2 told its story, and made it matter. That’s its major achievement, and that’s what I’m writing about over at GWJ.

Scorecard for 2010

At my family’s New Year’s Eve celebration, as everyone started talking about their resolutions over Irish coffee, I realized that I had left myself with few things to feel resolved about. As work wound down in early December, I had a chance to critique my habits and take steps to improve the flow of life and work. It’s life as a racing game: where am I losing time, and where can I gain an edge? What’s the best line through a workday?

This can be carried too far. One thing I realized is that I lose the most time when I start to fixate on productivity, and dwell on unmet goals. My entire life, I have told myself I need more mental discipline so I can stay on-task. Now I start to think it’s more important to have the discipline to avoid giving free rein to my doubts. Bailing on work to play a game or watch a movie only takes a couple hours out of the day. Panic or frustration can cause a complete unraveling. That accounts for a lot of my fits-and-starts pattern last year.

Even with some missteps, however, last year far exceeded the expectations I laid out at the beginning. I started working for a lot of new outlets, and I branched out into new kinds of work. Hopefully that trend will continue into this year. But if I enjoyed a more successful year in 2010, it was in large measure due to Three Moves Ahead and my friendship with Troy Goodfellow and Julian Murdoch. 3MA and PAX East turned a lot of casual internet acquaintances into dear friends, and neither my work life nor my personal life would be as half as satisfying without them.

I also made it into print last year with Kill Screen. It was a huge honor to contribute, and I’m sure it made my parents very happy to actually see my work on the printed page. Working with Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo was eye-opening: they put me through three or four rewrites (and I had more drafts in between) until they were finally satisfied, and that is just not something you find in most places. My father, reading my article in Issue 2, said that he was amazed at how precise my phrasing was, and how neatly the article flowed together, and complimented me on my writing. I had to admit that it was their editing that made me look that good.

It’s also nice to get recognition for your work, and there was a lot of that last year as well. My friends at Gamers With Jobs brought me aboard to do some writing for them, and I got some of the biggest responses of my career after I started writing there. GWJ is a blast: I get some good editing (particularly from Sean Sands and Shawn Andrich) and near-total freedom, and then I get to put my work before a big audience a great group of commenters. The guys at Critical Distance, especially Ben Abraham and Ian Miles Cheong, were also kind enough to spotlight a lot of the stuff here on the blog and over at GWJ, and that definitely helped some of my pieces reach a much bigger audience, as well as gave me confidence that I’m doing worthwhile writing.

So in some ways my goals are modest as I approach the end of my vacation. I have more work now than ever before, and my focus must necessarily shift to quality rather than quantity. This blog is likely to change as more of my games writing ends up elsewhere, but there’s still quite a lot that I’m more comfortably jotting down here than publishing for someone else. No matter what, though, I will probably update it a little less regularly now that I’ve got a lot of commitments elsewhere. But I’ll be more diligent about drawing attention to what I’m up to.

In fact, this would a be a great time to mention that I just published some more thoughts on Civilization V over at GamePro. Civ V has changed a lot with patching, and my views on it have evolved quite a bit from when it was released. But even as I grow to appreciate the design more, I am also realizing why I still prefer the type of Civilization game I grew up with: they had more faith in progress and the future. Civilization V is touched by the pessimism of the present.

Furthermore, if you’re looking for that special belated Christmas gift, you should grab Issue 2 of Kill Screen, where I contributed a story about attempts to use games to teach foreign languages. It’s on sale now, and it’s become much more affordable in the time since it launched. I highly recommend grabbing a subscription.

As much as I’ve enjoyed being back with my family this break, I’ve also never been happier to finish a vacation. I’m excited about what’s next. I’ve been given a great platform over at Gamers With Jobs to practice and hone my skills in front of a big audience and a great community. Look for me to be doing a lot more over there on Tuesdays, because I will be trying to stretch myself once I’m back in the Boston swing of things. There’s a lot of other irons in the fire, a lot of pieces I’m excited about writing and new directions to take my particular brand of criticism. I’ll probably over-reach at times, but that’s the kind of risk I’m looking forward to taking.

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

Some Words Uncharted 2 Made Me Eat

Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Uncharted 2. After my first couple hours with the game, I even had a little piece written up about why corridor shooters leave me so cold. My first night of Uncharted 2 didn’t leave me impressed. It was as charming as ever, and the writing was sharper, but I just wasn’t interested in the gameplay. Before I could finish my post, however, Uncharted 2 confounded the conclusions I drew from its first first act. Still, I like what I wrote. It’s true in more cases than it’s not, and it’s worth recording how our views evolve. So I post my first impressions below, unredacted:

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

I spent my weekend playing Uncharted 2, as part of my ongoing effort to work through my console backlog. I was in the mood for charming violence and, really, there’s nothing like Uncharted for providing an onslaught of both. One minute Drake is playing with hand-puppets in a Turkish prison, the next he’s snapping one guard’s neck an instant before shooting twice in the back of the head.

Still, this is not and never will be my kind of game. The possibility to space is too claustrophobic, the guidance too heavy-handed, for me to feel involved in the way that I want. It’s not that I expect every game to be as open as STALKER, but I can’t abide corridors that are so narrow that I might as well not be playing, and that’s often where Uncharted places me.

Security gates are less effective when the release button is right next to it. In fairness, you really have to stretch to reach it.

Trekking through a jungle path wide enough for two Drakes to stand side-by-side, I scale a wall using some obvious handholds. Then I cross a river balancing on a log, except Drake never really seems in danger of losing his balance. Now I come to a guard who has his back turned to me. Another guard stands a few yards away, looking in another direction, also with his back turned. I take the game’s obvious invitation to stealth-kill the two men. Then I come to clearing with two lines of obvious cover. One for me, one for the bad guys who will pop up as soon as I hit the invisible tripwire. Now I cycle between the cover points, waiting for the mercenaries to stick their heads out of cover so I can kill them. Eventually, they’re all dead. Then it’s onto another narrow passage, which will end with another set of carefully set-up, idiot-proofed stealth kills.

I could turn up the difficulty, but higher difficulty won’t redesign the levels and encounters so that I face meaningful choices, or tests of skill. I might be a little more vulnerable in firefights, my enemies a little less, but it won’t be any more interesting than it is on “Hard”. The exciting story and action set-pieces that unfold on the screen get a little less exciting as the game’s limitations become clearer. Drake isn’t really in danger of falling. The next handhold is right there, or his off-balance animation will trigger and he’ll stand, twisting and turning, on the edge of a precipice from which he will never take a plummet. The guard won’t turn around. Other guards won’t hear his muffled scream, or come investigate his disappearance. The enemies won’t keep up a sustained cover-fire, pinning you in place while they flank.

I’m reminded of an old MST3K, where a woman was being chased by some kind of crocodile. Except they weren’t even in the same shot. It was just pictures of her running, screaming across a field, with insert shots of a crocodile scuttling through a swamp. Then the woman reached the safety of her friends. One of the robots said, “Wow! That was… not close at all, actually.”

If you’re going to sustain tension, you’ve got to mean it. If Nathan Drake is living by his wits, nearly dying a half-dozen times a minute, then I should at least feel a faint echo of the same. Nolan North can grunt and gasp all he wants: I’m sitting with my feet up on the couch, drinking an Old-Fashioned while shots fly over Drake’s head. What Uncharted 2 needs to do is throw an elbow. Let me know that it’s time to stop screwing around and start playing.

"I don't know, I just feel like nothing I do matters. Like I'm just waiting for the next cutscene to start."

When I was Garrett the Thief, I had to take time to get a feel for the landscape before I could start wiping out a regiment of guards. Execution and timing mattered, and if I didn’t do my job right, it turned into a huge bloody mess. When the bullets started to fly in F.E.A.R., I had to think fast and approach each gunbattle with some tactical acumen, or the weight of numbers and grenades would take me down in short order. That’s gaming as I knew it. The tightly scripted corridor shooter is tee-ball by comparison: “Way to hit that ball! Yaaaay, Slugger! Here’s your participation ribbon.”

On Second Thought…

After I wrote that, I played more of the game. Now the interesting thing about this is that I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Hell, even as someone who completely converted to the cause of Uncharted 2, I still think a lot of my criticisms are completely valid. But what I didn’t know is that from the next chapter, “Urban Warfare”, until the end of the game, Uncharted 2 was about to annihilate my expectations. I’ll get into the reasons why in my next post.

But for now? I’m still pondering what I wrote above. If I still chafe at how tightly Uncharted 2 occasionally holds your hand and constrains your actions, can that be squared with how completely I ended up buying into the experience? With how involved I became with the story and the action? Is a compromise possible between Uncharted 2′s exhilarating cinematic qualities and more open gameplay?