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Saturday, November 17, 2007

An Ancestry RPG

Corvus asked kindly if I'd elaborate on an idea I mentioned over at MBB for this month's roundtable, and in return he'll give me my cat back*.

Theoretical game design is something of a common sport between me and my friends since it costs nothing and you can get really excited about games you probably will never make. I think out of our group I'm the one who has gotten farthest down the road of actually trying to create any of it - with Unreal mods and the occasionally dabbling into indie/hobbyist design.

This concept followed a talk about permadeath, which I've touched on here at CT before and would go hunt down the links but I'm only on my second cup of coffee and The Girl is about to return from her walk and yell at me for not moving boxes around. We were talking about permadeath and alternatives to the usual extremes of "you're dead, respawn" and "don't". The idea came back with, "you're dead - be reborn."

In Ancestry (theoretical working title), when you die you'd have two choices. The first would be to choose and PC (that had agreed) or an NPC (that you had met) and have an offspring. You could also choose to spawn as a sibling. Kids would be born in specific stages depending on that choice in a fixed timeline. While daddy/mommy is off fighting a war, the kids would grow up in moderately safe zones where they can finetune their skills and abilities before heading out. Parents would have the option to send inheritence to their kids so that when they reach a certain age, they can continue using some of the equipment the player had before.

The advantages here would be that you don't have to lose your favorite +99 sword when someone kills you cheaply. You get a chance to respec your character through some wacky retcon ("I didn't know I had a kid!") and possibly build up familial roles with other characters (kids' abilities would be a mixing of the parents, so).

The other flipside is age. As players advance in level they would also continue into new timeline zones. Eventually, they'd die. While enforced death probably makes every MMO player groan, the idea here is that you could have an afterlife. Once in the afterlife, you can continue adventuring in a plane of existence depending on your life choices. Get powerful enough and players in certain timeline zones can even worship you and you can offer boons, blessings and curses.

So the basic idea here is several timezones being played concurrently, each with their own purpose and restrictions. There'd be two or three zones for new players and the offspring of other players. There's be two or three main zones for fighting whatever premise makes up the game, and then a handful of afterlife zones for the veterans. Each of these interact (child zones feed into war zones, war zones feed into child zones, war zones feed into afterlife zones, afterlife zones alter war zones).

So hey, if anyone wants to take a stab it - let me know how it turns out ;) Now I must lift boxes and find some time to NaNo.

Back to the table:

* Just kidding, Corvus loves cats. He'll never give me my cat back...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Activision Pulls A Fast One On Wii Owners

Rumors have been flying for a few days about Guitar Hero III being mono only for the Wii, and it is now confirmed. Can we get a boo hiss from the audience?

Not only does this suck simply because it's, well, a music based game and to be quite honest my old 36" RCA television actually has pretty good speakers, thank you much - it also just stinks of deception. Activision knew of this issue when the title launched and for golly goodness sakes, probably a lot longer than before that. Yet gamers resort to examining audio output to prove their point.

Anyone here think that the Wii version would have sold nearly as well if Activision had fessed up to this one before the launch?

I'll keep rocking out to my PS2 version, thank you much. Bite me, Activision, bite me. "May fix it", they say, in an upcoming downloadable update. Yeah, right. Oh, so the company which just happened to forget to mention that the output is mono - in a day and age when HDTV's and 5.1 stereo sounds are a gamer's goal for the living room - wants me to buy that they'll fix it later?

And shame on reviewers who missed this one.

What I Don't Get About Assassin's Creed

Is not, rather, how it seems that the entire body of reviewers are giving it the stinkeye after having helped hype the darn thing for like a year - although if anyone can give an answer on that one, I'd be interested in hearing.

No, I don't get part of the art direction. Don't get me wrong, I think it looks real pretty. Screenshot after screenshot, video after video - the game is a looker.

What I don't get is why an assassin, who by his very profession should be a person who would like to keep his whereabouts and activities secretive - is spending a lot of time running around in a white flowing robe and cape with a bright red sash looking like a complete badass. Even when he's standing he strikes this pose that he's a complete badass.

I mean, sure - it looks neat. But if you're in the middle of some Arabian city full of brown and tan robed peeps and realized someone had just gotten killed, wouldn't you wonder hey, I wonder if it was that total badass that did like three backflips to get here. And because you're the helpful citizen you are, you can tell the local federalis that it might be the only guy in the city wearing white robes. And the local federalis would be like, oh that total badass - yeah I saw him jumping from boat to boat.

Anyway, just wondering. Don't have a 360 or PS3, so it matters little to me anyway.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Five Hours Of Energy

Perhaps you've seen these - almost definitely if you live in the greater Chicagoland area - the commercials portraying a poor attractive secretary who would still be bouncing around in glee, or apparently perhaps in her dream job of washing children and serving muffins, if only she had taken a "Five Hour Energy Shot" after what a neutral observer can only assume was a late night of raves, some cardio and blow.

The Girl kept commenting on how if we had to keep watching the commercial we should try some - which is sort of an odd concept of marketing logic but worked for me. We've had a couple of them on the kitchen counter for a while and so I decided to try one this morning.

First - tastes awful. Kinda like a watermelon flavored Sprite gone south. If you've had guarana or taurine drinks you know that kind of off bitter flavor they have ... well let's like that but someone tried some kind of artificial spice to cover it up. And instead of covering it up, it just added to it.

Second - not sure I can report any real boost of energy. My sinuses feel a little more energized, but that could just be the last vestiges of my otherwise vicious allergies. I certainly don't feel like offering anyone muffins.

Finally - this thing cost me like three bucks. That's expensive even by Starbucks standards for anything which doesn't include the word "espresso" during the order.

I'll stick to coffee. In fact, I may have some soon...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Game Play: Portal

Let's cut to the chase. Portal is great. Game of the Year, though? I really don't think, so. But let's get to that debate in a second. Let's enjoy some cake.

Portal is what happens when the guys from the indie hit Narbacular Drop teams up with the guys from Valve. And honestly, I tried Drop for about an afternoon before getting somewhat bored with it ... and hence from my perspective that union has been nothing short of brilliant.

Portal does right where Drop went wrong. Portal is a clean, streamlined experience. Drop was cluttered, literally, with mirrors and boxes and goblins and stuff. Portal lets you worry about the problem at hand. It presents the puzzle and sets you about the task. Whereas I found Drop to be distracting and confusing, Portal was engaging.

Aside from simply killer level design, Portal has benefited from stronger game mechanics. Portal layers on the difficulty level, the enemies, the equipment and brings you deeper into its little world.

Speaking of the world - there's been a lot of discussion about Portal's storytelling. Honestly, I find it a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, Portal has a more honest concept than, say, Half-Life 2. Valve designs Gordon as a tabula rasa character but never really admits as such in the story. Hence it seems odd when three people ask Freeman a question and nothing happens. Portal admits you have no idea who you are or how you got there. It even admits that you are trapped running experiments with no logic or, at times, even sanity.

And that honesty bears more immersion than nearly any cinematic in the history of games. It's easy to feel like a nameless avatar running a maze when you are playing a nameless avatar running a maze. The real weak point here is a lack of explanation for respawning. And that's too bad, because as anyone who has read I Have No Mouth... could attest, Valve missed some opportunities there to bring out even more madness with GLaDOS.

Ah GLaDOS. If anything else, there should an award for the monologues here. Her quotes and quips are some of the most priceless ever recorded. Let's be honest, without her you could still have almost the same game. The puzzles are still the game, but GLaDOS just really sells it. The quirks - the companion cube, the cake jokes, that poor missing other subject - flesh out a concept which is simply delightful.

However, I don't think it is honestly great storytelling. I'm not even sure it is much of a story at all. Here we get even less backstory than Half-Life 2 ... we know that Aperture was a competitor of Black Mesa and that GLaDOS went nuts. Most players probably had that figured out within the first few hours of play. After that the plot is what? Run around and then get sucked into an implosion?

Don't get me wrong - Valve is still the master of set pieces, but stage design is only one part of a play. Portal has even less plot than Half-Life 2, which had a plot of "Gordon mysteriously appears, runs around shooting stuff and blows up a tower." Yeah, I know some stuff happened in between but it was so forgettable and unimportant to those three points that I've already forgotten them. If you think Portal had a good story, go read Ellison's I Have No Mouth ... But I Must Scream from which Portal has a somewhat mirrored premise. Except if the Harlan's short took the same route as Portal, it would be "Some humans woke up, got tortured for a day and all but one died."

The difference between the two is the detail in the characters and the interactions. Its their resolution with the past that has caught up to them and their final triumph of a machine world gone mad. But Valve consistently robs players of these possibilities by asserting blank slates and "the backstory is what you make of it" style writing.

If Portal is short, it has to be in part due to this. While I'm sure designing good puzzles with the concept is hard - how much longer could they have dragged out the whole GLaDOS thing? If Portal had been twice as long, her quips could easily have gone from funny to annoying.

So yeah, I think Portal is great - but I'm not sure I agree that it will revolutionize storytelling in games or that we'll see a flood of clones. The puzzle premise in Portal would be hard to outdo, so expensive to ripoff. And honestly the rest is extremely clever writing, but something of an empty shell.

Hey, I'm still humming "Still Alive" in my head and think Portal is the bee's knee's - but I don't think it's Game Of The Year material. In part because I think it's a short concept piece and while wonderful - is riding a lot of hype on the GOTY train. Also, I think GOTY games are one of the few times we should reward big production pieces. Consider all the design time that went into a game like BioShock. GOTY games should celebrate those times when games come completely together - voice acting, level design, music, texture design, etc. BioShock was designed from the ground up whilst I can't help but notice that Portal's androids are just remodelled autoguns.

Now if someone wanted to pitch me The Orange Box against BioShock for Game Of The Year, I'd be willing to listen.

For differing opinions, see Leigh's Aberrant Gamer column and a couple of editors duke it out.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Note From Management: Send Coffee

If you check out my NaNo progress report, you'll see I'm about a day behind. If you've followed the Wonderful blog at all, you'll know that I'm only that close because of a major push yesterday afternoon which ended in one of those moments where one can simply not think to write any more.

Time wasters include: work, more work, Portal and Half-Life 2: Episode 2. I'll have more on those latter two later, maybe, if I have time. Which I probably won't. Corvus asked me elaborate more on comment I made over at MBB, which I'll certainly give a college try to accomplish.

On the work note, Model Metrics was part of a write up in Crain's. For those missing a picture of me, I'm the guy pretending to look busy in a cubicle on the left. Definitely my best side. As The Girl's matron of honor and our stylist guru for the wedding said - "You know, just not photogenic."

So true. Anyway, long month ahead. Send coffee.