What makes a game necessary?

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 by lintspeed

Bioshock 2. The poster-child for the “unnecessary sequel.”  Or so it was judged from the moment its existence was even hinted at. I’ll admit to being skeptical myself. Assuming for a moment (and I think it’s a valid assumption) that any game can be necessary, what makes a game necessary? More specifically, what makes a sequel necessary?

It’s difficult to say what makes a game necessary because I’m not sure any game is truly unnecessary. Not being the target demographic of oft-reviled games like Petz: Horsez, and without playing it, I can’t say that it wouldn’t provide some basic interactive and educational enjoyment for its audience. Not being the developer, I can’t say that the game wasn’t made with a sincere concern for its audience or its subject. It might be a “bad” game by my judgment or that of many others, but a bad game is rather like a bad opinion. I think it still has its place in the dialogue. I personally tend to prefer ambitious failures, but to deem something “bad” as in “of poor quality” and to deem it unnecessary seem orders of magnitude apart. One condemns it for what it is (and as a result, necessarily allows the game to exist), the other says it has no right to exist by virtue of what it is not.

An unnecessary sequel seems like it might be a little easier to define. If you had the perfect game, a game whose mechanics were so elegant, whose narrative and themes so completely expressed, whose art, both technically and stylistically was just exactly right, whose sound design created the perfect mix of atmosphere and functional design queues, then you might say a sequel is unnecessary. But even then, I’m not so sure. Would a sequel that took some risks with this so-called “perfect” design to enliven things, that found new thematic territory to investigate, etc., be unnecessary? Even if it failed? Let’s assume the answer’s “yes.”

The first BioShock was pretty close to that perfect game for a lot of people. The world it created was “complete,” its themes and story were fully realized. I think most people who condemned BioShock 2 as an unnecessary sequel were thinking mostly in narrative (and thematic) terms. The story of the Ayn Rand-styled utopian Andrew Ryan and his downfall had been told.  The utopia itself, Rapture, was ruined. There was nothing else to see or explore. Clearly BioShock 2 was only being made for the money. As if nothing of worth was ever made for money.

But I think the backlash against the first BioShock attests that as wonderful a game as it was, it had room for improvement. The utopian themes and question of free will that dominated the first half of the game disappeared for the second, turning to a theme of family that seemed largely inconsistent with the first half. The early game made a huge point of questioning the Player’s free will (A man chooses, a slave obeys), but the later game had no answer to that question. The Player gained his freedom only to take orders from Tenenbaum just as rigidly and unquestioningly as he had taken orders from Atlas. The gunplay and use of powers had been considered clunky all along, and the Vita-chamber respawn system broke the game for many. Even the world of Rapture, divided into neatly themed separate areas, didn’t seem fully lived-in, and the question of what happened to Rapture after the game’s protagonist left was pretty open. Finally the choice to save or kill the Little Sisters was as broad as they come; the game might as well have asked at the beginning “Are you evil?” and been done with it. BioShock 2 may not have been “necessary” in the sense of “we can’t complete the story without it,” but in that case, is any Final Fantasy sequel necessary? Was there enough of the original BioShock to improve upon and ask interesting questions about? I think so.

And I believe that playing BioShock 2 justifies my belief. For one, it is a better game. It lacks the one shocking twist moment of the first, but it is more fun and more cathartic to play. It seems to assume use of the Vita-chambers on normal difficulty and is balanced around them as a tactic, rather than turning them into a cheat, and even works to create regular moments where respawning from a Vita-chamber is not advantageous. More weight is given to the decision to save or harvest the Little Sisters in the world by adding genuine challenge to the act of saving them. The Player is given more freedom in his response to other non-splicer characters in the world. And finally, while the Player still takes direction from other characters, the Player isn’t accomplishing another character’s goals for them; the Player is fighting for his own survival.

As for the world of Rapture, there are still gaping incongruities, but BioShock 2 does work hard to justify itself in telling the story of what happens to Rapture after the fall of Andrew Ryan. Of what ten years of mostly anarchy does to increasingly decayed underwater world, and of the other voices of dissent that had been suppressed under Ryan. It’s not nearly as ambitious a narrative as the first BioShock, but it retains the first game’s themes of free will and family, taking them in a different direction, and integrating both far more elegantly than the original.

Coming second, BioShock 2 will never be the revelation the first game was, but if it had been made first, I do think we’d be deriding talk of its sequel as unnecessary. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised with what BioShock 2 had to offer, and I’m going to approach BioShock 3 with an open mind.

Carrying a Torchlight For You

Posted in Uncategorized on April 2, 2010 by lintspeed

Torchlight is a strange game, given its heritage. It’s clearly a Diablo-clone, and Diablo is itself an actioned-up version of the roguelike genre. Roguelikes getting their name, of course, from the original Rogue. The primary characteristics of these games are randomly generated dungeons and loot, and a death penalty. In the truest of roguelikes, death is permanent. If you die you must make a new character and start from the beginning. Diablo is more forgiving out of necessity. You lose everything you had equipped and must make it back to your corpse(s) to recover it.

I say out of necessity because most roguelikes are turn-based. For every action a Player makes, the enemies in the dungeon also make an action. This includes moving around the dungeon. If the Player moves forward, the enemies move as well. The driving concept is that with each death you learn something more about the nearly endless types of items at your disposal and the dangers that you can face. Did you get petrified by an enemy and then starve to death because your character couldn’t move and therefore couldn’t eat? Next time you know to invest in resistances against petrifaction. Because the dungeons are often randomly generated, the act of repeating the levels remains interesting: it’s not about dungeon layout so much as it is about throwing new challenges in the Player’s path. In a more action-oriented game like Diablo, where a death might not teach the Player much at all about how to play the game (hint: keep clicking), the death penalty is naturally lighter.

Torchlight eschews pretty much everything that’s characteristically difficult about both Diablo and roguelikes. Inventory management is less of a challenge because your pet can be sent back to town to sell extra equipment while you remain in the dungeon. And at the default difficulty, the game is frankly a breeze. The goal of Torchlight is the sheer joy of seeing hundreds of enemies die in rapid succession, the feverish greedy excitement of seeing fountains of loot spring from fallen enemies, and the rapid accrual of experience. It’s mindless, it preys on perhaps the worst gamer instinct–offering the most satisfaction for the least challenge, in the form of constantly rising numbers.

Which is why I decided to try out “Hardcore Mode.” This mode sets permadeath on. And it’s a strange juxtaposition. This really easy game that encourages you to turn off your brain and just click, coupled with the knowledge that one death will be your character’s last.

My first character, Timothy the alchemist, was level 14 when he died, the consequence of my own lapse of attention. I have yet to start my second character, but I’m already daunted by the prospect of replaying as much of the game as I’ve already played. So little of the gameplay cycle changes from one level to the next, that one wonders if it really matters if you’re playing level 1 or level 14. And if that’s the case, what’s the point of playing at all? Perhaps on a harder difficulty level, hardcore mode (or the game itself, in its vanilla form) will have more teeth. But as it is, Torchlight is the gaming equivalent of junk food, or a day slumped in front of the television. It’s tasty (and diverting) at the time, but afterward, the experience feels a bit empty.

Verdict: Torchlight is more of a day trip, worth making from time to time for some light, quick fun, but not as a long-term destination.

Dragon Age, Tropico, and Ruling Badly

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2010 by lintspeed

Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening has come to a close. Defeat the last boss, and fade to ending summations of what happened to you and your companions. The last boss battle was an intense flurry of action, but frankly the ending’s an anti-climax. You get Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening less for the story, it turns out, than another chance to sink your teeth into its juicy tactical combat.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. There’s one small portion of Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening that both intrigues and frustrates me. You are placed as commander of a keep, and have to make decisions with regard to gaining the loyalty of the nobility, of the town, and of your own soldiers. You also have to make decisions as to fortifying the keep. I’ve been reading a lot of English medieval history lately, and it got me thinking. Normally when I get to these sorts of choices, I try to take the most even-handed but ultimately merciful approach. I’m a bit of a softy, but I’m also consciously trying to identify what the developers want me to do in this situation to get the best possible outcome. This time, I decided what if I was more King John than Henry V–not that Henry V was a saint. What if I tried to play as a singularly tyrannical ruler? It turns out, not much changes, and I didn’t really expect it to.

My frustration is two-fold: if I didn’t want to play that way, nothing really compelled me to consider it, other than a desire to roleplay a little differently. King John was a disastrous ruler in part because he was inept, in part because he tried to resist the pope, and in part because he faced a series of colossally expensive military defeats. Some of this was his own fault, and some of this was simply a weak man reacting to the pressures of the time and the power of being king. A better example might be Charles I. Again, personal flaws aside, he was a king faced with a Parliament that didn’t want to give him enough money to live on, so he decided to do without. He faced political and religious pressure from his wife and from the nations he was forced to make peace with in order to remain financially solvent. He ended up needing Parliament, and that ended up being his undoing.

Recently, I played Tropico 3. The premise of the game is that you rule a small generic Caribbean nation, and your goal is to stay in power as long as possible. I played the prefect democratic ruler. I never once felt like I had to resort to the more sinister tactics the game allows in order to stay in power. What was particularly striking is that I was playing it shortly after the massive earthquake obliterated what little infrastructure Haiti’s capital had. In the game, earthquakes are one of several random events that will occur from time to time. The worst that happened to my little island was that a couple of buildings were destroyed. I rebuilt them nearly instantly. There was no dealing with looters or getting medical aid to injured people, nor questions of whether to accept foreign aid.

Some of this was a problem with my approach. If I had decided that my goal was to enrich myself personally, siphoning government money off to a Swiss account, the game would’ve gotten a little hairier. But a flawed moral character is only one part, and not necessarily an essential part, to being a bad ruler. In fact, most kings who are remembered for being “pious” are also remembered for being inept. Staying in power, even in a democracy, generally requires a certain amount of ruthlessness.

I want a game that pushes me to deal with some serious dilemmas in order to stay in power, or rule well. A game that constantly tempts even the most pious of Players to make the ruthless choice in order to keep the kingdom from descending into chaos. A 4X-style game, perhaps, that instead of giving the Player godlike control over their kingdom, gives them exactly the powers of a king. A game in which those powers shift as new philosophies and technologies emerge (and in this game, technologies develop at their own rate, impacted by the king’s choice to fund certain sectors perhaps, but not chosen by the Player a la Civ). Perhaps even a game that tasks you with playing an entire lineage of kings, where each of the heirs has different traits that make it easier or harder to rule well, to balance out the Player’s natural inclination to find a way that works and stick with it. If your great king’s successor has a low charisma (for a very simple example), suddenly the deals the great king made with his nobility with ease are a greater challenge. You must decide what approach you will take to make up for this. If your ruler lacks military prowess, diplomacy with other nations takes on a whole new character, and so on.

Does a game like this exist? If so, I would very much like to play it.

The more things change…

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 by lintspeed

While the PC version does look and run substantially better than the console version on my box (Intel Q6600 quad-core processor, 9800 GT, 4 gigs of RAM, Vista 64 for transparency’s sake, not for bragging rights), there are some things inherent to Dragon Age’s art design that are impossible to get around, no matter your specs:

I'm not bad, just badly drawn.

Meet Ines, the freaky-looking. No, she’s not supposed to look insane. She just does.

Back to the Dragon Age

Posted in Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 by lintspeed

In this special Expansion Pack edition of the Game Tours, I make something between a Return Trip and a New Journey. I’m returning to the well-worn land of Ferelden and to some very character advancement and combat mechanics, but with a whole new cast of characters, a new portion of the realm to explore, and a new lead taking the helm. It’s Dragon Age: Origins: The Awakening (or Dragon-Age-Colon-Origins-Colon-The-Awakening, following The Rule of Two or More Colons.) Game Tours would like to take the opportunity to remind game developers everywhere that there is such a thing as too much branding.

As I wrote not-so-briefly in the dying days of my previous blog, Dragon Age is a game that belongs on PC. I wrote this having forced my way through the PS3 version of the original game. And forced is the operative word. The payoff of the game’s final decisions and conflicts was well-worth it, but playing Dragon Age without the ability to pause the game and hand-assign actions to each of your party members is almost like playing Call of Duty without the ability to manually reload. It’s definitely do-able, but you’re placing a lot on faith in the AI. Worse still, Dragon Age, rather than attempting the admittedly difficult task of programming an AI that was competent without being perfect, pretty much leaves it to the Player to program her own AI, through the use of the tactics screen. This would be fine, if the combats were simpler (and I don’t mean difficulty, I mean complexity here.) There are too many abilities to assign, with too many highly specific situations in which they might be useful. Furthermore, as far as I was able to discover, there was no way to nest logic, which means it was difficult to determine when certain commands would come into play. Would my healer character check whether the creature was a boss before he checked whether he was low on mana or after? This is vital to know if you don’t want your healer chugging mana potions during fights against grunts. The game, especially in its more complex fights, really requires situational tactics, and I found the tactics screen, for all its attempts at comprehensiveness, lacking. I ended up spending a lot of time later in the game, when the difficulty ramps up in some truly punishing boss fights, dying, tinkering with tactics for ten minutes, dying again, tinkering some more with tactics. I spent more time “scripting” my companions than fighting the battles.

So the first thing I did when I loaded into the PC version of the expansion pack (having finally gotten a PC copy of the original game) was turn off the tactics for all my characters entirely. Well that’s not true. The first thing I did was make a Rogue, with the Ranger specialization and a focus on pets, archery, and poison-making; i.e., the most micromanagement-intensive character I could think of. But once in-game, I turned off tactics.

I have died three, maybe four times total since starting, including a couple deaths on one brutal boss fight, but the difference is, when I die it’s because of something I failed to do right while managing my party in the heat of battle. When I die, I learn something about how I ought to play the game.

There’s a fight against a pair of drakes where you get about two seconds of reprieve while they fly in the air, and I learned by the second try that that was my very brief window to top off my characters’ health and revive anyone who’d fallen. I’ve also gotten into fights I wasn’t prepared for where things have gotten hairy, but I’ve managed to react to the situation and hold on. It’s simply not possible to be reactive on the console version. Switching between characters takes too long without the benefit of a pause button and a mouse and the tactics system is, by its very nature, not reactive. The best comparison to playing Dragon Age on the PC with tactics off is controlling your own raid in World of Warcraft. In fact, I have my tank, my dps, and my healer and my job is to make sure they’re using the right abilities and staying out of the fire.

My feelings on the rest of The Awakening are still in formation. The dungeon crawls are sharp, but the main plotline hasn’t made much of an impression. It so far avoids getting too bogged down in long uninterrupted bits of talkyness (I’m glaring at you, Lothering), but I haven’t experienced the new characters well enough to pass judgment. Still, the act of playing the game is such a joy compared to my experience of the original that I think I’ll be staying a while, and maybe even planning a return trip to the original.

Tickets, please.

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2010 by lintspeed

What am I playing this week? This day? This hour? I play a lot of games. I don’t finish most of them. I vacillate between feeling guilty about that and embracing it. Have I given up on some games that deserved better? Probably. But has my weak will and flitting attention span given me a chance to experience a much wider variety of games with my limited playtime? Definitely.

I’m a game tourist. Some games I just stroll through for a visit, a meal, and a few quick snapshots. Others, I go native, immersing myself in the experience, playing to the very end and taking in everything in between. This blog is a travelogue of the games that grab me, and the games that don’t.

Super Laser Racer

Posted in Uncategorized on March 20, 2010 by lintspeed

Mario Kart + Geometry Wars =

I picked this one up for two bucks on a Steam midweek indie games sale. I generally prefer to avoid buying stuff on Steam, especially big box stuff, and especially stuff I have to pay full price for. It has something to do with the power going out at QuakeCon last year, everyone’s boxes re-starting and losing their Steam Offline-mode settings in the process. With the ports blocked to allow us to access Steam’s authentication servers, the whole con lost the ability to play Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 (not too mention all their single-player games, for those of us who prefer the solo experience, even in a crowd.) But I’d never heard of New Star Games’s Super Laser Racer, and it looked awesome.

It is. One of the upsides of  Steam is the “hours played” counter it keeps for two weeks. Last I checked I was at 20 hours of playtime on this game. Which would be, uh, more hours than it took me to beat  the masterful Uncharted 2, and probably more hours than I sunk into my 2009 game of the year, Time Gentlemen, Please.

Basically you race as a Geometry Wars-esque shape around a neon track, picking up Mario Kart-style power-ups to knock your opponents out of the race (or at least slow their progress), and hitting speed boosts as you go. It’s a simple concept that just works well, and the aesthetic of both the minimalist art and the music make it a joy to play, especially in short half hour or hour-long spurts, working your way through a list of achievements excellently designed to expose you to new and challenging ways to play the game. Try winning a race (even on Easy) without using any weapons: [Pacifist]. Try taking out an opponent in the explosion of your own ship as its destroyed: [Kamikaze]. Or simply try to place first in all the races in the Super Tournament on the hardest difficulty.

The particularly pleasing thing about this game is the spread of difficulties. When I began, I found Easy legitimately challenging, but as I got the hang of the courses, it became a breeze.  On normal, a faster pace and brutal competition requires strategic use of braking and leads to some truly tense races to the finish. Hard is insane, but utterly satisfying. The game’s stroke of difficulty-balancing genius is that the AI screws up in believably human ways, but still runs the track well enough to put up a fight.

Really the only negatives I can give about Super Laser Racer are that there aren’t more tracks, and that there is no multiplayer. The first complaint is alleviated by the presence of a track editor, and the second hasn’t stopped me from going native, seizing every spare couple of minutes I have in front of a computer to run a quick race.

And the best part is, if you pick it up from New Star Games and not Steam, Super Laser Racer is $5, DRM-free.

Rating: Acquired a Visa, staying a while.