Monday, December 26, 2011

The Necessary Information Awards: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game

It's the end of the year, and I have half-formed essays on a bunch of games from this year floating in my head, so I decided it was time to do what everyone always does with their half-formed thoughts at the end of the year: Hand out some awards! Whoo!

Our very first award in this, the inaugural Necessary Information Awards blogcast, is a very prestigious one: Best Use of Narration in a Video Game.

And the winner is....


There's a moment near the start of Bastion that I think I've seen mentioned in every review of the game. Your character, The Kid, has just received his first weapon, a hammer. And, if you're the standard gamer, you do what gamers do when given a smashing weapon and a destructible environment - you whale on everything in sight, seeing what pops out. But then...

"The kid just rages for a while..." That's Rucks, Bastion's narrator - or maybe more accurately, its storyteller - commenting on your actions and showing off the game's wonderful "dynamic narration" system.

There's nothing technologically impressive about dynamic narration - responding to player action is what games do, after all - but its use in Bastion allows the designers to tell an engaging story about the act of storytelling. Let's break down that first moment and try to understand why it's so affecting.

On the surface, it's simply clever - it's always fun when game designers anticipate common, or even bizarre, player action. It's also not especially groundbreaking - the TV Tropes article The Dev Team Thinks of Everything is full of fun examples of this sort of stuff. PC Gamer UK writer Tom Francis's in-development game Gunpoint, for instance, responds to players continuing to punch unconscious guards with a text pop-up reading "It, er, only takes one punch to knock them out." Hideo Kojima's games are as well-known for their responses to weird player behavior as they are for the sneaking action or bizarre metaplots.

So why is this moment special? Why does it stick in the mind? Because it allows you to feel empathy for the little guy you're controlling. Bastion is a story about the end of the world, and about the pain of surviving. You, you're just some schlub (or schlubette) holding a controller and smashing some boxes. But The Kid... Well, The Kid just watched his whole world get destroyed. Everyone he's ever known is dead. And when he picks up a hammer... The Kid just rages for a while.

Rucks's narration bridges the space between player action and character motivation, re-interpreting and providing in-universe meaning to the player's actions. You hit some buttons, and the game told you a story about it - again, you could argue that that sentence is what games fundamentally are, but, by addressing it directly, Bastion draws attention to the disconnect between you as a player and The Kid as a character - and invites you to empathize with the poor guy.

(The next paragraphs have spoilers for Bastion. If you haven't played it, I strongly recommend it - and it's on sale today on Steam, so... go! Fly, monkeys, fly. If you must read on, skip ahead until you see END OF SPOILERY BITS)

In Bastion, the world forms around The Kid as he moves, like a storybook being filled in with detail as the tale goes on. But the question is: Whose story?

Bastion is, essentially, a narrative told from two different perspectives to two different senses. Your eyes (and your hands) are playing the story as it's perceived by The Kid as he travels through Caelondia, slowly restoring it and searching for cores to repair the Bastion. At the same time, your ears are hearing Rucks's gravelly voice describe what's going on. These two stories almost always overlap and complement, but there are points of divergence.

The first comes when The Kid ventures into a poisonous swamp. The fumes force him into a dazed sleep, where the player must play through a demented nightmare that re-uses old areas in nonsensical ways, while Rucks's voice taunts and misdirects. Both senses are lying to the player, but it's a reminder that, for better or worse, the perspective that we, the players, are most attached to is that of The Kid's. Eyes and ears aside, The Kid is the one whose hands we control, the one whose choices we make.

And in the end, it is at another moment of choice that Rucks's control* of the narrative is potentially broken, where "his" story is shown to be just one perspective of many. In the end game, your "enemy" lies before you, abandoned and beaten by his own people for his crimes. There is no boss fight, no big speeches. Just a choice. Leave Zulf to his fate... or drop your weapons and carry him to safety. Pick the latter, pick the choice that the person telling the story wouldn't, and he'll go on talking... about how you must have left your foe behind. In that moment, Rucks's is wrong about what kind of story this is, and it's a wonderful moment of freedom, the feeling that you've broken an old narrative of revenge and fear in favor of something new.

And when you return to the Bastion, Rucks is no longer the only person with a voice. Now, your friend Zia can also talk (in all your previous descriptions, Rucks simply described what you said to each other), urging you not to follow Rucks's advice and use the Bastion to turn back time, but to move forward into a new story (and it's strongly implied that you should, that restoring Caelondia dooms the world to an endlessly repeating story of woe). By integrating its narration so fundamentally into the core of its gameplay, and then allowing the player to subvert and defy that narration, Bastion gave me one of the most enjoyable feelings of player freedom I've felt since the first time I told GLaDOS to go screw herself and escaped the fire pit at the end of Test Chamber 19.

*I'm kind of harsh to poor Rucks here - and it's one of Bastion's joys that our disembodied voice adviser doesn't inevitably turn evil like so many in the past. He just has a very particular perspective -one that makes him an active character instead of simply a narrator - and that allows him to be wrong at times.


Finally, it's hard to say too many positive things about Logan Cunningham's work as Rucks. His voice is soothing, compelling, funny, warm. It incentivizes exploration and achievements, because you know you'll get a little more of Rucks to reward you for it. In a game that is inherently about story-telling and narration, it would be impossible to care about any of this nonsense without an incredible voice anchoring the character.

So, congratulations, Mr. Cunningham, (and writer Greg Kasavin, and everyone else who helped to make this one of my favorite games of the year) - enjoy your meaningless, fake award!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts

As per a search result I got today, I present: The Five Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts

(Note: this list was written before the publication of John Hodgman's That Is All, which features, briefly, a similar joke about a town of Shirley Jackson worshipers. Given that this list is a deliberate homage/pastiche/rip-off of Hodgman's distinctive style, that seems somehow appropriate).

#5: 11:30 PM, 08/23/1986 - Sante Fe, NM - 500 ft above where the Gold's Gym used to be on San Mateo Boulevard

Kicker: Ryan Appleburry, disgruntled gym patron

Kickee: Milos Sardos, disgruntled Gold's Gym night janitor

The Kick: Accidentally performed while jumping from a helicopter, piloted by kickee.

Surviors: None, except for a series of How-to manuals, including "How to Rob a Gym," "How to Rappel from a Helicopter Without Kicking Anyone," and "Kako pilot helikoptera bez uzimaju─çi nogom u glavu," a Croatian edition of "How to Pilot a Helicopter Without Getting Kicked in the Head." Investigators at the scene determined that none of the books had ever been opened.

#4: 12:15 PM, 06/05/1960 - Berrywood, NH (Pop: 400)

Kicker: Berrywood, NH (Pop: 399)

Kickee: Mike Millsop (Pop: 1)

The Kick: Founded in a hidden valley in 1953 by a mixture of Korean monks and die-hard Shirley Jackson fans fearful of being swept up in Sen. Joe McCarthy's HUAC meetings, the town of Berrywood has long celebrated a quaint tradition. Every year, all of the residents gather in the Town Square and pass out copies of Jackson's famous story, "The Lottery." Whoever draws the copy of the story marked with a black dot is quickly seized, dragged onto a platform, and simultaneously Taekwondo Head Kicked by every other resident of the town. It is believed by the townspeople that this brutal sacrifice will ensure good harvests in the coming year, and also that it might convince Shirley Jackson to come visit some day, dispensing autographs and lyrical allegories for the evils of man. Tragically, it did. (See Best Taekwondo Head Kick Knockouts #2).

Survivors: These days, when HeadKick Day comes around, Berrywoodians wear foam shoes and cloud-spun socks, and kick effigies spun from the lightest gossamer, in the hopes that no one's feet might be indecently bruised. A local clown facepaints the children's cheeks with Shirley Jackson's grim visage. Much revelry, good-spirits, and laughter are had.

The corn harvests, needless to say, are terrible.

In Mike Millsop's day, you weren't considered a true Berrywood Bruiser unless you'd smelted the steel for your own steel-toed boots for HeadKick Day and brought laminated sheets to keep the blood off your new copy of The Lottery. I don't want to get into gross imagery, so I'll just say this: Mike Millsop popped like a pimple. And that's why he's #4.

#3: 2:30 PM, 03/18/1996 - The Set of the Movie "Space Jam"

Kicker: Beloved character actor and fifth-degree Black Belt Wayne Knight

Kickee: Michael Jordan

The Kick: It's a little known fact that, buried deep within one of his many mansions, Michael Jordan has a notebook. Inside it appear the words "I will not use the phrase 'Hey Newman, get me a beer, you fat little turd,'" repeated hundreds and hundreds of times, apparently under great duress.

Survivors: If you ask Jordan about the notebook, he'll look off into the distance for a moment, gently rubbing the back of his head. Then he'll ask if you want to see him dunk.

You will.

#2 12:15 PM - 6:30 PM, 06/05/1965 - Berrywood, NH (Pop. 397)

Kicker: Shirley Jackson

Kickee: Berrywood, NH (Pop. 397)

The Kick: From "The Haunting of High Kicks: How Shirley Jackson Kicked Us All In The Head," by Alex Millsop - "Perhaps it was some sleight of hand. Perhaps, as my grandad used to say, the Jackson woman was a Wordwitch, deadly in her wrath. Maybe the Lewis child, who handed out the books that day, had been playing with a pot of ink, supplied to him by sleight of hand, and brewed by a Wordwitch. I don't know.

In any case, every copy of The Lottery we handed out that day was marked with the Black Spot. All except Jackson's.

We lined up around the square, from oldest to youngest, and approached her as the wheat approaches the reaper [Ed. Note - like most Berrywood residents alive that day, Millsop suffered mild brain damage that plagued him until his death]. To each Berrywoodian, Jackson would bow, smile, and then dispatch with a perfect Taekwondo Head Kick Knockout. Unconscious bodies began to pile up on either side, but the woman was nothing if not determined. By the end of the afternoon, her foot had swollen to be the size of an egg that was the size of a loaf of bread! But she just kept kicking, kicking, kicking. Finally, she kicked the town's youngest resident, the aforementioned Ink-hand Lewis, and, with a smile, fell over, dead. We buried her in the quarry, then burnt the quarry down, and tried to forget any of this had ever happened. Frankly, I don't know why I'm writing this book. I should stop. Okay, I stopped."

Survivors: Jackson, whose literary style reflected a cynical disappointment in the follies of human nature that belied a hope that man might someday overcome his inhumanity to man, would never have willingly taken a life with her masterful Taekwondo skills. She was the only casualty of the day.

#1: ??/??/???? - Hypothetical Improbable Robot Testing Lab



The Kick: Sublime. Perfection. An arrow is built to arc through the air as a bird in flight, striking true its target. A poet's quill, to solidify glory on the page. A head kicking-robot to kick a robot designed to be kicked in the head. Who can deny the beauty of a purpose fulfilled?

Survivors: Please visit my Kickstarter page,'t-know-I'm-still-working-out-some-of-the-details-Oh-also-the-robot-knows-Taekwondo-the-kicking-robot-I-mean-not-the-other-one.html

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Timed Hits Part 2: Fight, Magic, Item, Cycle All Your Stats and Powers Into One of Hundreds of Different Templates, Run

Note: This is Part Two of "He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits", a series on how to breathe life back into RPG combat systems. Part One is here, Part Three is here

So, the question remains: How do you break up the monotony of the FIGHT/MAGIC/ITEM/RUN paradigm of RPG combat? Last time we looked at the addition of timing elements, and complete conversion to action gameplay. This time we'll take a look at how you can increase player engagement from within the "classic" turn-based RPG system. This essay focuses on how to increase the available choices open to players, while the next one will be about crafting challenges for the player that force them to innovate within the space you've given them.

How do you overcome boredom in RPG combat? Give the player more to think about, more to do.

This one is so basic that you'd be excused for thinking I was padding my list by adding it. But it really can't be overstated - finding ways to increase player choice, and making those choices more meaningful, is the cornerstone that's kept interest in the turn-based RPG alive. Every designer looking to work in the genre must figure out how to approach these issues if they hope to make an engaging game.

Repeating: For combat in a turn-based RPG to be successful, the player must be presented with varied, interesting decisions that evolve and change as the game progresses.

(I know that RPGs have long been seen as the domain of "story," and, certainly, some of my very favorite video game stories have been told in this genre. But there is nothing inherent to the turn-based RPG that makes it an ideal vector for good storytelling beyond the willingness of the people making them to try telling one. As that willingness has spread to other genres, turn-based RPGs have remained, if not as culturally dominant as they once were, at least still relevant. So, there must be some aspect of the games, beyond their narratives, that keeps them interesting to players.)

Characters as Trees (And no, I'm not just talking about Exdeath)

In a turn-based game, battles are reduced to a series of discrete decisions. These individual choices are the core of the combat experience, and they MUST be interesting if the player is going to be engaged.

Once again, we're starting from that ur-RPG, that basic building block from which so much innovation has been constructed: Dragon Warrior.

In Dragon Warrior, there's only one tree that choices are being pulled from, and it's very simple - the one representing the player character's combat actions. In any situation, you choose either Fight, Magic, Item, or Run. Magic and Item have sub-choices, but those choices carry the cost of using up resources (MP or the items themselves). This tree expands when new items or spells are obtained, and the values for some of the decisions can be altered by new equipment, but this is the basic structure through which the player responds to every challenge in the game. Further, each choice is an optimal response to a particular situation - Fight is ideal for dispatching weak opponents, Magic is needed to destroy strong opponents quickly, Item for emergency healing or the occasional rare buff, and Run when survival is uncertain. The strategic element of Dragon Warrior, then, is not one of devising real plans, but one of assessing the danger level from turn to turn and choosing which of the four basic responses is most appropriate.

Once you begin to add other party members, things become more interesting. Every active character in an RPG party is a separate decision tree, sometimes only distinguished by the odds and numerical effects of their basic commands (Bob's Fight command does more damage but hits less often than Mary's, say), but usually also featuring unique commands that allow them to fulfill specific battle roles. A typical "White Mage" character, for instance, will have a tree featuring a fairly weak Fight command, but will compensate for this by having a much more complex Magic sub-tree, allowing the player to make more nuanced decisions about what type of healing or support they want to give their party via this decision.

By presenting the player with not one single decision tree, but multiple trees being cycled as character turns come up, we vary the gameplay experience (Hopefully. Early RPGs often fell into the trap of giving "Fighter" classes an extremely simplistic tree in exchange for a reduced need for healing and an increase in the power of the "Fight" command. Useful in-game, but not tactically very interesting. Later games often give the Fighter a selection of different types of strikes to use, each with different costs and effects). In a static party, though, even these multiple trees can only get you so far. To keep things interesting on the player side, we need to vary the trees/characters available.

The easiest way to vary the trees available to the player is to switch characters out of the party as the plot demands. After all, in the context of the whole game, a character isn't just the sum of the choices they allow in battle, but a hopefully well-realized person with their own motivations (Final Fantasy V gives us an interesting inversion of this, where a new character replaces a party member, but keeps the former character's abilities and, consequently, their decision tree). At the same time, new mandatory party configurations force the player to adopt new strategies to take advantage of the shifts in the decisions available to them (This can be used for narrative weight, too. For example, the sequence in Final Fantasy IV in which the Dark Knight Cecil escorts fragile-but-powerful wizards Palom, Porom, and, later, Tellah, up Mt. Ordeals is both an interesting gameplay challenge - keeping your "Glass Cannons" safe until they can take out your enemies with their spells- and reflects on Cecil's journey from invading general to stalwart protector).

Still, by assigning specific decision trees/characters to the player, an avenue for player choice is removed, possibly hampering engagement. To redress this, we have to take a step back from the battles we've been focusing on so far, and look to party composition and character (tree) customization.

Uh...If we bring more than three people into the dungeon, it'll.... explode. Yeah. - Party Composition

By choosing the members of your party, you're making a choice about which decision trees are being presented to you in battle. It's now up to you to figure out which sets of choices dovetail, intersect, and overlap in ways that allow you to win battles with the lowest amount of resources expended. Some games do this by allowing you to choose character classes at the outset (based on various decision-impacting features, such as the class's cost to operate and the "bushiness" of their decision tree) and letting the character trees develop as a natural outgrowth of the class (the first Final Fantasy game, for instance).

Others give you a certain pre-set number of characters and ask you to form a viable party from these ingredients. This can vary from a small group of potential characters (Final Fantasy VIII's three-person teams formed out of six total party members) to a staggeringly large one (Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, which has three party slots that may be filled by any of the game's 300+ recruitable demons). The key to generating interest here is to create a variety of trees that are distinct from each other, but which interact in useful ways. A large roster of playable characters means nothing if it doesn't reflect an increase in interesting choices available to the player. In terms of combat, distinct characters are less important than the distinct decision trees they represent.

It's at this point that meaningful strategies can begin to develop, allowing a player to tune their party to individual strengths or to countering a particular challenge. The player ceases to reactively pick one of the choices presented by the game, but to begin creating their own.

Get a Job System! - Character Customization

Beyond choosing which decision trees to include in the battle, most games also allow the player to customize their characters; that is, use in-game systems to edit the decision tree each character represents. This can and has been done in a vast multitude of ways, but one pitfall that needs to be avoided is one of homogeneity. This relates to something I call "the problem of the optimal," something one of my favorite game writers, PC Gamer UK's Tom Francis, discussed recently in the context of his stealth game Gunpoint. To wit, if there is a clearly optimal solution to a problem, most rational players will choose it. Any choice presented to the player between an optimal option and something else is a false choice, and player freedom isn't really being expanded. In RPGs with extensive customization, this can be seen in character decision trees that narrow down and become extremely similar to each other (Final Fantasy 7 is the example that leaps to mind, where endgame characters essentially act as holders for the modular Materia that represent actual player choice in battle). If there is a "correct" character build, one that overcomes in-game obstacles most efficiently, most players will choose it.

The obvious solution is to establish game challenges in such a way that there is no single "optimal" build (more on this later). But it's also possible to constrain character customization in ways that still allow the player significant choice in their available combat options. Anyone who's spent any time with World of Warcraft or similar games will be familiar with the multitudes of ways designers have tried over the years to inject variety into the standard Tank/DPS/Healer paradigm (although competitive environments like MMORPGs are usually extremely aggressive in working out mathematically "optimal" character builds and punishing players who do not follow them - again, limiting player choice). In single player games, the Etrian Odyssey series on the DS stands out for including a larger-than-average set of distinct classes, each of which contains multiple specialized sub-classes based on which skills the player chooses to invest points in. In essence, you end up with a party of five hand-tailored decision trees, each focused on a different aspect of combat, each reflecting a conscious, engaged choice on the part of the player.

I firmly believe that enjoyable gameplay derives from a sense of player accomplishment, a feeling that I, as the player, was victorious because of the choices I made. By expanding those choices (while, possibly, quietly guiding players toward more useful options), the designer allows me to feel responsible for my victories in a way that a more game-controlled system wouldn't allow.

Of course, all the choices in the world are meaningless if the obstacles I'm overcoming with them aren't interesting and challenging. Next time, we'll talk about how the other side lives - how enemies and bosses in turn-based RPGs drive player innovation and engagement.

Friday, November 18, 2011

He knows WAAAAAAAY too much about Timed Hits, or, How to keep your console RPG combat system interesting: Part One!

This is Part One of a Three-Part series examining innovations in RPG combat. Part Two can be found here, and Part Three, here.

Once upon a time, long before the dystopia we live in now, where every Gun Shoot City or Modern Fightknife is filled to the brim with progress bars, unlockable perks, and precious, precious XP, the role-playing elements in video games were the sole province of the nerdiest of nerds. Unlike other video games, which prized reflexes, or luck, or knowing the rules of sports, all you needed to succeed at the RPGs of yesteryear were patience... and a love of reading.

The major challenge facing your silent, indistinct hero in those classic RPGs (besides eyestrain and your mom's threats to throw the Nintendo in the trash if you didn't let her have the TV back, right now, and no, she does NOT care that you haven't saved in an hour) was combat with the various static pictures of monsters that constantly popped up to assault him.

As you can see, the tactical options open to our hero (named BUTT, in honor of the fact that I was six when I first played Dragon Warrior) are somewhat limited. In fact, it's easy to see this combat as a predecessor to casual Facebook games like Farmville. No, seriously, let's break the gameplay of, say, Dragon Warrior down into its basic gameplay loop.

1)The player has a goal, accomplished by exploring a dungeon.
2)Every dungeon requires a certain number of steps to fully explore, and monsters attack periodically at certain step-intervals.
3)Every combat turn, the player trades some of their health (and sometimes a less-easily replenished but more powerful resource, MP) in exchange for damaging the monster.
4)Bonuses to your stats, gained by increasing your level or buying better equipment, reduce the amount of health that must be paid to defeat any given monster.
5)If the player has sufficient resources to defeat all of the opponents they encounter without spending all of their health by the time they've accomplished the dungeon goal, they win, and begin looking for another dungeon.
6)Repeat until game is finished.

Which isn't to say there isn't tension there - especially since the random number generator being used for the combats can cause the "health paid to defeat monster" cost to vary wildly - but the only player skills required are planning, and the patience to acquire the stats and items needed to execute those (pretty simplistic) plans.

What it translates to, in gameplay terms, is mashing the A button a lot, clicking Fight as fast as you can, and speeding through the combat text. And it's not like this is a problem only afflicting the residents of 1990, either; although Square's Active Time Battle system, in which choices must be made in real-time while the monsters continue to attack, added a bit more pressure to turn-based combat, this basic system is still at the heart of the vast majority of role-playing games.

So, what's an RPG designer to do? How do you liven up this most basic of gameplay loops?

Ask me what my job is, and then ask me the hardest part - Timing

One trick for injecting some extra excitement into your game's battles is to add a timing component. Sick of mashing 'A' constantly? Good news! Now you can mash 'A' selectively instead!

The idea here is that, by adding a small amount of skill-reliant player input into every action your character performs, the player becomes a more active participant in the battle. The question isn't just whether Ignacio Steel XII, Elf Spaceking, has a high enough ATK stat. It's whether Jerry, Dorito Eater, K-Mart Employee, and Gamer, has the skill to input the commands that power up Ignacio's Spacehorsesword, Sparklemune and let him ridestab all his enemies to death.

Why it's good: The added element of risk adds a lot of excitement to a game, especially if the game lets you play with that danger - increasing penalties or making the timing more difficult - in order to enhance the rewards.

Why it's bad: Sometimes it's nice to be able to grind through some random battles without having to watch for the half-second where one of your character's eyes glows slightly redder than normal. And some people, sad to say, suuuuuuuuuck at timing. Poor, Guitar-Hero-loathing weirdos.

Who did it early: Super Mario RPG (1996). This game is so strongly associated with this mechanic that I had to make a supreme act of will not to just put "Timed Hits!" for this whole section and move on. SMRPG used Timed Hits for everything; attacking, defending, special moves, items.

The best use was undoubtedly for the unfortunately named Scan move 'Psychopath." Get the timing right with it, and you'd not only see the enemy's health, but also THEIR VERY THOUGHTS! These could range from the saucy "MAGIC! DEAL with it!," to the heart-wrenching "Don't pity me, Mario!," to the conscientious "Gotta mow the lawn soon!"

They only really had one thing in common: being completely useless to the player. Fun, though!

Who did it best: All of the Mario-based RPGs (of which there have been, if I'm counting right, 6) have some elements of timing, but the handheld games (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, and Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story) push these to the extreme. Of special note is that every attack in these games can be entirely negated with good timing (and most harder battles assume that your relatively fragile plumbers will be dodging everything thrown at them flawlessly). These games, especially the excellent Partners in Time, push the Timed Hits paradigm to the point that every battle becomes a small-scale platforming segment, and they're fantastic, engaging fun.

Honorable Mention: The Shadow Hearts games, which incorporate the timing-based "Judgment Ring" not just into battles, but into winning the lottery, haggling with shopkeepers, even operating a treadmill-powered teleporter to the moon!

Who did it... not so best: Loath as I am to speak ill of the cult favorite Mother/Earthbound series, the third game (never released in the US, but a translated version is not at all difficult to find online, if your conscience will let you play it) features an ill-conceived "rhythm element" that adds needless annoyance and frustration to battles. By tapping along to the beat of the music (which can be near-impossible to discern), the player can combo their attacks, increasing damage. While the feature is almost entirely optional, the game mentions it often enough to make players feel like they're missing something by not taking advantage of this obtuse enhancement.

Which Final Fantasty game used it: Not only was Final Fantasy VIII's Gunblade the coolest gun-sword-chainsaw hybrid my 15-year-old eyes had ever seen, it also gave the player unprecedented control over the flow of battle by... letting you hit R1 at the right time to do a little extra damage. FF8 also countered complaints that the previous games' summon animations were too long and boring by adding a rapid-tapping "Boost" system to the game's Guardian Forces. Meaning that instead of being bored during the animation, you were frustrated, your thumb hurt... and you were bored.

"Wow, we're a lot more mobile here than we are on the map screen..." - Action Instances

One of the biggest problems with the standard turn-based battle system is that it almost entirely divorces the player's experience from the character's. You click "Fight," he leaps twenty feat into the air and rends an eldritch abomination in twain. You press "Cast Gravity," she marshals her mystical might to manipulate the fundamental forces of the universe. If the goal of gaming is to let players do things they otherwise couldn't, this isn't particularly effective as a simulation.

Some games get around this by giving the player significantly more control over the character during battle than at any other point. Usually this involves switching from the standard moving-around-the-map environment to a highly detailed battlefield, and putting the player in direct control of one member of the party.

(I'm distinguishing, for largely arbitrary reasons, this style from games like Secret of Mana or Dark Cloud, where combat occurs in the same world/viewpoint/screen as normal gameplay. For some reason, I've always viewed those games less as RPGs and more like Zelda-with-stats (although, more on that further down)).

Sometimes this battlefield will be a 2D plane; more recent games using this model (the later Star Ocean and Tales games, for instance), use pseudo-3D or real 3D battlefields.

Why it's great: First and foremost, it's just a lot more exciting to physically guide your character's moves. At the same time, a good system won't sacrifice your access to advanced techniques, or to controlling your other party members. It can give you the sense of being both a powerful warrior and a general, truly, viscerally responsible for your party's success in battle.

Why it's bad:
I'll let the Penny Arcade guys cover this one:

Which is to say: Most RPGs feature multiple-character parties. A system that forces you to control only one of those party members, leaving the others to the tender ministrations of the AI, can lead to some... unsavory... scenarios.

Who did it early: Oddly enough, given my earlier comments, Zelda. Specifically, 1988's Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. Zelda 2 gets mentioned all the time for being an odd game out (in a series with a LOT of strange outliers), and one of the ways it deviates most strongly from the Zelda pattern is in being an RPG, complete with random encounters. Walk off the path on the overworld and you'll quickly start seeing monster icons. Bump into one, or enter a dungeon, and you'll switch from a top-down map view to a side-scrolling battle.

Zelda 2's clunky controls (and often confusing translation) stop it from being as well-regarded as its brethren, but it's interesting to note that this system isn't that different from the ones seen in SNES games like Tales of Phantasia and Star Ocean.

Who did it best: The people at Namco have spent a LOT of time refining the combat in their Tales games. My favorite of the lot is Tales of Symphonia (2004), easily the best of the Nintendo Gamecube's not-particularly-crowded pack of RPGs. Symphonia's combat is fast and challenging, without sacrificing control over your overall party. Plus, I'm a sucker for any game where combat performance is graded and rewarded (as it is with ToS's GRADE system, which trades battlefield performance for bonuses in a second playthrough).

Honorable Mentions: Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, developed by Star Ocean creators Tri-Ace, had a battle system utilizing the conceit that in-game time on the 3D battlefield only flowed when the player was moving, allowing for increased time for planning and executing strategies.

The Summon Night: Swordcraft Story series on the GBA has an in-depth crafting mode and a fun battle system reminiscent of the 2D Tales games. The interesting added quirk here is the ability to break a boss's weapon in combat, earning the recipe to craft it yourself.

Who did it... not so best: I never played much of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, the game referenced in the above Penny Arcade cartoon, but what I played of it seemed to bear out Gabe and Tycho's accusations.

Still, though, this is a hard "genre" for me to criticize. It's just... FUN to run around the battlefield, executing simplistic combos on your foes. As long as the character I'm controlling moves fluidly, and the game isn't viciously punishing me for my lack of attention to my other characters, I'm going to enjoy myself.

Which Final Fantasy game used it: Well, by disqualifying games where exploration and combat happen on the same map, I can't use Final Fantasy XII, by far the most "action-y" game in the main series. So, with a biiiiiit of a stretch, I'm going to point to the PSP side-game, Final Fantasy: Dissidia, which has an extremely simplistic, tile-based overworld that quickly segues into elaborate 3D battles.

Phew! Close one!

Next time: Intense refinement, and intense weirdness!

My Blog is now entirely about Jet Li

I noticed today that, by far, the most popular blog post I've ever written is the one featuring a shirtless picture of Jet Li. I can only assume that people LOVE to read my writing about this handsome, lithe man. What can I do but give my fans what they want?! My friend spavis recommended I add Ryan Gosling to the mix. So I did.

"Jet Li awoke in a dimly lit room. He was not afraid - he had had his fear bladder removed, long before he had ever become Jet Li. It was his people's way, and not to be questioned.

Still, he was concerned to find that his hands were tied (with rope) and that his body was contorted (also by rope) into a strange position.

'Someone has positioned me like a chair,' he said in perfect unaccented English. He was alone, he did not have to use an accent.

'That was me Ryan Gosling," said Ryan Gosling as he entered the room, sliding down a firepole. He was a celebrity, and rich. He also had a racecar bed, unslept in. Jet Li couldn't see it, but he could tell from Ryan Gosling's swagger that it was probably very comfortable to sleep in his racecar bed.

'Ryan Gosling prease untied me,' said Jet Li. He was embarrassed that Movie Star Ryan Gosling had heard him talk without his accent. He felt shame.

Ryan Gosling laughed and took off two of his shirts. 'Your accent doesn't fool me Movie Star Jet Li. I am still going to make you my chair.'

Jet Li tried to stop this, but he was hypnotized by the sight of Ryan Gosling's abdominal muscles that rippled through his final two remaining shirts. Movie stars often wear four shirts, for safety.

Jet Li knew he could dodge bullets, snakes, and thrown or tossed knives. But he could not avoid the sight of Ryan Gosling's thousand abs.

Ryan Gosling rested his b*tt on Jet Li's back. They were both wearing expensive pants, made by tailors. The pants felt good.

'You are my Cuddlechair Jet Li.' Ryan Gosling sounded self-assured but not arrogant. He had figured many things out, you could tell.

Jet Li had fallen asleep. He had four dreams, none of which he would remember When he woke up Ryan Gosling untied him and they watched some movies together. They decided to be SECRET FRIENDS and celebrated with Movie Star Kisses, which are secret.

Then the storie ended."

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Skyrim Experience, Minute by Minute

My friend Sarah asked on Google Plus whether people had been playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. This was my response, re-posted here out of mad egotism.

I played Skyrim for..... thirty minutes, I think?

Five of those were spent looking around, unable to move, while I listened to generic NPCs talk on a cart.

The next five were spent going into the Skyrim prefs file and manually editing it to try to make the mouse less laggy.

The next five were spent plugging in an XBox controller to manipulate the menus, since the mouse wasn't really cutting it, while trying to figure out which "Jaw Depth" setting would make my Khajiit look most like Roast Beef from Achewood.

Minutes 16-20: Trying to pick stuff up with a 2-stick controller, swearing.

21 - 25: Realizing that every time I want to change my inventory, I have to open the initial "Cross" menu thing, and then select multiple sub menus. Also realizing that, for me at least, the mouse controls in the menus were not especially responsive.

26-29: Spent thinking about whether I really wanted to spend my time wrestling with these viscerally unpleasant controls just to explore a world full of beautiful scenery, indistinct characters, and not-particularly-compelling quests (See also: Oblivion, Morrowind).

30: Uninstalling Skyrim.

Minute 31: Playing Super Meat Boy, sighing contentedly."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

12:00 - Come Up With a Title for a Blog that would be a Pun Headline. Write this story, article, what have you based on the headline.

City Experiences 'Rain of Cats and Dogs'
After Animal Shelter Explosion

In what experts are calling a 'potential biohazard', an explosion rocked the North Quincyshire Animal Shelter late last night, spreading the atomized flesh of hundreds of potentially rabid animals across the county.

Radical animal rights advocate group 'Crows Before Crowds' has claimed responsibility for the attack. In a video released this morning by the group, all dressed in anatomically correct crow costumes, group members laid out their mission statement in a vicious manifesto rap.

'You killed our flapping babies/
Now you all got rabies.

Our flow remains the freshest/
Antibiotics are not effective/
It's the virus from Old Yeller/
Look at that frothing feller/
We drop our rhymes like Kanye/
You're all hydrophobic bums, ye."

Rap experts continue to analyze the lyrics for meanings, hidden or otherwise.

In the meantime, men in lab coats have stressed that the public should remain calm and not 'Fuck around panicking and shit.' They then picked up a test tube, peered at it intently, and then said 'Don't be fucking morons.'

This reporter would like to make an editorial comment, urging readers to stay indoors, barricade their windows, and shoot anyone who steps onto their porch, lest the deadly rabies sneak through the mail slot and kill them. Also, he would like a glass of water.

Come over here. Bring me a glass of water.

This? It's just shaving foam. I was shaving.

Come here.

11:00 China

Some people like to say they wouldn't do something for all the tea in China. What's that about? I like tea. I like China. But I don't need a whole country's worth. A cup is enough for me. Why do people need so much tea?

And for that matter, what's up with the Great Wall of China? I've seen walls before. What makes this one so great? Show me a Great Roof of China, maybe I'd be impressed then.

People say China's going to take over the world. That's fine with me, I've never had much use for the world. And the Chinese are efficient - maybe they'd have a good way to distribute all that tea.

Why do they call it Orange Chicken? It's not orange. Or maybe it is - I'm not a color expert. Chicken is pretty good, though, although that's just my opinion. Maybe you don't care for chicken. Someone who told me they didn't like chicken, I'd tell them to take a slow boat to China.

What's that about? Why do they make slow boats? Just take the parts from the fast boats and make them fast. Then build them out of that stuff they make the black boxes in airplanes from.

They probably make them in China.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

12:00 - Tell the story behind the 15th picture of you on facebook

When you're younger, you're desperate to form an identity. To convince yourself that you're part of something larger than yourself, that the connections you've formed with another person aren't just lies. And that's why, almost inevitably, you start naming your social groups.

Because once you've put a name on something, it's real, right? You're not just people hanging out together because no other group would have you... You're a team. There's a bond there.

And that's why this picture exists. Because several of the young men posing there once proudly declared themselves, semi-ironically, to be in a gang. And that gang was called The Ineffective Funk.

I had forgotten the name of the group, until I ran into a former member last month. Makes me feel sad.

Makes me feel old.


11:00 Map out a road trip you'd like to take

Aw, come on, Google. Meet me half way here. It's only 2 light years away...

10:00 - Make a treat of a gift for your friends and blog about it.

My previous post was a subterfuge. You see, my true gift to my friends... WAS THE GIFT OF MYSTERY!

A few hours ago, I hatched a scheme: I would take control of Blog Day by grasping the seat of Blog Day's power: The blog topic box.

It is not easy to steal a box off of a table that 6 people are sitting at, even if they are distracted by typing. The key was in the recruitment of an accomplice, the deft-fingered Andrew Preston. With his help, and just a smidge of subterfuge, the box was stolen away. The fate of Blog Day was in our hands.

Of course, to take control, we must make demands.... and those must be done anonymously, through a proxy. And thus was the Twitter client @BlogDayBox birthed. BlogDayBox quickly began following all of the BlogDay participants, tweeting taunting clues at them. It was a MASTERSTROKE OF DECEPTION only slightly marred by the fact that nobody seemed to notice it was happening.

So I walked into the dining room and asked if anyone else had been followed by this mysterious Twitter fellow. Then everyone accused me of stealing the box and engineering some sort of stupid mystery. After a BRUTAL interrogation, Andrew and I relented, and the box was returned from its hiding place... And a wonderful time was had by all!

But my true gift is this: I call for someone else at today's Blog Day to take the Box. The password to the Twitter account is "blogday". Take it over, hide your treasure, and confound us all with your genius!


9:00 - Pick a random sentence from a random book. This is the 1st line of your story.

"But he has clearly been working toward some evil purpose for many years."

"Doug? The captcha writer?"

"We're a billion dollar company. Why do we need a guy to write captchas for our web sites? Every other company has an algorithm for it."

"Well, it's artisanal. Hand-crafted captchas, perfectly tailored to the individual. It's a service!"

"That's SO inefficient! And some of the captchas are kind of... sinister."

"Sinister? The last one I got was 'LUMINESCENT CARDBOARD.'"

"Really? All of mine are stuff like 'APOCALYPTIC BLOODFIRE' and 'WOMB EXPLOSION'"

"Maybe it's just a coincidence."

"Well, lately they've been weirder. They all have a number in front of them, and then 'IT COMES'."

"That's terrible web security. A computer could totally get through that, no problem. Someone should talk to that guy."

"I'm not worried about f*cking spambots! I'm worried that he's a crazy Satanist trying to bring about the end of days. The last one I did was 664 IT'S COMING!"

"Well.... maybe you shouldn't fill out any more captchas. Just in case?"

"Screw that, man. It's the only way to get into my e-mail."

"Fair enough."

8:00 - Go outside. Pick a starting spot and direction. Walk 100 steps. Find something from that spot and blog about it.

Nobody sees me. I blend perfectly into this grass. Man, this grass is tasty, I should take a nibble...

NO! Discipline is my shield and my sword. Even if someone sees me, they will think I am a beautiful statue of a bunny, sitting on the grass. The delicious, springy grass...

I am a Suburban Bunny. I flee the dog and imperil the garden. When my Bunny King demands, I steal through lawns and under fences, seeking carrots and dispensing lapine justice. I am not controlled by my base impulses to mate with OH GOD THERE IS A FEMALE BUNNY OVER THERE


Soon, I will steal away. Back to my den, to report on the state of the neighborhood. I am a hero. With any luck, the Bunny King will choose me to carry on after he is run over by a car. He will name me the Royal Hare.

In the meantime, maybe just a nibble of grass...

7:00 - A look at yourself through the eyes of your pet

It is cold and dark here. That is a lie. It is nothing here.

If I was smarter, I would tell myself it was cold and dark, because then I could comfort myself with the thought that I still exist. But I am not that smart. I am a dog.

I was a dog.

The boy? The boy was fine. Fed, watered, loved. As much as a dog could want. But I do not have much memory. I am a dog. Mostly I remember the pain. When you are a dog (I used to be a dog) you can only remember yesterday and maybe the day before. And yesterday was pain. Today was pain, until today was sleep.

Some spark of training remains. Sit, stay. Sounds, not words. Lifted into the car. Up on the table, girl. Sit.


The boy is not there. I lied, there are memories that do not leave. The pack. Pack of two. The boy and I. But he has been gone so long. Grown up, gone away. Just the mother and me and the pain. Sometimes he comes back. But he has not come back today. Today the mother put me in the car and we drove and she cried and it hurt so much. Today I went to the place with all the other dogs, but they were not my pack. When I fell asleep my pack was not there.

A smarter person would say "The boy was there in spirit." "He loved you even if he couldn't be there." "He wasn't told that you'd be gone by the time he came home." But those are people thoughts. Those are the comforts of intelligence. I am a dog. I was a dog.

My name was Hannah, and now I am where it is not cold and it is not dark, and there is no pain.

6:00 - Write a blog from the perspective of your favorite fictional character

Hey there, my little blog munchkins. You're so cute out there, reading these words and -


Am I drunk? I am drunk. I am loquaciously drunk. Low Quay Shish. I had to let Blogger spellcheck that for me. You're doing a good job, Blogger. Way to not be a dick, guy.

Don't have long to write this, people to meet, boyfriends to kiss. Oh, don't look at me like that; they're not all my boyfriends. Is my hand on your leg? That's so fun. You're fun! Is that your girlfriend?

The trick is to have confidence. It's like I was telling Scotty - it's not the size of the guy kicking the crap out of you, it's the size of the hickey you left on his mom the night before. There's no situation that can't be helped with a few well-timed yell-


In closing, your mother and I are very proud of you, and hope that someday you'll be a real boy. Possibly (definitely) in my bed.

Drunk now Wallace sleep.

5:00 - What the world would be like if people had gills/wings

So, you (and every other person who ever lived) was born with both gills... and wings. How to maximize your potential here? READ ON, FLYING FISH!

A) You need a super-efficient circulatory system in order to fly with wings (and I assume you want to be able to fly in this scenario). That means you can't half-ass this by being amphibious - it's go gill or go home.

B) That means that you're only fully functional when you're in the water. But those big ol' wings on your back are going to slow you down, making you way less efficient in the water than those atavistic wingless throwbacks. So you're going to be in constant competition for food.

C) In order to fully function, you're going to have to survive long enough to fashion a SCOBA (Self-contained Overwater Breathing Apparatus). Once you've got that full-body, gill-bathing piece of equipment, you'll be able to soar... After you spend an hour above-water waiting for your wings to dry out. So you're going to have to spend a lot of time engineering a watertank for the SCOBA big enough to hold enough breathable water, but that won't weigh you down to much. Maybe recruit the people at the Waterjet Propulsion Laboratories to help.

D) Once you can fly, the world is your oyster, where once oysters were your world! Fly onto land, craft weapons, burn fossil fuels, raise the temperature of the ocean, and boil those dolphin-kissers back below the waves. That's what they get for making fun of you back in fish-person high school.

4:00 - What your life would be like without computers

Which is to say, it would be like a poorly drawn skull and crossbones with inexplicable eyebrows.

Look at those things. But don't try to explicate them. That would be folly.

3:00 - Your favorite Make Believe Game

My favorite game involving make believe is the one I was playing instead of writing this blog on time: improv.

Improv comedy is a battle of the wits, a fight between brains, with intellects rubbing against each other, getting sweaty and sticky and....

Here's the thing. I've said it many times - I love puzzles. And improv is the best puzzle there is. The goal of the game: get a suggestion or idea at random. Build threads of connections based off that one idea, and then find all the strange thematic connections between these threads. And all the time, you're looking for the linchpin of the whole thing, the one strange idea hiding at the center of the web. Because once you find that one specific line, that one thing that distills everything you and your team have been doing for half an hour into it's core, singular idea... The room will explode, no one will be able to stop laughing, and for a moment you'll have united every mind in the room into one unified, hilarious whole.

So yeah. I like improv.

2:00 - How to make the food you eat the most

There is nothing so delicious as efficiency, my friends. And what can be more efficient, a better example of humanity's ability to master foodstuffs into convenient form... than the noble Pizza Roll? (Not to be confused with the Nobel pizza roll, which was designed as a way to quickly clear icy rubble from the back of old freezers).

But how do you get the perfect pizza roll? Do you just drop them, frozen on a plate, and then gnaw at them until your teeth fall off? Or do you throw them into the sun, trusting its radiant majesty to tenderly cook them, and the whims of gravity to return them to you? Maybe you put them in the oven, on some sort of cookie sheet.

Those are all stupid ideas. You're stupid. So stupid.

What you do is array Totino's Treasures (TT) on the plate in the manner of... A STARFISH, the most pizza roll-y of animals.

Specifically, you array 8 rolls on a plate. Cover them with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture (and hide the pizza rolls from prying eyes, as they are a shameful, shameful food). Then, set the microwave at full power to 1:23 (cooking times will vary with differently powered microwaves, so just come over to my house and use mine). Then, take them out of the microwave. Then, put them back in the microwave, and turn it on. Wait for one minute (also, twenty-three seconds).

If the pizza rolls were Pepperoni flavored, eat them. If they were any other flavor, use them to make some sort of art project, I guess. Or give them to a homeless. They eat garbage.



Hey guys,

I am taking part in 24-Hour Blog Day today. That means I will write 24 blog entries in the next day! THAT IS CRAZY, RIGHT?

First blog post follows.

Facebook hub for the day's event:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Farscape on The Watercooler for Netflix

My friend Sarah does the awesome Tumblr blog/book club thing "The Watercooler for Netflix." Normally, she picks a movie available from Netflix Instant Watch every week, she and her readers watch it, and then discuss it. It's a great idea, and I've really enjoyed reading it in the past.

For the summer, she's trying something different. Instead of movies, she'll be covering TV shows. The shows she's picked, Farscape, Better Off Ted, and Downton Abbey, are all fantastic, so hopefully we'll be able to get a lively discussion going, doing a few episodes a week. Given that Farscape is my favorite sci-fi show of all time, I asked Sarah if it was okay if I reviewed the first season on the Watercooler this summer, and she was gracious enough to say okay.

So, head on over to and join the discussion. My goal is to post reviews of two episodes every week, which should get us through the first season just as summer is winding down. If you love the show, or just love good TV, I hope you'll take part - either commenting on my stuff, or, even better, submitting your own. Hope to see you there!

Edit: Fixed the link to the site that was wrong because of dumb.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jason Todd's Meta-War on Crime (Specifically, His Murder)

The other day, I re-read the Red Hood arc of Grant Morrison's "Batman and Robin." In the past, I had dismissed it as an interesting but inessential bit of storytelling, but on this latest readthrough, I noticed a lot of things that made the story start to fit much more snugly into the stories Morrison has been telling of late.

The story is about Jason Todd, the second Robin, now using the name the Red Hood, challenging Dick Grayson (the first Robin) for the position of Gotham City's top crime fighter in the wake of Bruce Wayne's disappearance from the city. Todd's been used for this kind of story a lot of times since his resurrection, as a physical embodiment of Batman's failure in his war on crime, but Morrison presents him here as a new kind of crime fighter, one operating as much on the meta, storytelling level as on the physical one.

Jason is shown reading manuals on branding, using social media and catchphrases to usurp Batman's role in the "Hero" slot of Gotham's mindset. He praises his sidekick, a young woman disfigured by one of the city's many psychopaths, for tapping into the city's (and the Batman books, in general) love of freaks whose deformities physically express their inner traumas. And, most tellingly, Todd's ultimate plan for taking down Dick Grayson is to show him, unmasked and discredited - once enough people in Gothan have declared that they WANT to see him that way. To decide his fate, Jason sets up a phone poll and asks people to call in.

Some background: Jason Todd was, as I said, the second Robin. He started out a similar character to Dick Grayson, taking his place after Grayson graduated into his own books, but the continuity-shifting DC Comics event Crisis on Infinite Earth changed his backstory, making him a "rebel" Robin, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. The character wasn't popular, apparently, so DC pulled a stunt. They decided to put Todd's live in danger, and then let readers decide whether he lived or died. To decide his fate, they set up a phone poll and asked people to call in.

Since his creation, Jason's been in a desperate struggle for space within the reader's mind - first to distinguish himself from the character he was intentionally designed to copy, and then simply to continue existing. And in the end he was, like a spandex-wearing Howard Beale, the first superhero ever killed by low ratings.

Grant Morrison is fond of pages where his characters reach out of the panel, trying to touch the reader on the other side. In the case of Jason Todd, the readers did their own reaching - to destroy him. And I do mean "destroy," not "kill." When the character was resurrected 20 years later, he was a fundamentally different being. If a character's DNA is what dictates where they fit into a story, then Todd wasn't even the same species when he came back. He was mutated by reader intent like we would be mutated by high-level exposure to cosmic radiation, from troubled kid sidekick to morally bankrupt dark shadow.

But Jason isn't taking his mutation lying down. If "popularity" is what keeps you alive (and for a fictional character, it very much is), then he'll be the most popular. He'll tweet his crime fighting, kill his villains with grim irony like a '90s antihero. If the man who embodies the Batman idea is dead, why not replace him in the reader's mind? Make his interpretation of the Batman idea the dominant one, and render Dick Grayson's take on the character obsolete. (Of course, 70 years of tradition and continual storytelling tie Bruce Wayne so closely to the Batman idea that no reader, when shown Bruce's death in Final Crisis, ever believed it would "stick," meaning Jason is almost certainly doomed in his attempts). And in the ultimate symbol of fighting back against the reader, he co-opts their murder weapon - the phone poll - in his war against Dick Grayson.

By having the people of Gotham (motivated at least partially by prurient interest, in a reflection of the sort of people who voted for Jason's death just to see if DC would really do it) declare Batman obsolete by the same method that was used to kill him, he's making his big play to hi-jack the Batman story to serve his own ends.

Morrison's entire run on Batman (not to mention his other DC work of late) has been about characters fighting back against the stories they find themselves trapped in. Final Crisis was about an attempt by characters within the story to reverse the "Heroes always win" dynamic of the universe in which they live. Dr. Hurt, the major villain of Morrison's Batman, is a direct attack on Batman's origin. He presents himself as Dr. Thomas Wayne, not murdered trying to protect his family in Crime Alley, but the engineer behind their deaths. He is, like The Enemy in Lawrence Miles' excellent "The Book of the War," a kind of hostile alternate history. Batman as he currently exists is functionally invincible within his stories. The only way to beat him is to attack him on the meta level, and so Hurt strikes not at the man, but at the iconic origin story.

And Jason Todd, killed by readers and resurrected by shifts in continuity (he was, really, brought back to life by an evil Superboy punching the walls of the universe) is trying to impose his story onto the Batman narrative. In Jason's story, he's the charismatic dark hero, using intense violence to put criminals down forever. "Heroes" like Batman are ineffectual jokes that exist to make him look stronger. In Jason's story, Jason wins.

Of course, inevitably, he fails. Batman and Robin escape from the phone poll trap, just in time to save the Red Hood from the consequences of his actions. Because, by turning the story into one of grit and violence, he has summoned a corresponding villain - the inarticulate, insane, brutal Flamingo. By breaking loose "Batman and Robin" the book from its central ideas (Batman fights crime through fear but does not kill, Batman always wins, the villains are dangerous but not so dangerous that they cannot be defeated), he has allowed Flamingo to bring his heightened, gruesome violence to Gotham. It is only through the actions of Dick Grayson and his sidekick Damien that the natural order is re-asserted, with Batman and Robin triumphant and the villain defeated.

And in the wake of Batman's story taking back over the book's narrative, The Red Hood is no longer a subversive anti-hero, but a murderer. Just one more Gotham supervillain with a tragic past. In the end, Jason bemoans the way the world (that is, the narrative universe created by writer intent and reader reaction) has forced him into his role as the inevitable black sheep of the Batman family. His only solace is that he "Did something even Batman couldn't do... I beat my Arch-Enemy." He says this in a panel where the panel border that had been penning him is suddenly gone, as though no longer separating Jason Todd from his nemesis, the entity that killed him and has forced him into humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat.


(Last note: It's interesting, in light of all this to compare Jason to the version of Damien that we see in the future of Batman #666. The Damien-Batman seen in this future is violent, often murderous, anti-heroic. In the safety of a "future" story, divorced by time from having to be the "main" Batman story, he has reformed Gotham in his image, to the point where the entire city is booby-trapped to protect him. By waiting until a time when the Bruce Wayne is truly dead, he has hi-jacked the Batman story and bent it to his own purposes far more successfully than Todd or Hurt ever could).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Technique as Storytelling (Or, 650 words on why Jet Li is a bad actor and an amazing storyteller)

(Contains extensive spoilers for a ten-year-old movie)

There's a moment at the end of the Jet Li alternate universe/kung-fu/stupid* movie The One that I've always loved.

*(Many other people have pointed this out, but the film's central conceit - that no person must ever be the last instance of themselves in the multiverse, because that singular nature will give them god-like powers - is INCREDIBLY dumb, given that such a situation must happen to every single person, ever, at some point, leading to armies of super-powered geriatrics who managed to outlast their counterparts).


Good guy Gabriel Law (Jet Li) has tracked his evil, murderous other-universe counterpart Yulaw (Jet Li, scowling) to an industrial site, ostensibly because it's where the next rift to another universe will open but actually because you can't have a special effects-heavy martial arts movie without setting at least one scene in an abandoned factory full of pipes to swing and chains to go Tarzan on and giant blasts of steam to not actually get scalded by.

Jet Li is not an actor known for the diversity of his performances, so casting him as two extremely different versions of the same man was a challenge he wasn't really up for. As Yulaw, he's great, playing a character built around the icy-cold, murderously focused persona Li's most famous for. Gabriel, on the other hand, calls on him to seem less like a robot designed by a mad scientist looking to have his enemies be kicked into submission (Dr. Kick-Your-Face), and more like a person. It's... less convincing.

To add even more pressure onto his performance, consider that, at this point in the movie, Gabriel is dealing with a) the existence of multiple universes, and the threat that, even if he stops Yulaw, he's going to be sent to a prison world to protect the rest of the Multiverse from HIM becoming The One, b) the fact that Yulaw looks exactly like him and has been killing cops, making him a wanted man, and c) that Yulaw, to provoke a confrontation, has killed Gabriel's wife. That's a lot of baggage for any actor to convey through his performance, and Li's limited acting skills aren't up to the task.

His martial arts skills, on the other hand, express it beautifully.

(Disclaimer: Despite having a first-degree black belt from Terre Haute, Indiana's third-best Taekwondo dojo, I am not an expert in martial arts, and may be categorizing these styles completely incorrectly.)

Throughout the movie, Yulaw has fought with a closed fist style, punching and smashing through everything that gets in his way. By contrast, Gabriel fights with open palms, defensively redirecting attacks. However, at the start of this fight, Gabriel switches styles, driven by his rage to mimic his doppleganger's style, striking with direct, brutal punches. Li's dialogue doesn't convey his rage and grief even a fraction as effectively as the viciousness he begins to fight with in this final battle. And, correspondingly, you can see Yulaw relishing the battle in the way he moves to respond, matching violent force with violent force.

If the scene has dialogue, I don't remember it. Gabriel batters at Yulaw, trying to break through his defenses, and at every turn he gets beaten back, beaten down, by the superior aggressive force. Until he is finally forced, by this physical battle of philosophies, into epiphany. A realization that force must be answered, not with violence, but with misdirection, acceptance, balance. It shows on his face, yes, but more than that, it shows in his body. His stance opens up, he becomes looser, more limber. The rage drains from him, and he opens his palms...

In that moment, The One, and Li, surprised and delighted me. It recognized that traditional storytelling wasn't going to work. Instead, it used its biggest asset - Jet Li's incredible martial art prowess - to tell the story instead, expressing the story beats through his physical talents instead of through dialogue or "acting." I'm always fascinated by alternate ways of telling a story - whether through puzzles, or music, or, in this case, through the way a man holds his hands.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Shooter-RPG Hybrids Where You Play an Insane Undead Person Dressed Like a Stripper (Or, Why You Should Play Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines)

The Golden Age

Once upon a time, there was a game development studio called Black Isle. They were a division of a company called Interplay, and they worked almost exclusively on RPGs. From 1997 to 1999, the various members of Black Isle produced Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment. Which is to say, that they made, consecutively, three of the greatest PC RPGs of all time.

Then, for whatever reason, they broke up. I like to imagine epic fights over bizarre gameplay ideas, people brandishing fake power gauntlets at each other, elaborate gambits being played out to manipulate each others minds... But it was probably just the usual conflicts with "The Suits" at Interplay.

Anyway, the Black Isle members, once the dust had settled, ended up at two companies. One of them is still alive today, the other....isn't.

But before it died, Troika Games put out a few amazing games. This piece is about their last published work, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (V:TMB).

If I wrote a Deus Ex game about witches, I'd call it Deus Hex

I got the idea to write this while browsing on PC Gamer today. Richard Corbett (whose Crap Shoot articles are a great read, both for nostalgia, and for his wit in ripping apart some truly bizarre design decisions) had a piece posted about great PC Games downloadable on the cheap. V:TMB was highlighted in the article (along with both the Fallouts and Planescape), and Richard caught my attention by calling it one of the only games that's earned the right to be called a successor to Deus Ex.

I'd never made the comparison before, but it's apt. Like Deus Ex, V:TMB is a first-person game that hybridizes RPG and shooter elements. Also like Deus Ex, it's a game that's fundamentally about how the player approaches a hostile situation. You can infiltrate, you can seduce, you can blast your way through. When the game fails (and, as much as I love it, it does fail in places), it is because the player has had their options stripped from them - usually in the form of unavoidable enemies or a direct boss fight. But in the missions where it gets this balance right, it feels like a supernatural take on the Deus Ex design.

The games also have similar RPG elements which affect infiltration possibilities, with V:TMB's stat points filling in for the skill experience system in Deus Ex, and clan Disciplines taking the (slightly more limited) place of Aug Canisters. These elements of choice, of making trade-offs in character build, are more pronounced in V:TMB, though - whereas in Deus Ex a character built for a certain infiltration style could usually muddle through a different method with the help of equipment, a Vampire built for silent melee kills is going to be in trouble when it's time to pull guns or talk his way through a situation.

But at its best, V:TMB actually surpasses Deus Ex by doing something its "predecessor" doesn't: building a fun, interesting world to spend time in between missions. Deus Ex is great, but it's sometimes weakened by the linearity of its levels. Sure, you can do a few little odd jobs around New York or Paris, but the game is mostly built around the big setpiece infiltration missions.

While V:TMB has setpiece missions too (including one of the best haunted houses ever presented in gaming - a long sequence in which there are no monsters or enemies, only the house itself trying to alternately scare and kill you as you unravel the mystery of its haunting), but it also has large open "hub" maps full of strange, interesting characters with sidequests to offer you.

And that speaks to the the key difference between the two, I think - Deus Ex feels like a shooter that uses RPG elements to enhance possibilities and force choices on the player. V:TMB, on the other hand, is an RPG that also happens to be a shooter. It has an RPG or adventure game's focus on plot and writing. For all of its amazing successes, Deux Ex is not a memorably well-written game. The characters are there to spout their philosophies and give you someone to shoot or save. V:TMB, on the other hand.... Well, V:TMB has the Malkavian path.

I LOVE the Malkavian path.

Bloodlines - like Character Classes, but way more gothic

For non-nerds: The Vampire: The Masquerade bit of V:TMB's title is the licensed property the game is based on. Vampire was a tabletop role-playing game published by White Wolf Publishing (the game has since been replaced with a new series, Vampire: The Requiem). In Vampire, the players play newly awakened undead coming to grips with the horror of unlife and the moral quandaries of being a predator and all sorts of other melodrama. Each Kindred (as Vampire: The Masquerade characters are called), comes from a particular vampire clan, each with their own special powers and weaknesses.

All of these clans are available to players in V:TMB - they're the titular Bloodlines. Clan choice, done at character creation, affects your base stats, which vampire powers you get, and what your weakness is. For some, this is fairly minor - an increase in social skills or a special set of magical powers. For others, it's a huge change to gameplay - the Nosferatu clan is hideously ugly and trigger potentially game-ending consequences when seen by humans, so playing as them makes the game a significantly more stealthy (and less fun) affair.

And then there are the Malkavians.

Depth means being able to play as a cognitively disabled person

One of the little things I always loved about Fallout was that it allowed you, on character creation, to make yourself really, really weak in certain areas in order to buff others. You could dial down your strength, or your speed, or your luck, and you'd spend the rest of the game dealing with those consequences. And if the stat you chose to lower was your Intelligence... Well, that made for a very different game. Because low-INT characters, to reflect this weakness, couldn't really communicate in English. They could mumble and mutter, but, if you built a character with an INT stat below 4, he or she would have a functional IQ of around 60. People you talked to would give up in frustration, or take advantage of you, or even give you a little charity sometimes. You could still muddle through the game, but it was a strange experience.

It wasn't in any way, shape or form a sensitive or accurate portrayal of cognitive impairment, but it was an interesting alternative to the normal way of playing. I was always impressed with all the extra work that went into the low-INT path. Sure, it was usually just a few lines of mumbling, and the NPC telling you to go away in nicer or ruder ways, but it was still a lot of extra content placed in the game to simulate this weakness.

Behold, the heading of the section, all clothed in black and white. I hope it will be my friend!

Which brings us back to the Malkavians. Because the weakness of the Malkavian bloodline is that they are, to a Kindred, insane. It can take a wide variety of forms and disorders, but every one of them is significantly deranged in some way. And so, to reflect that, Malkavian players in V:TMB have an entirely separate set of dialogue options. For every single conversation. In a game that has hours of dialogue. Hundreds of new lines written into the game. Amazing.

Most of the dialogue is re-wording of the stuff a sane character would say in the situation - "Who are you?" becomes "Who is this dark demon I see before me?" - but some of it is completely unique - playing in to the Malkavian strength, supernatural insight.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Mental illness is not fun or funny. People with mental illnesses are not mystic sages or psychics. They are people suffering from diseases and disorders. While it is possible that such serious hindrances may lead, as a side effect, to an altered perspective giving you some kind of special insight, mostly having a mental illness is about constantly having to fight to live a normal, happy life. End note, back to the magic vampires).

The Insight comes in two forms: Whispers that play distractingly in the background, and the altered dialogue. Sometimes that means simply having extra things to ask, but the game's writers also delight in hiding information in the changed choices themselves. The Malkavian dialogue almost never refers to characters by their given name, instead using nicknames, often related to some hidden aspect of the character. A Malkavian, in asking a character of someone with a secretly duplicitous nature, might refer to them as the child of Janus - the two-faced god.
Or they might ramble incoherently without any real insight being shown... All part of the fun.

If there's one thing that makes V:TMB a GREAT game, it's this. A willingness to put in a significant amount of extra work to give the player a new way to play through the game - a macro example of the multi-path design of the individual missions. (It doesn't hurt that most of the Malkavian dialogue is wonderfully strange - conversations with stop signs, convincing a nosy questioner that you're not the person she thought you were, you're her long lost turtle.... All sorts of weirdness abounds).

It's this attention to detail that makes the game not only a worthy successor to Deus Ex, but also to the Black Isle games that preceded it. Which is to say, it's a game that blends some of the best aspects of Fallout and Deus Ex. So why aren't you playing it right now?

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is available on Steam for $20. The game has been EXTENSIVELY patched by fans since its release - get patches that restore a ton of cut or buggy content at

Richard Corbett's round-up of cheap downloadable games is here. It's a great sampler of a lot of amazing games.