Thursday, June 25, 2009

Game Moments: Privateer

The Rampant Coyote has done a couple of blog posts on what he calls "game moments". Moments in a game where a spontaneous narrative emerge, if you've ever experienced one, you'll know what I'm talking about, they can be quite fun to relate. I wanted to share one that I had a couple of years ago while playing the game Wing Commander: Privateer.

I was tooling around in either the Rygannon or New Constantinople systems, trying to earn a little more cash before continuing my investigation of the Steltek artifact. I had by this point bought myself a very nice Centurion class ship. It was the most lethal ship available to civilians, and I just about had it outfitted just how I wanted. This run would get me the cash to finally finish upgrading all of its systems.

I liked to do batches of missions all at once. As I mentioned, my ship was more than a match for almost anything I came across, so I would take several missions where the objectives overlapped. One employer wants me to patrol all of the waypoints, while another wants me to check out some possible pirate activity at nav point three, and yet another wants me to look into a possible Kilrathi sighting at point five. Either way I've got to visit all of the points, and it saves me a lot of time.

This particular outing I was on a patrol, and also investigating some pirate activity within an asteroid field. Normally I don't like messing with asteroid fields, you have to slow down, lest you pummel yourself to death on the rocks. My ship was built for speed, and that's how I liked to dogfight, moving so fast that no one could catch me, swooping in for the kill and disappearing before they could react. An asteroid field put a serious damper on that sort of activity. But they were paying well, and I was confident in both my skills, and my hardware.

The patrol went well, I took down a couple of stray Kilrathi, but only took light damage. I had used probably half of my supply of missles, but I only had a few nav points left before heading home to collect my pay. After checking on a planet, I turned my ships nose towards the final nav point, the asteroid field. I put the ship on autopilot, and after a bit the proximity warning lit up letting me know that we had arrived at the nav point. I dropped my speed to avoid any collisions, and went to check my radar.

"Dump your cargo before you blow, will ya?" The sneering face of a pirate was on my com screen, hurling insults at me. Well, that's to be expected, typically they don't ask you to check on a nav point unless there is something to see. After responding to the pirate with a witty retort, I check my radar, and see that there are six pirates.

Okay, two or three I can handle without a sweat four it more difficult, but six, in an asteroid field? Deciding I'd better not mess around I quickly get a missle lock and fire off a salvo of two missiles at the lead pirate, then switch to guns and pummel another one as we shoot past each other. I bank around to finish off the one I'd started shooting. My missiles hit, taking one of the pirates out. An asteroid hits the one I had been tracking with my guns. The other four pirates are taking potshots at my tail, so I flip around to scare them off. As I do, I hit an asteroid, which knocks out my entire right shield, some of my armor, and one of my right guns. This is why I hate asteroids.

I fire off another salvo of missiles, one hits an asteroid, but the other scores a hit on the pirate, unfortunately it's only enough to damage him. Fortunately it's enough for me to finish him with my guns. Three down, three left. Two of them are on my tail, and my rear shields are just about done, they've also managed to score a few more hits on my right side, taking down the remaining gun, and putting the right missile tube out of commission. I decide to take a risk and hit the afterburner for a moment, just enough to put some distance between myself and the pirates.   The gamble paid off as I was able to come about and put my stronger front shields and armor between myself and the pirates.  We strafe each other as we pass, and I'm able to take down another pirate.

My shields and armor are just about gone by now, all the weapons on my right side are down, my engines are failing, and the radar is acting up.  There are two pirates left by now, the one that was further off has almost rejoined the battle, so I'm in a hurry to finish off his wingmate before he gets here.  The nearer pirate turns about and comes at me head on, we exchange fire and he explodes, but not before knocking out my engines and almost taking out my manuvering jets.

At the point I'm dead in space, stuck in one spot.  I can roll counterclockwise, and yaw to the left, slowly, but that's it.  I have one gun that barely shoots, and one missile tube.  The last pirate makes his way back, and I know it's all over.  I ineffectually try to keep him in my sights as he circles me like a vulture.

Then a stroke of fortune, and a meteor, strikes.  The pirate runs headlong into a passing meteor, but it's not quite enough to take him down.  He closes and starts pummeling me with fire.  This is really it.  I'm having trouble tracking him because my ship is moving so slowly.  Then he moves into my field of view and comes at me for another run.  This is more than I could have hoped for, with the pirate in my field of view and flying right at me I'm able to line him up and get a missile lock.  I fire my last two missiles, and hope.

The pirate was overconfident by now, and so focused on taking me down that he doesn't even notice the missiles, and explodes in a fireball.  Breathing a sigh of relief I shut down everything, and let my repair droid get to work on the ship systems.  A while later my engines come back online, and I start limping back to port.  Hours later I arrive, and land at the mining colony.  The money from the jobs doesn't quite cover the repairs, but at least I'm still alive.

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ayn Rand on Video Game Art

A couple of weeks ago I came across this quote from Ayn Rand:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.
I don't claim to be an expert on Ayn Rand's ideas, but I've liked a lot of the things I've heard from her, and this quote especially. As I am wont to do, I immediately started thinking about how this idea would apply to video games, and whether video games could qualify as art under such a definition.

At it's core, a video game is an abstraction, a simplified system that often emulates a real world system. The game designer selects aspects of reality to model within the game, and comes up with game mechanics to represent them. Then covers the whole system with narrative window dressing to show us how the various mechanics reflect real life elements.

On the whole, this works really well, and people seem to forget that the game is just an abstraction, a selective re-creation of reality, rather than reality itself. Running through an FPS gunning down monsters by clicking on them is pretty different from real life warfare. But the mechanical metaphors that we use are good enough that even our noble politicians have trouble remembering that games are in no way reality.

The point is, that games simulate portions of reality, and they do it in the way that the game designer chooses. There are many reasons for the choices they make, ranging from gameplay concerns, to interface device limitations, to hardware limitations, to development costs, to just plain old aesthetics. And it's that last one that is really interesting, some choices are made because that's how a game designer feels that reality works, or that's how he wants people to perceive that it works, or even a little of both.

Consider a game like Sim City, through game play abstractions it allows the player to run a virtual city. We accept that it’s a stylized representation of reality, but even so we expect it to mirror our experience in the real world. This is where the game designer has an opportunity to say something about reality, and how it works. Suppose that the game designer feels that cutting taxes to businesses and allowing the wealth to trickle down to the populace is the best way to build a strong economy. It is a simple matter for him to make his game world function this way. By tweaking the systems that underlie the game, he can force the player to adopt a fiscal policy in game that is similar to the designers idea of an optimal fiscal policy.

As the player plays the game, he will learn, whether consciously or not, that providing tax breaks and incentives to businesses is the best thing to stimulate an economy. This is a very powerful way of expressing an opinion. Not only is the designer presenting his own ideas in a positive light, but he is forcing the player to accept and act as though, at least in the game’s limited reproduction of reality, the designer’s ideas are correct.

The potential for these kinds of statements is present anywhere a game simulates an aspect of reality. The actions available to players, the problems they must solve, and the means by which they may solve the problems all give interesting insight into the world view of the game designer. This isn't to say that every element of a game's mechanics should be subjected to scrutiny, and taken as an implicit statement by the games author on the nature of reality, but that the potential is there, and messages are being communicated even if they aren't intended.

The really neat thing about this, is that this is just one of the many types of expression available to a video game designer. In addition to choices on how the nature of reality will be represented in a game, the designer can make statements through art direction, music selection, narrative and many other avenues. Video games are truly one of the most expressive mediums yet.

So after just a little bit of thought, it becomes pretty clear that any assertions that games are not art because they lack the ability to express anything, are pure garbage. Unfortunately there haven't been a lot of games yet that have started to use game mechanics to say anything meaningful, there are a few, but not many. It's a difficult thing, as I've been working on my game I've discovered that it's hard just to make something that's interesting to play with, let alone making it interesting, and meaningful. But it is something that I plan to explore in future projects, and hopefully this is something that we will continue to see more of.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Penumbra Overture: Further Thoughts

I didn't want yesterday's post to get too long, I think I tend to have a problem with that, so I'm continuing my thoughts in today's post.

I'm really enjoying the atmosphere of the game. It does a really good job using lighting and sound to convey a feeling of omnipresent threat. Frequently throughout the game you have to venture into spider infested tunnels, often you don't see anything, but you can hear crawling things all around you. The game thus far has taken place almost entirely in an old mine, which shakes and rumbles from time to time. The small earthquakes sound almost like the angry growls of a nasty monster deep in the mine.

Most of the mine is covered in darkness, it's a relief whenever you're able to spend time in areas that are more well lit. But even the well lit areas are still covered in rust and decay, serving as a reminder that you are very alone. Additionally the areas of light serve a nice contrast, making the dark areas even more frightening.

This really bothered me for a while until I figured out how the saving mechanism worked. Throughout the game you'll find ancient artifacts, that look almost like lanterns. When you click on one, it gives a brief description of the main characters thoughts as the artifact invades his head. I finally noticed that the save game files all seemed to be created around the same time that I clicked on the artifacts. After that I was able to relax because I didn't have to worry about whether my progress would be lost. There are also auto-save spots scattered around, and so far they have been very well positioned.

One thing that can always sap the scary out of a game is having to replay a particular portion over and over. So good check point placement is important. It's done an admirable job so far. There was one sequence where you have to move through a small spider infested tunnel, and you actually get chased by spiders. You can hear them hatching from their eggs and coming after you, and you have to run through the tunnel, and find ways to prevent them from chasing you. It was thrilling and terrifying, and it could have easily been ruined by poor save spot placement. I had to replay one section through four or five times, there was a rock rolling down an incline, Indiana Jones style, and it took a couple of tries to figure out where to run to get out of the way. Each time I died it placed me right before the rock puzzle, meaning I was only ten or fifteen seconds between attempts. If I had had to replay the entire tunnel sequence each time I would have quickly grown tired of it, and it would have lost all of its terror inducing goodness.

The plot is interesting so far, it seems to have some Lovecraftian influences, which is always a good thing in my book. So far a lot of the story has been told through notes left behind by other characters, which is always a good way to include other characters, but still keep the player isolated.

Anyway, I'm enjoying it so far. I'll post more thoughts as they occur to me.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Penumbra Overture: Initial Thoughts

Steam had a sale on the Penumbra games a week ago, and I picked them up. I'd had my eye on them, and just couldn't justify not buying them. So I'm a couple of hours into the first game, Penumbra Overture, and thought I'd share some thoughts I've had as I got into it. Yes, the game is three or four years old, but I think it has aged extremely well, and it's an indie effort, so I figure there's no excuse not to talk about it.

I'll steer clear of any spoilers, and being only a couple of hours in I'm not sure that I'll have much in the way of forbidden knowledge to impart anyway.

Penumbra is a first person horror adventure game. You solve puzzles, and sneak around avoiding monsters, explore the environment, and try to piece together what is going on. It's wonderfully atmospheric, with sound, music, and lighting all working together well to make the thing scary.

The interface works like a regular FPS, WASD to move around, and the mouse to look around, but when you look directly at something you can manipulate a hand or eye icon appears. You can then right click to look at the item, or left click to pick it up or otherwise manipulate it. Now this sort of thing has been done before, but what I haven't seen is how you have to use your hand icon to manipulate everything. If you want to open a drawer, you grab it with your hand and pull it open. Want to turn a crank? Grab hold and give it a spin.

Interacting directly with the game objects like this makes me feel more like I'm in the world, and it makes the physics based puzzles much easier. Instead of picking up and stacking boxes like a forklift (like most games), you pick up the box and can see exactly where it's going, and carefully adjust its position in the stack. The best part though is when you're opening doors. I've always hated in games that a door is either open, or closed, especially if it's a scary game. I want to slowly open the door and peek into the next room, which you can do very naturally in Penumbra. Or if you want you can quickly throw the door open. It heightens the suspense when you're trying to quickly close the door before the monster sees you, but you don't want to make a lot of noise.

Unfortunately the interface, while great for exploring, is not so good for combat. You pick up various weapons in the game, so far all I've found are things like pick axes, hammers, and push brooms. You swing these by clicking, and actually swinging the mouse around the screen. This works really well when you're just trying to beat down a door with your pick axe, but when you're fighting an undead wolf it's not nearly as enjoyable. I'll try to make an attack, and end up looking in a different direction, or try looking in a different direction to target the enemy, and end up swinging my weapon. It feels pretty clunky. Fortunately, as I did some last minute research to confirm that buying the game was a good idea, I noticed that people complained about the combat, so when it asked me how hard I wanted the combat to be I swallowed my pride and set it to easy. I am so glad I did. Overall though, it isn't too bad, I'm glad it's mostly a game of exploration and puzzle solving, rather than combat.

This post has gotten kind of long, I'm surprised at how much I've had to say about the game. I don't want to make this into an impenetrable wall of text, so I'll pick up on this tomorrow.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Free Radical

Recently I finished reading Free Radical, a book by Shamus Young that is based on the classic game System Shock, and let me tell you, it was a great read. I'm going to talk about some of the things that really impressed me about the book, obviously there will be plenty of spoilers, both for the game and for the book. I figure that if you haven't played the game yet, chances are you aren't going to, it's seventeen years old, well worth playing, but it may prove difficult for more modern palates.

Here's a five sentence summary of the story. Tri-Optimum is a big powerful corporation with a powerful AI named Shodan. They catch a hacker breaking into their system and hire him to break the ethical constraints off of Shodan. In return, they provide him with a neural interface that allows him to interface directly with computers. When he wakes up from the surgery of having the interface installed Shodan has gone crazy and killed everyone. Fighting past her army of cybernetic ghouls and security robots, the hacker finally defeats Shodan.

Something that Shamus often complains about in games is their two dimensional villains, people who do bad things simply because they are evil. This is about the level of motivation that Shodan had in the original game, she was insane, and evil. So as I read Free Radical, I watched to see how Shamus would flesh out Shodan, and he did a remarkable job.

In addition to giving Shodan understandable motivations for the carnage she enacted, he further made her into a character I could care about and empathize with. Seriously, I felt bad at the end when Shodan died! Very impressive stuff.

Further, he took and logically explained away several of the plot holes. I always thought it was odd that a corporation had to hire an outside hacker to remove the ethical constraints. First, why would you need to remove the ethical constraints? So it can start killing things?! Second, you wrote the thing, why not do it yourself? These were questions I never found answers for in the game (not saying they weren't there, I just didn't see them). Free Radical however, provided brilliant reasons for both of these things, in the form of corporate plausible deniability, and crooked bank ledgers.

Finally I loved what he did with the characters. There was real character growth there. Over the course of the story the hacker took a hard look at how he had been living his life, and the consequences his actions had brought about. His motivations changed as he realized his mistakes and felt a desire to atone. He was a very interesting character, and like Shodan, one that I really felt empathy for.

Overall the book was a joy to read. It was delightful seeing how Shamus
brought to life the flat events and characters from the game. I loved reading about the different locations on Citadel station, and recalling being there myself. I enjoyed the action and reading about the journey, even though I knew how it must inevitably end, I still found myself hanging on every word, wondering how the conclusion would be reached.

Even if you haven't played the game, it's a brilliant read. It's a great example of how to make living characters that grow over time, have interesting motivations, and engender empathy in the reader. It has made me change how I plan to approach writing characters for my own games and stories. It would be a great thing for video game stories if we had people like Shamus writing them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Back to basics

So I spent about four hours watching zombies move through that small maze to the left, and making tweaks to how fast they came, how much damage the soldiers did, etc.

I've been having trouble with the gameplay, so I pulled it back to its most basic. No building capturing, only one type of zombie, only one type of human. I think it was a really good idea.

It certainly made it easier to see how these elements interact. I'm trying to figure out the optimal rate for the zombie's strength to grow, and how much damage soldiers should do, and so on. Balancing all this is hard work. I'm really surprised. For some reason I had often thought that the difficult part would be coding, but this is pretty tricky too.

I think I'm making progress. It's much more interesting than before. The early stages are filled with genuine panic, but somehow the humans grow too powerful after a while, even though theoretically they should be growing at the same rate.

So that's where I'm at. Hopefully I'll have this figured out before long, and hopefully what I learn here will help me get the other soldier and zombie types working faster.