Bioshock Infinite: A Few Thoughts

bioshock-infinite-logoLast week I finished Bioshock Infinite. I’m not a first-person-shooter fan, or even a fan of the Bioshock games. My water phobia knocked me out of the original Bioshock when I entered a tunnel with a leak that slowly filled up with water, and I couldn’t advance without freaking out. I’ve picked up the important parts of Bioshock since then — I know what “A man chooses, a slave obeys” means — and I’d been watching Infinite for a while because I knew that Bioshock was a really good game, and I don’t have a thing about the sky like I do the ocean.

I’m also not a regular player of first-person-shooters, which is to say that I’ve played two FPS games since Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. For the record, I thought Resistance: Fall of Man was a damn good time, bought the sequel when it came out, and never played it. And so it goes.

When Bioshock Infinite got a ton of perfect scores from reviewers, I decided to try it out. I liked it, but not as much as they did. I don’t think they were wrong, which is a sentiment I have seen crop up around the internet as of late. There are things in Bioshock that really got me, especially the ending, but there are parts that just didn’t go that great for me. Throughout this, I’m going to compare Infinite to Dishonored, which might not be very fair to either of them, but the comparison came to mind early and often for me.

Columbia

I honeymooned in Disneyworld in 2008. There are three folders on my computer full of pictures from my trips to the Magic Kingdom, of dancers in Epcot, of animals wandering the miniature savannah at the Animal Kingdom, or Lego sculptures and bassoonists in Downtown Disney. There are pictures of every country represented in Epcot, of an ambulatory trash can following me around the park, of my wife and I hugging Minnie and Mickey at the end of our time in the park. I used my camera as a kind of anchor, something to prove to myself that I spent a week and a half in this place that never felt quite real, a place that honestly did feel magical and wonderful.

I took a lot of pictures in Columbia.

I’m celebrating my fifth anniversary this fall in Disneyworld. Lately I’ve been looking at satellite photos of Disneyworld on Google Maps, and I’m amazed at how well the parks are laid out. There can be a few feet and a fence separating the park-goer from the employee parking lot, from the rows of trucks that handle the equipment, and you never know. The parks are constructed in such a way that you forget you’re even in an amusement park, and the reality of the park becomes your actual reality. It’s incredible.

I tried to open a lot of fake doors in Columbia.

It felt like a Disney park, which probably means it succeeded. But I think I wanted more. I wanted more of the game to be about this incredible floating city in the sky, and I wanted to interact with it and come to know it more than I did. I don’t feel I came to know Columbia like I did Dunwall in Dishonored. I know that here I’m comparing games that are different genres, that I shouldn’t expect the same level design and verticality in a first-person shooter as I would in a Thief-like game, where they have to build multiple routes through the same area. But I wanted to spend more time in Columbia.

Skulking about the shadows of Dunwall, slipping in and out of multiple buildings, listening to the Heart’s whispers in my ear, hiding in shadows and listening to people talk to each other, I cam eto know Dunwall. Dunwall became a character in that game, and probably the best character in that game. Journals, diaries, bits of story picked up here and there, the world itself changing in accordance with my actions. The curious nature of the world built into the game itself, with the in-universe distrust of the charms, the plague being a constant force hanging over the game, all that came together to really make Dunwall a real place.

Columbia felt close, but everything too big, too garish, too loud, and then too brief. I could walk around the opening of that game for hours, and probably will load up that first level a few more times, just to see Columbia again. It’s an incredible theme park (right down to the roller coaster skyhook rails around the shooting galleries), but I kept pushing it for something it wasn’t going to be.

Violence

The first act of violence in Columbia is Booker DeWitt grabbing a man by the head and shoving his face into a rotating metal hook. It was deliberately chosen to be harsh and brutal to be in stark contrast to this pristine floating utopia. It was horrifying, as it should have been. I looked away.

Later acts of regular violence include burning a man’s flesh off of his body, sending enough voltage through a man’s body to pop his head off of his shoulders where it then detonates, taking over a man’s mind and making him kill his friends and then himself, cutting a man’s head off with a regular swing from your own rotating skyhook, shoving that same hook into a guard’s face while you hold him still as one of the game’s “execution” moves, a murder of crowd tearing a man to ribbons, and slicing a man’s face off, leaving a bloody hole in the middle of his head.

I played Infinite either at extreme range with the machine gun or the sniper rifle, or recklessly with the Charge vigor, filling my screen with as much noise as possible to distract myself from the gore. I understand the thematic reasons for having a violent scene like the first. I have a harder time justifying intense violence in games, just for myself. Had there been a toggle for reduced violence — the game has a 1999 mode for increased challenge, you could come up with another catchy name for a version that keeps faces attached to heads — I would have had a much better time with it.

Dishonored had violence – plenty of it, in fact. But I could play that game through in a nonlethal manner, which I did, so I never saw any of the violence. That’s even better than a blood toggle, as the game world built itself around my choice there to not kill anyone. Not every game can do that. Not every game wants to do that. That’s fine. But it still leads to me favoring Dishonored’s approach to the matter.

This is incredibly personal and subjective, and I’m not calling for all games to be made less violent. But I would like the choice.

Shooting

90% of my interaction with Columbia is shooting people. The other 10% is picking up audio logs and telling Elizabeth to open tears or locks.

I wish this game had been more. That’s probably on me — I can’t rightfully ding a game for succeeding at something that it’s not trying to be. But when the story is working, when you’re unraveling the mysteries behind the tears, when you’re wandering through that magical opening, and when you’re trying to make sense of the insane ending, Bioshock Infinite is up there with the best games I’ve ever played.

Just not as much during all the “game” parts.

It’s Time To Get Serious About How Serious We Are In Videogames

Edward Kenway, allegedly much more interesting than his humorless grandson.

Ubisoft announced Assassin’s Creed 4 today, a week after the rest of the internet announced it for them by leaking everything from box art to Gamestop posters to plot synopses to bar codes. The timeline of the game’s development doesn’t make it strictly a reaction to the reception to Assassin’s Creed 3, but a few words I’ve read in the previews have pointed to that being at least part of why Edward Kenway is who he is. One of those words was “Ezio,” and if the plan is to have Edward be like the charismatic Italian from the three Assassin Creed 2s, then the series has a chance to be great again.

There are plenty of problems with Assassin’s Creed 3, but I want to focus on one of the biggest problems for me. Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of my favorite surprises of this generation, Brotherhood was nearly flawless, and Revelations had some incredible high points, and easily avoidable low points. The element holding these games together was Ezio Auditore, and his journey from the easily-angered novice assassin in AC2 to the world-weary snarker in Revelations, the end of his story. Ezio was a fantastic character, one of the best of this generation, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that he was never afraid to smile.

The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 2, for me, was running along rooftops, boffing archers in the back of the head, and then throwing dirt in the eyes of guards that came to investigate before inserting hidden blades into eye sockets. When I was done with that, I’d run up to the highest thing I could find and then fling myself off of it into a hay bale. Do you know what that is? That’s hilarious. And while Ezio wasn’t cackling like a madman as he plummeted 150 feet into three feet of hay, he handled most twists and turns in his story with a wink and a nod, a general acknowledgement of how crazy these things were. Sure, he may be chasing after the most corrupt of the Borgias, but he’s going to take the time to chat up the pretty lady. He might be investigating the disappearance of Altair’s artifacts, but he’s also going to go on a picnic with this gorgeous bookseller who seems to be the only other person in Constantinople with the same level of smirk.

Connor lost all of that. He had an unbearably tragic backstory, sure, but so did Ezio. There was hardly ever a smile, hardly ever an acknowledgement that this was fun, just grim political drama played out around a young man who couldn’t be bothered to even learn what was really happening. There was no fun in Connor, which was strange because much of the game was still fun, if you define fun as springing out of a haystack with an ax to ambush an innocent deer.

Lightning vs. The Guy With The Purple Feathers In His Hair

Another series had a similar problem for me, which is a shame, because five years ago I considered Final Fantasy to be my favorite videogame series. Final Fantasy XIII, the showcase for Final Fantasy for this generation, told a story that was almost entirely devoid of mirth, and what comedy that was there seemed to be a little too close to a minstrel show with the portrayal of Sazh. This is a series where Cecil regularly broke out into dance, Bartz was Bartz, an octopus played the piano, Cloud dressed in drag, Squall dreamed he was a moron, Zidane paused mid-escape to grab a girl’s butt, Jecht got drunk and fought a shoopuf, and Vaan repeatedly botched talking to girls. It’s a series that wasn’t afraid to laugh, and it was much stronger for it.

Why is it so important to be able to smile? Because without it, we have no point to return that character to.  Lightning’s always been a bitter pill, Connor’s always been a stoic jerkass. Why do we want to get invested in this character? They’re not any fun, they don’t have anything to be happy about.

Compare to the Investigation Team in Persona 4.

Investigation Team GO
Investigation Team GO

Persona 4 Golden is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. That humor serves two purposes — it humanizes the characters, and it endears them to us. It also gives us something to invest in — we’re not hoping for some fantasy time when the characters can be happy, we’ve seen it. We see it in how they interact with Nanako, with the trip to the beach, with the ghost stories together at the ski lodge. A smile doesn’t prevent the writer from being able to deploy drama throughout the game, it just weaponizes that drama. Separating Connor from Achilles doesn’t make us feel anything but anger toward Connor because it’s Connor’s own fault, and they just yell at each other all the time anway. Separating Charlie from the rest of the Investigation team because you know all those wonderful moments because you played them, you laughed along with them, you’re invested in them. Angry Man With Gun isn’t a character any more than Joe Doom was in Doom.

It’s okay for videogames to be fun, and it’s okay for the protagonists to have fun when they’re in the game. It feels like a bunch of people missed that this generation and made as many humorless games as they could, all in a row, and we were buried under a glut of grim-faced men holding guns on box art, because in the grim dark future of videogames there is only grimacing masculinity and laughter is for babies.

Even To The Moon wasn’t afraid to crack jokes, and I bawled during that game. Repeatedly. Those jokes further made those characters people, more than any number of maudlin chords and This Is When You Are To Be Sad moments would have, so when those moments did come along my heart broke just like it was supposed to. The jokes never took away from it, they just made it so much more powerful in the end.

It’s supposed to be fun, people. Don’t be afraid to smile.

And Now For Something Completely Different — Final Fantasy Puns

So they’re apparently going to make Final Fantasy XIII-3, which is surprising since that specific game is terrible. Apparently no one told Square.

I vented about this to a coworker, and things got a bit weird.

Matt: I think this franchise has definitely jumped the moogle.
Richard: I think that the series’ airship left the port a while back.
Matt: I think that series never got the tonberry out of the gate.
Richard: Square is really getting esperate.
Matt: It’s definitely not the behemoth it once was.
Richard: Is their ultima goal to drive away the fanbase?
Matt: It sure seems that way. The designers can’t get their heads out of the clouds.
Richard: I’m with you in that XIII-3 will definitely be a bomb.
Matt: But what difference can we make? Just fighting the tide, us.
Richard: These strange decisions are making dedicated fans like yourself wakka way from these games.
Matt: I certainly don’t want to seymour of where this franchise is headed.
Richard: They need to come up with a new strategy esuna rather than later.
Matt: This has become a Holy terror. They need to Fire everyone involved with XIII, and stop trying to compete with the games made by Activision-Blizzard. Monster corridors aren’t going to Protect them against the betrayed fans, so they need to Restore their design with all Haste and Heal this series before all that’s left is the Death of Final Fantasy.
Richard: *applause*

I feel that was a good use of my time.

The Future of Final Fantasy

At E3 2012, Square Enix unveiled a rather impressive video showcasing the new Luminous Engine. They called it Agni’s Philosophy, though they didn’t say that there was an actual game in the works. This could just be a tech demo, like the fanboy-baiting Final Fantasy VII PS3 demo at the beginning of this generation. It could be a sly preview for a game we’ll see sometime in 2019, with Square’s current development timelines.

What it isn’t, though, is pretty clear — it isn’t Final Fantasy XV, it isn’t Final Fantasy Versus XIII, and it isn’t Final Fantasy Type-0. And that’s bad.

Final Fantasy Type-0 is already out in Japan, and has been for a while. Square Enix has promised that the PSP RPG will make it to the West eventually, but E3 came and went without a single mention of it or the rumored Vita HD version. Not getting a Final Fantasy in the States seems almost impossible in this day and age of releasing Final Fantasy IV on everything this side of the Colecovision, but I’m starting to worry that Type-0 is vaporware.

And speaking of vaporware, Final Fantasy Versus XIII will almost certainly miss any theoretical 2012 release date, meaning we are on year six since its announcement with only a few minutes of what might have been gameplay to show for it. I remain intrigued for it — what they have shown looks incredible, with a Kingdom Hearts HD feel to the combat, good character designs, and an interesting tie to the mythology of Final Fantasy XIII. But it’s moved engines once already in its development, and Nomura stated in mid-2011 that they hadn’t even begun full development on it yet. I’m concerned that the first two hours of Versus XIII will be incredible, and the remaining 78 pedestrian.

Final Fantasy XV doesn’t even exist yet, but I’m already anxious for its announcement. We’ve had multiple missteps, the JRPG is in decline, and the Final Fantasy name has come to mean spin-offs and re-releases versus high quality RPGs. Whatever Square does here is going to be huge, less for the game and more for what it means for the future of the genre and the future of the franchise. The game itself also needs to be good, but that shouldn’t be too hard; hire the Ivalice team back, lock the director of XIII in a closet for four years, and just let them make the spiritual successor to Final Fantasy XII. Cast Troy Baker as the male lead. Put a moogle in a musketeer hat and have him join the party. Nolan North voices the moogle. There, I’ve saved Final Fantasy. Wasn’t that hard, was it?

Press B To Innovate – Asura’s Wrath

Asura’s Wrath very well may be the oddest game I’ve ever played. Calling it a game almost seems to be stretching the definition a bit too far for my liking, but it also uses its status as a game in some of the most intelligent and amazing ways that I’ve ever seen.

Asura’s Wrath is the story of the demigod Asura and his prodigious wrath. His story is told across three seasons of six episodes each, with most every episode ending on a rather dramatic cliffhanger. The game is structured like an anime, and this goes beyond just the episodic style — there are commercial bumpers in every episode, and when you return from commercial sometimes you see the same scene you saw before you went to commercial, to better set the moment. Credits play over the top of every opening, with longer credits rolling after the end of each season. The action is framed beautifully with incredible camerawork that really understands what the game is trying to do. There are multiple moments where I was reminded of Darksiders and its comic-book-panel-ready cutscenes, where a game was used to tell a story that would have fit just as well in another medium. Each episode took about twenty minutes to play out.

Asura’s Wrath is the video game version of Simon Says, where the player is asked to do little more than match the button appearing onscreen and occasionally engage in some rudimentary arena combat. It can, and has, been called Quick-Time-Event: The Game.

Both of those are accurate descriptions of the game, and both of those leave far too much out.

The rest of this post will be full of interface spoilers as well as a few story spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Asura’s Wrath uses some damn fine QTEs to tell an utterly ridiculous story. The first boss battle of the game is against a man named Wyzen, chewing scenery like a starving man, who starts out an equal foe to Asura. After being punched off a cliff, Wyzen grows to roughly five hundred feet high, and the battle continues. During this fight missiles are launched from a ship orbiting the planet, but many of these missiles are caught by Asura and punched back into the ship until it explodes and crashes. The game then turns into Space Harrier for a little bit as Asura and Wyzen race each other before leaping into the air and trying to punch each other. Asura wins and Wyzen is shot into space.

Once in space, Wyzen grows until he can hold the planet like a basketball, and decides to squash Asura by poking the planet with his finger. Asura catches his finger with all six arms (Asura gets so angry he grows more arms — I should have mentioned that), and then punches that finger so much so that Wyzen explodes.

It bears repeating that this is the first boss in the game, and it only goes up from there.

Asura’s Wrath is barely a videogame, yet it uses the fact that it IS a videogame to do some incredible things.

The achievements are perfectly timed and placed — pressing B when prompted to “shut Wyzen up” has Asura punch Wyzen into a wall, and the second Wyzen impacts the stone the achivement pops. “15G – Shut Up, Wyzen!”

The arena battles exist primarily to get you to the next ridiculous display; enemies do not have health bars. Asura has a Rage meter, and once you fill that rage meter you press RT to Burst, and whenever you hit Burst something insane is going to take place. The game knows how that bar works, and it uses it incredibly well. During one villain’s monologue, the bar steadily fills, and when Asura’s dead wife or kidnapped daughter is mentioned, the bar jerks forward, filling up faster at the sound of their names. When Asura sees a concerned girl following after him, this bar empties when he stops and shows compassion and worry for her. When Asura activates a later form in battle, the type of gauge he’s using changes to match that form.

The QTEs themselves follow the rules QTEs must follow to not be awful. If you’re going to punch someone really freaking yard, the prompt is Y, the heavy attack. Analog stick movements match the direction the character is going, all the bare minimum needed for me to keep my hair in my head. I didn’t come across a QTE with a fail-state, and at no point are you chaining together four buttons to jump up a hill, you’re pressing one button to punch a guy into the moon and another button to punch the moon into the guy. As soon as you are familiar with how the QTEs work, though, Asura’s Wrath starts doing some really interesting and satisfying things with them.

Early in the game, you have to press the B button a whole lot to fill up Asura’s Wrath and Burst into the enemies. Later in the game, the screen is FULL of the B button, with every press knocking out one of those buttons. Asura’s usual battle stance, activated by press the left stick left and the right stick right, changes to have at least ten icons on each side, and Asura unleashes a dozen arms from his back as he prepares for battle. One battle features the QTE “timing circle,” for lack of a better word, going in slow motion, and then in reverse.

The last battle does the most interesting thing I saw, though. The villain has its own QTEs, with white button prompts, and you see every press it makes. As Asura gains the upper hand, the enemy starts failing, just like the player has undoubtedly done over the course of the game, and at the end of the battle the Burst trigger takes up the entire screen. I very nearly jumped out of my chair like the Redskins scored a game-winning touchdown. I did shout “Burst!” and throw up the horns.

Asura’s Wrath uses its knowledge of its status as a game so well that it stumped me. One villain electrocuted another one and threw her into a wall, and the instant she hit the wall I got the “disconnected from Xbox Live” message on my 360. Does my 360 often knock itself offline? Yes. Was that a thematically appropriate moment for that kind of fourth-wall breakage? Absolutely. Do I know if it was on purpose or a happy accident? Not in the slightest.

Asura’s Wrath will probably never happen again, and that might be a good thing; these kinds of tricks could get really old, really fast, and as a full $60 product plus DLC for the “true” ending is really too much to ask. All that said, though, it’s one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in 2012 by far.

BURST

The Perils of Celebrity Game Writing

As most everyone following the games industry knows by now, 38 Studios, the developer behind this February’s Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, laid off all of its employees after failing to make a single loan payment to the state of Rhode Island, after borrowing $75 million and asking to borrow more to pay back the first loan.

The first post I didn’t finish on Loading Screen was a non-review of Amalur, because I lost interest in writing it after I lost interest in playing it. I still don’t have much interest in writing an Amalur review, because frankly the game’s not very good. It’s not very bad, either. It’s flat, uninspired, and after the first few hours you’ve seen everything you’re going to see. It’s a set of very pretty hallways with fun and energetic combat that never grows or changes. I lost interest in it before I even got to the second area tileset.

I still adore Big Huge Games, though; Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends are among the best real-time strategy games I’ve ever played, and their work on Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties gave that game life it had long since lost in my library. There’s a lot of talent and promise in that team, and I hope the spirit of BHG lives on in whatever studio snaps up their people. I hope everyone hurt by this mismanagement lands on their feet quickly, and this is just a nightmarish situation that depresses me greatly. My ire is aimed solely at the celebrities involved with this game.

I don’t have any insight or valuable input into what happened with 38 Studios. I’m no insider, just a pretender. But I do think this article has something that I can comment on, as a gamer and a writer.

The passage of note is this:  “R.A. Salvatore, a fantasy writer who helped develop the games, is slated to receive $1.46 million from 38 Studios in October under the terms of a consulting agreement he signed with the company in 2007. He is also eligible to earn up to $5 million in royalties from sales of “Reckoning” and other 38 Studios products.”

That strikes me as a terrible waste of money, and for once in my life I’m not disparaging R.A. Salvatore’s writing. (Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s awful. Not Richard Knaak awful, but awful.) Salvatore added absolutely nothing positive to Amalur, and instead did a lot to bring the quality of the game down through his work.

Most NPCs in Amalur have anywhere from 5-10 bits of interest in their dialogue options, all with names like “Well of Souls,” “Tuatha,” “Darrenville,” “Elves,” what-have-you. Clicking on any one of those gives you fully-voiced unique dialogue about that specific item, specific to that one character. None of it’s any interesting or any good, except once. The one sidequest I did that felt worth my time was helping a man who accosted me in the forest. He turned out to be a wolf turned into a man by a prankster fairy, and he needed me to help him get back to his lupine state. His dialogue had some actual energy and humor behind it, and while I wasn’t blown away like this was the best thing in the history of videogames, I was sufficiently charmed enough to tackle this rather annoying fetch quest.

Every person in Amalur is an encyclopedia of useless knowledge, reciting facts about a history that’s completely irrelevant to your current adventure. You are run down in the street by names with no fewer than nine consonants every time you ask somebody if they know where the blacksmith is. With each person having their own dialogue, set up in two different UIs (some characters have a Mass Effect-style radial menu, some characters have an Elder Scrolls-style vertical menu, and even worse, some characters switch back and forth between them depending on their last line), the player is left wondering what lines are important and what lines are just background flavor. Salvatore said in an interview that he wrote over ten thousand years of backstory for Amalur to get the game world just right. It shows. And it’s all terrible.

I do want a rich and storied world in my video games. I play games primarily for the story — even the Warriors franchise has a great story appeal to me, thanks to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Sengoku era. But this is a game. Writing a game is almost nothing like writing a book.

I am not a great writer. I think I’m pretty good, but I’m not great. I hate to use an example from my own book — a book that’s not even out because I’m taking forever on the rewrite — but I want to use a passage from it to illustrate what NOT to do in gaming.

The Ember Forest, just south of Delenn, earned its name in the aftermath of the worst fire in the city’s recorded history. For four weeks the forest burned, with flames consuming miles and miles of the thick forest, from the western shore all the way to the eastern mountains that made up part of the pass in which Delenn sat. The fire survived the best of the city guard’s efforts, a group of magi from the capital, Kasilos, and a week’s worth of prayer during the height of its damage. It took a steady week of torrential rains to finally extinguish the fire, an act that the druids of Arcell were quick to claim credit for. It was through Arcell the Lifegiver, the God of Nature, that the city itself was spared, they said. Regardless of what saved the city, the forest was ravaged by the weeks of destruction. Even after the rain had fallen, the forest smoldered, with so many patches of red mixed with the ash that, from the mountain pass, it looked like the plains ran thick with lava.

The druids worked to restore the forest, and their rituals met with early success. The first plant life to grow after the fire had flowers that bloomed the same color as the flames. Either the emberbloom flowers took their name from the forest or the Ember Forest took its name from the flowers, and scholars argued both sides for years.

“Huh.”

Scholars also disputed the cause of the blaze. Some pointed to other instances in Khazair’s history, claiming that forest fires are a common occurrence, and to have one of this magnitude was just an unfortunate coincidence. Others pointed to the reports that metal was found near the southern end of the forest, melted almost beyond recognition. They argued that the metal matched the stock used for the holy symbols for Scinterra, the Goddess of Fire, and that this must have been the work of a violent sub-sect devoted to one of the lesser gods. They backed up their assertions with cultist propoganda found in Delenn that spoke of “Cleansing by Fire” and other loaded statements. The sect never claimed credit for the fire, and the investigations never led to a suspect. Delenn authorities closed the case with the cause listed as natural.

“Well, well.”

The Ember Forest’s recovery from a decimated wasteland into its current, thriving state is a testament to the power inherent in both the magic and the people of Quintana. Before the disaster, worshippers of Arcella and Narkend regularly clashed over theological issues. The druids argued that worship of the Goddess of Death placed too much importance on just one aspect of the natural cycle of life. The mages of Narkend felt that the druids focused too heavily on the big picture, foregoing individual concerns for the “circle of life” they so often referenced in their research papers. Yet, after the fire, both groups worked hand in hand to return the Ember Forest to its previous splendor. The works the druids accomplished could not have been done without the rituals Narkend’s mages cast over the land, using the forest’s own death to bring about new life. Descendants of that group, both in lineage and in philosophy, still travel Khazair and the rest of Quintana helping with disaster recovery, calling themselves Eternal Life. They serve as a testament to what is possible when the people of Quintana embrace their differences, instead of stand rigidly by their doctrine.

“Hmm.”

Chamber sighed, and lowered his book. “That’s the third time, Dante.”

The redhead riding beside him shifted in her saddle and looked at Chamber, eyebrows raised in a good impression of surprise. “Third time for what, Chamber?” she asked him.

“Third time you’ve made some little noise like that.”

“I can’t say I have any idea what you’re talking about,” came her innocent reply.

“Oh yes you do,” he retorted, riding closer to her. “You do this all the time.”

“You’re probably just hearing some noise in the woods,” Dante said, indicating the forest around them. “It really could be anything. Maybe you should be more alert when we’re traveling through an area this dense.”

“I don’t know what you have against me reading when we’re riding somewhere. What is it?”

That’s not bad. That style works very well in writing, because it lets me present something interesting — the area in which the next few chapters will be taking place — in a way that tells you more about the characters in those chapters, namely that Chamber is a reader and Dante likes to annoy him to pass the time. That’s a scene I can build from, and introduces character traits that will be important later on, and failing that just add more to the characters themselves. It also means that if the trees start throwing fireballs at people later on it’s not completely insane. (They don’t.)

If I were to try and establish this kind of history in a videogame, I wouldn’t. I straight up would not even try. I may have all that written down in a world-design document, it may be important for the history of the world and how everything evolved, and it may mean a lot to me. But I would show a forest, perhaps have a character mention its name and fire off one line, maybe two, and then I would keep going. It’s writing for a game, not a novel. In a novel, I, the writer, am important. In a game, you, the player, are important. I need to stay the hell out of your way while working to heighten your playing experience.

Games writing is not novel writing. I cannot emphasize that enough. Every time I hear that a novelist is working on a game story, I cringe and prepare myself for the worst, because games writing and novel writing have made for some terrible bedfellows. Amalur is one of those. Salvatore’s philosophy for using that 10,000-year history was to make sure he crammed it in everywhere in the world, because he’s R.A. Salvatore, he wrote the Drizzt novels, let’s make sure everyone knows just how great a writer he is.

Obelisks cover the game world, each one telling you some story about the world as you play, like the audio logs in Bioshock. But there is no lead-in or explanation of why this is important, and the first area’s obelisks are a rather twee song by a would-be folk singer about a lost love of the gods. There are either eight or ten obelisks per area, and each area takes hours to explore if you are chasing down all 150 sidequests per area (and I do not recommend doing this). You may come across Obelisk Six days after you found Five, and have completely forgotten why an old man is singing to you in his Children’s TV Show voice. But since each obelisk gives you XP, you’ll be loathe to pass it up. Since R.A. Salvatore wrote it, he was loathe to cut it, so it’s in.

The Elder Scrolls hides its historian goals inside books, books that are entirely optional to read and do not offer any serious game advantage to those who elect to read The Lusty Argonian Maid versus those who decide that slaying dragons sounds like a better use of their time. The worldbuilding is done in such a way that you learn about the world by finding things in it. When you walk into a dungeon and find bandits painting the walls in body parts with one dead troll between them, but streaks of blood leading further into the dungeon, you know exactly what happened there. You also know what you’re going to do about it — you’re going to go kill that surviving troll and hope that he’s sitting on treasure, and not something else far worse hidden far below.

In Amalur, there is one surviving guy who is willing to tell you his life story and every detail in his day that led to him coming down the path to this cave with his friends, where they were suddenly set upon by a troll — trolls, incidentally, have a terrible fear of fire stemming from how they were cursed ten thousand years ago by Agartha, when she came down from Old Murkenville — that’s the village where two of the gods were born, Agartha and Morwen — sisters, they — fair as a summer’s day, pretty as a lark, ’til one day they went a-dancing right outside the Hillside Park…

Guild Wars 2: The Power of Other People

Guild Wars 2 is the first MMO where I did not view other players as a hindrance to my enjoyment. It is the first MMO where I gladly jumped in and fought alongside people and wanted to do so even when I was on my own.

I played levels 1-10 as a Human Elementalist named Mist Walker. Elementalists are like mages — throwing fire, lightning, ice, and earth around, wearing skimpy light armor, trying not to get squished. I died a lot, explored all over the place, did some crafting, and had a marvelous time. Let me tell you a story about Mist’s best experience as an Elementalist in this lush and beautiful world.

Fighting west of the main human city of Divinity’s Reach at level 6, I found a familiar cave. I’d gone to this cave earlier in my personal story — Guild Wars 2 has a personal story that sees your fully voiced character run around with other people in your background and do general heroic things. In my case, I was investigating a group of bandits. I was surprised, though, to find that I could head back into this cave. When I first went in, it was an instanced area, meaning me and only me (and, theoretically, anyone else in my full group). In Star Wars: The Old Republic, when you go into an instanced area for your class, you can never go back in once you’re done, and people of other classes can never go in, they only see a red repulsor force field over the innocuous hallway. GW2 does not work like this at all. So I went in.

I went in and found some bandits, and I lit them on fire and did terrible things to them. I also found some other players, running around doing other terrible things to these bandits. I also saw that we were all struggling a little fighting on our own, so I jumped over to help them. That sounds generous of me, but it just happened. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t feature anything like ‘tagging’ an enemy to mean it is yours and yours alone, with no one else getting XP from fighting it. Guild Wars 2 wants everyone to help everyone else, and to do so it removes all those barriers to helping everyone else. So when I saw a warrior swinging his sword and knocking his target across the room, I put down a wall of fire between them so the bandit would get burned before he got back into the fight. When I got dropped by a bandit gunman later on, a necromancer summoned otherworldly beasts while I turned into a cloud of mist and booked it around the corner. If anyone died in battle, we all ran over to them and revived them (easy as pressing the F key. You get XP for reviving people, too). Together, the five of us characters, levels from 5 to 7, pushed into this bandit cave, through the grubs, and then out on the far side.

The far side of the cave had level 10 enemies. More bandits. Alone we would have perished. We all stood around, looking at each other.

The warrior ran out in front, sword back. I stood next to the necromancer, and the engineer moved to the left side of the mouth of this cave. I don’t remember what the fifth class there was, because the battlefield became a cacophony of fireballs, gunshots, sword swings, and zombie dogs. We took out a ton of the enemy, but we didn’t take them all out. Eventually, superior numbers and our lack of knowledge of the systems dropped us. We all moved back to recent waypoints.

I never saw them again.

I was never invited to a group. No one argued over loot. No one even spoke. We just all ran into a cave together, and came out of it a well-oiled, if dumb, fighting machine. I have never played an MMO that actually wanted you to play together.

As an elementalist, I had four stances and five skills. These skills were tied to my weapon; had I switched from sceptre to staff, I would have had a completely different set of skills.

In Fire, 1 = auto-blasting little fireballs. Little damage, but it was my auto attack. 2 = a giant dragon’s tooth that dropped on the head of my target after a second or two, and anyone around him in this little circle also got nailed. 3 = a phoenix that flew out from me to a point I designated on the field, exploded, then flew back to me and healed me a bit (with another explosion). Anyone in its path got hit. 4 = a wall of fire that anyone passing over would be burned by. 5 = a fire shield that severely damaged anyone around me.

In water, 1 = three frost bolts auto-firing out and homing in on my target. 2 = a targetable circle of ice shards that froze anyone nearby. 3 = a trident thrown into the ground, damaging foes and healing friendlies in a circle around it for a few seconds. 4 = a wave of frost that rooted everyone in place for a few seconds. 5 = an ice meteor!

You get the idea.

If I were fighting me, I could dodge any and all of that. Fire-2? Run out of the white circle before the dragon’s tooth hit. Fire-3? Double tap the Q or E key, strafe left or right, to dodge roll out of the way of the phoenix. Fire-4? Just don’t run over the fire, do something ranged or find a way to bring the target to you, or teleport, or something. 5 = Double tap S to dive backwards out of the way of the fire shield before it hurt too badly. The auto-attack would hit, I believe, but not a whole lot. Fortunately, all of my skills can be cast while moving — I don’t have to stand still.

The cities are huge. Divinity’s Reach, the main human city, is probably four times the size of Stormwind from World of Warcraft. Maybe larger. Cities stretch up into the sky, and for once I felt like I’m in a world where people could actually live. There are thousands of houses along the rim of Divinity’s Reach. I can’t reach all of them, but I can reach a great deal. Throughout the city are 13 waypoints that I can teleport to, replacing the horses/gryphons/speeder bikes in other games, and at any point while playing I can just pull up the map, click on one of them, and pay a nominal fee (based on how close I am to that area) to teleport to it. If I am in the city, I can teleport to any other point of interest in the city for free.

I played ten levels of one of the five races in one of the eight classes in the game. There is a ton of content in here, that much I can already tell, and it takes the MMO limitations we’ve all known for too long and gets rid of them. I haven’t talked about how there’s no “holy trinity” of tank/heal/DPS because everyone can do everything (one of my earth skills is an armor skill, and there’s another one in the second set of skills you get as you unlock that lets you really define your character, and everyone has a healing ability). I haven’t talked about how you can in theory do all of the crafting on one character since switching disciplines doesn’t erase your progress in the one you switch away from. I haven’t talked about how I only found two of the major cities and only barely set foot in the second one. I haven’t talked about how there’s PVP because I don’t care about PVP. I haven’t talked about how you can check your mail or your auctions from anywhere in the world. I haven’t talked about the humor in the game, where my first major quest was a bar fight complete with breaking bottles over bandits’ heads and throwing chair legs at people, which I was not so good at. I haven’t talked about how the game’s acknowledgment of the teleport-anywhere travel is Mist cheekily offering up “I can run faster than a centaur!” I haven’t talked about how there aren’t any quests, there are dynamic events which change with the world and with your progress and participation. I haven’t talked about how there are karma points that let you buy rare and curious things for helping people. I haven’t talked about the other races because I barely saw them. I haven’t talked about the jaw-dropping painterly art style.

I haven’t talked about how there’s no monthly fee. But I really should, because there’s no monthly fee. Pay $60 and you get access to all of this forever. No $15/month charges popping up on your credit card, no re-buying the game three times a year. Guild Wars 2 has no monthly fee. Play it as much or as little as you want with no guilt.

Not even from your friends, because Guild Wars 2 will scale their level down to yours, yet give them rewards in line with their level, if they come back and adventure with you in low-level areas.

Guild Wars 2 wants you to play together.

For the first time in my life, I want to.

Guild Wars 2 has no official release date; just sometime in the 2012 calendar year. The preceding are comments from playing in the April 27-29 pre-order beta.

Difficulty, Obfuscation, and Galactus

I played three new games over the weekend on the Very Easy difficulty. I lost all three of them.

NBA 2K12 is a very good game, I think. I’m not actually sure. I picked up NBA 2K12 off the recommendation of a lot of people who like basketball, and based on the fact that it was a deep history mode with huge games from back when I watched basketball, when guys like Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon, and David Robinson played. I picked it up on the strength of the trailer with Project Lionheart’s “They Come Back” with all of these historical players, smooth animation, and incredible presentation. I picked it up despite the fact that I haven’t played an NBA game since Live 96 for the Sega Genesis and I haven’t watched a full basketball game since Michael Jordan drained a three-pointer over Byron Russell to win the NBA Finals. Since then, apparently he either owns or runs a team. So you can see that I’ve been gone for a while.

I lost a game by almost 40 points to the Golden State Warriors, and I was surprised to find out that the Golden State Warriors still existed. It was on Very Easy, 12-minute quarters, and I was playing as the Chicago Bulls, who are ranked quite highly. Either the game is bad or I am bad, and I’m not so full of myself that I think it’s the former. But I do have complaints, and fortunately I have this here soapbox.

NBA 2K12 does a lot of things well, but one of the things it does best is obfuscation. I don’t mind losing a game that much, but I do mind losing a game and not knowing how. I come into the NBA at a disadvantage since I don’t play much basketball, but I do want a few things to happen when I am playing a game. When I am on offense, I have a few plays I can call, with names like “Rose Get Open,” “Booker Low Post,” etc. that are obviously designed to do exactly what they are saying. That’s great, but I don’t know what those plays are doing, and I haven’t figured out a way for the game to tell me that while I’m playing a game. Madden NFL does something good here, where you can pull up the play art showing where everyone is going. I’d like this to be in all sports games for people like me, people who are interested in a game that they don’t necessarily know by heart.

One other thing that Madden does that I wish this game did — and as a huge fan of NFL 2K5 I understand how weird that is to say — is that I don’t have to actively control someone in Madden, but I do in NBA. On defense in Madden, I can select the middle linebacker, but without my input he will do middle linebacker-esque stuff, and I can take over when the ball is in the air and try to swat it down or lay a hit on the receiver or whatnot. That works. In NBA 2K12, if you have a player selected, he will do absolutely nothing on his own, meaning you have to control every movement. This is problematic when you don’t know how to defend someone on the perimeter.

I’m not asking for games to be easier, except maybe I am on the Very Easy difficulty. I am asking for games to be clearer.

I then played Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, and I don’t have as much to say here. Obfuscation is present in the command list, but mostly in that I don’t know what moves do. Deadpool’s Level 3 Super looks pretty funny, but I have no idea what it is because the game doesn’t tell me what it does. All I did was stroll forward in training mode. I’m not saying I need a super guide to everything provided free of charge, but I would like to know if a move is used as a counter or dodges fireballs or suplexes bears or whatever.

The final boss is complete bullshit, but that’s to be expected in fighting games for some reason.

The last game played was Top Spin 4, the 2K sports tennis game for the Playstation 3. I lost a three set match as Rafael Nadal to Andy Roddick, which is fine, except it was on Very Easy and I lost the first set 3-0 despite having played all of the basic tutorials. TS4 is bizarre to play, and here’s why.

Over the course of 25 years of playing games, from getting my 8-bit Nintendo at the age of 5 through today, where I play 8-bit Nintendo games on Virtual Console, I have been taught one all-encompassing thing about playing games. Buttons Do Stuff. Pressing buttons makes things happen. That’s a given, right? Not in Top Spin 4! No, in Top Spin 4 releasing buttons makes things happen.

To return a shot, you hold down a button for some time in advance of when you want to hit the ball, and then you release the button some time in advance of when you want to hit the ball. The game’s “helpful” hint system said something like “before you are halfway through your swing” you should release the button. Releasing too early OR too late means your shot is bad, meaning you will almost certainly hit out of bounds if you are trying to do anything more complicated than make contact.

Letting go of buttons sometime before you want to have a thing happen isn’t a complicated yet deep control system, it’s bad controls. When I hit a button, I expect something to happen. This game doesn’t do that, and it wants precise timing without telling you when that timing should be. It’s a surprisingly unhelpful control system with terrible communication to the player.

I don’t have time for obfuscation, which is why Top Spin 4 is being returned to Amazon, and I can use the credit from it and another game or two to get Guild Wars 2. It’s not from a paycheck, I can do that!

The Dawning Of A New Era (or something like that)

Blame “Baba Yetu” for this idea, because it’s entirely too inspirational to start the day.

I turned thirty last week. It’s a big, scary, round number, the kind of age that comes with raised insurance premiums, midlife crises, and then raised insurance premiums for the car purchased to combat the midlife crisis. I spent my birthday money, a portion of my tax return, and the overall present roundup on the kind of video game haul my younger self would be salivating over: a Playstation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, and about seven games. This could be a sign that I am not taking thirty well, except this is basically how I treat any money I come into after filling out the savings account, and I did so here, too. I’m always like this.

That ridiculous influx of new video games may make this next proclamation fall a little flat, but it’s still one I’m holding to. I will not purchase another video game or piece of DLC this year with money I have earned from a paycheck. There is plenty of stuff I want this year; Gungnir and Growlanser are looming threats this summer for my all-time favorite portable system, the PSP, and then there’s Assassin’s Creed 3 and Bioshock Infinite this October, not to mention Guild Wars 2 if that should come out this year. I want all of these video games, and since E3 hasn’t happened one can only imagine what I will come out of that conference desperate to own.

But if I want them, I have to earn it. And to earn them, I have to publish something. I’m about ninety-five percent certain I’m going to take Popular Anarchy the self-publishing route, but I don’t know a whole lot about that. So I’m going to see about publishing a few things between now and then; a few short stories, perhaps another genre under a pen name, whatever else comes to mind. I’m going to learn more about self-publishing in the process, and I’m going to document that here to shamelessly promote whatever it is that I write.

Most every writer shares a dream, to be able to support themselves and their family on their writing. I’ve got that dream, but I also know that’s a long ways off and to get there I have to, y’know, do something. This gets that started, and if my writing can at least support my hobby, I’ll be happy.

Anyway, I’ve got work to do. If I’m going to get to play these games, I’ve got words to put down on paper. Soon as I stop watching these Guild Wars 2 preview videos…

 

Existentialism On Raid Night

(Editor’s note: While digging for a particular game reference in my Google Documents, I found a post I made for my last ill-fated blog attempt. I wrote this in January 2009, and feel it’s one of my better random thoughts. Since I’m closing down my past life, I wanted to replicate it here.)

I never thought that a World of Warcraft character ability could make me sad.

Last night Meghan and I fired up Plax and Shayara again, and I ran out of arrows somewhere in the Howling Fjord, so we went back to Valgarde Port to sail to Menethil so I could hit the auction house and get more materials for my arrow maker boxes. After I dive into the water for Cobalt (something I’ve done about six times so far, including the times I leap off the boat and delay my trip by five minutes so I can get two things of ore), I head back to the dock while she works on some smithing while we wait.

“Let me know when the boat comes so I don’t miss it.”

“I’ll do better than that — I’ll scan for it… from above!”

My favorite Hunter ability is Eagle Eye. It has value, like turning on a tracking ability and scanning for quest NPCs or ore veins, but I mostly use it to see what the world looks like from odd angles. This time, my idea was to see if I could use it to see from the top of Utgarde Keep, right at the tip of one of the spires.

Lo and behold, it works. And I’m speechless.

You can see the fields stretching out on all sides. I’m too far away to see people, so it’s a beautiful landscape shot, as if untouched by human hands. North of me I can see the river break into three small waterfalls, gently carressing a tiny island. To the east is a village built into the side of a cliff, and I imagine what it must have been like before anyone else came here. Below me is the port butting up against the vrykul village, but from here it’s peaceful and quiet. Far to the east I see nothing but green fields, and far to the west I see the edges of the a forest, and I know Westguard Keep is nearby.

The boat pulls into view, and I watch as it lazily drifts into a cave. From my vantage point it’s no bigger than a toy. It is the only movement I see — or at least it almost is, as suddenly to the west I can see something moving in the field. It’s probably a mile away from me.

It’s the Storm Giant.

I watch him walk to the edge of the cliff and look out over the valley, and I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he thinking like I am? Does he remember when this place was pristine, untouched by human hands? Is he reminiscing of peaceful times? Or is he thinking darker thoughts as the Alliance boat arrives? What does he think of the intruders? The invaders? For really, isn’t that what we are here?

I watch him watching the boat for a long time, and then Eagle Eye wears off, and I’m back on the dock, surrounded by soldiers and builders and sailors and travelers and the cacophony of the port.

***

I don’t play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past anymore because of that feeling. The third Light World crystal takes you to the top of Death Mountain, and I’d battled up there, sword and shield in hand, ready to do battle with Ganon’s minions and save Princess Zelda. And then I came to the bridge.

The view below the bridge was obscured by thick cloud cover, but you could see a forest in the gaps where there were no clouds. And I sat on the bridge for a long time, looking down at the forest. There were little clearings here and there, areas of light green peeking out through the dark green of the expansive forest.

I studied it. It didn’t look like the Lost Woods, not how I knew them. These were different trees, all faint and tiny from this elevation. This was a different forest.

And I would never go there.

It had to be full of creatures, animals both big and small. I imagined villages, kindly shopkeepers, woodcutters, fairies hidden inside tiny coves, chickens bustling about a pen, a thousand little Kakariko Villages down in that great forest.

And I would never see them.

I kept on through the game, but I found myself climbing Death Mountain again and again to look out over that forest and think about what could have been.

A throwaway background graphic in a 16-bit adventure game, and it captivated me.

***

We return to Valgarde after I refilled my quiver, and I use Eagle Eye again, then call Meghan over to see how impressive the view was. I mention my Link to the Past sadness, and she points out that I’d go to all these places — unlike Link to the Past, in Northrend I could go to everywhere that I saw. This is true. Once I get Mayday de-iced for flying in Northrend, I can go everywhere that I see in the game. It’s amazing freedom.

But still I linger at the top of the Keep, watching the peaceful hills, because I know I’ll never see it like this again.

The west has a Forsaken village, where they’re preparing a plague. The east has iron dwarves unearthing dark relics and vrykul waging an all-out war with the invading Alliance. Below me, the port is under constant siege from the Dragonflayer tribe. The north holds Skorn, more vrykul serving the Lich King. Even further west has Westguard Keep, an ever-burning grove of trees, and a mine where the miners have gone mad from forces unknowable.

Everywhere I go, there will be conflict. Everywhere I go, there will be pain, sorrow, suffering, and madness. I’ll see people die that should have lived. I’ll see atrocities committed by every and all races. It will be all around me, surrounding me, overwhelming me, consuming me.

I see the Storm Giant again, far to the west, this time peering south, and I wonder if he’s watching the boats approaching from the mainlands. I wonder what he’s thinking, again. I wonder if he thinks he sees his death coming on those boats.

Later that day we ride past the Storm Giant on our way back from Shield Hill on our way to Westguard Keep. He’s on the western cliff, facing out over the water, looking into the Dragonblight. I slow to a stop and watch him from far away. I don’t know what he’s seeing; I haven’t been into the Dragonblight yet. I know I’ll be there soon, though, and I’m sure I’ll be fighting the whole way. Everywhere he’s seeing now, I’ll go to, undoubtedly righting wrongs and shooting and stabbing and killing and slaying and adding bit by bit to the cacophony that this land has become.

I watch him watching, for another moment, and then I spur my nightsaber on and ride past him, to give him his privacy. He doesn’t turn away from the view, and soon we are out of each other’s sight.

I envy him, I think to myself as I ride off to turn in proof of my deeds putting spirits to rest. He only sees it like I did from the Keep – peaceful, undisturbed, serene. For him, it’ll never change.

I really envy him.

I wish I could see it like that forever.