Monthly Archives: February 2014

Opinion – Adding depth to characters

How to make annoying characters less annoying

If there is one area that video games dominate the cultural landscape, it is the creation of flat, heroic characters whose story arc is effectively “was heroic and weak, now is heroic and strong with smoldering rage.”  I’ve already mentioned this in the form of Aveline de Grandpre, but it could easily apply to any other lead in a large number of main franchises.  What is most surprising is how easy it is to mitigate some of the damage of this archetype.  Giving characters range is not all that difficult, particularly given the low base from which most video games start.

The perfect example of this is the four main leads of Bravely Default.  This is a fantastic JRPG that I probably won’t review but that you should definitely play.  Seriously, it’s good stuff.  That being said, the characters are hardly original.  The game opens with Tiz and Agnes who represent the “young heroic lad who does his best” and “young heroic lass who doubts herself” character types that dominate the JRPG landscape.  These characters have been done to death, yet Bravely Default makes them tolerable.  It does so through the introduction of Edea and Ringabel who, combined, bring the only spark of personality to the group.  When I say spark, it really is just a tiny bit.  Both characters are hopelessly noble, but they each have a trait that gives them something extra.  Edea is headstrong while Ringabel is a horndog.  Of such things, dreams are made.

The traits I’ve cited aren’t a lot, but even these small additions improves the other characters.  Through Edea and Ringabel acting out their one trait, Tiz and Agnes are forced to react giving them a greater feeling of depth.  When Ringabel pushes Agnes to wear a skimpy outfit to win a beauty contest, Agnes’s nobility becomes prudishness.  When Edea tries to romantically link Tiz and Agnes, Tiz becomes a naïve innocent.  This helps humanize them and gives them characteristics that the player can emphasize with.  Your average gamer will never know the pain of losing their home or bravely soldiering on after great tragedy, but they can certainly relate to pushy friends and awkward romance.  Kept in their own world, Tiz and Agnes would remain isolated and bland.  Only when they interact with deeper characters do they develop actual relatable traits.

This is still not ideal.  The fact that I’m pushing for a semblance of humanity rather than two or, *gasp*, three actual human characteristics shows how far video games have to go.  When character development is done right, it shines.  Persona 3 & 4 are perfect examples of this.  Most of the characters, including the supporting cast, are multidimensional with relatable problems.  Highlights include a child whose parents are divorcing, a young man facing death, and a business mogul looking to leave a legacy.  Note that these are actual problems held by actual people who play these games.  If Bravely Default and other video games are looking to add depth to their characters, this is a good place to start.

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Review – Assassin’s Creed Liberation – PC

A look back at how far we’ve come.

The Assassin’s Creed series is difficult to measure.  The yearly incremental improvements mean that the previous innovations are never more than a year away lending a feeling of familiarity to even to upgrades.  Tiny decisions with significant improvements to gameplay are lost because they rarely substantially change the game and are soon absorbed into the collection of traits that are “Assassin’s Creed.”  Fortunately, and sadly, the rerelease of the PS Vita exclusive Assassin’s Creed Liberation shows us the welcome changes the series has made in the past few years.

AC Liberation is stylistically and narratively an extension of Assassin’s Creed 3.  It features a flatly heroic protagonist, running along the tree branches, and an 18th century time period.  Furthermore, it contains the series staples of stabbing things, collecting things, and stabbing things so you can collect then collect them.  AC is nothing if not consistent.  What it doesn’t contain is the small innovations added in the fourth iteration of the main series.  Edward Kenway benefits from fast travel, automatically revealed collectibles, and a refined economy feeding into useful upgrades.  These may seem like small additions, but their non-appearance feels like something major is missing. The first time you have to run 300 meters over the territory you’ve just covered, you’ll wish the synchronization points contained the 18th century Caribbean’s teleportation devices.  These tiny absences deny the game a sense of flow that comes naturally to its successor and would have been totally unnoticeable had I not played AC 4. 

AC Liberation does introduce a few new ideas.  Aveline dons different costumes giving her powers commiserate to the social role she inhabits.  As an assassin, Aveline can run, jump, and brutally murder in line with her digital and historic predecessors.  As a lady, Aveline loses the ability to run in favor of being able to access certain areas, experience reduced notoriety, and charm lovely gentlemen to fight for her.  As a slave, Aveline blends in with a different crowd, can free run like the assassin, but collects notoriety much quicker for strange (assassin) behavior.  The system is interesting, but largely pointless.  The assassin guise gets the most use both throughout the story and when exploring the world.  The other two costumes are largely foisted on the player without regard for their interest in actually using them.  This feels like a missed opportunity where players could have planned assassinations using a combination of costumes rather than having Ubisoft pick out what pretty outfit you’ll wear to school.  Given the lack of ambition that plagues this game, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Another series staple is the inclusion of a bland protagonist in the form of Aveline de Grandpre.  Born of a slave mother and a merchant father, Aveline has the kind of mixed-race heritage that probably should matter in 18th century slave owning Louisiana, but doesn’t.  Instead, she is surrounded by a bubble of tolerant folk all working to stop the slavers who hate puppies and sunshine.  The story largely lacks tension or character worthy of the term resulting in no real sense of development or interest.  Everyone is a flat, two-adjective shard of a character who’s every interaction could be predicted from their first cutscene.  The only sense of greater character depth belongs to Agate, Aveline’s mentor, who goes emo and writes bad poetry somewhere in the third act.  The game attempts to make this feel like a major plot point, but handles the transition so nonsensically that it falls completely flat.

So is AC Liberation worth buying?  That depends.  This is more Assassin’s Creed.  There are tons of things to collect, a solid world to explore, and plenty of reasons to kill the badness.  It’s all competently arranged and the Vita heritage doesn’t appear to have hurt the graphics overmuch.  AC Liberation is capable of satisfying your Assassin’s Creed urge if you have one.  If not, wait till next year.

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Review – Hearthstone Beta – PC

Card addiction beta

It’s like Magic the Gathering, but quicker and better adapted for an online environment.

For a lot of you, that’s all you need to know.  For the rest, Hearthstone is a collectible card game based on the universe of Blizzard’s Warcraft.  The game is wrapped in an online candy coating that makes playing easy and buying cards even easier.  It lures you in with a technically free-to-play premise, and keeps you there with a self referencing environment.  In short, it’s addictive, it’s fun, and it’s going to leave you destitute.

The basic premise is simple:  Two players draw cards that they use to damage their opponent.  The cards are either spells (one use cards that have a wide variety of effects) or creatures (cards that stay on the board and can deal damage the opponent or other creatures each turn).  Players wail away at their opponents through a wide variety of strategies and card combinations until their opponent’s life total is zero.  As anyone who has played a collectible card game knows, the depth is in the variety of effects that the cards provide.  While Hearthstone Beta’s depth doesn’t rival older games, like the aforementioned Magic the Gathering, it still has plenty of interesting card combinations on offer to entice experienced players.  Hearthstone introduces one truly unique idea in the form of heroes.  When creating decks, players must choose a hero who has a special ability and access to unique cards.  Each hero lends themselves towards different strategies allowing many different styles of play.  Players have the opportunity to experience each hero for free to determine which one best fits them.

The gameplay of Hearthstone Beta is functional and fun, but it doesn’t explain the popularity of the game.  For that, you need to look to the brilliant online implementation that makes playing simple and easy.  It begins with the tutorial that is fast, interactive, and rewarding.  Hearthstone Beta walks you through several show matches before guiding you towards games against AI, games against players, and ranked matches.  Along the way, it grants you in-game currency for winning matches and achieving daily goals.  Players may then spend the currency for new packs that provide cards for decks.  They may also spend real money.  Extraneous cards can be destroyed for another currency called “dust” which can be exchanged for specific cards.  The end result is a constant incentive to keep playing to earn more packs and purchase better cards to earn more rewards.  It’s a vicious and compelling cycle.

Hearthstone Beta may be good at keeping you playing, but it’s not without its faults.  In particular, the free-to-play promise is undermined by the reality of a subtle pay-to-win mechanic.  While you could grind for the necessary cards, the process takes too much time.  It’s hard to get to a competitive level with a pack a day (assuming dedicated daily play).  For most players, they’re going to want to treat this like a $30 – $40 dollar game.  That should buy you enough cards to put together some competitive decks.  Even then, it’s extremely disheartening to watch your finely tuned strategy wrecked by Mr. Moneybags and his wad of legendary cards.

Hearthstone Beta is an extremely refined experience.  It establishes a vicious cycle of play and reward that will both encourage players to keep playing and keep buying.  Players who fall easily into the loot trap should be warned: this game will clear you out.  For all others, Hearthstone Beta is a deep and rewarding experience that will return to you what you put in.  Sit down, play, and enjoy the ride.

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Opinion – The future of female characters

The future is now

There has been considerable debate about the role and portrayal of women in video games.  Women are rarely the player controlled protagonist and often fill roles designed to spur on the (usually) male lead rather than represent characters of their own with their own story arcs.  Recently, the highlighting of the problem has encouraged developers to provide meatier roles for women with mixed results.  What hasn’t been discussed is what these new female characters will look like in the future.  To that end, I introduce you to what I think is an example of what will be the most common female archetype: Aveline de Grandpre.

Protagonist of Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Aveline dons the cowl of an assassin to kill slavers and fight Templars in 18th century Louisiana.  Using her training, costumes, and slave heritage, Aveline opposes injustice with all the nobility that we have come to expect from the traditional male leads in video games.  She’s clever, passionate, and strong.  She also possess the rather boring traits of those heroes in that she never faces moral conflict and her development can be characterized as young heroine to slightly older heroine.  This is what makes her the female lead of the future.  Aveline is a gender-swapped example of the flat male lead that dominates the current landscape.  The future of women in games is not a bold exploration of the unique roles and situations that women face, but the application of existing archetypes to women.

The reason for this is simple: archetypes are easy.  The average game works hard to avoid offensive leads, but often does very little to make them compelling.  Pick an Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, or Final Fantasy and you’ll find them chock full of good-hearted souls whose greatest character flaws are easily overshadowed by their pursuit of justice.  While some of these characters have additional depth, most are designed to just be “good.”  Not only are their personalities on the side of the angels, but the situations they’re placed in allow them to easily fulfill the role of heroes.  This allows the player to engage in a power fantasy without getting into the messy bits of human frailty.  Aveline, and many of her successors, will likely fill this role.  Changing a character from male to female does not make adding depth any easier.  In short, the future of women in video games is pretty much the future of men in video games.

That’s not to say there won’t be some variations.  The Assassin’s Creed series is a work of historical fiction and so must at least attempt to adhere to some historical conventions.  Women were treated differently in the past and so will lend themselves to different roles and gameplay.  The same can be said of existing cultures and imagined worlds.  Assassin’s Creed Liberation’s costume/class swap is a perfect example of this.  Aveline fills multiple social roles in the setting and these roles each offer unique styles of gameplay.  Still, the exploration of different game mechanics does make complex characters any easier.  We should expect that heroic characters with minor flaws will dominate video games and that this trend will not exclude women.

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