Monthly Archives: December 2014

Announcement – Tis the end….

… of this year’s posting.  See you next year!

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Opinion – The Eternal Quest to Find Meaning In Video Games

Red Pill?  Blue Pill?  Asprin?

I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition recently and the game presented me with a choice.  The game played the choice up as a major event and wanted me to know just how important this choice was, but, in the end, it had no effect on the universe outside of the game.  No one died, nothing was destroyed, and the Earth continued its persistent orbit around the Sun.  The choice didn’t seem to matter at all.  So, when it comes to video game choices, who cares?

…Well, we do.  Gamers, that is.  We agonize over decisions, curse life when something doesn’t go as planned, and reload our saves until we get the optimal result.  What hasn’t been answered is why we care and how games are able to turn a totally innocuous environment without meat world impact and create scenarios that will leave us emotionally drained.  For that, we should look at why we care about games and investigate the very real consequences of a bad choice.

Games don’t just run lines of code, they build worlds.  Whether it is a highly scripted world of a linear RPG or a more open canvas like a 4X turn based strategy, a good game will give the player an evolving sense of history around whatever is happening on screen.   As the player plays, they build a narrative that has meaning for them, even if that narrative has little effect outside of their computer.  The narrative is a collection of scripted game events (Bill died!  WHY?!) and player choices (Which city should I pillage?   Hmmmm…).  When a game asks the player to make a choice, it is asking the player’s input on a story they care about with an outcome that is likely uncertain and whose results are now on the player.  The responsibility for the narrative and, in some small way, the characters in the story are in the player’s hands.  Players may not feel like they’re saving the galaxy or establishing a mighty empire, but they do want to see their story unfold well as a result of their actions.  Choices matter because players want their story to turn out well.

The above reasoning looks at the conceptual results of game choice, but there is also a real world cost.  Video games take time.  Going through the entire narrative arch of the Mass Effect series takes about 90 hours.  Getting through one of these games is an achievement and a testament to the devotion of the player who often has other priorities they need to get to.  Making the “wrong” choice can result in the player having to make another choice:  a) to continue on without a character/at a massive disadvantage/having cause total calamity, or b) to start again and getting it right.  Neither choice is desirable.  Continuing to play through a 90 hour epic having lost a key character in hour 30 is painful.  It’s a loss that is felt every time that character would have been present and in the stories shared with friends who kept them around.  In some games, that poor choice can be the end of a game run leaving the player with the knowledge that they could have kept going if they had gone a different way.  Of course, the player could start again from either the beginning or a saved game, but that comes with its own costs.  Starting from the beginning means replaying old content while already knowing what the result will be.  It’s dull, repetitive, and no fun.  A replay can also take a long time depending on how long the last playthrough went.  Starting from an earlier save still means playing old content, just less of it.  More importantly, it robs the tension of a difficult choice.  It’s hard for a player to be sucked into the story of a game when they are constantly restarting whenever things don’t go their way.

Choices in video games matter, if only on the individual level.  They effect the story that the player is invested in.  On the other hand, choices that don’t involve aspects of the game the player cares about are generally inconsequential.  For a choice to matter, the player must desire a positive outcome and fear the chance that it might not happen.  When those two conditions come together, video games are a hell of a lot of fun.

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Opinion – Yoink!

I’ll take that.

Games steal.  Development often relies on the iterative improvement of previous concepts previously stolen by an earlier set of developers.  This is largely a good thing as it allows a large groups of individuals to enhance an idea beyond what the originator could do.  It allows leads to bland repetition of the same game mechanic, but what are you going to do?  Theft happens in all aspects of gaming, but this article is devoted to stealing in the world of Dragon Age.  The fantastic worldbuilding of this series can’t hide the fact that much of what we see has been done before.  Fortunately, Dragon Age does it well.

Tolkien

What it steals:  This is the obvious one.  DA’s primary races are elves, dwarves, and men who unite to defeat an encroaching army of evil, orc-looking Darkspawn.  The races largely behave like their Tolkien brethren with the elves possessing magic and a tie with nature, the dwarves dwelling in the mountains with their famed mining skills, and men covering the world in divided empires.  DA has magic, quests, artifacts of power, and enough Medieval Times props to reenact the year 1066.  Welcome back J.R.

What it changes:  DA narrows the focus of its fantasy to the lives of common individuals over the grand sweeping history of Tolkien.  There’s a greater focus on the reality of society and those living within it.  Perhaps the greatest example of this is the elves.  DA’s elves have fallen since a glorious earlier age and now reside on the lowest rung of human society.  They suffer systemic discrimination and live in ghettos.  Tolkien talked about mistrust between his various races, but DA takes the player down to the individual level to see that kind of hatred and the effect it has.  This is but one example of DA forgoing major battles in favor of individual stories.

Warhammer – The Warp

What it steals:  In DA, magic comes from The Fade.  The Fade is an ever changing realm of demons who are manifestations of emotion.  Wizards tap into The Fade and may traverse it, but are also vulnerable to possession and can return to the material world inhabited by demons.  Sound familiar?  It should.  The Warhammer universe uses a very similar concept called The Warp.  The Warp is the source of psychic energy for Warhammer’s magicians and represents great power and great vulnerability.

What it changes:  DA makes one big change.  Whereas The Warp has malevolent overdemons called gods, The Fade lacks any kind of structure or coordination.  As a result, The Fade is more like an unclaimed wilderness instead of the hostile territory that is The Warp.  This demotes the creatures of The Fade from a genuine enemy to wild beasts and so removes The Fade as the primary foe, unlike the gods of The Warp.  That being said, The Fade is still dangerous and the question of what to do with those with a connection to The Fade remains a real one.

Medieval Europe

What it steals:  The once mighty Tevinter Imperium (the Roman Empire) ruled over all of Thedas (Europe).  After several internal rebellions and the coming of the Darkspawn (Huns), the Tevinter Imperium (the Roman Empire) fractured resulting in a rump state (The Byzantine Empire) and the rise of the formerly conquered nations of Orlais (France), Antiva (Spain), and Fereldan (England).  Concurrently, Andraste (Jesus) rose in the name of the Maker (Christian god) to overthrow the old Tevinter pantheon (Greek gods).  Andraste (Jesus) was ultimately killed by the betrayal of her husband (Judas), but the religion she founded (Christianity) spread across Thedas (Europe).  The hierarchy of said religion, the Chantry fractured between the Tevinter Imperium’s Black Divine (Orthodox) and the successor kingdoms’ White Divine (Roman Catholic).  The events of DA occur during the invasion of the Qunari (Muslims) who seek to spread the dictates of the Qun (Koran) across the world.

What it changes:  Not a lot.  The history of DA and medieval Europe match up closely.  The only real difference of note is the effect of magic.  While the Byzantine Empire and Western Europe certainly had their philosophical differences, they never saw such a fundamental societal split like how the Tevinter Imperium and the rest of Thedas treat magic.  The result is the other difference of note.  Whereas the successor states of Europe sought to recreate the Roman Empire, the successor states of Tevinter seek to expunge its influence.

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Opinion – Your Graphics Don’t Impress Me

Selling an old sweater with amazing lens flare.

I’m walking through a dungeon of shadows in Paper Sorcerer.  Every line, every detail is a reflection of an unseen light.  The ambient noise creates a feeling of background dread while the claustrophobic space both pushes me forward and draws me back.  The mood is haunting and strange, yet it draws me in to its mystery.  The biggest question:  Why the hell does a game with four colors and designed by one guy feel and look better than blockbusters like Destiny or Call of Duty?

Game graphics can be broken down into two major categories: technical capacity and aesthetic.  Technical capacity is the raw resources available to the developers to create the visuals for a game.  Not only does that include the processing power of the console or PC on which the game is played, but it also includes the number of programmers, time available, and money devoted to graphics.  With the appropriate amount of technical capacity, developers can create ultra-detailed worlds with photo-realistic visuals.  Destiny or Call of Duty are perfect examples of games with high technical capacity.  Aesthetic, on the other hand, is the overarching design strategy of the visuals.  Aesthetic is less concerned about what things could look like and more concerned about what they should look like.  The aesthetic is the overarching visual strategy that makes the graphics look cohesive.  As an example of this, look at the Borderlands series or the aforementioned Paper Sorcerer.  In an ideal world, a clever aesthetic is backed by a sufficient amount of technical capacity to realize the strategy.

Getting back to the original question, the reason a small game like Paper Sorcerer has better visuals than Destiny is that Paper Sorcerer had both a strong aesthetic and the technical capacity to achieve it whereas Destiny had uses its nearly unlimited technical capacity but no without aesthetic direction.  Consider Destiny’s levels: the game has washed out deserts, futuristic temples, and alien landscapes; however, nothing unites these disparate images and nothing makes them stand out.  They are the blandest versions of these concepts and lack any originality of their own.  Take an image from Paper Sorcerer and you know it’s from that game.  Take an image from Destiny and it could serve any other big budget shooter with little modification.  Now, Destiny is certainly one of the most technically capable depictions of these environments.  Plants fluttering in the breeze, wrecked cars dotting the landscape, and the massive draw distance (the area the player can see before the game stops showing graphics) are all testaments to the considerable resources that Destiny developer Bungie and the publisher Activision put into the game.  The contrast between the great technical detail and poor aesthetic means these examples are also monuments to poor graphics design.

Though not as much as it once did, the big budget parts of the games industry remains tied to the notion that better graphics requires technically strong graphics.  This is because big developers: (1) have the resources to invest and (2) the notion helps cover up their own weaknesses in innovation.  When a publisher wants a new game every year, it’s easier to add more detail and optimize the graphics engine than go through the difficult process of developing new ideas.  We also see this thinking in the release of new consoles that tout amazing graphics as a selling point as if the technical capacity of their older system were outdated.  In the end, great graphics don’t come from accurately modeling mustache hairs or lovingly crafting bland landscapes, but from a well-executed and exciting new view of a world. They create a feeling of wonder through concepts and only with details that serve those concepts.  When the big developers marry aesthetic with their considerable technical capacity, I think we’ll see the best of both worlds.

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