Deconstruction, the Player, and the Played pt. 3: Comparisons

Having talked about The Beginner’s Guide and The Magic Circle individually, I want to talk about them in conjunction. In many ways these games are synchronous, but also quite disparate.

I don’t really like being so harsh on The Beginner’s Guide, partly because it did move me when I played it. I don’t want to criticize games that function as “walking simulators,” because observation itself can be an interesting mechanic, and I don’t want to imply that the game didn’t have an effect on me, because it did. But I can’t really tell where the Beginner’s Guide intended to go because it gets so wrapped up in itself. The game pulls out its revelation much too late, with too little chance to digest or reflect. The game becomes a trap: on the one hand, to relate and interpret based off of the designer’s intent seems to go against the message of the game; on the other hand, playing the game without interpretation or interaction with the characters seems nihilistic.

The Magic Circle has a few traps too, but they exist on a more aesthetic & mechanical  (rather than ideological) level. In The Magic Circle you are supposedly playing a broken game full of glitches and bugs. To some degree this lets the designers save face with shortcuts and other potential bugs: if the player finds a bug, or something doesn’t interact quite how it is supposed too, then it is entirely appropriate within the game world. But to assume that this produces true laziness on the part of the developers is a misunderstanding: just check the still-active update log.

This is what resonates with me: The Magic Circle seems to be willing to give us – the player/critic – a solution to the stagnancy and frustration of the games industry. The Beginner’s Guide just leaves us with a nervous breakdown. This is the problem: while The Magic Circle, with all its comedic bluster and snark, may seem like a lazier or more superficial game when compared to the quiet intensity of The Beginner’s Guide, I actually think that The Magic Circle does a superior job of commenting on the interactions of developers and fans. As cliché as it might seem, I am reminded of the apocryphal T. Roosevelt “quote”: “complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.” Perhaps that’s unfair to Davey Wreden, but after the emotional sting of  The Beginner’s Guide wears off, and I’m left to think about the game with a clear head, it occurs to me that there’s nothing I can relate to. I mean really relate to. Sure, I’ve felt creative frustrations, and I’ve felt like people misinterpret my work, but there’s nothing I can really do about that. There’s only so far you can go trying to justify a piece of art, but plenty you can do to explain art. It’s like it never occurred to The Beginner’s Guide that someone could just shrug and keep going on as they were before. It demands revelation but only points out symptoms of the problem. The Magic Circle’s solution is, perhaps, far-fetched. Not everyone will be able to just make a game, but it is still a solution and it is a solution that is empowering.

I still wont say that The Beginner’s Guide is a bad game, but I think it thinks too highly of itself for it’s authenticity and honesty. It tries to add depth, but it doesn’t seem to hold up under close scrutiny. It sticks with me, but it doesn’t really change me. If anything, I walked away feeling more certain of my methods of interpretation and analysis.

The Magic Circle is overly ambitious, short, and a bit too snide sometimes, but it’s message is perhaps even more honest than The Beginner’s Guide because it speaks candidly. It doesn’t get wrapped up in its own ambiguities and narrative deconstructions. It has more faith in the player as a person and as a member of the gaming community.

Both of these games have traps, but, all things considered, I like the trap of The Magic Circle a whole lot more. At least in that trap, I can change the game for myself.

Cheers,

-PH

Deconstruction, the Player, and the Played Pt. 2: “The Magic Circle”

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[SPOILERS FOR THE MAGIC CIRCLE MAY BE FOUND BELOW!]

Last time in this pseudo-series I talked about The Beginner’s Guide and how I felt it’s personal nature and sincerity worked against it on the whole; it’s narration trapping the player into an ambiguity that robs them of a real connection to the game. After playing the game, I looked into some reviews to see if there were any revelations or theories that would adjust my interpretation of the work. There wasn’t a lot that changed my mind, but I did find a (similarly critical) review by Bob Mackey on USGamer where he compared it to another game I’d never heard of:

“The recent—and woefully underappreciated—The Magic Circle also gives players a tour of unfinished games by a frustrated creator, but works legitimately interesting and fun play into this concept, all while looking at the creative process from many different angles (and without committing to a single interpretation).”

I looked up a bit about the game, and was intrigued by the concept of a game satire more focused on the game industry and the culture of games than, say, just making fun of overused mechanics. Admittedly, I’m not someone with first-hand experience of the industry, and my indie efforts to make games are mainly produced for my own sake with little input from anyone else, but as a person with interest in game design and (just a little tiny bit of) experience making games on their own, The Magic Circle seemed like a fascinating concept.

It took me a little while to finally get Magic Circle, it’s about $20 on Steam which isn’t a bad price, but I knew it was supposed to be short. Finally, I got it over the winter break at a discount to play it. I beat it in one sitting. Then I played it again.

In the universe of The Magic Circle there was another (fictional) game known by the same name, a text adventure, that was ground breaking for its era. Now, thirty years later, the series creator Ishmael “Ish” Guilder is struggling to finish the sequel he has promised for years. Ishmael is a writer, a good writer, but also a stubborn one, and he is unable to rewrite or revise his story to accommodate the gameplay. On the other hand, we have Maze Evelyn, an ex-professional gamer and lead developer. Maze has been butting heads with Ish for so long that she is actually trying to get fired (but can’t quit because Ish owns the rights to her name & professional identity as a gamer). In the middle is Coda, an ardent Magic Circle fan promoted to designer, who is plotting to finish the game no matter the cost.

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Then there’s you: a QA tester stuck in a glitchy, half-finished game world where the developers can’t even agree whether you should even be allowed to interact with the world.

While you’re trapped in this development limbo, you are approached by a mysterious presence: an NPC from a previous iteration of The Magic Circle that gained sentience and is tired of laying around. This AI (the “Old Pro”) gives you the ability to ‘re-program’ parts of the game, mixing and matching the characteristics of  creatures and objects in the game. Your goal: take down one of the “Sky Bastards” (the in-game avatars for the developers), take control of the game … and that’s it. That’s the goal. How you accomplish that goal is up to you the player, but you have free reign to explore the game world until you come up some means of doing this. There’s plenty to discover in the game: audio logs of the developers talking, different creatures, old artifacts from previous versions of the game, and even a whole secret storyline to reward super nosy players.

There have been plenty of games that play with the nature of control, I’ve already talked about some of them on here, but what makes The Magic Circle so interesting is that you make the game play for you. The only ability you, the player, has in the game (aside from movement & jumping) is the ability to re-write parts of the game. You can zap a terrible beast, and take its legs, and put those legs onto a rock. You can take a mushroom, and rewrite it to be your ally. This mostly comes into play to solve puzzles, and do some combat, but this is a mechanic that gives you, simultaneously, very limited and almost unlimited control. On the one hand, you have very little direct control, you can’t even fight on your own. On the other hand, you have plenty of influence over things around you. The Magic Circle is a game that blends elements of game play with game design and development (this is especially clear at the end, which is one thing I wont spoil because it’s too good for that), and it does it in a way that works. Of course, The Magic Circle is a satire of game development, not a documentary or a how-to. Several members of development team at Question had previously worked on triple-A games like Bioshock and Dishonored. The experience is obvious. And the frustration is obvious too. Whether that frustration is more directed at the developers or the players is a little more uncertain.

On the one hand, the developers Ish, and Maze are both too pretentious and headstrong to really consider what the players want. On the other hand, Coda and the fans let their desires for a new game eclipse their lack of skill or consideration. And while Ish’s final speech has self-loathing in spades, I can’t help but feel, as a player, like he’s got some good points.

Consumers consume lazy games: give us the same violence, the same hero’s journeys, the same mechanics, and we’ll buy it. Even if we complain we’ll buy it. Just so long there are enough gimmicks or some top-of-the-line graphics we’ll just get it anyway. And designers make lazy games. Not only that, producers demand lazy games. Games that are grinding to design, and grinding to play. We’re turning games into chores.

Where did this cycle begin? With players or with designers? I’m not sure that Magic Circle can answer that, but it is righteously angry.

The Magic Circle has its flaws. It’s definitely too short – there’s only really one level with one mechanic, which is a little disappointing. And for all the incentives to explore it can be kind of boring to scour the map for documents when there’s no mechanical reward. But at least it is willing to really be angry, and to be funny, and to ask questions, and (most rare of all) to offer a solution.

Make a game.

We, as players, need to start making games. Games that mean something to us. It isn’t easy. Like any task worth doing it takes time to learn, and it takes time to develop, but it is worth doing. And it is necessary if we want things to be better, both in and out of the industry.

Because, to use the words of the old pro, “there’s a zillion to one chance that maybe now fun ain’t enough.”

Cheers,

-PH

Deconstruction, the Player, and the Played, Part One: “The Beginner’s Guide”

[Warning: Spoilers for The Beginner’s Guide may be found below]

It seems we have entered into a golden age of deconstuctive, postmodern, indie games within the last three or four years. In 2013 we were given The Stanley Parable and the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, each eschewing traditional gameplay for quirky narrative exploration and experimentation. In 2015 we got Undertale, and, well, I’ve already talked enough about that, and in 2016 we got the slightly less serious, but still impressive Pony Island. This is, of course, only a taste of what we’ve been given, and completely overlooks the abundance of experimental online games and demos that are made available for free.

There’s plenty that can be said about any of these games, but for this post I’m going to be focusing on two games that came out in 2015: Davey Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide and Question’s The Magic Circle. At the heart of both these games are questions about creativity, audience-creator/designer-player relationships, and what games do for us personally. They both go about it in ways that are similar, but also entirely different, with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Before I begin talking about these games in relation to each other I’m going to be talking about them individually. I’ll start with Beginner’s Guide because I played it first and because playing it led me to play Magic Circle.

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What I enjoy the most about The Beginner’s Guide is its use of aesthetic. Or, to borrow a term from my college drama class, it’s “formal qualities.” Formal qualities, put simply, are the choices that build aesthetic. In a script there might be a line that says “[character] sits down in a chair onstage.” Simple enough. But there are a multitude of choices present in this simple instruction that drastically change what we see and understand about the world this action is taking place in. What kind of chair is it? Rocking chair, stool, armchair, deck? How is the character sitting? Legs crossed, hunched over, straight? Does it take effort for them to sit? Are they relieved? Do they say anything before, during, or after this action? Where is the action taking place in relation to the audience? Does everyone sit this way, or is this character unusual? With one simple instruction we find a multitude of worlds. The Beginner’s Guide revels in its formal qualities. It builds levels and scenes that are absorbing, powerful, puzzling, and disturbing. It brings together disparate elements into a whole. As theatermaker Robert Wilson once said: “If you place a baroque candelabra on a baroque table, both get lost. If you place the candelabra on a rock in the ocean, you begin to see what it is.” There’s a vision to The Beginner’s Guide, a beautiful one, but also a problematic one.

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The Beginner’s Guide is narrated by it’s creator, Davey Wreden, as himself. The game is supposedly a collection of short levels and games created by Wreden’s friend Coda, who Wreden fell out of contact with years ago. Wreden says that he collected these games into The Beginner’s Guide to show Coda’s work to the world, show how much people could appreciate his work, and hopefully reconnect with Coda, or at least inspire Coda to start making games again. As we explore these games, Wreden explains how he met Coda, his relationship with his friend, his interpretation of Coda’s games, and how the two fell out. Eventually (Here come the spoilers) it is revealed that Wreden had tampered with Coda’s games, changing their makeup to provide a sort of metaphorical quality, superimposing meaning that wasn’t there. Wreden also released several of Coda’s games without Coda’s permission.

Coda stops making games, not because he is depressed (as Wreden assumed), but because of Wreden’s interference with his work.

There’s a fair amount of debate online about whether or not Coda is, in fact, a real person. Outside of the game itself Wreden has stated that Coda is real, but I personally don’t think that this means that Coda is a singular, flesh-and-blood person that is living their life who-knows-where. I think Coda is real, as real as any metaphor can be when it is personal.

After the massive success of The Stanley Parable Wreden wrote a blog post about how he was struggling with his newfound fame and struggling to not set up his ego with expectations of acclaim and success. In many ways, this blog post is a precursor to the themes of The Beginner’s Guide, and it seems to me it may be a little too simpatico with Coda’s story for the latter to be truly “real.” Perhaps there was a real person like Coda, and perhaps these games are inspired by this person’s work, but I doubt that the story delivered by Wreden is the gospel truth.

[Let’s also not forget that there’s a team of credited people that worked on The Beginner’s Guide, including programmers, designers, artists, and composers. Not sure what all those people would have been doing if Coda had already made most of the content (which would also be illegal to reproduce and sell without Coda’s permission)]

So, is Coda real? I think yes and no. But, ultimately, I don’t think it matters much in the context of the game, nor is it what bothers me about Beginner’s Guide. In a way, the simplest question I took away from the game is this: when is the audience allowed to reinterpret an author’s work? Or, maybe, even simpler: who owns a creative work once it is shown?

I’ve written about the death of the author before and I mostly stick by my claims. If Wreden really did change Coda’s work, claimed those changes should still belong to Coda, and distributed them without Coda’s permission, that is terrible. But there’s something being left out, and that is the fault of Coda.

The thing is, everything in the game traps you. You see Coda’s creations with Wreden’s perspective as he comments on how Coda’s work gets darker and more troubling. Wreden becomes concerned for his friend. Sure, in hindsight we see that it may just have been Coda’s process, no metaphor intended at all, but realistically, in the moment, it isn’t hard to see why Wreden was concerned. These games do feature disturbing imagery and worrysome symbols. If interpretation is determined by what is in the work, why would it be unusual to assume Coda was possibly troubled?

And Coda doesn’t tell Wreden anything.

I think a lot of players want to protect Coda, or put him up on a pedestal. Wreden mentions how Coda is introverted, and quiet to the extreme, but also kind and warm when you get to know him. Coda is also extremely creative, judging by his work. In a way, Coda is the idealized projection of the average gamer: he creates interesting work on his own; he is quiet, but kind; he is misunderstood; and, in the end, he is a tragic hero who suffers from the ignorance of others.

But, when someone creates an interpretation of your work based upon what they see, and you don’t say anything, it’s hard for me to feel sympathetic when you get mad at their interpretations.

Of course, many will point out that Davey is an unreliable narrator in the game, which is fair. And I’m not saying that it’s okay that Davey changes and distributes Coda’s work, that’s not excusable. What I’m saying is that, if Davey told Coda “I’m seeing things in your games that make me worry about you,” and Coda doesn’t try to communicate with Davey, he is just as much a part of the toxic relationship as Davey is. It’s a two way street.

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And, of course, if we extend this into the macro, we could say that this is a metaphor for creators and for consumers. If you make something, and give that something to people, it’s unfair to get mad when they draw conclusions and interpretations from the work if you haven’t attempted to justify your own interpretation as well. On the other hand, it seems consumers are confusing the privilege of being given art, and the privilege of interpreting said art, as a sort of creative ownership of their own. As if they, as a consumer, are themselves a creator.

There’s something important here. Something that the Beginner’s Guide is beginning to say. But I’m not sure if it really says it.

I’m sure some of you readers can tell that I’m struggling to talk about this game. This post is even more long and disjointed than my other reviews/critiques, but there’s something about this game that is simultaneously enveloping and alienating. The story seems to be about communication. Personal communication, and the communication and interpretation that takes place in art. But while the game seems to desire honest communication, the intertwining of real life and fiction blocks the game from any communication at all.

I’ve written about my disdain for work that shields itself in irony, but I don’t think that Davey’s game is ironic. In a way, it’s so sincere that it becomes almost untouchable. I legitimately have to wonder if my writing this contributes to Davey’s anxiety and pain, but, at the same time, it seems unfair to myself to withhold opinions and personal discoveries just because the creator may disagree. Beginner’s Guide is so sincere in its ambiguities that it makes me afraid to say anything about it, and even then I’m wondering “but maybe that’s the point?” But, I don’t like that. But, maybe that’s the point? To play The Beginner’s Guide is to be unsatisfied, and I can’t help but wonder if the only way to really say anything about it is to, like Coda, walk away from it. But, if that’s the case, then I can’t help but feel that the game is broken. There’s so much here that is beautiful, and there are a lot of wonderful questions being asked, but The Beginner’s Guide takes a lot from the player while disguising these demands as generous honesty. And if that’s the point, I feel like I might need to regret spending money on this game, which is not something I want to do.

Cheers,

-PH

Control in “Black Ops”

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I just replayed Call of Duty: Black Ops for the first time in years this week. Actually, it’s technically my first time really playing it – I grew up  in a home where I didn’t have Call of Duty (or really any FPS games for a long time) so I had to eagerly await going to my best friend’s house to shoot nazis/terrorists/spetsnaz on his PlayStation. While he and I had both loved World at War and Modern Warfare, he hadn’t enjoyed Black Ops as much so we didn’t play it as often.

I know that Black Ops has quite a few critics – many didn’t like it, especially after the success of MW2. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the game. It had an interesting plot, a not-often-seen setting, and some pretty interesting levels. Why not give it a shot?

All in all, Black Ops is an enjoyable game. It’s not perfect, but it delivers the high-octane, heart-pounding, fun that it promises. What I found really interesting is that the greatest strength of the campaign (for me) was the very thing that so many people have criticized about the game: linearity and lack of control.

There’s a level in the game called “U.S.D.D.” (technically a level, really an extended cutscene) where your character, Mason, is guided through the Pentagon to meet JFK. It’s a pretty long scene, and you can’t do much other than look around. To many, this level shows off everything wrong with Call of Duty, and maybe with AAA games in general: controlled storytelling, railroading the player through a bunch of scenery. But I actually think that this level uses its control very well because the control is used to emphasize the themes of the game. Black Ops is largely about control and being controlled. It’s about paranoia and doubt.  U.S.D.D. sets this up really well because the whole time Mason is being controlled, you the player are also being controlled. There’s a part of the level where the camera suddenly switches to third person for a bit, but then returns to first person. At first I thought that it was a lazy, unnecessary, confusing touch, but the more I thought about it, the more it makes sense. Mason is suspicious and feels like he is being watched. By moving to third person the game makes the player complicit in that: you are not just being Mason, you are watching him. And he doesn’t know it.

I will admit that there are still issues with the game. The levels have some excellent set-pieces, but for all their grandeur they can feel unnecessarily small. There’s also that frustrating CoD trope of killing the boss with a quicktime/cutscene (although I do appreciate that they subvert it once by giving you a gun that turns out to be unloaded). So, yeah, there are problems. I’m just saying that maybe Black Ops tried to take the problems that CoD was facing and tried to turn those problems into something interesting. And, on some level, I think that they succeeded. Perhaps this attempt at turning a negative into a positive had the unfortunate effect of normalizing these mechanics of control so that they are over-used, or maybe it is just an interesting anomaly in a trend that started long before it was released, but either way Black Ops shows us that players don’t need absolute freedom all the time to make an interesting game.

Some Quick Reviews Part 3: Games

 

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I knew when I started these reviews that  I was going to end with videogames. The thing was, I had just beat two Telltale series (Tales From the Borderlands, and The Wolf Among Us) and thought that I would have one other game finished by the time I wrote this last section. Things were looking grim for awhile, all the other games I’ve been playing are very long and I haven’t had time to finish them. Then, in a holy beam of light, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV descended from the heavens to grace our Earthly senses. So, let’s talk about some games, and don’t worry, I’m saving the best for last.

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Tales From the Borderlands

This was my first Telltale game series, and I loved it. Before playing Tales From the Borderlands I had played the first Borderlands game, a little of the Pre-Sequel, and had absorbed a fair amount of the second through memetic fusion (though I started playing Borderlands 2 more recently). Despite my somewhat limited knowledge of the Borderland Universe I found the game very enjoyable. Say what you will about the move-as-game method of their creations, Telltale has become the master of minimalist narrative game design.

What I enjoyed most about Tales was its ability to blend a variety of disparate tones into a delicious genre smoothy. Most of the time the game makes good use of the trademark Borderlands humor – sarcasm, crass remarks, and gratuitous gore are abundant – but the game managed to surprise me with its ability to shift seamlessly between action, comedy, touching character relationships, and moments of heart-wrenching sadness. It doesn’t like to say it, but Tales is really an epic game. In scope if not it tone.

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Wolf Among Us

I got Tales From the Borderlands and Wolf Among Us at the same time, so I started Wolf almost immediately after Tales. I’ve read the first book of Fables, the comic book that Wolf Among Us is based on, so I was intrigued to see how they adapted it into a game.

The game’s greatest strength is its consistency of tone. It not only inhabits the grit and shadows of noir, it rules them. The integration of fairy-tale powers and characters into the detective story is effective, but the game sometimes suffers from its linearity. All Telltale games are pretty linear. Choices aren’t so much about changing the direction of the game world, more about the relationships between characters. Nonetheless I got a little frustrated with the amount of quick-time events in Wolf that apparently had no positive outcome. The game’s dedication to the dark “no happy endings” tone forces its hand into punishing your character. There are events that are meaningless, but they feel superficially meaningless and less like the game is teaching you a harsh lesson about the reality of the game world. There are times where your character will get a beating, the game prompts you to press a key really fast, but even if you get the meter nothing changes.

The ending also left me a little disappointed. Again it felt like they were so desperate to fulfill the tone they had carved out for themselves that they didn’t deliver on a satisfactory conclusion to the actual mystery of the plot.

Wolf Among Us is still good. The characters are fantastic, the setting fleshed-out, and there are plenty of scenes that will stick in my memory. When the tone works, it works flawlessly, but when it begins to force your hand it can become frustrating.

 

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Kentucky Route Zero – Act IV

Words cannot express how excited I was to learn that Kentucky Route Zero had finally released its fourth act. I got the game when it had three acts, so I had dined gleefully on its modernist magical-realism melancholia only to be left wanting more. For a long time I was exasperated that Act IV was so long in the making, but no that I’ve played it I just can’t be mad. This act is so … not different … but almost evolved. There’s a sense that they earned the hiatus, a special polish here. Scenes are unique in ways that stand out, even in a game that’s almost exclusively composed of individual, beautiful moments.

I can’t spoil anything here (though its not like I’ve talked much about plot for any game here) because, well, its a game that should be experienced. Kentucky Route Zero has a sort of beauty that makes it, in my mind, some sort of “great American video-game.” It can be played and replayed and examined and dissected. It can be enjoyed for the mere experience, but it can also be enjoyed for its structure, its quality, and its craft.

It’s been awhile since I’ve played the first three acts, so maybe my memory is hazy, but I think that Act IV has a lot more variety to it. I mean this in the sense of options regarding how scenes play out. Kentucky  has notoriously beautiful yet mechanically pointless decisions. It’s all about dialogue, all about choosing who the characters are. In Act IV there’s a greater emphasis on not being there to play every possible scene. Almost every time you shift to a new scene you have to choose between two locations with different characters, so if you really have to decide which characters you want to watch interact when you choose your scenes. I also get the sense that there’s even more emphasis on the aesthetics of location (very important since the game inhabits a land of psychogeography). The way the camera slowly pans around a boat, or how it follows slowly behind characters into a tunnel, there’s a real sense of presence to the camera. A presence that adds weight without becoming a burden. There’s also more dialogue – like, a lot more dialogue – going on here. Words and phrases are rolled into artful little packets like paper into origami. Sometimes I just have to lean back and enjoy the essence of a paragraph, or taste the words by speaking them out loud.

Once the fifth act comes out I may do a longer piece on Kentucky Route Zero, god knows it deserves it, but for right now all I can say is that Act IV hasn’t disappointed me. I feel satisfied with this course, but I still await dessert with anticipation and hunger.


[EDIT: because I can’t seem to caption my images right now I will be linking the image sources below]

Stop everything! Kentucky Route Zero Act IV is out right now

http://www.gamespot.com/reviews/tales-from-the-borderlands-episode-two-atlas-mugge/1900-6416067/

https://store.xbox.com/en-us/Xbox-One/Games/The-Wolf-Among-Us/f5b8be2c-58f9-427b-8e12-2786d03dc55f

https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/07/22/kentucky-route-zero-act-iv-review/

KOTOR II: Shades of Grey

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A few days ago I finished playing Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords for the first time. It was an interesting game, and I greatly enjoyed its story and the way it attempted to deconstruct certain concepts from the Star Wars Universe. Nonetheless, I did take issue with several elements of the game – especially certain ways they integrated the narrative with the gameplay.

I suppose it should be noted that the game’s development was rather rocky – it was released a year after the first game and much of the game’s ending (which is related several of my problems) was severely truncated to meet schedules. I did play the game with the restored content mod which adds a fair amount of material that was scrapped but still salvageable from the game files (unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with the game to know which scenes were from the mod and which were original), but I am still willing to give the developers some extra slack given what they had to work with.

So what are my problems with KOTOR II? I think most of my issues can be boiled down to these things: poor pacing, limited characterization, and (the infamous) ludonarrative dissonance. I’ll go through these issues one at a time, starting with the simplest problem of pacing.

It might be a bit of a stretch to call the pacing of KOTOR II a major flaw, since it really only bugged me in two sections of the game: Nar Shaddaa (I don’t care what anybody else says,  Nar Shadaa is a sucky level) and the finale. During both of these sections the game insists on chopping-up the plot and forcing the player to take control of other NPCs to see what’s going on. For example, the player (playing as the main hero that they created in the beginning) makes their way into the base of a crime lord, then encounters a locked door; when you try and open the door the game then cuts away to another character that has been captured by the crime lord and you have to go through a lengthy process as this new character to unlock the door from the inside. I think I can understand what the developers are trying to do, and the rationale behind this choice, but it doesn’t make it any less annoying to play through. I know that one of the great ways of building a climax is to have a lot of subplots come together in the last few moments, but when a player is used to playing a character that they have built, a character that they have used as an avatar for moral choices, a character that they are mechanically comfortable with, I think it’s a little unfair to force them to play as another character that is not only going to be weaker and more difficult to play, but also carries less of an emotional investment.

There are a few moments in the game where I did find switching over to be enjoyable. Early on in the game the player can take control of a hijacked protocol droid to steal information from a Czerka office; the whole process of playing as a protocol droid is rather charming and is full of C3PO-worthy humor. A similar scenario plays out on Nar Shadaa when you have to play as your ship’s astromech droid T3-M4 to infiltrate a Hutt’s warehouse. Again, the process of playing as another character is interesting and rather humorous. Here’s the thing though, while the second scenario does have some mandatory combat, both of these situations are more focused on dialogue than anything else. They don’t take a long time to complete, and are rather straightforward. Most of the other scenes where the player is switched to a new character are all combat (and KOTOR has never had the most riveting battle mechanics), or even just running around a large map on a scavenging quest. What’s even worse is that, unless you micromanage your party’s stats (which I prefer auto-leveling because I just want to get back to the story), the characters will be significantly weaker than your primary protagonist, only making these tangents longer and more burdensome.

It actually surprises me that there aren’t more dialogue choices available in these sequences. You’d think that playing another character would be a great opportunity to reveal more about them, but they do it so rarely. It’s even stranger because most of the characters are very well-written, but oddly limited in their intractability. Maybe I’ve just been coddled by the scope of modern game standards, but I felt like a lot of characters, while interesting, were underutilized. There are several characters that can fall in love with the protagonist (mine was male, but you can play as a woman and the same thing happens), but it’s never really addressed. It will be alluded to when characters on your ship interact in cut scenes, and some might outright say it, but you, the player/protagonist, are never given any real option to do anything about it, even when you flirt with characters directly it never goes anywhere.

The characters I had the most interesting interactions with were Kreia (who has some of the best writing in the game) and T3-M4. The main reason I found these characters to be so interesting was that they were both very integrated into the world and philosophy of the game. Kreia serves as a crux for much of the game’s deconstruction of the Force in the Star Wars universe, she chimes in more than any other character to comment on what the player is doing and constantly questions your choices. She is also mechanically relevant to the player – you share a force connection with her that makes her very useful as a companion. Finally, she is integral to much of the game’s plot. When you interact with Kreia you will almost always learn something useful or interesting about the game’s story.

Kreia
Ah, Kreia, you superbly written mastermind you…

T3-M4 also has a strong bond to the game’s narrative. He is one of the few characters to return from the previous game, and (moreso than Mandalore or HK-47) his personal story branches the gap between the two  games in an interesting way. Interacting with T3 helps the player learn a lot more about the history of the setting, and learn more about other characters. I also appreciate the humor of the one-sidedness of any conversation that takes place with an astromech droid that can only speak in chirps and beeps.

Unfortunately, it might be the strengths of these characters that weakens most of the others. Kreia and  T3 are very useful for providing exposition, but I think they are used too much to tell the player things that they could learn other ways. Characters like Atton have most of their backstory alluded to solely through cutscenes with Kreia, and while the protagonist can eventually confront these characters about their pasts it feels a little anticlimactic (especially because a character with decent influence can blow through most dialogue options in one conversation). The game also tries to have all of the plot arcs wrap up at the end (this goes back to my pacing problem), it’s kind of annoying to have every party member go through their own little adventure during the climax when a lot of them feel arbitrary. Like, do we really need to have the Hanharr vs. Mira showdown when we 1) already defeated Hanharr earlier in the game, and 2) could be seeing the protagonist decide the Fate of the Galaxy instead? Why couldn’t all of the character plots been more solidly integrated into the main story, or at least been concluded earlier?

I think a lot of KOTOR II’s problems stem from the fact that it tries so hard to provide interesting and varied narrative choices, but doesn’t have the ability to utilize all of these choices in ways that are fun to play. One thing that was particularly bothersome for me was the lack of any “neutral path” of play. In the game the player can make “light” and “dark” side choices that influence whether the character is more jedi or sith, which is  pretty common in RPGs and also directly crosses over mechanically from the first game, but one of the major points of the first game is that you, as the protagonist, must pick a side. It’s all part of the game’s narrative. In KOTOR II though, one of the major themes is that there aren’t always such clear-cut options. Maybe the light/dark duality of the Force doesn’t always work.

It’s known to a lot of the fans of the game that Kreia was primarily written by Chris Avellone, one of the game’s lead designers. Avellone wanted to subvert and question the implications of the Force that so many Star Wars fans took for granted, and helped steer KOTOR II towards a “grayer” tone. Compared to the first game, there are more “neutral” or morally ambiguous choices for the player to consider, and Kreia constantly wants the player to question their actions and their ties to the Force, criticizing the methods of both the Jedi and Sith. It’s a pretty awesome direction for a Star Wars game, but the game makes almost no effort to reward a player who tries to be a Grey Jedi that is sometimes charitable and sometimes cruel.

RevanconfrontsSithEmperor.jpg
Really I just want to play a character that’s like Revan as described in the lore…

Some may point out how Avellone said that, while Kreia is a conduit for his criticisms of Star Wars, that doesn’t mean she’s right. But I’d also like to take one of Avellone’s quotes about player interaction (this is stolen from his TVTropes page, and is from an interview with Duckfeed.tv):

“… if you give the player the ability to create a certain type of character, make sure that you honor the player’s character build. What I mean by that is, if you give a character to option to dump 500 points into speech, make sure that they have an experience that’s very cool and is appropriate for a speech based character. The same thing is true if you’re a stupid combat monster; if you’re a sneaky thief who no one ever sees… If you’re allowing the players to build a character like that with the rule set, then make sure your content supports that experience.”

It is entirely possible to play the game as a neutral character (and it’s even possible to do so without the protagonist having an unrealistic good/evil split personality) and therefore it seems appropriate that the game should acknowledge this potential build. I’m not saying that the game needs to make this the best choice, or that such a build should have the best ending to the game. I’m just saying that, as a potential build, and as a build that fits with the game’s tone, shouldn’t it be something worthy of the game’s attention?

Again, I (obviously) wasn’t there for the development of this game (and it was clearly a process that had numerous problems), but I still think these are issues worth discussing. KOTOR II is still a great game, and the fact that it made me think about these issues should be taken as evidence that it’s a great game. But even great games have flaws, and these flaws can help games progress just as much as strengths. I think that KOTOR II was definitely an important step for games, but some of these issues are still prevalent – especially for new designers – and maybe by looking at these flaws we can continue to make better and better games.

Cheers,

-PH

Subtle Characterization in Games

HoundMaster2

I’ve been playing Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon for a little over three months now, and while its far from a perfect game, I have come to love playing it. From its gothic visuals, to its growling narrator, to its brutal mechanics, the game masterfully weaves a tone of despair and darkness, while still giving the player enough hope (or enticing them through greed) to continue playing.

There’s a lot to talk about with darkest dungeon, but I think a lot of it has been already said (this isn’t a particularly new game). What I want to focus on here is the way that the game gets the player to emphasize with characters that have little dialogue or traditional personality. The characters in Darkest Dungeon (the adventurers you control, that is)  don’t speak very much, and they only do so in speech bubbles. Most of the time they only speak when they are very stressed, or suffering from sort of affliction. Occasionally, one of them will add a snappy one-liner after killing an enemy or making a critical hit. While I enjoy Darkest Dungeon for its tone, I did have a hard time getting into it because I usually want strong characterization or narrative – that’s just my preference. It wasn’t until I was looking through the game’s TV Tropes page, looking for Easter eggs and such, that I realized that many of these characters do have wonderful characterization – its just very subtle.

The comment that really tipped me off was a comment about the Hound Master. This was one of the adventurer classes that I didn’t use very much, its supposed to be a versatile jack-of-all trades class, but I just couldn’t figure out how to use it effectively. Reading the post, someone remarked that, moreso than any other character, the Hound Master is the most heartwarming character. Everything that the Hound Master does is in service of his companion. Need to reduce stress? The Hound Master hugs his hound. The Hound Master takes damage? His animation is him protecting his dog from the attack. He also has one of the most heart-wrenching death lines in the game (I wont spoil it though, because it can only come from fighting the final boss). Part of why the Hound Master is so well characterized is because, well, he’s technically two characters, and you constantly get to see them interact. But seeing this has made me realize how other characters have personality as well – its buried in the mechanics of abilities, in the names of powers and abilities, in animations. When a character becomes an alcoholic because the player makes them drink stress away – that adds a level of characterization to an otherwise stock character. When a Jester heckles one party member to the bemusement of the others – that’s characterization. When an Abomination comments on the torturous nature of his existence – that’s characterization. When a Hellion overcomes stress to become virtuous, inspiring the other heroes around her (“You’re making it out of here – ALL of you!”) I almost tear up.

The thing is, all of these character archetypes have the opportunity to do the same thing. One Bounty Hunter has all the potential of another, but it is the experiences you go through with a character that allows you to impart a personality onto them. Every character has a bit of personality to start with – snarky quips, a grim outlook, unfaltering faith – but when you play with them, these puzzle-piece personalities come together and change the player’s perception of the characters. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this works so well in Darkest Dungeon – it may just be a side-effect of the way the tone and mechanics merge so well – but I would like to find more games that manage to pull off this subtle form of character development.