Dec 5, 2012

Now Playing - Inquisitor Part 2

 It's hard to express how I feel about dungeons in RPGs, simply because they exist for one reason: to test your skills. Any seasoned adventurer worth his or her salt knows that when a game designer builds a dungeon, they don't want you to feel welcome. Traps, groups of monsters, a lack of shops to grab supplies and a lack of temples to get healing mean that if you want to enter a dungeon, you'd better come prepared.

It also, however, is a chance to test all the skills you've been learning. Fighting on the open plains is fun, but it's the claustrophobic corridors deep underground where you can really strategize - identifying choke points, hiding spots and more and building your battle plans around them. Good dungeons make me use stealth to scout, make me plan the placement of area of effect spells for maximum effect and teach me to be creative with my battle strategy, which is definitely a plus. You're also bound to find interesting loot, hidden areas, and even sometimes interesting story elements.

Darkness is everywhere in these dungeons, meaning that enemies often catch you unawares and make your life very tough.
 I've finally been pushing my way into the first big dungeon of Inquisitor - the major dungeon of Act 1, I believe, and it's a beast. It's enormous, positively brimming with enemies and traps and the pitch blackness all around means you need to look very carefully to see what's up ahead. It takes place in a giant mine - reminiscent of Nashkel Mines in Baldur's Gate, and it's making me work every step of the way.

Not having direct control over my allies means that I have to control them via commands, something that has taken a lot of getting used to. However, now that I'm familiar with the hotkeys I'm finding the system quite intuitive. Rather than rely on AI scripts as some games do, I can change how my comrades behave with the press of a key. This makes it quite possible to order them to attack while you stay back and provide support, to wait while you run ahead and scout, or to run past attackers without stopping to fight in order to beat a hasty retreat. It's a system that takes getting used to, but it works surprisingly well - although you can't give individual party members orders, merely the group as a whole.
Combat in the open plains has its own strengths, but doesn't allow for anywhere near as much strategy as a corridor filled dungeon.
One thing that I find quite pleasing is the fact that you're only limited by your class choice a little bit in Inquisitor. I'm playing a thief with very little focus on the typical thief skills of sneaking, lockpicking and disarming traps. Instead, my focus is on speed, ranged combat and charisma - but the ability to learn magic means I can also buff my comrades as they run into the fray. Being able to be a multi-skilled character like this reminds me of Arcanum or playing a bard in Baldurs Gate (my favourite). It makes for a reasonably tricky character to play - my character can take hardly any damage at all, but it also opens up a range of interesting tactics. I've long been a fan of luring individuals away from groups in RPGs, something I use to great effect here. Shooting an arrow at a foe on the outskirts of the group leads him to pursue me alone, meaning I can lead him back to where my friends are waiting to take him out. Large, overpowering groups can quickly be diminished with a much greater success rate this way.

A variation on this is to make enemies fight one another. Inquisitor seems to have enemies split up into factions, and it was with great joy that I discovered that I could lead a group of Orcs into a spider den, then quickly make my escape while the orcs and spiders fought it out. Sadly, environmental hazards do not seem to work the same way, and I have lured enemies into pits of lava or acid that kill my character in a matter of mere seconds only to watch them pass through unharmed. A missed opportunity to create more tactical options for the player, and a game element that feels unfair and broken.

The lava pools in this game are a real threat if you don't have the levitate spell. I do not have the levitate spell.
Another element that can get frustrating is having to make multiple trips back to town in a single dungeon. I am constantly surprised by how many healing potions I need in this game. I started this dungeon with about 40 of them, returned to town for another 30, returned again for another 30, and still had to go back for more (this time I bought many more). One wrong move by teammates can result in 5 potions disappearing in the space of a few seconds. Every trip back means I have to trek all the way back through the parts I've cleared so far, fighting whatever monsters that have respawned or running past them frantically when I'm right out of potions. Usually I am very sparing with potions, and consider them as a last resort. In this game, I get worried about being able to make it back out of the dungeon when I get down to 10.

It's been a long time since I've had such a long, hard slog through a dungeon as this. I feel this part of the game is bigger than it really needed to be - there are very few characters to talk to down here, and even though my speech ability allows me to talk my way through some of the combat scenarios, there's still a ton of enemies to fight. Still, I'm pretty confident that my next trip back to the mines from the town will be my last - and the way the story is progressing as I head through these corridors, it seems likely that whatever - or whoever - I find at the bottom of these mines will be the key to finishing Act 1. I finally feel like I've gotten a pretty good grip on how the game works, and I'm actually starting to feel comfortable playing it, rather than hopelessly underpowered, underfunded and outnumbered as I did for the first few hours of play.

Time to head back in.

Dec 4, 2012

Breakin' the Law

I find that as gamers, we have grown accustomed to certain patterns, certain unwritten laws in our entertainment. See a crate and you know to smash it. Have a gun in your hand and you expect to be shooting at people at some point. See a gap and you know you have to jump it.

I was telling an idea of mine to fellow game designer Francisco Gonzalez today, and he pointed something out - that the idea reverses what is usually considered a standard feature in adventure games and makes us do the opposite thing, and this comment got me thinking about the concept of pattern repetition in games.

Some of my favourite moments in gaming have been when games have caught me off guard, and made me do unexpected things. When I met a group of monsters in Baldur's Gate who didn't attack me, but instead engaged me in conversation and then handed me their autograph, for example (which is completely useless for the entire game, but a fun feature to have). Or in The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, when the solution to a puzzle was to close the Nintendo DS and then open it again.
Short AGS game Night Eyes plays with the tropes of the point and click genre - putting you in the role of a cat, and thus unable to do most of the things we expect adventure game characters to be able to do.

Moments like this catch my attention, they make me sit up and take notice of what a game is doing. So many games that I play often feel like I am not actually problem solving, merely acting out what I already know needs to be done. I'm not saying that this isn't interesting and challenging - often the best balance in gameplay arrives when the designers knows that we know all the rules and then makes us make our way through difficult situations using those skills. There is, however, an absolute joy to be found in doing something and seeing unexpected results with real game-world consequence.

There comes a point in any genre, no matter how much I love it, when I become bored by the actual gameplay and want fresh ideas. It's why I hold games such as Deus Ex and Planescape: Torment in such incredibly high regard, and it's why I keep trying more and more games, searching for more sparks of creativity. The strangest thing about games is that they're regularly entirely fictional - often they employ settings that are in no way even slightly realistic, with plots that go beyond belief and graphics styles that can be completely unique and abstract. Why, then, do we obey the unwritten rules of the genre as though they are absolute?

I remember a short indie game which put you in the boots of a spaceman landing on an alien planet with a gun. You're given the controls to jump and shoot, and you're set free to play, running along the surface of the planet. When you encounter little alien creatures, it's instinct to shoot them - after all, why be given a gun if we're not supposed to shoot? - however by the end of the (very short) game it becomes apparent that none of these creatures were hostile. A second playthrough confirms that the game can be finished without the use of the shoot button at all.

subAtomic plays with logic for comedic effect - such as making you extinguish a fire with a hammer. In a less restricted game, such stretches of logic would be frustrating, but in a contained area such as this, it's a fun way to mess with players.
I've mentioned that I've been playing Inquisitor - this gives a fun example of this behaviour right at the very beginning. When you approach the town gates - the very first thing you do - you're given a quest to go and kill the bats surrounding the town in order to be let in. This is so typical of RPGs it almost induces a groan, but the second time I started the game - not interested in such trivial quests - I chose the option whereby my character refuses to be lured into such a quest. The result? The guard let me in, of course. It goes to show how accustomed I've become to the RPG tropes that I blindly accepted this annoying mission the first time around, without a question.

There are these games that break the mold and do creative things, and I am absolutely compelled to seek them out. I want to have my expectations hurled against the wall, to be surprised and to think about games in new ways. Games shouldn't just be about recognizing the patterns we hold so dear, but also about being creative and making the players be the same. Designers, we can do this. Players, let's embrace this, and ask for this.

And if you've never played a game that messes with your expectations and want to see how it can be done in the next 5-10 minutes?

Try 9:05.

Dec 2, 2012

Now Playing - Inquisitor

 It's 3:30am. Until about 4:30pm today, Inquisitor had been one of those games sitting on my hard drive, waiting for me to get a spare bit of time to play. I've been playing it since that time, giving it a second chance after my disappointing initial glimpse several months ago, and I want to keep playing instead of going to sleep. There's at least some promise here...

Giant dead tree? Check. Enormous troll beasts? Check. Innocent animal in the middle of nowhere that I need to rescue for a quest? Check. Yep, it's an RPG alright.

Inquisitor excited the hell out of me when I first heard about it. An isometric RPG in the vein of Baldur's Gate, with a focus on interrogating suspects and solving mysteries was exactly what I wanted in a game - that glorious mix between RPG combat and adventure mystery solving that I am so very fond of. I got it at the same time that I got two other inquisition themed isometric RPGs - Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, which I've played through, and Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, which I've spent quite a few hours with. Despite all being inquisition themed isometric RPGs, they all play quite differently, and have very different takes on the inquisition theme - which I must admit is a most pleasant change from the traditional high fantasy setting RPGs regularly get burdened with.

The first thing I noticed about Inquisitor is that it's hard. It's Baldur's Gate hard, Fallout hard, heck, it might even be Jagged Alliance 2 hard. Not because of the depth of the gameplay systems - Inquisitor cannot really hold up against the strategic combat of any of these games with its rather simplistic battle system - but because it throws you straight in the deep end, much like those games did. The combat is, at first especially, frustrating and not all too well balanced. There's definitely a wrong way of playing Inquisitor, and I had to restart 3 times before I got anywhere with the game, and even then had to restart again once I'd learned more about how to play the game. The creators of Inquisitor expect their players to be willing to stick to a game without a nice soft starting area or a gentle hand-holding tutorial section.

It simply wouldn't be a decent Inquisition themed game if there wasn't a stake upon which you can burn heretics.

There are some definite issues I take with the combat system. The reliance on potions sees me spending a huge portion of my loot on various types of cures. Any allies you recruit have access to your potions too - a delightful system in which they're smart enough to use your resources to heal themselves - but it means that if they get themselves into a tight spot they'll churn through your potions and you'll be out before you know it. The AI is lacking in a few spots - enemies can be well within sight yet still be ignored by your comrades (even when you're attacking), and yet if a ranged enemy is attacking you and you retreat, they can still hit you from huge distances away.

Melee units, on the other hand, can't hit a moving target at all, and I managed to get my character into a situation where he shut the door on a foe and then chased him around the room for 15 minutes trying to hit him. When I opened the door in impatience, the foe stood still and my character killed him straight away. Poison is a bitch, and giant spiders that can poison you magically from a distance are, to date, my least favourite enemy in the game. Although my companion is pretty good about following me when I retreat, he gets himself poisoned all too often for my tastes, and churns through potions like a junkie on a joyous binge.

The writing in the game is also wordy. Really wordy. I love wordy games, but even I am taken aback by the walls of text Inquisitor throws your way. Perhaps not so much by the length, but that the content seems quite dull at times - and the same point is often repeated by several characters. I like that you can ask many different characters many different things, but it does grow a little tiresome - something I never thought I'd say about an RPG. Still, I'd rather have it this way than having too little opportunity to speak with people, as so many other games feature.

Mysterious activity around the graveyard - this looks like the work of heretics!
If it sounds like I am being quite harsh on the game, it's only because I can see the potential here. Yes, the combat is unbalanced, and yes the writing is a huge wad of often dry text to chew through, but Inquisitor does have some great ideas. I love the fact that the world is responsive, giving you plenty of chances to make a decision with how you'll react to things and rewarding you accordingly. I love the whole inquisition mechanic - where you can play an open-minded, fair investigator, seeking out the facts of each case with bribes, questioning and exploration, or you can play a cruel fanatic who attempts to torture confessions out of the accused with the minimum of investigation.

I love the way the game likes to trick you - a quest that would normally reward you might end up with you making less money than you spent completing the quest, or the people you thought you were helping turning on you and attacking you. I love that the simple combat system has enough mean tricks thrown in to keep it spicy - very little compares to the panic caused when a shaman cast a spell and disoriented my character - making my mouse cursor suddenly erratic and extremely hard to use, rendering my usual hit and run tactics useless. Sure, this is strange, perhaps impolite game design, but it forces me to adapt as a player - something that I find an enjoyable challenge.

It's hard to know how much of the surface of Inquisitor I have scratched, and it's clear that my overall experience with the game could still go either way, but I have to say I'm glad I've given it another shot. The game has many flaws, as I've pointed out, but I can see some great ideas hiding in the midst of it all, and I wish more RPGs had elements like this. Depending on how the combat progresses, this could either be a gem or a real disappointment; either way, Inquisitor is blatantly old school, refreshingly interesting and not for the easily frustrated.

You have been warned.

Dec 1, 2012

Preview - Kathy Rain

Detailed scenery, sprites that are full of character, and an aesthetic that has already proven itself in Resonance make this one fine looking project.

It's hard to resist the urge to get excited about Kathy Rain, a point and click adventure project announced in July by Joel Staaf Hästö. The AGS based project may be in the early stages of development, but things look very promising for this low res point and clicker.

Aesthetically, the game features characters animated by Shane Stevens and scenery crafted by Nauris Krauze - a combination of styles with proven synergy as we saw in the stunningly beautiful Resonance. It promises to be a detailed and evocative experience with such pedigree behind the visuals, and the addition of gorgeous character portraits by Tove Bergqvist appears to be a fine inclusion.

The game promises a verb coin interface - with a twist. What that twist may be is anybody's guess.

Story wise, the game puts you in the tall, black boots of Kathy Rain, a motorcycle riding freelance detective with an attitude - a character that calls to mind visions of Ben Throttle and Gabriel Knight, and promises to be an excellent lead for a detective game like this. Hästö is currently looking for a writer to assist with the project, and I've no doubt someone will jump at the opportunity to do so. Let's face it: Kathy Rain is looking incredible.

Smoking in a graveyard. What more could you want from a character?

I'm usually reasonably wary of first-time projects, but I can't help but be enthusiastic about Kathy Rain. She's got the look, the personality and the potential to be something truly memorable, and I can't wait to experience her story.

Nov 30, 2012

Preview - The Samaritan Paradox

Colourful and yet sombre, the graphics provide a beautiful backdrop for the story.

Petter Ljungqvist has been a fairly prominent figure in the AGS community for some time, and I've been waiting for quite some time to see what he will make next. Judging by what I've played and seen of The Samaritan Paradox, his recently announced project, it looks to be something quite special indeed.

The project sports a graphic style that somehow manages to be serious, moody and atmospheric - whilst still being evocative and otherworldly. My admiration for the visuals are in no way without bias - Ljungqvist has provided drawing advice to me in my early days as a game designer, and I have admired his work for many years - but this world is quite easily the most expressive I've seen him draw yet, a remarkable feat.

With a plot that promises to tread the line between a detective mystery and a fantasy adventure, The Samaritan Paradox is one adventure to keep an eye on. It's still available for pre-order for a short time, and the game is slated for a 2013 release, and I am very interested to see how this project turns out.

Nov 29, 2012

>fall in love with Annah

Imagine that. Imagine being able to input anything you wished into a game, and have it provide a meaningful response.

Is there any reason we can't do this?

I remember debating the point some time ago with a fellow design enthusiast. They argued that mouse based interaction allowed a designer just as much freedom as a text parser, and this was my counter argument. The text parser, theoretically, allows us to append all the usual additional flourishes that make our languages work. Can mouse based input effectively allow us to ">pretend to be interested in what Adam is saying". Can it allow us to ">fall asleep", to ">remember my mother" or to ">pretend to cry"?

More to the point, can any method of interaction allow this?

Sure, we could build a parser that accomodates all these and more. It'd require an extraordinarily large library, but it'd be possible. That's hardly the point, however.

What I want to know, is can we do so in a way where it's truly effective as a method through which we allow players to propel themselves through our narratives?

Freelancer allows you to travel freely between missions, and talk to a huge range of characters, but the interactions quickly become bland and similar.

Providing the player to do any of these things is simple enough in terms of design philosophy - all we need to do is to construct a database that supports all of this input. Building a reactive, dynamic world to make these valuable interactions, however, is a completely different thing.

I don't think it's merely a matter of building an artificial intelligence or forgetting about the idea completely. Realistically, it's possible to build a world that not only accepts the inputs, but also reacts to it.

I suppose, then, that the real question is: "Is this worthwhile?"

There are two types of content for games - created content, and generated content. Dynamically generated content is an amazing idea - the possibility for replaying a game in which the dungeons are totally different each time you play it seems fantastic. But if you're killing the same enemies for the same reasons in a place that's laid out slightly differently to last time, is that really a unique experience? Personally, I much prefer content that was created by a human being and provides me with a dynamic experience that varies based on my input, not a random level generating algorithm. Give me one piece of meaningful feedback, and it will compel me to become invested in the game. A dungeon that changes each time I play it requires no real investment at all.

Which brings us back to the "Is this worthwhile?" question. Let's envision a game that allowed a near infinite parser library. Let's say we could get our character to ">feel guilt for stealing socks" or ">hope that I get to see my mother before she dies" or ">fall in love with Annah". There's no doubt that this provides an electric, reactive, dynamic world for us to participate in - an exciting playground in which every possible action is rich with potential consequence, without the burden of not being able to start over with a fresh reputation and health that often dictates much of our conservatism in real life.

But is that what we want from our games? I'm not so sure. To me, there seems the slightest chance that perhaps we like being led through games. Perhaps we don't really want the ultimate in escapism, but to partake in a story with the added ability to influence some of the outcome.

After all, what would Beyond Good and Evil be like if Michel Ancel hadn't led us through the story in the way he did? What would Baldur's Gate have been like if we'd never been compelled to do what Gorion wished of us and were left to do our own thing? Sure, games like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas can be far more rewarding when we're left to our own devices and don't follow the central plot, but I don't think that's what I want from all of my games. Sometimes, I want to be told a story, and as much as I want to take part and be given difficult choices with interesting consequences, I also want to be carried along a narrative path.

Aquanox is far more linear - restricting your activities between missions to a small area, but as a result the characters are more unique and the world feels far richer despite being much smaller and more restricted.

Is there any reason we can't ">fall in love with Annah"? No, not really. But will it add to games as narrative devices? I'm not so sure. If I want a dynamic, reactive and free form environment, I'll turn off my computer and go outside. I don't think I need all that freedom to enjoy a game. Games as a narrative vehicle can be absolutely compelling, and while I think consequence adds a lot to a game, I also think there's a point at which it stops a game from being a medium through which we can deliver a story and turns it into a sandbox type situation.

Narrative in games is beautiful. I don't think we've really seen it hit its true potential, and until it does, I'm quite happy to be a little limited with my input, provided I'm given a good story in return.

Of course, if someone does build a game with all that freedom, let me know about that. I'd play the heck out of any game that lets me ">make bus driver feel guilty about staring at me".

Nov 28, 2012

A System of Interaction

I've been thinking about game design, lately. This is nothing unusual for me; usually at some point during my day, every day, I will think about game design in some way. Lately I've been thinking about systems, and how they affect the way we play and design games.

To me, a system is the rules and structure of the universe that the game takes place in. It is the interface, the objects that we can interact with and the things that prevent our progress. In Tetris, the system allows us to move blocks, rotate blocks, recognizes when we've created a complete line, continues to spawn blocks and ends the game if the blocks reach the top of the screen. A game's system can be simple or complex - from the basic interaction of judging jumps in Canabalt to managing dozens of different factors in Jagged Alliance 2.

Being fond of both creating and playing point and click adventures, I've been looking and thinking about the systems they use quite a bit lately. Adventure games are often quite similar in terms of what systems they throw at us. We're used to picking up items and having them in our inventory, we're used to selecting a choice from a list of dialogue options, and most of us are used to having a range of verbs to use on the game's world. This system has been around for as long as I can remember - I grew up in the post-parser era of adventure game design, and I cut my adventuring teeth on this style of gameplay.

Instant gameplay - just adverbs!

That's getting a little bland, however.

There are games that push the system further. Disworld Noir (and the Blackwell games) give you a notebook with clues you can combine. You could fight your way past obstacles as Indiana Jones (and had to in Gemini Rue). Full Throttle is regularly criticized for its motorcycle riding and demolition derby puzzles, and Resonance is regularly praised for its use of memories as items (this was also done in long lost AGS adventure Diamonds in the Rough). Day of the Tentacle, Beneath a Steel Sky and others give you multiple characters you can control to figure solutions out. But I feel the potential exists to do so much more.

As a designer, I am absolutely guilty of creating game ideas based around the interfaces I've become comfortable with playing and creating with. It annoys me that I don't push myself to design more interesting interfaces. I've built a few prototypes around new ways of interacting with a world, but these rarely amount to anything more than an interesting gimmick. There must be a secret I am missing, somewhere.

I will always remember the very first time I played the genre-spanning behemoth that is Deus Ex. I was a fan of first person shooters but generally preferred other genres because I found the systems were often quite bland - rewarding reflexes rather than logic. Playing Deus Ex caught me off guard - suddenly I could do more with a barrel than just shoot it and watch it explode. I could pick it up and move it somewhere else, and use it as a platform to jump onto a roof with. I could stack barrels. I could carefully watch a robot's patrol route, pick a barrel up and move it into that patrol route, retreat and shoot it as the robot went past, exploding and disabling it. I could throw the barrel off to one side, distracting a guard and letting me sneak past him. Or sneak up on him.

Planescape: Torment - the only game that gives a guy who looks like a dead man the ability to dress up as a guy who looks like even more of a dead man.

The act of adding something so simple to a game's system as being able to pick up items and move them around added so much to the game itself. Locked doors could be bypassed if you were willing to carry an explosive crate all the way across the level. Building rooftops became instantly accessible. You could move a crate into a part of the map missing a decent hiding spot and hide behind it - or hide the body of a downed enemy behind/beneath crates and boxes so that nobody would see them laying there and become alerted. Suddenly, the things that previously existed to give a bit of visual flavour and variety to a level became a toolbox with which the player could make his way through the levels. Actual gameplay was born from this simple addition to the system.

That's beautiful. I believe it's called 'Emergent gameplay' (I've since learned that this term applies to gameplay that takes place outside the rules of the game, and that this is actually referred to as 'Systematic gameplay'), where gameplay can emerge as a result of the player's interaction in the world. It was an absolute revelation for me when I played the game for the very first time.

I haven't found my revelation in adventure games, yet. I thought I had found it when I first played Resonance, and realized that I could talk to anybody about anything by simply dragging the idea of the object in question to them and my character would ask about it. But the limits of the system quickly became clear - trying to write a unique response for every object in this way is no different than coming up with a different response for trying every single inventory item on a character. It's a lovely addition to the genre, but it doesn't change the way I think about adventure games. It does, however, remind me how much potential there is for experimentation in the genre (and with a track record including games like What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed, I look forward to seeing what new ideas Vince Twelve comes up with next).

Being able to instantly drag a subject from the world to the person you want to discuss it with is infinitely more intuitive than choosing the topic from a dialogue tree.

Don't get me wrong - I love adventure games. But I feel the system has under-used potential. Planescape: Torment proved that the expected formula of a game can be turned onto its head and still provide an absolutely compelling experience. I love it when I play games like Gorogoa or Frantic Franko that catch me off guard. New ideas are exciting, and get me absolutely enthused about a game.

I want to rethink the way I play games and the way I design them. Our players are amazing, creative people. They're ready for something fresh.

Let's see if we can find out what it might be.

Oh, and welcome to Fiction in the Machine. We hope you enjoy your time here.

Feb 9, 2012

Fiction in the Machine

These are our machines. These are the stories we tell and are told with them, through them.

This is Fiction in the Machine.