Monday, March 21, 2011

Analysis: Demon's Souls

I've talked about Demon's Souls a few times before in a few different contexts, such as its armor design and its difficulty curve, but I've never really analyzed it as a whole before. Demon's Souls is pretty classic "dark fantasy" - a Gothic medieval design, a crapsack universe, and, naturally, demons all over the place. It's viciously cruel, but generally in a way that the player can overcome with skill and quick reflexes, rather than simply being stuff to screw with the player. Of course, as cruel as the game is, the world it takes place in is crueler still - not that this affects the player.

Setting & Story
Demon's Souls takes place in the Kingdom of Boletaria, which was once a great, thriving nation but is now overrun by demons. There's not a huge amount of backstory given in the game itself, but the general idea is that an ancient order of powerful beings sealed an evil god - the Old One - under Boletaria a long time ago. It is this god's presence that allowed for the use of magic, which caused Boletaria to prosper and grow. However, some time before the game starts, the King of Boletaria sought more power and awakened the Old One. This backfired, blanketing the land in a colorless fog that spawns demons and drives humans insane.

The player takes the role of an outsider from one of Boletaria's neighboring countries. Like many other heroes, their goal is to investigate what happened to this country, which apparently disappeared off the map. The player-character's origins and motives are up to the player; the only solid fact is that they have come to Boletaria (and are inevitably trapped there). The rest of it can be filled in by the player's imagination. There are many starting careers such as knight, thief, magician, and hunter, and there are four general racial archetypes (North, South, East, and West), so there's actually some room for the player to roleplay on some level even though very little information is provided. Like Half-Life 1, the player's "personality" is largely expressed through decisions about aiding or hindering others, rather than through dialogue.

One notable thing is that the game starts with the player as a fairly normal adventurer. However, after the requisite "first death", the player is tied to the nexus of power that binds the Old One, and hence becomes trapped until the demons are wiped out. In addition, the power of souls collected from the demons allows the player to become more powerful. These are the player's two advantages compared to the rest of the universe. It's interesting in a PvP/PvE way because it justifies why the player is "better" - and even with these advantages the player will probably die often. The difference is not that the player is superior to non-player characters, but that they have specific in-universe benefits.

Largely lacking in a concrete "story" other than "kill demons", Demon's Souls is more concerned about the setting in general, specifically when it comes to characters. The prologue establishes that many great heroes have come to Boletaria, and naturally the player is likely to meet (and, in many cases, fight) them. In addition, the worlds are littered with the corpses of adventurers much like yourself who did not make it (and do not possess the advantage of eternal rebirth like you do). Like the origin paths, I thought this did a good job in establishing that the world is larger than it seems - many great warriors from across the world had come to find out what had happened to Boletaria, and the only difference between you and them is your ability to "respawn".

Demon's Souls' setting is about a scale that humans cannot comprehend. Like any story involving the phrase "Old One", it is about powerful forces that make humans look like mere insects. We never see the cataclysm that engulfs Boletaria (since our character shows up after the fact), but it certainly seems horrific. Bodies are piled everywhere, and the presence of ferocious demons and monsters suggests that the average citizen or soldier did not stand much of a chance. Even the player, with the powers of the Nexus behind them, is hard-pressed to triumph in Boletaria. The world is cruel and uncaring, and even though we never see it, the transition from a gleaming kingdom to a blood-drenched warzone is a pretty jarring one.

Design and Aesthetic
Demon's Souls is "realistic" in that it uses materials and designs that are based on real things, but it exists in a scale that is largely unrealistic. There's metal armor and stone castles, but they're designed in such a way that they're hardly believable. This is a good metaphor for Demon's Souls in general - it's grounded, but it's also fantastic. It uses the "real" elements to make the "unreal" elements feel more powerful and impressive - a phenomenon I've discussed before. It's a world of giant monsters and dragons and magical beings, but the simplest elements (the way people move, the way the character reacts to damage, the design of normal equipment) creates a contrast.

Armor in DS goes from grounded, sensible stuff like leather, mail, and plate (all starter gear for different classes) to more stylized armor found in Boletaria itself, whether light or heavy. Even the stylized armor feels reasonably grounded in terms of material - it's the design that's unrealistic. Weapons are the same way - they start off as realistic weapons (like swords, spears, and axes) and end up as far more supernatural-looking weapons. A neat touch about the weapons and armor is that they require strength to use, and strength is gained through the justified process of "converting souls into better stats". This really adds a sensible touch to the process of "gaining more strength", which isn't just how much damage you do, but also the ability to swing a two-handed sword with one hand, or move around easily in heavy armor.

One important thing to note regarding design is that, unlike the armor, the weapons are generally wholly unnatural, rather than partially unnatural/implausible. The advanced armor looks silly, but it also looks like it was made by human hands - as in, a blacksmith decided to make a giant silly head crest (which isn't totally implausible). On the other hand, the advanced weapons generally look like magical artifacts hewn from some powerful being rather than "conventionally forged". Hence, it's plausible, but based on a different set of circumstances. It also clearly establishes that they're magic, or at least "not normal", using obvious visual language. Again, the grounded equipment makes the un-grounded equipment look more alien and fantastic.

The levels and architecture share a similar concept: basic, grounded designs escalated to unrealistic or unfathomable levels. There's castles made of stone and mortar, and shanty towns made of wood, but they're so huge that it becomes amazing when you think about it. Actually, I should say that if you don't know about castles or the process of assembling stone into structures, it might not be that impressive - but if you do, or you can imagine what goes on in the castle-building process, then the sheer scale of things becomes astounding. The ability to comprehend the "real" process helps make the "fictional" process more fantastic, and without that it's just another video game level.

Naturally, the foes and enemies of the game operate on the same principles. The game starts in the Boletarian palace, a very "human" area, and then branches out to shrines infested with the undead, tunnels full of worms and giant beetles, and sickening plague-villages filled with goblins and ogres. The "real" base provides the foundation, and then the other things are allowed to be more fantastic because of it. It also provides a brief moment of assessing a new situation: you're going from fighting logical things like "a soldier" or "a goblin" to fighting some sort of Grim Reaper or giant manta ray or something.

The bosses are represented especially well. Going from intimidating (but still human) knights and soldiers to the gargantuan tower knight really gets a sense of scale across. The larger bosses suffer from the usual "big creature moves slow" thing, but their giant reach and damage potential sort of makes up for it. There's one important exception to the "big & slow" rule, and that's the Flamelurker. The Flamelurker is a creature that's emblematic of Demon's Souls, to me - it's got a recognizable pattern, but even when you know it, it's still reasonably difficult in terms of reflexes and managing your endurance. It's not a pushover, but it allows you to bring your skills to bear against it. That's the important part.

Gameplay and Combat
Demon's Souls, unlike a lot of fantasy games, operates on rules of physical space and movement. Shields are based on intercepting attacks, and weapons are swung or thrust. This sounds simple, but it's actually pretty rare in games, and contributes a more concrete sense to what's going on. Things rarely clip though the environment (weapons scrape or bounce off of walls if their swing impacts it), and in close quarters the difference between a swing and a thrust can be vital.

There's some limitations, naturally - every weapon basically has a light attack and a heavy attack, and that's about it. That's a limitation of the control system, and it does make some artificial problems (like swinging too hard and sliding off a cliff). On the whole, though, weapons attack in ways that make sense.

In addition, Demon's Souls has a pretty good movement system, with dodge rolls, sprinting, and, most importantly, stamina. There's a sense of weight to things: diving out of the way of an attack feels like effort, especially in heavy armor, and even in light gear you can't leap around indefinitely. Even if you manage to block an attack with your shield, it still impacts (affecting your stamina) and you can only keep your guard up for so long. The modeling and animation feels natural, and it adds a physical element to the proceedings when your character moves and behaves like a real person.

An important aspect of the game is that location matters. Combat in Demon's Souls is about preventing enemy attacks from hitting you, and hitting enemies in whatever way is best for the area. It's got a lot of "physical space" to it, whereas in some games the graphics are fairly static animations that have nothing to do with whether an attack hits or not. The basic objective is: stay out of the way of attacks. Dodge, roll, block - whatever you have to do to prevent an attack from hitting you. Shields are useful for the same reason they're useful in real life: they're a thing to put between you and an attack. It's not some arbitrary bonus, it's portable cover.

One thing I'd like to comment on is the fact that regular human enemies, such as guards and knights, are probably the most interesting enemies in the game, because they have tools at their disposal. Like the player, they can block or (in some cases) roll. They have plausible attack patterns. Some can even heal with items or throw firebombs like the player can. Their diversity makes them more interesting threats, because they're more unpredictable. In contrast, the most boring enemy in the game is a giant slug that lives in volcanos and takes like five solid minutes of whittling down. During this time, its only "attack" is an occasional stab with its tongue. It's the exact opposite of the human fights - slow, tedious, and simplistic. It's just two sides swinging at each other.

Demon's Souls is one of the rare games that tries to make the player feel like a human being in a fantasy situation. You're not a "level 5 fighter" or something, you're a human being who's enhanced by the power of souls. There's as little "meta-game" as it can get away with while still being an RPG. It's an action game first and foremost - better stats don't win fights, although they certainly help. Everything about the game seems designed to reinforce the idea of being a normal, but augmented, human. The scale of things is such that the player is meant to constantly be simultaneously amazed and on guard. The grounding elements help establish the transition from "real" to "fantastic" by easing into the concept, instead of starting out with fantastic and having no way to connect to it.

So, To Sum Up
1) Demon's Souls is a prime example of grounding fantasy well. It uses its realistic elements to make the fantastic parts more awe-inspiring.
2) Gameplay in Demon's Souls feels more "real" than many other games because it's based on concepts of physical space as well as concepts of human limitations and endurance.
3) Neither of these things would be anywhere near as important or impressive if the game was easy, because a human who can take 500 sword blows to the face is not actually human.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Generic versus Niche

It's hard to be original in this day and age. Established tropes are so pervasive and all-encompassing that escaping their grasp is difficult for developers and writers, and many simply give up instead of trying. Whether it's the standard fantasy setup of humans, dwarves, and elves, or the standard sci-fi setup of humans, "warrior race", and "smart race", developers seem loathe to explore new options outside of familiar genres. Instead, they attempt to subvert or invert existing tropes - our dwarves are different, our elves have new traits, and so on. This ends up being less "original" and more "minor modification that still takes a basic pre-existing concept instead of creating something new".

This is an attempt to escape the idea of being "generic" by creating a setting that differs in some way from what people are used to and carves out a niche for itself. However, this approach is often done in a way that's far too small, failing to make the setting specifically stand out as being independent. The difference between a "generic setting" and a setting that fills a niche is that the former can be swapped and replaced easily, and the latter is absolutely connected to its concepts.

A Major Theme
To start off, a game needs to be designed around a consistent theme and tone, whether it's serious or silly, fantastic or realistic. There needs to be an immediate establishment of mood and an understanding of the way the universe works - whether the brave hero will soundly beat the foul villains and laugh about it, or whether it'll be a grim and gory fight that leaves him exhausted and wounded and them dead and bloodied. It affects the audience's understanding of what to expect and how the universe works in this setting.

However, another important aspect of "theme" is the setting's hook. What is it about the setting that sets it apart? What's the major difference that makes it worth exploring? Here's some examples: The Warp in Warhammer. The Force in Star Wars. Post-Scarcity in Star Trek. The Spice in Dune. Augmentation technology in Deus Ex. Element-bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Immortals in Highlander. Mutants in X-Men. Airships in Skies of Arcadia. The Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

While not all of these ideas are entirely unique in their own right, the way they affect the setting is key. It's not a disposable element. You cannot have the setting without that element. In many settings, on the other hand, the universe could easily exist without a key element. What's Mass Effect without the relays? It's still Space Opera, they'd find some other way to get around in their generic swooping spaceships. What's Halo without the Forerunners? Still basically "humans fighting aliens". What's any given fantasy setting without its primary threat? Basically a recycled view of Tolkien. They're important to the lore and background, but not to the series itself in a meta-sense.

Obviously, there's reasons this happens. Sometimes people just want to mess around with a theme similar to one they've see before and don't want it to be wholly different. Sometimes generic is good or comforting: I don't care to learn a new setting, I just want my elves and dwarves and halflings. On the other hand, these settings are hard to defend in their own right, because they borrow so much from other things. They provide basically the same "service" that a lot of other settings provide, and don't corner the market. You could go to any number of other settings and get the same thing. There has to be either (a) something about the setting that you can't get anywhere else, unless it's copied, or (b) something about the setting that makes it immediately definable and is absolutely essential to the setting.

Design & Style
The way a game's visuals are designed is more important than a lot of people give it credit for. I've discussed this in the past, but suffice to say a game's presentation largely affects the way the audience thinks about it. Design can be absolutely instrumental in making a world or setting more believable, or drawing the audience in with its fantastic nature. No matter what the intention is, artistic direction is a major, important aspect of how a world is perceived.

Of course, as much as people like to suggest that fantasy is basically "medieval Europe with magic", the truth is a bit further off than that. The "standard fantasy visual style" is less based on "actual designs" and more on a cannibalized, recycled concept that relies on fantastic stylization. Yet, despite this, the same "fantastic style" has been reused so many times that it's become generic itself. There's an underlying design that permeates most fantasy series and makes them essentially interchangable - from Warcraft to Dragon Age, from Neverwinter Nights to Oblivion, from D&D to LOTRO, from RIFT to Fable to Guild Wars. It's not realistic enough to take advantage of the benefits realism provides (feeling more tangible and weighty), but it's not really visually distinct or exciting either. It's just another round of "standard fantasy" - there's swords and plate armor and chain armor, but it's neither detailed nor creative.

Of course, standard design isn't limited to fantasy. Sci-Fi has plenty of standardized concepts, from spaceships to aliens to the ubiquitous space marines. Again, I could find plenty of pictures of grey-brick spaceships or sleek speeders or space marines, but the point is pretty clear: artists and designers take a lot of inspiration from each other and recycle these concepts. There's sort of an ongoing theme of "I could easily take stuff from one setting and dump it in another and it would work fine". There's nothing unique about the designs, they're just pre-existing patterns that are altered slightly for the specific universe.

One of the rare fantasy series I can name that hasn't been wholly aped by copycats is Warhammer Fantasy, which is really weird because, in design terms, it's just Renaissance-era stuff combined with the usual mix of Tolkien fantasy. The nature of this design became apparent when Warhammer Online came out, and had a much more cartoonish and exaggerated style (while still using the same basic visual concepts). It didn't feel like Warhammer, because Warhammer is built on grit and tangibility. Even a slight artistic change to the setting made it "not the same". If fantasy was really based on medieval Europe, Warhammer's style would never be considered so distinct or important, and yet there are relatively few competitors in the genre of "Dark Fantasy" (Demon's Souls and Berserk both spring to mind, but lack the high fantasy elements), which makes it unique in some form or another.

A distinct art style can make or break a setting. People remember the "used future" of Star Wars and Aliens versus the "raygun gothic" of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Warhammer 40,000 is undeniably "space fantasy", in contrast to the flashier "space opera" of games like Mass Effect, Metroid, or Halo. The more an aesthetic stands out, the more likely it is that the setting will be visually memorable. It's about supply and demand - if people want power armor and chainsaw swords, they have a different set of options than if they want power armor and generic blaster weapons. It's something that groups the series into one style or another, and putting it in a style with less competitors makes it more memorable.

An Interweaved Setting
One problem that often arises when a new setting is developed is that elements are sort of haphazardly added to it. For example, here's a fantasy world, let's populate it with dwarves and elves and humans. Then let's assign some traits to those races so they're not boring or standard. This means that the same procedure could be done in any other setting - just drag-and-drop those "different dwarves" into a new fantasy setting, and they'd still work. Yes, you can have desert elves, but there's no reason that "desert elves" would be specifically unique to your universe. They're not intrinsically connected to the setting, they just sort of exist in it. There's no sense that they're the way they are because of the setting, but instead they're a fully developed culture dropped into a setting. They exist in their own sense and interact with the setting on the barest possible level.

When I looked at Warhammer 40,000, for example, I noted that the Imperium exists the way it does specifically because of the Warp. It causes the cultural divide between planets, it causes the fervent paranoia that dogs their society, and it necessitates its all-encompassing religious dogma and technological stagnation. Without the Warp, the Imperium doesn't exist. You cannot remove the Imperium from 40k because every single aspect of the Imperium is influenced by the Warp. The same goes for almost every other race in 40k, with the exception of the Tau (who largely ignore it). Along with their differing visual style, this has become a point of contention that makes the Tau one of the rare "easily transferred to another setting" factions in 40k.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a setting that specifically relies on a set of traits to establish its character: it's feudalism in space, people fight with swords because they have personal force fields, spice is used for space travel, and nobody uses computers because of a past uprising. These are the rules of the setting. They are what separates "Dune" from "generic sci-fi". If you took factions or events from Dune and set them in another universe, they wouldn't work, because the nature of the setting has influenced everything within that setting. Everything is interconnected - the universe works the way it does because it's been shaped by events, and everyone within the universe is affected by the way the universe works.

So what would happen if you introduced a faction that used guns and computers and was a reasonable space-democracy? What would that do to the setting? It wouldn't mesh at all, for one thing, and because it doesn't draw upon the background of the concept, it would undo the "unique" nature of the universe. Because it doesn't rely upon the nature of the setting, it would be easy to transfer this new faction into any other fictional universe, because it would be just as out-of-place there as it would be in Dune. It's not custom-tailored for anything, which makes it generic.

There's a few more examples I can think of. Star Trek is based around the idea of a post-scarcity society, so introducing a race like the Ferengi sort of messes with that premise (although they do fulfill the thematic Trek requirement of being a reflection of human nature, so they get a pass). Star Wars is based around a very black-and-white view of good and evil (Jedi and Sith), so taking that out would fundamentally change the nature of the setting. The issue is: "If you took out that concept, would the setting be the same? Would any faction be unchanged, or are they intrinsically connected to the nature of events?"

When something's accused of being "generic", that's generally what's meant: it can fit into any basic genre-standard setting without incident. There's nothing about it that makes it unique to the setting, because it doesn't interact with the setting. So is it impossible to have "new ideas"? No. You just need to work them down to the most basic level of the setting and intrinsically connect them to the history and development of the world. There are plenty of ways to make a race that fits anywhere, but it's actually much harder to make a race that doesn't.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Settings should have an identifiable hook and theme - something that affects every event and inhabitant of the setting and that majorly shapes the nature of the universe.
2) Production styles, whether art, music, or voice, are an important factor in making a setting stand out - far moreso than simply reversing tropes.
3) The important part is that the setting should be memorable and unmistakable. It shouldn't be possible to mistake one setting for another - the setting needs to exist on its own merits by being built from the ground up.
4) If your setting or its components could fit seamlessly into another setting without modifying anything, then it's not going to be memorable or unique for your setting.
5) It's okay to have a "generic" setting - just realize that what you're peddling is the kind of stuff that people can find in hundreds of other games, if that's what they're after.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Analysis: Kane & Lynch

"Kane & Lynch" is a particularly divisive series. On the one hand, it's a grim, gritty look at bank heists and criminal dealings, and it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting those things. On the other hand, the characters and their deeds are so gruesome that players become disengaged from the narrative and stop caring about the protagonists. It's notable because it's so unpleasant in thematic terms that it stands out among a fairly populated set of crime-based games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, both of which have you doing similar things.

The issue is one of theme and presentation, not of content. There are plenty of games that have you mowing down civilians with machine guns. There are plenty of games where it's perfectly acceptable to be a total sociopath. There are plenty of games where the characters are unpleasant to be around, or at least they would be if you were around them in real life. The issue is that it ends up being unpleasant for the player, not just the characters, which games like GTA try to avoid. The difference between K&L and GTA is that GTA focuses on a sort of protagonist-centric morality, where only main characters are important and everyone else dies without much fuss, while K&L shows its characters as being as horrible as they would be in real life.

The two primary characters in K&L are, naturally, the titular pair. Kane is a former mercenary whose past has caught up to him. In the first game, he's told to retrieve a stash of money that he hid from his former partners - if he doesn't, his ex-wife and daughter die. Kane's daughter is his main motivation, and he doesn't really care who he has to be unpleasant to if it helps her. He's a classic example of moral myopia: he's an unpleasant person who does unpleasant things to people, but he's got his one focus that he tries to keep happy. He's undoubtedly evil, but he has an important attachment - in this case, an attachment that actually hates him because of his moral failings and irresponsibility.

Lynch, in the first game, is Kane's warden - there to make sure that he doesn't run off when he's told to go find his stash. He tends to simultaneously be the voice of reason (or, at least, disbelief) and the unreliable element that makes everything go to hell when he loses his medication. What's believable about his character, to me, is that he's not totally defined by being insane. He's got other motivations and can form attachments (as in K&L2), it's just that he's willing to do evil things most of the time and occasionally has lapses of psychopathic behavior. Notably, he's also an uncharismatic psychopath - he's not some badass sociopath, he's a creepy guy who kills people in gross and unpleasant ways.

The thing that sets them apart from, say, Niko Bellic or any other GTA protagonist is that Kane and Lynch theoretically exist in a "real" world. When they gun down civilians, it's meant to be as tragic as if they'd done it in real life. In GTA, the world is a sandbox full of jerks. Every sound clip is meant to reinforce how stupid the average civilian is, so it's okay to run them over with your car and it's no big deal. Friendly criminals can have wacky personalities and it's meant to be fun to watch. If someone the character likes dies, it's meant to be tragic, because you - the player - were attached to the character.

Kane and Lynch doesn't have that; crimes are depicted as being as cruel as they would be in real life, with little to no "gloss" or "glamor" to cover it up. It's all the same things that get done in other games, but it's presented in a way that shows that the characters in-universe disapprove as well. In most crime-related games, it seems like the running concept is that crime is totally awesome and fun and should be enjoyable. So what if the average person doesn't like it? Haters gonna hate. K&L, on the other hand, takes a more objective light, and by that light the player is allowed to see that these actions are actually pretty reprehensible, and even other criminals don't really like Kane or Lynch because of it. It's the same stuff, but presented in a way that doesn't hide the nature of their deeds.

Story & Narrative
K&L's narrative is largely defined by "things going wrong". In K&L1, the simple objective of "retrieve the money Kane stashed" is complicated by a bevy of other issues that arise. In K&L2, the game starts with something going wrong and then things never actually stop going wrong. This can be a bit of a "Diabolus Ex Machina" - i.e., things being bad for the sake of being bad. It stretches out the game's content, sure, but it feels fake to the player. It's certainly a change from the protagonists effortlessly accomplishing things without trouble and automatically getting a happy ending, but it's ultimately just as contrived.

This was especially prevalent in K&L2: almost the entire city is after you, and even though you mow down over a thousand people by the end of the game, nobody's ever like "yeah I think we should just let them go". It's one objective from near-beginning to end: Get out of Shanghai. The forces against you escalate so much that it's almost laughable, and lacks any sense of plausibility ("Wait, you mean they're sending soldiers against me now? Like, for real?")

Kane and Lynch's main problem is that there's not a lot of logical buildup to things going wrong. After all, "things going wrong" is a pretty solid plot motive, but in this case it's not supported. It just turns into guaranteed failure after guaranteed failure, with no real hope of redemption or success. It's fine to subvert the audience's expectations about the character's automatic success, but that requires that they think that "automatic success" will occur. As it is, K&L's narrative is just as predictable, but from the other direction.

Kane and Lynch is a gritty game. It knows it's a gritty game. It desperately wants to be a gritty game. The entire style of K&L2, for example, was patterned after camcorder footage ripped straight from COPS or some similar show. The desire for "grit" becomes even more obvious when you factor in the trailers, which attempt to depict gore and violence as "realistically" as possible. Everything about the game, from level design to character modeling, is meant to evoke a very realistic sensibility similar to a live-action gritty crime film. If you just played the game without shooting, it would seem pretty damn immersive, especially when it comes to stuff like the nightclub level in Dead Men.

For me, though, this fell apart as soon as gameplay actually started. As I've discussed before, it's hard to create a game that establishes concepts like "realism" and actually follow through with it. In this case, the game is so gritty that I was actually surprised in K&L2 when the game actually started being a game. The game up to that point had felt so immersive and realistic that as soon as all the usual game stuff showed up (ragdolls, regenerating health, bullets that don't damage clothing or flesh but just explode in globs of red jelly) it felt ridiculous and disconnected from the narrative.

It's even worse because the trailers focus on a very grounded sort of gunplay, where the sounds and impacts are emphasized and a bullet wounds someone fairly realistically. If you watched the trailers, that's the kind of stuff the game would seem to be about. If you played the game, on the other hand, it's a genre-standard Gears of War cover shooter - and it has to be, because it's first and foremost a third-person shooter. It's like that for the same reason every other game is: because if you make a game about shooting, there's not enough you can do to avoid getting shot while still actually having a lot of content.

These issues can be divided into necessary and unnecessary. For example, the horrible guns in both games were unnecessary: giant globby yellow tracers that moved too slowly mixed with inaccurate, poorly-handling guns just made the whole thing feel extremely fake. It's hard to buy into the idea that guns are realistically deadly when it takes a full magazine to down someone a few yards away from you. It's the kind of little thing that takes away from the game's overall presentation: here we are led to believe that this is like reality, and then the necessities of gameplay and stylistic decisions start to aggressively intrude on the concept.

To me, Kane and Lynch is a good movie attached to a bad game. All of the bad parts come from gameplay, including the narrative "things go wrong" problems, which are necessary to stretch out the gameplay from a very thin premise. In every respect except the gameplay, it's excellent - presentation, design, characterization, and so on. It presents a grim and gritty look at criminal heists in the same way that movies like "Heat" do, and for once it seems like criminal protagonists are being treated like psychopaths instead of jokingly tolerated. It's the necessities of gameplay that drag it down, because as much as it would be nice, games aren't "real" yet. People who get shot look fake, the bullets look fake, the guns feel fake. Everything that has to do with gameplay feels totally unreal and it just drags down the rest of the game with it.

So, To Sum Up
1) Kane and Lynch is a good movie because it presents an unflinching look at traditional notions of the "heroic sociopath" and can actually make jaded gamers feel awkward about blood and gore and murdering civilians simply because of how it presents them.
2) Everything about the actual "game" parts of K&L undermine this by feeling fake and unimmersive.
3) Some of those things are necessary technical limitations (ragdolls), some are necessary gameplay choices (regenerating health), and some are just kind of a pain (the way guns handle).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Minor Update (Site Archives)

For your convenience I've just compiled a list of the articles on the site by theme - it's in the "site overview" page over on the right-hand side of the screen, and should be easier to browse through than the chronologically listed normal archives. Thank you for all your support thus far and all the links that people have been giving out.

In addition, I may be slowing my updating down a bit unless anyone has specific requests for topics. Feel free to comment on any old articles or ask for a specific series analysis. At this point I believe I've given you all the tools to figure out what I think about it yourselves, but I'm always game if anyone wants something talked about in detail.

J. Shea

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Role-Playing Elements

Before, I talked about role-playing in terms of mechanics contributing to a game's realism. However, there's more to that issue than simply making things "realistic", per se. The way a game presents itself affects how players think about it, and think about what's happening. For example, the institution of an armor system can affect how players see combat - either blows glancing off armor or the armor absorbing the blow, depending on whether armor is used as evasion or damage reduction. Health and "hit points" play a similar role.

The role-playing process (or how players understand it) can be broken down into a few key questions: "Who am I", "What am I doing", "What can I do", "What's going on", and so on. It's a translation of "the rules" to "the universe": the rules exist to determine what happens, but to really roleplay the characters must understand what's happening to the characters. The more things are thrown in the way of that, the less useful it is to determine how such an event would affect the characters.

This is the kind of stuff that can end up being intimidating to a person new to the hobby. It's one thing to say that they're taking on the role of a character and doing things, but it's another to introduce a huge number of rules and regulations about it. Improv acting is relatively easy, but doing so in an unfamiliar setting is hard, and "playing a game" at the same time is harder. 

Character: "Who Am I?"
There are several different concepts of characters as they exist in RPGs, but there's two major concepts I think can be identified. The first of these is the "iconic" character, which is usually associated with a class-based system. In this setup, the class defines the character - the brave warrior, the cunning thief, the pious cleric, the scholarly wizard. That's not just for fantasy, either; every genre has a standard set of archetypes, whether it's western or pirates or spies or sci-fi. There's always some character concepts that people can quickly go "oh, right, he's an x" or "yeah, I remember, she's a y, like in that movie".

The more realistic setup is an "experience" setup, where a character's experience and background informs their skills. This is the system used by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Traveller, for example. A character's background, home, and career affect their skills: a blacksmith would know how to mend armor and weapons, a sailor would know how to crew a ship, and so on. The buildup here is based on a logical understanding of the background: "This character has x experience, so they can do y". The issue is generally that this leaves less room for "fantastic" aspects like character abilities. These things are easily justified by archetypes, but don't always make sense within the realm of a logical human-like character.

Problems can arise when the former is used to try and connect to the latter. Archetypes are not all-encompassing, and neither, for that matter, is "character alignment" in D&D. They serve very limited narrative functions, because in a logical setup "this class gets x class abilities" does not make sense. Therefore, attempting to explain normal people's logical backgrounds as classes does not make sense either, because it's an abstraction for "heroic fantasy" purposes. An iconic character requires suspension of disbelief in favor of genre consistency. This makes it useful for quick identification, but less so for in-depth analysis. The same is true of alignment: it's easy to go "Chaotic Good = Robin Hood" but it's harder to actually look at the components of it under a stringent light.

The difference can be summed up thusly: One's easier to describe, and the other's built up logically but has less room for abstraction.
Iconic character description: "He's a barbarian - you know, like Conan. He's strong and tough and also has a bunch of related abilities like tracking, but he hates magic and doesn't like wearing armor. He can do berserker rage, like most barbarian types. He's chaotic good, so he hates authority but still wants to help people."
Experience-based character description: "Your character grew up in the wilds, so he knows how to hunt and find food. He's physically strong and has worked as a sellsword, so he's got some combat experience. The culture he comes from prefers direct combat to 'cowardice' and values personal freedoms above all, so that would affect his beliefs (but not wholly determine them)."

Interaction: "What Can I Do?"
If you asked a player (without setting up any rules or statistics) what they would do in a situation, how do you think they would respond? Say, for example, that you were in a room with three levers and a skeleton advancing on you. What would you say? Would I need to say what system it is for you to say something like "I pull one of the levers" or "I attack the skeleton"? What factors would you want to know more about to make your decision?

This is the realm of logic and meta-logic. The player's understanding of what they can do is going to be a combination of the tools they have available and the targets they can use them on. In an improvisational scenario, this is very clear cut: "I have x, I will attempt to use it on y". Games, on the other hand, up the ante by including a great deal more tools in the form of character abilities. Furthermore, they change the scenario such that using "real-life" logic no longer applies, because the world temporarily becomes turn-based, or ignores something that would simply make sense.

A new player should be given a very simple start, with a limited inventory, spell list, or whatever. That way, they can work out the application of those items to their situation, in the same way that they might do so in Zelda or an adventure game: "The way is dark, but I have a lantern", "There's a thing stuck on a high shelf, I'll knock it over with a push spell", and so on. It's a pretty simple concept: you want to give them things that connect to uses, but you don't want to give them so much stuff that they don't know where to start.

Combat is a bit more trouble. It's hard to represent combat "believably" because of the necessary abstractions. Still, some concepts are simple enough, depending on how they're presented: get hit with sword, lower health. The question becomes "how do I visualize what's going on", and "how do I deal with combat options other than 'I hit them with my sword'?" This is sort of a strange hurdle to overcome, because logical actions don't necessarily make sense in a turn-based setting: "The ogre strikes at you" "I block with my shield!" "You can't, it's not your turn", or something along those lines. In essence, the game should exist in a way that the universe being represented (in real time) is made as close to game logic as possible.

Setting: "Where Are We?"
The way a setting is represented is key in a tabletop RPG. While the GM is capable of describing things, the ability to draw upon existing imagery cannot be underestimated. Therefore, a GM should try to find a setting that the players are familiar with. If they're fans of Westerns, then they'll know all the classic Western concepts (the creaky old saloon, the hard-bitten prarie, the local sheriff's office) pretty well. If they're thrown into an unfamiliar setting, they won't have those automatic images to rely upon. The more players know about a setting, the more they can automatically fit into it. If they don't know about the setting, then they'll miss details and have to spend time asking about things their characters ought to know about.

Take Star Wars or Star Trek, for example. A person who doesn't know about the aliens in those series would require an explanation of them every time they came across a new species, and for reasons of brevity that explanation would be lacking. If a fan of the series saw an Ithorian or a Sullustan or an Andorian, they already know what that is. Existing imagery is drawn upon in a way that helps further their understanding of the setting. Fans of Star Wars know the distinctive noises of blasters, lightsabers, and TIE fighters. They're familiar concepts that are automatically drawn upon when they encounter one in the game.

A tabletop RPG can be a great way to introduce people to a concept by getting them involved and really helping them feel immersed in the setting. However, that feeling will be augmented if they have existing ideas to work with. Games work with almost no senses - everything has to be described, rather than shown directly. Most media works with two senses (sight and sound), and thus has an automatic advantage in terms of connecting to their audiences. Even the use of prose and narrative in books can help create a lasting image more easily than a beleaguered GM can.

In short, either find a setting players can relate to, or encourage players to look at media outside the game. If you're running a campy spy-fiction game, have them watch old James Bond movies. If you're running an action-packed modern game, have them watch Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Most gamers will have a thematic soundtrack to play during games for this very purpose. Reinforcing concepts of tone is as important an issue as anything else in the game when it comes to sensory connections.

Roleplay: "How Should I Act?"
The concept of roleplaying is pretty diverse. It can range from simply "driving" a character (i.e. using an avatar) to actually attempting to "be" a character (first-person dialog, making choices based on their motivations). This is going to connect to the previous three concepts, because those are going to influence how the player thinks about their character.

Just as there are archetypes for characters, there are also archetypes for players. Some players, for example, enjoy the social aspects of role-playing games, and thus will focus on that part. Some players may enjoy making mechanical decisions using in-universe logic, but will shy away from actually "acting" like their character. Some players may prefer the "game" aspects to the "role-playing" aspects.

Whatever their goals, a player's expectations should be established from the start. The important part is that they're interacting with the world in one way or another. A player who's shy of "talking like their character", for example, can easily convey similar concepts in third person ("My character does x", "my character says y"). This can convey the same information while being less "intimidating".

Players shouldn't feel obligated to play characters that they don't want to - and by that I don't mean in terms of classes and combat roles. A character's motivation should match the player's motivation: if a player is out to get gold and indulge in hedonism, they shouldn't be playing a paladin. If they want to do that, they can (that's roleplaying, after all), but it seems odd to create a divide between "the character's motivation" and "the player's motivation" when the player's motivation is what's actually reflected in the character.

In essence, things like "class" and "perspective" should be considered carefully rather than being prescriptivist or unrelated to the player's choices in the first place. Not every player is "good", and they shouldn't write down "good" on their character sheets if they don't want to play like that. It's perfectly reasonable to play a band of self-indulgent folks who want to get more money as long as there's no illusions about being noble heroes out to save the world.

When a new player is being introduced to a game, they tend to deal with things in very simple ways. This is because that's how hypothetical scenarios are generally treated: based on the use of real-life logic. It's up to the players whether the goal of a game is to create new logic or use existing logic, but by default most people are going to assume that a scenario is something like this:

"Say you're a Sheriff in some border town. Some punks just came into your local bar and they're tearing up the place. What do you do?" "Well, I'd kick their asses and throw them out." "Okay, let's go into the combat rules. What are you going to do first?" "I'll punch one in the face." and so on.

The rules in that scenario would exist to determine whether they managed to pull it off, and the scenario would hence develop from that point. The rules exist to fairly moderate events. However, in a rules-heavy situation, the expected answer would be something more like "I'll use my class ability to do something about them", which is less intuitive of an answer unless you are dealing with a situation where those abilities are understood. A person playing a Jedi, for example, would probably know about the hand-waving hypnosis thing. They would not necessarily know about abilities exclusive to the campaign.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Most players are going to go into a tabletop scenario with the understanding that it's like improv with rules.
2) Being able to draw upon existing concepts of logic and expectations, whether real or fictional, can greatly help the players to understand their role and choices.
3) Every aspect of a character's existence should be considered and related to the player's understanding of the game, and a tone should be established.
4) Basically, imagine yourself trying to play the game with a person who doesn't know the rules. Imagine explaining their class to them, the options available to them, the setting, their motivations, and so on. See how easy it is to translate their "uneducated" choices into the game's rules.