Saturday, September 28, 2013

Recommended Games

So there's been a lot of talk about GTA V lately.

Let's not do that.

Here are a list of games that I feel encompass some qualities of believability and immersion and that serve as a noteworthy alternative to the "action standard" common in games.

Crusader Kings 2 ($40 on Steam)
CK2 is noteworthy because it's first and foremost a game about interpersonal interactions, conflicting personalities, and political marriages. Oh, yes, there's a big map and there's wars and so on, but it's not really a "strategy" game. CK2 is a game about being a medieval ruler. Invariably, with so much power centered on a monarch and a small group of high nobles, that means it's a game about people. Wars will start in CK2 not just for economic reasons, or reasons of expansion, but also because of relationships - a principled duke who can no longer stomach his cruel, craven king, or a ruler who refuses to help an ally-through-marriage out of sheer hatred for them. A good, kind king can give way to a spoiled, incompetent one. Wars will be fought over favored successors, and soldiers will be used as playing pieces for a game beyond their understanding. And yet despite all this, CK2 contains many good and pure things, too - a parent's love for their child, or a political marriage becoming true love. CK2 is not good because it is cruel or grim, but because it is real.

Dwarf Fortress (cheap as free)
DF is a pretty cool game and you can build forts and stuff in the ground, and there's like monsters sometimes, it's cool. Sometimes it's nice to just build a fort and stuff you know, like you build forges and shit and a brewery so your dwarfs can drink beer. I dunno, it's nice. Oh, also there's an implicit anarcho-socialist message to the game where every dwarf essentially takes what they need from the common supply (a derivative of their expedition-borne beginnings). The nobility are not only useless but highly disruptive, forcing their views and laws on an otherwise orderly and equal society based on the threat of force provided to them by a designated executioner. This metaphor grows even larger when coinage is introduced - it's not even usable in its current state, since the transition from an equal commune to a capitalist system essentially drives dwarfs insane, creating widespread unhappiness that leads to revolt. The only protection that the haves can expect against the have-nots comes from the military, since the upper class will always be vastly outnumbered and thus subject to the inevitable forced will of the people unless the trained warriors remain loyal enough to maintain this unfair social system. Oh, and the monster descriptions are kind of neat.

Most of the details in that paragraph came from a Storify post that I can no longer find so if you know which one I'm talking send me it and I'll put it here instead of all this text.

Hitman: Blood Money ($9 on Steam)
It's kind of hard to include H:BM on this list since I'm trying to go for games that aren't callous murder simulators, and in many ways that's exactly what H:BM is. But unlike most violent games, H:BM is a smart game and gives you options for handling situations in believable ways. It's possible (and essentially condoned) to go on a killing spree without remorse or regret. But, more rarely, it's also possible to play the game like an adult and treat the situations like they're real and consequential and possessed of moral depth. It's possible to get through the entire game without killing anyone besides your target, but it's also possible to fuck up and have to kill someone because you made a mistake and you don't want the guards to see you. There's a sense of consequence that arises when "killing" is an exception rather than a rule, and it adds moral tension and stakes to the gameplay. It's a nice sign of what games are capable of accomplishing emotionally when they treat death as a serious part of the gameplay AND the narrative instead of a goofy thing that happens for player amusement.

King Of Dragon Pass ($6 on, $10 for iOS)
KODP is a game where you control a clan of Orlanthi, a Gallic-inspired culture from the fantasy setting of Glorantha. This world has its own rules and realities - Gods definitely exist and frequently interact with the living world, and they expect a great many things from mortals. KODP is in many ways a role-playing game, except you are "playing" an entire clan. It is your job to optimize your harvest, maintain your traditions, keep the Gods happy, and raid your foes - whether human or not. KODP is a management game driven largely by story events; these events tie in well with the management, since they draw upon resources and items that are gathered and collected as part of the management game. While there is certainly a bit of simplification for the sake of gameplay, there's actually almost no ludonarrative dissonance despite the scale of the game. Even the constant warfare and killing in the game is actually totally justified by the setting - it's how the Orlanthi live. The manual advises you to put aside your own morals and play like an Orlanthi, and that alone should tell you how deep this game is capable of getting.

Liberal Crime Squad (cheap as free)
A lot of games make claims on satire through their overindulgent content. Liberal Crime Squad may be satire. It also might not. It depends pretty much entirely on how Tarn Adams feels about politics. LCS is intentionally designed as a "SLA simulator", which is to say, a world where the radical terrorist tactics of the 60s actually accomplish goals and social change. LCS is a game about handing out pamphlets and making your own newspaper. LCS is a game about kidnapping conservatives and murdering cops. LCS is a game about protests and LCS is a game about brainwashing. LCS is a game where you can win everything without ever killing a single person. LCS is a game where you can kill a thousand people and still convince the public to enact social change. LCS is like GTA if you actually had a meaningful reason to feel bad for murdering people. LCS is like GTA if you actually had a meaningful reason for murdering people.  LCS is choice. LCS is consequence. LCS is means. LCS is ends.

Papers, Please ($10 on Steam)
Papers, Please is a bureaucracy sim where you take the role of a border official responsible for managing immigrants and making sure their documents are in order. While a great deal of this game is mechanical work, the game also manages to have an impressive narrative that connects to the gameplay rather than being separated from it. The first aspect of this is that you occasionally get applicants with some story element to them - they're visiting family, or they need a cure for some disease, or they're secretly part of a rebel movement. The second aspect is that your success affects your pay, and your pay affects your ability to provide with your family. Mess up too often and your family will starve, catch sickness, and eventually die. The second aspect connects to the first because intentionally allowing a bad applicant in for personal reasons counts as a failure, and can thus have an effect on your score. It's also reinforced by the gameplay that terrorism, plague etc are legitimate threats, thus making the entrance requirements more logical and sympathetic than just being an empty bureaucracy. Also worth looking at is the author's earlier work, "The Republia Times".

Red Orchestra 2 ($10 on Steam)
Red Orchestra 2 is a Stalingrad Simulator that takes the form of a realistic first-person shooter. The use of atmosphere and mechanics creates a highly immersive experience that really drives home how terrifyingly deadly and oppressive the war really was. From long-range fighting on the plains to house-by-house fighting in the urban center, Red Orchestra 2 helps players understand the battle that claimed at least two million lives over the course of six months. Players, especially new players, will often be killed by people that they can't see. They will fumble on reloads as an enemy rounds the corner and stabs them with a bayonet. They will take cover behind a wall only for the bullets to penetrate anyways. They will get shot in the gut and die, screaming and moaning, in total agony. Red Orchestra 2 is a game that lets you know that war fucking sucks and it makes this statement as often as it can just by the virtue of the way the game is played. There's no grand narrative necessary, no condescending story. Just you, your vulnerable body, and the thousands of believable ways that you are probably going to die without really being able to do anything about it.

SWAT 4 ($10 on Amazon)
SWAT 4 is the flipside of Red Orchestra 2; it's a realistic shooter, but in many ways it's anchored to our own mundane world rather than the hellish landscape of Stalingrad. SWAT 4 is a police simulator of sorts, where you lead a team of officers methodically through buildings, taking down perps and rescuing civilians. What separates this game from light-gun cop games or even from something like Rainbow Six is the nature of the game's bureaucracy. You have to issue warnings before you shoot someone unless they are in the process of shooting at you. You have to handcuff every living person you meet, whether civilian or surrendered criminal. You have to secure every weapon. Killing criminals, even for justified reasons, loses you points - a perfect run is done using non-lethal weaponry such as tazers and pepper spray. SWAT 4 is a game that takes death as seriously as it can, and it's a nice change of pace from the bloodthirsty TERRORIST KILLER genre of games.

Total War (Series)
The Total War series is similar to Hitman in that it's possible to play it sociopathically or morally. It's entirely possible to play Total War as a game first and foremost, throwing soldiers into danger without regard for their safety or well-being. But it's also possible, due to the game's relative realism, to try to take things seriously and actually have some level of concern for your soldiers' safety. In addition, like Red Orchestra, Total War illustrates "what war is like", albeit on a more zoomed-out level. The press of shield-walls, the rain of arrows, the terrifying thunder of cannons, all these things are represented in the game. Thousands of men die in battle, and even the most skilled warrior can do little against a direct hit from a siege weapon. This effect is compounded by Medieval 2's character development system, where generals and family members will gain attributes either through their actions or purely randomly. These generals can all die in combat, which adds a greater, more personal stake to the action in addition to concern for the lives of one's men.

Tropico 3 ($10-$15 on Steam)
When I talk about Tropico 3 I have to do it by talking about another game first, namely Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Infinite is a story about racial tension and governmental control and economic inequality that is expressed via shooting people. Tropico 3 is a game about all those things that is expressed by actually running a government and dealing with rebellions. Tropico 3 is a game that puts you in a position of power, where you are capable of suppressing elections, spying on your citizens, and imprisoning or assassinating dissidents at your leisure. If you are relatively open, your bad policies are countered by citizens protesting and voting against you. If you are clamping down on free speech and free choice, your citizens take up arms against you, because their means of peaceful resistance have been removed. This teaches you more about violence than Bioshock Infinite's South Park-esque "both rebels and oppressors are equally bad"  lesson ever will.

Victoria 2 ($20 on Steam)
Vicky 2 is sort of a combination of CK2 and Tropico, not as "zoomed in" as either but with a lot of the same choices. Victoria 2 takes place in the period between 1820 and 1930, a period of societal and technological transition and upheaval. Choosing any country in the world, it is your job to manage that country & keep it from being subjugated by its neighbors. Like CK2, there is no real "win condition"; the default gameplay assumed that conquering territory is a positive, but it's also possible to measure success by the happiness and well-being of your citizens. It's possible to enact social reforms through supporting policies, to transition from a slave-holding nation to a free nation, to create and improve welfare programs, to give the vote to every citizen of age, male or female. It's also possible to over-tax the poor, indulge the rich, and support a course of action that ensures that the upper class stays on top. Each action will generate anger from its detractors, and managing political ideologies and rebellions is a major part of the game.

Way of the Samurai (Series)
The primary virtue of WOTS is the way it handles its plot/gameplay relationship. Rather than being one long, meandering story, WOTS games depict short scenarios with lots of points for change and consequence. WOTS3, for example, has 21 different endings. There's still plenty of "gameplay", but compared to something like Fallout New Vegas, the results are more immediate. It also means that death & failure are included in the game mechanics, since "death" means the end of the immediate game (a few hours of gameplay at most) and not the end of the total game (up to 100 hours). WOTS3 also does some interesting things with combat and characterization; as a member of a faction, you can talk to your fellow faction-members and humanize them a bit, which changes things up when you play the next run as their enemies and have to potentially cut them down. The game offers non-lethal options and even the ability to beg for mercy as ways to mitigate this guilt.


Company of Heroes is good for its immersion and pathos despite being an RTS, traditionally one of the goofier genres in terms of summoning new units into the world via a barracks. Its reliance on "gamist" bonuses drowns out its realism but at the same time its depiction of units breaking under mortar fire, screaming and crying for mercy, is almost as intense as Red Orchestra's. The voice acting really helps carry the whole experience, which is actually one of RO2's weaknesses (at least, in the sense that there's not ENOUGH voice actors).

D.Souls is a game that I don't really feel even needs explanation. It's a solid action-RPG. Its harsh gameplay creates (totally atmospheric) feelings of fear and panic and keeps players on a razor's edge at all times. It's funny, too, because if the game was gentler - more health, kinder checkpoints - it would have been totally forgettable. Nice graphics and handling, maybe, but certainly not the experience it came to be. Everything about it hinges on how seriously you have to take the game to play it well.

Deus Ex is on this list, but not Human Revolution.

Dragon's Dogma is a cool open-world RPG and it has some good action and I like the way you have to prepare for a big expedition every time you leave the safety of the game's main city. I like the way that you can turn off almost every part of the HUD, which should be mandatory. I like how you can navigate your way around the game world by using the capital city as a reference point. I like that there's lanterns and when it gets dark out it's actually really dark and not just "game" dark. I also like that it uses Shadow of the Colossus-style climbing mechanics in a full-sized action-adventure instead of it being limited to a single limited-focus game.

Gone Home is not actually on this list I'm sorry. I feel like it could have been but there's this whole feeling where you're expecting a mystery and there really isn't one and honestly I'd get a better LGBT-discovery experience by opening Twitter and asking my followers how they feel today. I mean I dunno, Jesus, at least you don't fucking murder anyone.

Metal Gear Solid 3 would have been really great if someone had made it who wasn't Hideo Kojima. Like seriously "sneak through the jungle, managing your supplies and tools" is a great idea, and then it's ruined by being a Metal Gear game. Come on, dude. Let me have the C4 and the CQC and the ability to use environments to my advantage and then get out of here with the fucking conspiracy plot and the boss battles. Go home.

Mount and Blade is really good for a game made by a single Turkish couple. It's got good fundamentals, but a kind of weak overall focus. It's a good approach to game design though, because it fills a mechanical niche with competent gameplay - in this case, an open-world medieval game with action-based melee combat. The relatively stagnant point is a bit of a problem, though; castles can change hands, but it's difficult to enact lasting change.

Sleeping Dogs was pretty cool when I thought it was going to be a martial arts action-adventure where your loyalties to the police would be tested by the realities of your infiltration of a dangerous and ruthless criminal underworld but then it just turned out to be regular GTA but in Hong Kong, and then poop fart butt video games

STALKER is immersive and cool and does a lot of good things. Its approach to open-world adventuring is a really good standard to set, since it combines relatively realistic shooting with a survival-horror-esque approach to combat. Throw in the peculiar nature of the zone and its other human inhabitants and you've got a solid all-around experience.

Okay that's it that's all the interesting games goodbye

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Design Document: "The Game of Throne of Games".

Earlier today, Ian Miles Cheong pointed out something to me that explained a lot of how I feel about fantasy, especially fantasy in games. He asked this: Where is the A Song Of Ice And Fire of video games? Where is the game that transforms "fantasy" from an escapist farce into an actual, respected genre for games and storytelling?

And that's a simple question, but it's a question with a lot of background to it that needs to be addressed. There ARE games that use the base components of GoT: successions, kingdoms, bloodlines, battles, and so on and so forth. But the problem is that none of them have ever really created a coherent ludonarrative reality where every part of the game is working to support this one real thing. Every example I can list has its problems, or at least differences with the successful GoT model.

Crusader Kings 2 is a game I love to death. It's amazing in a lot of ways. But it's a story creator, in the most zoomed-out, uncharacterized way possible. It is a game about hundreds of years of history being condensed into a few hours, it's not a game about one war or one conflict. It's a game for imagination and filling-in-gaps, it is not a game that tells a single person's story well. The Total War series has the same problem - its characters are computer-generated, with traits and personalities, but it's not a game about "telling their story". It's not personal or emotional enough to really get in there.

Final Fantasy Tactics is certainly about a single war - a war for succession, no less - but the problem with FFT is that FFT is about battles between ten warriors that ignores the battles between thousands. Things like politics and allegiance are never a huge concern in FFT; Ramza hires warriors, then goes off and does his own thing while his ever-loyal army remains by his side. Relatedly, the game's childish art (certainly a necessity of technology, yet still) does not help immerse the player into a world of medieval politics and intrigue - which, by all accounts, it is supposed to be.

An earlier work by Yasumi Matsuno was Ogre Battle: Let Us Cling Together. In many ways, LUCT addressed the previous concern without really doing so enough. While FFT's story has a succession crisis in the background and Ramza's own concerns in the foreground, LUCT's protagonist is more directly part of the game's main war. The director based LUCT on the Yugoslav wars, and correspondingly the conflict in LUCT is one divided on ethnic lines. As such, your party members have ethnic loyalties and their affiliation with you will be affected by the paths you choose. Yet at the same time this is still a game about six-on-six combat, and "morale" means very different things when you're managing a small band and when you're managing a united army.

Finally, the Suikoden series of games generally manages to do a good job regarding scale - the player generally starts in a position of power, but is deposed or betrayed and has to work their way back up. Suikoden involves large-scale battles as well as the usual "adventuring party" segments which helps to create the sense that there is an actual war going on. The reason it's not usually included in discussion of serious fantasy games is that the game relies heavily on JRPG tropes and a lighthearted, sometimes-broken tone. The art, music and writing all suggest a world where the battles aren't as serious or grim as they could be - after all, it's a game series ultimately for children.

So, thinking logically, if I wanted to make a fantasy game that would be taken seriously and would use the interactive medium to its fullest extent, here are some things that I would do.

A Single, Direct Origin
Interactivity as a game concept is about giving the player ways to interact with the environment based on justified cause-and-effect. In games like CK2, this is created by making the entire game an emergent, unbreaking chain of events and AI behaviors. For this theoretical game, founded in something more zoomed-in, it's important to start somewhere coherent so that the player has a "world" established to mess around with. Going off the themes established, there could be any number of potential situations to start with: an ethnic war, a deposed royal family, a ducal coup, a peasant rebellion, resistance against an invading force, etc etc etc. Despite the diversity of choice, this is still an important decision to make because it affects why everything is happening. Why the protagonist wants to fight whoever it is they're fighting. Why people would want to join them. What the end goal is. How the character is expected to behave. How much responsibility they bear. The situation affects the character, and the character (if they're well-established) affects the player.

Large-Scale Real-Time Tactics
The reason it's important to have things be "large scale" is because large scale, by its nature, involves death. In a small scale game it's very easy to shift things mechanically so that nobody dies. The focus on RPG systems makes it so that random character death is far less acceptable and represents a larger investment of time and energy. Compare Valkyria Chronicles with Company of Heroes. Compare Final Fantasy Tactics with Medieval Total War. Death needs to be able to happen because death is part of a story, not just an annoying mechanic where you have to restart.

Scale is important. Scale gives the sense that there's an actual war going on, and if scale can be well established the player should be reminded that thousands of soldiers are fighting and bleeding and dying for their cause. It's morally simple to have six loyal friends follow you around beating up goblins and orcs. It's a lot more complex to be leading an army, especially when that army is made up of people with their own ideas and values and families and livelihoods. Now it's about responsibility, not personal sacrifice - about what you're asking your soldiers to do, not just what you yourself are willing to do.

Politics, Agency and Consequence
One of the games I neglected to add to the list was Victoria 2, primarily because it's not fantasy. But Victoria 2 does have an aspect that's relevant to this: the idea of population politics. Individuals in a nation have ideologies, separated by class and region. Setting policies will appease or anger ideologies, and choices made during the game will shift people's ideology from one side to another. Making a powerful group angry can result in a rebellion that has to be put down, oftentimes during a crucial moment in a different war.

Now let's frame this in the concept of a single rebellion or war. Where do your troops come from? Who are your allies? Who's supplying you? Can you make every potential ally happy or would they have contradictory goals? Say you raised most of your troops as volunteers in the name of freedom. Would they be happy if you had to make concessions to an authoritarian faction in order to avoid war? Would they understand? The idea of actually having to manage morale as the end result of people's desires and values and wishes helps to create a sense of agency for all the troops you command. They're not mindless slaves. They're not chattel. They're not going to stay with you for no reason. These are people who have entrusted their LIVES to you for the sake of one cause or another. Similarly, there are many powerful figures in a kingdom - dukes, barons, counts. Are these nobles going to help you or your enemy? It will depend on your personality and your goals. The common people might flock to your banner if you promise to improve their rights, but can you afford to anger the noble class? Choices have systematic, long-term consequences because they reflect how the world perceives you and how they respond to you.

This system also solves a problem that games often encounter, where "romance" is an arbitrary choice for player indulgence. Dragon Age and Mass Efffect are the two biggest offenders here; their romance subplots don't affect gameplay, it's just a side game so the player can live vicariously through their protagonist. In a noble system, however, marriage is about far more than love alone. Crusader Kings does an admirable job with the concept, but it doesn't take it quite far enough. What we're looking for is, quite naturally, a level akin to Game of Thrones - where "love or duty" is a serious choice with consequences. Even if you choose "duty", which duty is the most important? What happens when you marry someone and your allies betray you? Would you marry someone you despised if they offered you more power? In its own way these sorts of option give a sense of agency to the spouse as well, since now they're part of the political system in a way beyond "immobile love interest". They, like everyone else in the world, have their own desires and values.

Failure Is A Gameplay Mechanic
The problem I have with a lot of games is that they're structured in such a way that people simply don't accept failures. The idea that a fudged battle or event is worth "loading state" over affects the way a story is perceived. Games can force hard choices on players, but "convenience" is rarely the reason an option is taken. There are few games where you accept an unpleasant alliance purely because you need the help - generally, games are so trivially easy and give you so many retries that even if you get boxed into a bad situation you can power your way out of it given enough effort.

Hard choices, as a rule, need to actually have consequence to be effective. If you make a bad choice, you should be able to fight out of it or deal with it in some way, but it should be DIFFICULT, and that difficulty should have meaning throughout the rest of the game. In X-COM if you mess up on a mission you might lose soldiers permanently. In Total War or Crusader Kings, a bad war (or even a bad battle) can mess up your entire kingdom. Things like this help keep players on their toes and conscious of the decisions they're making instead of treating gameplay like a throwaway, skippable part of the game.

Ludonarrative Cohesion
The biggest thing about the three prior points is that the goal here is to create a reality where gameplay and story do not diverge. It is perfectly plausible and justifiable to have a tactics-based video game that mirrors the reality of a medieval-style war pretty closely. There's nothing impossible about it, it's just a question of detail. Every decision that the player makes, whether in "management" or in combat gameplay, can exist in-universe. There's none of that weirdness where the main characters are like a thousand times more powerful than every other human for no reason, because it's a game about command, not about supermen. There's none of that bizarre choice-making in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where it's a direct branch into another story point because now those choices translate into gameplay with lasting effects. It all has to work together to create a cohesive reality. Every soldier that dies is real to the universe, and at the end of your road you're going to have to answer to every single one.

The Importance Of Realism
This is the last part and I think it's going to be the hardest for gamers to give up. Design and visuals are seen as a subjective thing by a lot of people, and in most respects they are. But realism, as I've covered numerous times, offers a variety of advantages in terms of how the player responds to stimuli. It helps things feel visceral and provides sensory reactions. It helps the player take things seriously. Yes, ultimately whether or not realistic designs are "good" is subjective, but that's also true of writing and you can still tell when something's being seriously written, can't you? It's the same thing. Realism, of whatever sort, is the aesthetic of the serious story.

That's not to say this is a BROWN AND BORING sort of realism, by its nature. Reality has plenty of colors (another thing that I've covered hundreds of times before). Simple, modest things like sashes and tabards take the place of oversized shoulderpads and golden armor. The real issue here is about making a story that seems like it's by, for, and ABOUT adults. It's about the fate of nations and people, not about escapism and fun. It's a story that bears responsiblity and weight to it. The visuals need to reinforce that by actually depicting adults, not circus clowns and teenagers.

The end goal here is to get, as we said, the Game of Thrones of games - a cohesive, logical story with a consistent tone and setting where characters' actions and motivations play out to create a tapestry of events. If the visuals can't keep up with the tone, then you might as well not even bother. Because this isn't just about "gameplay" anymore. This isn't about making an entertaining experience. It's about making an interactive story that people can take seriously. It's about making something that offers depth and emotion through its gameplay as well as through its human interactions. It's about making something that says "this is a thing that I could not do with a movie or a visual novel or whatever". It's about making something real.