Posts Tagged ‘ role-playing ’

Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

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Play By Email Week: DungeonWorld

Concluding Play By Email Week, the last game I’ve been playing lately is Madhouse Interactive’s DungeonWorld. As the name implies, it’s a hack-and-slash RPG heavily based on genre clichés. It is processed entirely by computer, with no human moderator making decisions based on your role-playing, but there are enough possible commands, different items, and unique rooms to keep it from feeling like a simple game of numbers. It’s also fairly hardcore, with character death being permanent and the signup page including a quiz to keep out new players who aren’t committed enough to read the rulebook first. I suppose that’s something I find intriguing about PBEM games: Though the players are very friendly, there is none of the hand-holding and guaranteed victory of modern games.

DungeonWorld is priced competitively compared to most other PBEMs, with a sliding scale that lets you choose how committed to become. In a brilliant move, your first character in each module is free. This allows up to eight free characters, from the heroic Kingdom of Bereny to a lawless jungle, an Arabian Nights-inspired desert, and even a steampunk setting. (All but one of those eight, a post-apocalyptic setting, are part of one large world that a strong character could traverse in a few years’ time.) However, it really starts to get interesting once you are paying for multiple characters who can work together and coordinate actions. Considering all the free gaming available, the cost of a couple paid characters seems more than fair. (The exact cost is variable, since it’s in British Pounds and the exchange rate fluctuates, and Madhouse frequently offers specials that let you pre-pay at a discount. But officially, a “position” costs £1, plus £0.50 for each character after the free one.)

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character's actions.

An example turn result, though there are a couple more pages after this to describe the results of the character’s actions.

Each turn of the game includes fifteen rounds of action, so you need to plan out moves without knowing exactly what will happen. There are a variety of options available for both moving and attacking to let your character perform intelligently (sometimes…) even if the situation becomes different than what you expected. As usual, PBEM allows plenty of room for simultaneous choices among players. Will you reach that loot before the character on the other side of the room? Are those orcs going to come after your weak Enchanter? Do you need to devote a whole turn to attacking an enemy, or will it be defeated in a couple rounds?

This simultaneous-choice game doesn’t go too far, though, because you’re almost never competing against other players. The community is universally friendly and very eager to assist new players. It’s a good thing, too, because the game does have several flaws that would be deal-breakers if not for this. The rulebook is inconsistent and years out of date, so most opportunities and information are passed around verbally. Also, the senior characters are orders of magnitude stronger than new ones, which would make this unfair if there were even a hint of competition between them. Finally, the person who runs the game needs to stay fairly active to correct mistakes, but he also ensures there are always epic quests going on. The game is huge enough to explore for years, but the community is small enough that within a few months I could contribute to the discussion and join in on a major storyline.

There are many email lists with different topics that are used for these discussions. I recommend them, but they’re all optional. You can enter orders on the website, and your results are emailed to you as a pictures and text in a PDF. Unfortunately, the website is not  guaranteed to work (it sends an email to the central server for you, and you get no confirmation that it arrived), and the other options for entering moves are Windows-based programs. Those are nice, but not a great solution to me as a Mac-user. Once again, I find myself wishing for an email order system that lives up to Diplomacy’s standard.

At two weeks between turns, events can take years to play out. My first characters, over a year old now, are halfway through the second level of one dungeon, and only got that far thanks to maps and experienced colleagues. However, that time was very interesting. Monsters and treasure spawn fast enough to keep things moving along, and playing with several characters guarantees that some of them will be in an interesting situation on every turn. Also, at least some experience accumulates every turn, and the system of training and skills allows you to spend experience for chances to improve as you travel along. There’s a constant feeling of forward growth, counterbalanced by the perpetual threat of defeat: Every month or so, another player will announce the death of a years-old character.

Though it has its flaws, DungeonWorld captures the dungeon-crawling experience very well. The slow, ongoing experience sticks with me consistently. Between the emails and my thoughts about what will happen next, it’s like a part of me is always playing. This is the sort of thing that makes PBEM unique.

Grade: B

 

Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes (iPhone Game Review)

Might & Magic battleThe first thing you’ll see when starting Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a warning that quitting the game at the wrong time will corrupt all saved game data. That’s just not an acceptable flaw for an iPhone game to have, and it’s the first sign that this Nintendo DS port may not have been planned very carefully.

I bought Clash of Heroes because, after trying 10000000 and DungeonRaid, I was curious to see another cross between an RPG and a Match 3 puzzler. This game also rewards planning and puzzle solving, but it’s much more of a traditional turn-based RPG than those other two. Not only does it include normal JRPG elements (including exploration, a verbose but half-hearted story, and unnecessary mini-puzzles), but higher-level characters will crush weaker ones no matter how well or poorly each side plays the Match 3 game.

Judged by RPG terms, the battle system is very clever. Your hero leads units of three different colors that go in a grid formation. If you create three matching ones in a column, they will attack up that column, destroying opposing units and hopefully reaching the far end to damage their leader. If you match three in a row, they turn into a defensive wall to block attacks. Combos give you extra actions, and proper positioning can “fuse” and “link” attacks to make them stronger. There are also larger “Elite” and “Champion” units, which become especially powerful if normal units are lined up behind them.

A boss battle

A boss battle

It’s fun, especially since the campaign comes up with a lot of clever twists on the basic system. Some battles require you to attack targets in specific columns, maybe also in a certain order, or planning ahead as they move around. Bosses have unique patterns and attacks, and you can plan ahead by swapping around the units and magical artifact you’ll take into battle. Plus, as this is a Might & Magic game, you know that there will be several different factions, each with units that have their own special ability. If you take the time to get familiar with all of them, you’ll find a lot of depth behind the simple, logical battle system.

Will you take that time, though? Probably not. This game just doesn’t feel designed for an iPhone screen. Everything on the battlefield is very tiny, and it’s easy to make uncorrectable mistakes. (It’s sort of a mixed blessing that the opponent AI is so bad, because they messed up even more often than I did.) When not in a battle, I had more trouble tapping hotspots than I ever have in any game before. Perhaps this would be more playable on an iPad, but it was sold as one usable on iPhones, and that’s how I’m considering it.

Might & Magic dialogEven with a bigger screen, there would be other problems. The fights don’t become interesting until you gain a few levels and earn enough units to fill the battlefield. You need to wait for frequent load screens. Worst of all, the gameplay is slow, with the “minutes played” counter on the save screen feeling less like an interesting fact and more like a note about how much time you’ve wasted. Once your units are ready to attack, they take a certain number of rounds to charge up. This is important to the strategy, since you may use that time to set up combos, and your opponent may try to prepare with walls or by setting up a faster attack in the same column. However, it means that you may still have a few rounds left to play after the outcome of the battle becomes obvious. And the rounds play slowly. With the animations of each unit charging up or fighting and the slow-paced opponent moves, you’ll often need to tap your screen to keep it from falling asleep between the time you end one round and begin the next! That feels way too passive. By the higher levels (which you get to quickly, since the game is a series of campaigns), the no-risk battles against minions can easily take eight to ten minutes, and a battle featuring defense and healing abilities could feasibly take half an hour! They never feel meaty enough to justify that time.

The pick-up battles outside the campaign can be more fun, with evenly-matched high-level fighters and no distracting plot. It still suffers from a too-small screen that will guarantee mistakes, though, and you need to play through the campaign to unlock everything. After more than thirteen hours, I’m apparently halfway through, but I have no motivation to keep going. There are a lot of great ideas that make me want to like Clash of Heroes, but the flaws usually dominate.

Grade: C-

 

Juggernaut: Revenge of Sovering (iPhone Game Review)

JuggernautJuggernaut: Revenge of Sovering is an attempt to translate the feel of a big-budget video game to handheld devices. They found a lot of interesting ways to make the combination work, but main effect was to make me think about how the line between hardcore and casual gaming is a lot finer than most people think.

Juggernaut has many of the hallmarks of a hardcore RPG, from the good (3D graphics largely unparalleled on the iPhone) to the bad (atrocious voice acting and a haphazard story). But the game initially feels like a casual time-waster: You move on rails from one enemy to the next, and attack by choosing one of three directions, avoiding the direction of your opponent’s “gaze”. It’s simple, and at the end of each battle you get a reward by choosing a chest, an extra interactive step that really isn’t different than the game randomly choosing for you.

But then, after you clear an area, you can keep returning to it (while the next enemy waits patiently) in order to tap around and collect “tribute” from the people there. Every now and then, wandering monsters appear there, and you take a break from the pre-planned battles to protect the village that’s giving you money. This made me wonder: Is the time-consuming click-fest to collect coins a remnant of casual games and their easy rewards, or is it really any different from the level-grinding of a classic RPG? The offhanded treatment of civilians as nothing more than a way to get resources could, honestly, fit in either gaming culture.

An example of less-than-stellar writing. ("We have reached the desert, my brave warrior. It is so hot here that you want to peel off layers of clothing!")

An example of less-than-stellar writing. (“We have reached the desert, my brave warrior. It is so hot here that you want to peel off layers of clothing!”)

New elements and mini-games keep appearing, from the tile-matching locks on buried treasure to the magical bits of “Mana” and “Fury” that you need to tap on during fights. But as those elements keep adding up, your battles become more complex. Eventually, you are husbanding that Mana and Fury to use for special moves, making your attacks in a prescribed order to execute combo blows, and trying to use three types of purchasable artifacts as efficiently as possible to win without wasting money. Each individual piece of that is a simple matter of tapping or swiping in response to some stimulus, but isn’t that true of any game? By introducing this system gradually, Juggernaut reveals that an intricate, strategic system can be built on top of game mechanics less interesting than Fruit Ninja.

When everything comes together, Juggernaut’s battle system is a lot of fun. There are a decent amount of things to keep track of, various areas of the screen to manage, and several little tricks that I eventually figured out to make the resources go farther or to save up powerful strikes for the right time. But not every battle is like that. The fun ones are on the main path, where it’s worthwhile to burn through expensive items to progress. Fighting the wandering monsters is only fun when you need to use the system in certain ways to unlock achievements (of course) that lead to special areas. Otherwise, those side monsters are dull: You can usually win without trouble, so you shouldn’t waste special items on them, and you’ll use them as an opportunity to build up Fury and Mana rather than to unleash it. The only thing worse than those those repetitive battles is when you have to aimlessly move around collecting money and waiting for one to appear, because you need to build up more resources before you can handle the next main fight. Grinding is a time-honored part of RPGs, but it feels especially mundane and reductive here.

You could advance faster by opening ads or roping in friends via the “Store”, in an annoying freemium section of the game. I can’t complain too much, though; I completed this without ever using that, and given the game’s technical and artistic aspects, I can’t imagine that this free download has turned a profit. (I assume Mail.ru, the publisher, justifies this as marketing for their MMORPG Juggernaut. Strangely, though, the app never mentions the game it’s based on.) I only finished it because it was an easy time-waster during late nights with a newborn baby, though. The full thing easily took over one hundred hours to complete, and the majority of them were boring level-grinding or frustrating attempts to advance when the only paths available to me were too much for my character. At its best, this was addictive, rewarding, and encouraged me to squeeze the most out of a deceptively simple system. It just wasn’t at its best very often.

Juggernaut Action

Overall, it just seems like Juggernaut: Revenge of Sovering was a good RPG with too many cut corners. The battle system is cool, but every enemy fights exactly the same, whether a dumb animal, a skilled warrior, or even a group attacking together. The balance is mainly good, but the material and number of missions aren’t planned well at all for the sheer length of it. And the little bits of story they bothered to include rarely seem to go anywhere, presumably because they were referencing elements of the main game. It’s easy to like this a little bit, as a free experience that looks like a $60 console game, but don’t plan on sticking with it like I did.

Grade: B-

 

Three Solo RPG Books

After trying a few (generic equivalents of) Choose Your Own Adventures last year, with mixed results, I was interested in seeing what else is out there. This time, I tried some solo RPG books, where stats and dice rolls play a part along with the branching choices.

I was surprised by how different the role-playing elements make these books. I always approached traditional CYOAs as something between a puzzle and a quantum story, where of course I’d keep placeholders at previous branches and go back and forth as necessary. The end result was a non-linear meta-story, in which I knew of all possible plot-lines at once. Once I have dice and a number of hit points, though, the book doesn’t work like that. These books were more about the adventure itself, and became a legitimate game instead of a story. I couldn’t jump around without invalidating my character, and that completely changed the experience.

However, the sudden deaths that are common in these books were very frustrating. I don’t mind them at all if I’m flipping through every path of a CYOA, but when I’m actually trying to follow a storyline, and my focus is on keeping a health stat above zero, it feels very unfair to have success ripped away by a single unpredictable choice.

Below the fold are the reviews of the three books I tried over the past several months.
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