Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Portal

Okay, I just played Portal, which has seen a bit of discussion in the IF world, so it might be interested to comment on it here. Also, this game has been hailed as something that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation.

This is going to be completely spoilery, so if you don't want to be spoiled, don't read on.

The game is certainly too short and too easy; there wasn't a single puzzle in it that had me stumped for longer than a few minutes. The final boss fight was exciting, but not terribly hard either. (F6 and F9 are your friends.) I hope that the advanced maps are more challenging; otherwise, those portals are a brilliant puzzle idea left woefully underexplored.

The player character is constantly pestered by a female voice that talks her through the tests, but reveals itself as unreliable in the first thirty seconds. The writing here lacks all subtlety. The voice tells you things like: "Your safety is ensured if you ***static***", which really is a cheap trick. Valve also decided to use 2001-style modulations of the voice's pitch, which suddenly drops from high to very low on several occasions. But in 2001 this happened once, in an emotionally gripping scene; in Portal, it happens all the time, and is just one of a hundred signs thrown at us that scream "Look out! The computer is insane! Don't trust it!"

The entire game consists of such shouts. You find a secret room were someone has written warnings on the wall in blood. All right, I can't trust the voice--I understood that already. Then, in case we missed it, we get treated to another twenty places where people have written warnings on the wall in blood. Identical warnings. This gets very tiresome, and destroys any emotional involvement with the story that might have been achieved if the designers had opted for a subtle disclosure of what was going on, rather than beating me over the head with the stick of obviousness.

Emotional involvement, then, there is none. One especially lauded scene in the game is where you have to sacrifice a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. This is supposed to be an emotional moment, which makes you feel guilty. It does not. The things I have to sacrifice is a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. I don't care about a metal cube with hearts painted on the side. (The emotionally manipulative voice and the emotionally manipulative designers at Valve don't succeed in actually manipulating my emotions, mostly, I guess, because their attempts are again so incredibly obvious.)

The final scene is okay. It doesn't have the impact of Hal's death in 2001: a Space Odyssey, it doesn't even come close, but it's not bad. It might actually have been good if I had cared about the AI, or about the player character, or if I had understood what the hell was going on, or if I had seen the AI in a sane state before I saw her mad. As it is, the song over the credits is more gripping than the game itself.

So, it is a nice puzzler, recommended if you want to spend a couple of hours solving puzzles. (Though Professor Fizzwizzle is more fun in that respect, and also more challenging.) But a game that can evoke great emotional responses through effective storytelling and characterisation? Not at all.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Deadborn from the Press

Emily Short points out a problem that is certainly not unique to interactive fiction, but which is more of a problem for us since we cannot afford to lose as many authors as (say) the community of novelists can. She writes:
There are lots of good games that don’t get reviewed nearly as much as they should, and authors have drifted away because the amount of response their work received was not enough to keep them interested. IFDB helps a bit, because it provides a low enough barrier to entry for review writing that more people seem to be interested in writing more reviews, and that’s terrific. But there are also still quite a few works that have not gotten the reception they probably deserved.
I think this is a serious problem, and it would be very good for our community if we could keep this from happening as often as it presumably does. (If we can, that would also lessen the grip that the IF Competition has on our community.)

So, as a very small step in that direction: here is today's question. Which recent IF games do you know of that did involve serious effort, but then fell deadborn from the press? If we can make a list, we can then start remedying this problem.

My candidate is Macrocosm, by Shaun W. Donaldson. From the website, it seems like a lot of work was involved, and yet I haven't heard anything about it. Problem for me is: it's a Windows executable, and it won't run under Wine.

What are your candidates?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Am I a Zinester?

In an article in The Escapist, Anna Anthropy talks about how the makers of big commercial video games can't take any artistic risks and are thus doomed to make more or less the same game forever; and how we are currently seeing the "rise of the video game zinesters", that is, single, non-professional people who are making video games and giving them away for free just because they do wish to take artistic risks and make themselves heard. Anna Anthropy has chosen me and my game The Baron as poster childs for this movement, which is of course very kind of her and much appreciated.

I doubt that it is an honour I really deserve. As Jason Dyer points out, it is hardly new that people use interactive fiction to produce very individual works that would never make the cut as commercial products. Indeed, I think it is accurate to say that of games like Photopia, Galatea and Shade had not existed, I would not have been intrigued by IF and I would never have written The Baron.

I also doubt that we are accurately described as "zinesters". I'm basing myself on the Wikipedia definition here, since I did not previously know this word, but it seems as if zinesters are people who publish their work in very small, often hand-made editions, for the perusal of a small group of individuals. This does not seem to me a useful term to apply to works that are distributed digitally through open-to-all server like the IF Archive. There is nothing inherent in our publishing methods that stops our works from being downloaded and read a million times.

But this criticism aside, I very much agree with Anna Anthropy's sentiments, and especially with the link she sees between making interesting, innovative, risky, artistic, relevant games and not having to earn money doing so. Not having to earn money: of course people could still actually make money out of their games, and that wouldn't hurt their artistic value. It's just that when you know you have to earn at least X with this game (or otherwise your company will go bankrupt, or you yourself will not be able to pay the rent) that art must be compromised and that it may seem a much better idea to make a game about shooting space aliens than about the moral options left to someone who recognises the monstrous within himself.

Still - more independent designers making games for money might not be such a bad thing either. A one-man commerical project can take more risks than a 200-man commercial project, even if it can take less risks than a one-man non-commercial project. And since commercial projects might be able to ensure better resources for quality control, and so on, they might actually produce very interesting and very good works. So I don't want to say that "non-commercial" is the only way to go; but it is certainly a way along which we can expect much interesting work being done. And we, as the IF community, are certainly moving along this way and benefitting from it.

Which leads me to my final point: the obsession with money as validation that seems to be pervasive in the gaming culture. I noticed this when I was involved in making indepent pen & paper RPGs at The Forge: it often seemed that people only started taking a game really serious once it was for sale, while freely distributed games were not taken quite as seriously. Some people even had an argument against selling games cheaply: "If you think it's good, show so in your price!" This baffled me, and still baffles me.

But it's no different among people who are interested in computer games. Read the reactions on the Escapist forum, and especially this one:

Games like The Baron just don't seem feasible to me. Games are an escape from reality. Something like that makes us deal with problems in the real world. We should do this, of course, but games like that aren't going to sell as well as drugged up space marines shooting dildos out of rocket launchers. It's a simple fact of right now. Maybe in the future, the small niche of cultured gamers (Not me, I love gore and blood and I want to kill sexy space aliens.) will gather and make a game that will reset the bar for video games. Until then, we'll just have to play our Halo and love it (We do, right?).
In what possible sense can The Baron not be feasible? It exists, which should make all questions of its feasibility totally moot, shouldn't it? Unless, that is, you believe that a game only really exists when it's earning people money, and that it exists more the more money it generates. But that's just bizarre. The Baron is no less real than Grand Theft Auto IV; it's no less feasible; it is out there and you can play it.

And its author doesn't care at all that it's not generating money for him. That too shouldn't be such a hard concept to grasp. My entire computer runs on software that people have made without expecting to get paid for it. Why would games be any different?

So let's drop once and for all the idea that a game is only real if people buy it; or that interactive fiction (say) will only have become a valid medium again when people are making money selling IF. That's just nonsense. Interactive fiction will be a valid medium when people are making great works in it, and whether these are published for a fee or distributed for free doesn't make a whit of difference.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Rethinking Combat

In Idols of War 0.1, I followed what could be called the "standard model" of text-RPG combat. That model is thus:

1. Pick a character.
2. Have that character take an action.
3. Calculate and apply the results of that action.
4. Pick the next character, and repeat.

However, I now think that this might not be the most satisfying form of combat for an interactive fiction. What seems more interesting, both from a gameplay perspective and from the perspective of generating prose, is this:

1. Pick the character with "initiative".
2. Have that character declare an action.
3. Have the other character(s) declare an action.
4. Calculate and apply the results of all these actions.
5. Repeat.

The basic scenario I am thinking of is one where you are attacked by the enemy, and then must make one of the following choices:
  • Dodge the attack, minimising the risk of being damaged but also minimising your chance of taking initiative.
  • Parry the attack, moderately decreasing the chance of being hit but also increasing the chance of winning initiative.
  • Counterattack, taking a big risk but also opening the possibility of both damaging the attacker and winning initiative.
It seems to me that this model would make fights more dynamical, would increase the feeling that you are actually interacting with an NPC rather than just optimising a number, and would allow for more interesting interactions with the environment and more interesting tactics. You definitely want to duck away when the trooper throws a fragmentation grenade, to kick the table when the guard rushes you, to cast Disrupt Spell the very moment that the necromancer intones the chant of Unholy Blasting, to dive into the water when the dragon breathes fire.

In such a system, "initiative" would be something that you want to have but can't easily get. Getting initiative is always a bit of a risk; alternately, some particularly good actions will have the negative side effect of giving initiative to your enemy. There are actions that can only be taken when you have initiative (attack, throw fragmentation grenade, cast summon imps) and actions that can only be taken when you do not have initiative (dodge, parry, counterattack).

The only thing that would be really complicated is fights with more than two combatants. But it will be worth it; think of how cool it would be to throw yourself between your team mate and her attacker so she can concentrate on casting that healing spell she badly needs.

Spag 52

The 52nd SPAG has just appeared, and it contains three articles written by me: reviews of Gun Mute and Hors Cat├ęgorie, and a long article about Emily Short's Metamorphoses and how it fits into her work as a whole. You can read SPAG here.