Tag Archives: Games

Side-Quests and Narrative

Almost three years on, Clint Hocking’s [Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock](http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html) is still dangerous.

If you’ve got five minutes, you should go read his essay now, but if you had a quick look and you’re still all “tl;dr”, here’s the short-short version of Hocking’s argument: while the story in *BioShock* is all about freedom, choice and power, the story of player’s actions (what Hocking calls the ‘ludonarrative’ of the game) is restricted to one pre-defined path. So, despite all the talk of free will and choice, the player actually has no choice in the game since it does not provide an option for the player to do anything *but* help Atlas.

The danger in Hocking’s argument comes from the way that it makes you realise how prevalent this ludonarrative disconnect is within games. It’s like the little arrow in the FedEx logo: suddenly, you can’t see anything *but* this dissonance.

Right now, I’m slowly playing through *Mass Effect 2*. I say “slowly” because, not only am I experiencing a difficulty with the underlying story and mechanics of the game (I find that the cookie-cutter structure of the missions gets a little stale after 12 hours or so), but also because the ludonarrative dissonance in *Mass Effect 2* means I am not as fully absorbed in the game as I really wish I could be, so I can’t do anything but slowly chip away at it.

##The problem with *Mass Effect 2*

Like the majority of videogames, *Mass Effect 2* is about saving the galaxy. Huge, terrifying aliens are coming to destroy all life and – surprise! – only your character can stop it. This is the ‘main quest’ of the game, and given the weight of it – the protection of all life in the galaxy – it *should* be your number one priority. Except there is nothing forcing you down this path. In fact, the game does the opposite; rather than forcing anything, it presents the player with an smorgasbord of ‘side quests’ and gives the player the option of how he or she wants to play the game.

Heavily influencing my playing of *Mass Effect 2* is my experience playing *The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion*. I powered my way through the main quest of that game in the course of a couple of evenings. I completely avoided all of the side-quests or, indeed, anything that would take me from the path that would lead to me destroying all the oblivion gates and saving the world – I mean, who has time to join guilds and fight in gladiatorial arenas for sportI did actually complete the arena missions in *Oblivion* – one of the advantages of playing through the game the way I did was that I never got to a high enough level that the monsters were particularly difficult. The arena missions, then, were an easy way to make a lot of money in the game when there’s an evil demonic force sweeping the land? In the end, the game was fun, but after I completed it, I didn’t see much point in playing the rest of the game. The rest of the game being where everyone says the *real* enjoyment is to be had. In effect, I sabotaged my own experience of this game.

With this in mind, I’m doing things differently with *Mass Effect 2*. I’m trying to play each and every side-quest I can find. I’m scanning planets, talking to every random stranger, endorsing each and every shop on the citadel and trying to fuck just about every character I think the game will allow me to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m enjoying *Mass Effect 2*. These parts of the game are actually lots of fun and amazingly relaxing ways to kill a few hours. Except they’re completely at odds with the story. In most of the cut-scenes, my character shouts about how the reapers are coming and there’s no time for X – the galaxy is in danger and time is running out!

And yet, I waste hours – literally hours – scanning planets for minerals.

To make it worse, the game actually encourages this ridiculous disconnect. For example, your crew members will occasionally come to you with a problem that present new missions. If you choose to help them, completing these missions will increase their loyalty to you. When you first speak to them about these problems, there are two conversation options: “Sure, I’ll help” or “Sorry, there’s no time”. Within the context of the game, I’m left asking: why does that second choice even exist? If my hours of fucking around scanning planets has taught me anything, it’s that there **is** time. Lots and lots of time. Even still, if you agree to help your crew member, this mission just becomes another side-quest which you can tackle whenever you want. There’s nothing compelling you to go and deal with it right there (which is good, because in my game, Jacob’s dad has been in trouble for a couple of weeks now). Theoretically, you could say “sure, I’ll help”, completely ignore them and finish the main quest without any sort of punishment.

Within individual missions, too, there’s a lack of urgency or engagement. The game will tell you that someone is in trouble, that their life is hanging by a thread, but at the same time, the game actively encourages and rewards slow and methodical exploration. So, rather than rushing to the next area where the hostages are being held, you should first examine every nook and cranny, hack ‘datapads’, break into wall-safes, collect the ammo that has conveniently been left lying around the place. Take your time because the game, and the character who is supposedly in danger, will wait.

In my 22+ hours of playing *Mass Effect 2*, I have come across one – ONE – mission that was time-based and had a sense of urgency. A side-mission in which the player must stop a missile from launching within a set time limit. One mission out of maybe sixty.

I don’t mean to single out *Mass Effect 2* with this complaint. Lots of other games suffer from the same problem. I finished the penultimate mission in the main quest of *Fallout 3* before deciding that instead of facing the climax of that game and saving everyone, I would rather wander the wasteland with my dog and giant supermutant friend, hunting out all the side-questsUnlike *Oblivion*, it used to be that when you finished *Fallout 3*, you couldn’t go back and continue to play the game and explore the world – this was corrected in a subsequent patch. *The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time* is another example. You *could* rescue Zelda, or you could kick some chickens for hours and hours. In fact, it’s almost a genre staple: the RPG whose over-arching ‘main’ story is less important than the abundance of side-quests.

Other games have been more daring in their approach to the time mechanic and what it means for the narrative. *The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask*, for example, has actual, time-based consequences, constantly increasing the tension in that game. *Dead Rising* is also built around time: the entire game takes place over the course of three days, and actions occur at certain times within that world (and, unlike *BioShock*, this game *does* give the player the option of non-participation. The player can simply sit around doing nothing, waiting for the game’s three-day timer to run out and for rescue to arrive. It’s not a great ending, but at least it’s catered for).

Having been disappointed by powering my way through *Oblivion* and disappointed by taking my time with *Mass Effect 2*, how should I tackle *Dragon Age: Origins*?


We Deal in Lead

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kane, an early wild west game that came out on the Commodore 64 in the mid-80s. Actually, I doubt if it even counts as a ‘game’ by today’s standards. Really it was just four mini-games – shooting birds (or rather, ‘birdies’), riding a horse to the right, a shoot out, and then riding a horse to the left. The game wasn’t particularly flashy, nor was the narrative wrapper that supposedly connected these mini-games (essentially, the plot of High Noon – “Kane” being the name of Gary Cooper’s character in that movie).

Despite the flaws, I fucking loved that game.

I loved it because I was 10, and this was a game where I could pretend to be a cowboy. And when you’re a ten year old boy, all you want to do is to be a cowboy. For me, the small numbers of actions in the game actually added to the effect. I mean, what the hell else did cowboys do but shoot things and ride horses? That was just me, though. The Spectrum magazine, Crash, criticised the game for the limited amount of things you can do in the game, saying “it would be fun if there were about 10 more sections to battle through“.

Playing through Rock Star’s Red Dead Redemption, I couldn’t help being reminded of Kane – one of the first games I ever played and definitely the first cowboy game I ever played – which then got me thinking about how far videogames have come. If you were to jump in a time machine and show this game to my ten-year old self (on a 60″ HD LCD TV, natch), I can guarantee you I would have quite literally shit my pants.

While Kane was mostly played in static screens, with just four types of activity in the entire gameWell, two, if you want to be persnickety about the qualitative distinctions between riding left instead of right and shooting birds instead of dudes, there’s no shortage of activity in Red Dead Redemption. In my almost 35 hours of playing RDR, I never once felt bored or like I had nothing to do. There were always animals to hunt, outlaws to kill (and loot), horses to lasso and women to hogtie and place in front of a fast-approaching train. I love the amount and variety of possibilities that the game throws at the player. I’ve finished the story and I still have things to do, such as killing grizzly bears with my hunting knife.

What I love most about the Red Dead Redemption is the way it feels like a real, living world. I was always stumbling across little things, micro-stories that felt like they were happening completely independently of me and my actions. For example, while riding around Aurora Basin, hunting for bears, I spotted a man kneeling on the ground. I rode closer and saw that he was kneeling next to the body of a dead woman and bawling his eyes out. As I stood there, watching him cry, he took out a gun and shot himself in the head. I was completely stunned by this. I didn’t know what to do.

(I got off my horse and looted his body.)

I’m not particularly proud of my actions. All I’ll say is that we all have our own ways of dealing with grief and kleptomania is mine. But let’s just think about this: the amount of effort and number of man-hours put into crafting this one tiny, incidental scene in Red Dead Redemption probably outweighs the total amount of effort and number of man-hours put into the entirety of the making of Kane. And this was just a background action, something that would (apparently) happen whether I’d seen it or not. I could have missed it. I could have just as easily chosen to ride past the man without checking it out. It didn’t need to be there, but Rockstar put it in there because it fleshed out this world.

It’s easy to be jaded about these things (and I definitely felt a bit disappointed the second time I came across the suicide-man) but my goodness – we’ve really come a long way. No wonder my ten-year old self would have shit his pants.


Death of the Game Manual


Ubisoft have announced that they are ditching paper manuals for games in favour of electronic on-disc copies. This is sad news. Not that I was particularly fond of paper manuals – they are now mostly just legal boilerplates more than anything to do with the game – but because this means we’re almost at the end of game pack-ins entirely.

I was a little disappointed when games switched to DVD-style cases. Yes, it’s great that publishers finally settled on a standard shape and size for their boxes and my games collection doesn’t look like a fucking cardboard shanty town, but it also meant that game designers couldn’t pack extra things into the game box. Back in the 80s, Infocom games usually came with ‘feelies‘. These were ostensibly copy protection, but it’s not fair to say that’s all they were. Rather than the usual, bland, hard-to-photocopy sheets of teeny-tiny numbers for the game to ask you “what is the number in row G, column 16?”, the Infocom feelies also gave you something that felt like an artefact from the game world. It was something physical that helped you identify with the game, made the game come alive and feel more realAnd let’s face it, those Infocom text adventures needed all the help they could get to feel more real.

Looking back, I think most of my favourite games had some sort of pack-in to enhance the player’s experience. For example, the graphic adventure of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came with a small, 20 or 30 page replica of the grail diary on top of the usual copy-protection. It wasn’t essential and you didn’t need this grail diary to finish the game, but they gave them out anyway. As an 11-year old who was crazy for that game, this cheap, paper copy broke the game’s fourth wall and made the whole experience more real. It felt like treasure.

More recently, there’s Heavy Rain which has you hunting for a serial killer known as the “Origami Killer”, who gets his name from the fact he leaves a little origami figure in the cold, dead hands of his victims. Origami is used as a visual motif for the entire game, right down to the logo to indicate the game is being saved. Even though creator David Cage has a major boner for movies, he ignored the whole ubiquitous floating head idea for the poster, and stuck stuck with a simple image of the origami crane from the game.

When you’re installing the game, a process that can take a few minutes, a message comes up on the screen to tell you to take out the flat sheet of paper packed into the case and, over the course of 12 steps, you’re taught how to make your own origami crane, just like the one from the cover. Things to keep you distracted while your game loads/installs aren’t anything newYou hearing me, Kojima? Watching an old fart smoking for 10 minutes is not fun, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Heavy Rain’s implementation. It’s different, it’s fun. And how difficult was it? It’s a sheet of paper, yet that one sheet of paper enhanced my experience of the game and my overall impression of the care that went into the game.

So today I’m pouring a 40Not literally, obviously. What a waste of booze for game manuals and pack-in tchotchkes. At least we have special editions, right?


Pixels by Patrick Jean

I wasn’t going to post this video, but then I got an email telling me that I was the only site on the internet that hadn’t gushed about it and that if I didn’t sort it out sharpish, I’d have my email account revoked.


Assassin’s Creed 2

Playing the first Assassin’s Creed was like going out with some very cute, bi-polar girl. She’s attractive, and crazy enough that the sex is amazing, but you have to watch out because her mood could change in the blink of an eye and next thing you know, you’re waking up in a bath of ice with a giant hole where your kidney used to be, just because you didn’t compliment her on her new shoes.

To strain this analogy even further, Assassin’s Creed 2, is like her cute, completely stable younger sister. She’s just as attractive as the older sister but, most importantly, she’s learned from all her older sister’s mistakes (Lesson number one: don’t be fucking insane). And yeah, the sex might be less wild/dangerous, but you know where you stand. It’s safe.

I loved Assassin’s Creed 2. It never had any real moments of standout genius in it, but at the same time, it never had me repeating the same six missions-types for five hours, unlike the first game. Instead, it had a continuous string of smaller, more diverse missions, which meant that you were constantly doing something new. One mission would begin right where the last one finished. You never had a chance to get bored, and you never really felt like turning the game off was an option. I’ll say this now: for me, Assassin’s Creed 2 did a better job of doling out missions than GTA IV.

In fact, I liked this game so much, I’m ploughing through it to make it the fourth game I’ll have gotten all 1000 achievement points on. At least, it would have been, except there’s one achievement – for kicking a guy while flying your little Hudson Hawk hang glider – that you could only get on one particular mission that you couldn’t replay. Of course, I didn’t know this when I played the mission, or else I would have kicked that little bollocks off his perch and gotten my achievement.

With the first batch of downloadable content for the game, titled The Battle of Forli, Ubisoft dropped a whole load of these flying machines into various parts in the levels, which means that people like me who missed the achievement first time around could finally get it.

Oh, and they threw a bit of a story around it too.

And here’s where I lost interest. The story in The Battle of Forli is bullshit. Total bullshit. The ‘dramatic’ climax has you fighting a metric fuckload of guards as you chase down the last remaining bad guy. I only bought this DLC to get the achievement, so at this stage, I cared so little about the story that I just ran past all the guards. It was like a Benny Hill sketch, me tearing through the Tuscan countryside with 50 sword-wielding soldiers chasing after me. All it was missing was a bit of Yakkety Sax. In the end, the bad guy reaches his pre-scripted “end” spot and turns around to fight me, at which point I smack him in the head with a hammer before he can even draw his sword. End of DLC.

The perfect end to a storyline I couldn’t have cared less about.

Update: I got the last of the 1000 achievement points this evening. As if you care.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

When it comes to videogames, sequels tend to be less like the Godfather II and more like Jurassic Park II: The Lost World. Rather than making something that stands alone, that rips up the play-book and starts over from scratch and, as a result, creates something truly exceptional, you tend to just get more of the same, only slightly bigger and slightly sillier. So instead of “I know it was you Fredo. You broke my heart!”, you get Jeff Goldblum’s child lepping about on monkey-bars and drop-kicking a velociraptor out a window. (Not that I’m making a judgement-call here, both films have their times and places.)

It’s kind of hard to tell where Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 falls. On the one hand, it completely obliterates the first game in terms of the scope of the action and the improvements to the multiplayer are just a shade short of revolutionary. It’s probably the most beautifully rendered conflict I’ve seen in a videogame and every level manages to create its own unique sense of tension – from close, claustrophobic fighting through corridors and narrow streets, to giant open levels where you’re being attacked on all sides.

On the other hand, it really is dumb as a bag of hammers.

The narrative is all over the place. With the first game. developers Infinity Ward lifted heavily from all the big modern war movies – Black Hawk Down, Jarhead etc. I guess they must have played their cards early. With this new one, we get a couple of bits taken from Generation Kill (“Put the camera down, Spielberg” “CNN’s gonna pay loads for this footage!”) before they seem to say “fuck it, there’s nothing else we can steal” and go all Red Dawn – RED FUCKING DAWN – complete with Russians parachuting down into suburban America. I shit you not.

Now, I love Red Dawn as much as the next guy, but like I said, there’s a time and a place for everything. And the time for Red Dawn was thirty years ago, because now it’s just a dumb relic of a dumb time. Here’s the thing though: the writers make it very clear that they’re aware of how dumb this is. The level where you’re battling the Russians through a middle American neighbourhood is called “Wolverines!” – you know, an explicit reference to Red Dawn. It’s a knowing wink to the audience, like they’re saying “hey, we know this is stupid and ridiculous and over-the-top, but it’s all just a bit of fun, y’know?”

Which makes the now-infamous airport scene all the more curious.

(If you care about this game, don’t know what happens in this scene and don’t want to be ‘spoiled’, then stop reading now. The game came out almost a month ago, which is like ten years ago in internet-spoiler time, so don’t complain if I ruin the impact of this scene for you.)

Still reading? Good. If you don’t know what happens in this scene, then I’ll explain. You’re playing an American agent who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist group. The level opens on a crowded airport full of civilians. Your group walks in and starts shooting indiscriminately into the crowd. How you take it from here, is entirely up to you. You can get through the level without killing anyone, or you can do what I did, walk through the level spraying bullets at everything that moved and tossing grenades in every direction. (I don’t feel even slightly bad about this because I can tell the difference between real life and videogames). The level ends with the head of your group shooting you and leaving you to die, placing the blame on the Americans for the massacre.

Outside of the game, though, it’s a little more confused. Why did the developers feel the need to include this level? Most other games would have been content to tell this part of the story through dialogue or a cut-scene. “*ring ring* Hey bro, you’ll never believe it! The Russians killed a load of people and are blaming Americans and – wait, are those parachutes?” Instead, they actually had you walking through the scene with a gun in your hand. Even if Columbine and Virginia Tech had never happened, this would be an uncomfortable sell. As it happens, they’re impossible to escape throughout this scene. And a lot of people are asking why Infinity Ward chose to include it, especially when you spend every other part of the game mowing down various nameless, hard-to-distinguish ethnicities.

Now, here’s my take on the whole thing. I don’t think that anyone telling a story is obliged to cover all bases. They tell the story that suits them best. Within the context of the game, the airport level makes perfect sense. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games take place in an alternate near-future where Russian ultra-nationalists are in power, and this is just the excuse they need to send the country to war. Placing you in the thick of the action, then, draws you in. Even if you go through the level without firing a single shot, you feel complicit and spend the rest of the game trying to ‘fix’ your mistake.One thing I found interesting though is that despite the fact you go through suburban and central Washington, there’s not one American civilian to get caught in the crossfire. And in those levels where you’re supposed to be saving hostages, if even one of them dies, it’s game over and you have to try again

As to why the rest of the enemies in the game don’t get the same level of attention to their back-story or motives, well that’s just as simple. Why should it? From a narrative point of view, what purpose would it serve? Does the fact that your virtual enemy has a wife and child and perhaps dubious motivations change the fact that when he’s shooting at you, you’re going to pop his head like a melon? It’s similar to the complaints labeled at Black Hawk Down, that it was about dehumanizing the enemy. The story was about American soldiers and their point of view in this fight. The film split its time between five or six main soldiers and the story was told almost from their first-person point of view (well, as first-person as you can get in a movie without it being a gimmicky pile of ass. Right, Doom?). If the Somalis had a back-story, the US soldiers didn’t know it and so we, the audience, didn’t know it. Isn’t that why we invented the unreliable narrator?

Of course, this all changes in games like Modern Warfare 2 where you are the narrator, and you are narrating the story of the enemies. We will probably need a new paradigm for this kind of storytelling, but I’m not sure I’m going to figure it out in this (already long-winded) blog post. Don’t get me wrong, Modern Warfare 2 is a great game, and the only thing that has helped me kick my Modern Warfare 1 addiction. I just wish there had been some consistency throughout it. The airport level was something completely new to videogames and extremely well done. They laid the groundwork for an amazing story, but the Loony Tunes cartoon violence bullshit they followed it up with just felt a little flat.


Brain Dump – October 23rd

Here’s some stuff that’s been clogging up my starred list in Google Reader for too long.

When it comes to bonkers films, Russia is the new Japan:

Hosting your Windows 7 Torrenting Party

When you Marry” – they don’t write ’em like that any more:

It is not uncommon for one or both parties to experience feelings of guilt or revulsion, to the mutual distress of both parties. For other couples who have anticipated great thrills in the first sex relations, there is sometimes disappointment – reality doesn’t live up to expectations

Monkey Island 2, in 3D:

Photobombing could be my new favourite thing on the internet.

Technology got you down? Squarepixelz is hosting a bunch of old tech documentaries. I love watching these – everyone’s so hopeful about the possibilities of technology.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in 30 seconds:

You know This American Life? “That show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?” Well, here’s every episode of the This American Life TV show: Season 1 Season 2.



We’re over halfway through October. You know what that means: it’s time for my annual resolution to actually participate in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I mean, it’s not like I don’t have enough on my plate, what with college, radio work, design work, Italian lessons and my most thankless of jobs as house-husband. Why not try and write a novel too?

Part of what used to squash my plans in previous years is the fact that I had nothing else to do. And this is dangerous. There’s that old saying about “ask a busy man a favour.” The theory being that once you get the ball rolling, getting things done just becomes second nature. If you’d asked me to do you a favour before, I would have said “sure, no problem”, gone back to playing Xbox, and given you a half-hearted apology two months later when you ask me why I didn’t do what I said I would. I say “half-hearted” because, inside, I’d be thinking it was partly your own fault for asking me to do something in the first place.

Not this year.

The other thing that used to always catch me out was the lack of an initial idea. As romantic as it might be to go into this thing completely blind, just putting fingers to keyboard and seeing what happens across 50,000 words – automatic writing on a massive scale – I just don’t think this is the way I work best.

Again, not this year.

This year, I know exactly what story I want to tell. I’ve got an idea that I think I can stretch across an entire novel. It’s just a matter of getting it out. Quickly.

The only thing standing in my way (apart from college, radio work, design work, Italian lessons and my duties as house-husband) is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which comes out right in the middle of November. I’ve written before about how addicted I am to the first one (250+ hours) and I’m genuinely quite scared at what might happen when this new one comes out. Would Whitney Houston be appearing on X-Factor now if she knew that crack PLUS was going to be released in a few days? Hell no. She’d be off getting ready for her year-long crack vacation.

Who knows, maybe it’ll work and I’ll be able to pull it all off. I’ll just have to prioritise, hard. Ask a busy man a favour? Sure, right after I finish this game.