January 31, 2008

An All-Time Classic

I need to buy myself some time before thrusting my next epic post out into the world. This is where my new "second draft" policy is getting me. To stall my rabid readership, I proudly (?) present you with a glimpse at my internet rock star career before Hit Self-Destruct (or B.H.S-D., as it is referred to in the scholarship.)

It's arguably the most popular thing I ever "wrote." (My fame threshold is pretty pretty low.) It made some of my curmudgeonly Idle Thumbs colleagues laugh and Ernest Adams used it in a presentation without my permission, which is why, upon the advice of my attorney, we shut the fucker down. What have you been up to lately, Ernest? Not much, huh.

Remember Façade? The interactive conversational AI experiment? Yeah, I bet. Everyone was jazzed about it at the time, and for the weeks following its release, posting your Façade transcript was an internet fad akin to Neopets. Here is mine.

from July 7, 2Y B.H.S-D.:

(Audrey knocks on the front door.)

(Trip opens the front door.)

TRIP
Audrey!!

AUDREY
TRIP I'VE BEEN SHOT!

TRIP
Hi! It's so great to see you! -- (interrupted)

AUDREY
HELP ME

TRIP
Uh...

TRIP
Well come on in...

TRIP
Uh, I'll -- I'll go get Grace...

AUDREY
THERE WAS A MAN WITH A GUN

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

AUDREY
HELP ME I'M BLEEDING

TRIP
(unintelligable arguing)

AUDREY
TRIP

AUDREY
HELP

AUDREY
I'M GOING TO DIE

GRACE
Audrey,

GRACE
Hi! How are you? I'm so happy to see you after so long! -- (interrupted)

AUDREY
CALL 911

GRACE
Uh...

AUDREY
HELP

GRACE
So, come in, make yourself at home...

AUDREY
I'VE BEEN SHOT

AUDREY
NO

GRACE
Uh...

AUDREY
YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND

TRIP
What...? Audrey, I --

GRACE
Trip, that was just a well-intentioned little poke in the ribs between friends. That's all. -- (interrupted)

AUDREY
I WAS MUGGED

TRIP
Heh heh, Audrey, seeing you brings -- (interrupted)

AUDREY
I AM BLEEDING

TRIP
N -- no, uh, I've -- I've missed you.

AUDREY
HELP

TRIP
uh...

AUDREY
OH, FUCK THIS

TRIP
Ha ha! Oh I think we're going to need some drinks first if we're going to talk about sex.

January 29, 2008

Too Little, Too Late

Do me a favour and pretend that my recent Police Quest post had included this line:

"The series then spun off as Police Quest: SWAT, and then just SWAT (perhaps upon the realisation that 'Police Quest' was the dumbest-sounding name this side of an L.A. private school.)"

Oh man. Why can't I produce these high-quality zingers faster? Maybe one of these days I should try something called a "second draft."

January 27, 2008

Police Quest

This is absolutely a true story. One school day in 1995, I went up to a friend of mine who loved adventure games and told him, very excitedly, that I got King's Quest VII. "Who cares," he said, "I got Marathon." Death of the adventure game, right there. Still, he was right: Marathon was easily the better game, and I had just paid good money for this. Even so, that guy turned out to be a total jerk and wherever he is now I hope he is miserable. No I don't. Yes I do.

For someone whose gaming landscape was pretty much dominated by Sierra Entertainment for half a decade, I'm not much of a Sierra fan. Not at all, really. They were great games when they were the only ones that I was playing, but as soon as I picked up Monkey Island I quickly found Sierra's idiosyncratic design style to actually be haphazard and ill-conceived.

Contrary to appearances I'm not about to do a hatchet job on Sierra for wasting my childhood. To my mind there are three good Sierra franchises, which I will defend forever or until the end of this blog post, whichever comes first. The first two are Quest for Glory and Gabriel Knight. No surprises there. The third, however, is a remarkable out-of-left-field choice which you could only guess if you read the title of this post.

The first three Police Quest games were designed by former police officer Jim Walls. He was replaced on the fourth game by Daryl F. Gates, of all people, who lent his name to the project while someone else designed it and laid a real turd. The series then spun off as Police Quest: SWAT, and then just SWAT (perhaps after finally realising the total inanity of "Police Quest"), which the series continues as to this day.

The three Walls games were absurd in several ways. Police Quest took the quintessential Sierra experience -- very exacting and unforgiving of the slightest mistake -- to new extremes by requiring the player to literally refer to a manual of operating procedures and traffic codes to solve puzzles. There's no defence for this. I won't even claim that it was all part of the ol' Sierra charm. Like all the early Sierra games, Police Quest was designed with a narrow mandate: be a cop. As usual, it was interpreted very literally, probably to the game's detriment.

Even keeping this in mind, the first Police Quest, from 1987, was far and away the best of the Sierra AGI games. I mean, it's not even a contest. Blows 'em out of the water. I'd go so far as to say it's the only that holds up today. Maybe I'm overplaying the achievement here, because that AGI crop was admittedly a pretty thin one. King's Quest's big coup was getting the characters to move, so if you can top that you've automatically won. Space Quest, the same thing but in space, unsurprisingly doesn't cut it. Although I just wrote that Police Quest had a literal interpretation of its core concept, it practically meandered compared to the competition. And as one of Sierra's last AGI games, Police Quest surely benefited from past experience. Still, Police Quest wasn't just a technical improvement. The first game, especially, was doing something really interesting that -- as far as I, Video Game History Detective, can tell -- was never properly acknowledged.

This game that was expressly designed to simulate the thrill of issuing parking tickets and playing by the rules in vivid 3D had something the likes of King's Quest didn't. It had a plot. Roberta Williams' narrative contribution was "go point A to point B. Congratulations now you are the king." Stirring stuff. Police Quest had a recurring cast of characters with full names, personalities and things to do. They would have actual conversations with you. Subplots would develop and these people would change. Okay, this stuff couldn't be more basic. And interactive fiction games, which afforded more verbosity, probably did all this years ago. But it was all new territory for Sierra and for graphic adventures.. LucasArts, who'd just released Maniac Mansion, weren't even this far along.

It'd be disingenuous to say there was anything astonishing about the writing in Police Quest. It has some seriously dubious moments, but for the most part it is thoroughly competent. It gets in, it gets out and accomplishes all it needs to without any long-winded cutscenes or exposition. It was good stuff for a 1987 game.

Sierra loudly championed all its technical innovations even if they didn't translate into good gameplay, which is fair enough. They never championed their creative triumphs, probably because they hardly had any. But they could have done it in 1987. I guess no one was really looking for narrative development in the police version of the boilerplate Sierra adventure game, which is too bad. Of all the design features in this police simulation, the writing was probably the most immersive: it was the closest Sierra had come to a real world and real people. Belated congratulations to Police Quest 1 and Jim Walls, then.

This was kind of a backhanded tribute. Sorry. Also sorry if the intro made you expect a coming-of-age story in which video games prominently featured. I could write that if you want but I'd have to make it up.

January 26, 2008

Here Comes The Sun

The Positivity Express continues unabated! I wasn't kidding about this at all! Deception is not a virtue!

What an unconvincing thumbs-up that is, by the way. I don't believe that's real happiness. I apologise to my readers. I mean it with considerably more enthusiasm.

Anyway. In light of Hit Self-Destruct's new positive outlook I am redacting something I wrote a few days ago. Not the thing about Baldur's Gate being insufferably banal or the thing about the vampire cosplayers. No, I am instead taking back my vaguely disparaging reference towards the game Neverwinter Nights 2, which I have never played. All that changes now because I am holding it in my hand as i type. I am lookinh at it eight now ./ Instead of doing my job snd lookingat the screen like a pro. I will nevrer write for game set watch with this work ethic. There. How convincing was that.

Honestly, even though I liked Obsidian's Knights of the Old Republic 2 a lot, I don't really want to play this game. The expansion, on the other hand, Mask of the Betrayer, has garnered significant praise and sounds like a game I would enjoy very much. Here I am, then, about to play through some buggy semi-hardcore epic fantasy RPG. Sounds like a great time. Maybe it's not as mediocre and unpolished as I've heard, or who knows, maybe it is and I'll actually like it. If I don't like it, you know where you won't be reading about it: Hit Self-Destruct a.k.a. Positivity Junction. I'm registering that domain name by the way. Change your bookmarks.

That's more like it. Congratulations, lady in stock photo. Oh, that's probably not even your urine in that pregnancy test. This has all gone horribly wrong.

To summarise: who's played this game? Did you like it? Is there some secret Neverwinter Nights 2 codeine which will make this experience bearable? Or am I off-base and needlessly bitching in a way totally unbefitting the head conductor of Positivity Railways?

January 24, 2008

Important Announcement / The Man Who Was Thursday

Let me begin by thanking all of you who have read and supported Hit Self-Destruct. That you took the time to read this stupid site genuinely meant a lot to me. There are a couple of reasons why I felt I had to make this decision. The most distressing to me is that the blog has taken on an unfortunately and increasingly negative tone over the last few weeks and I question the worth of that. Second, in light of the seriously low returns (you know what I mean) given the amount of investment on my part, the enterprise no longer seemed especially viable. I believe that it's in everyone's best interests if me and Hit Self-Destruct moved on. Therefore, Hit Self-Destruct is officially and abruptly changing direction. Starting today we hitch a ride on the positivity train! All aboard!! Choo choo! Our destination is exhilaration station. Tickets please!!!

To kick it all off, here's a series of posts comprehensively detailing the reasons why I love Deus Ex. Just kidding, that sounds terrible. I'll begin and end with reason #001: Chris Todd.

Chris Todd was one of three writers on Deus Ex, along with lead writer Sheldon Pacotti (who also worked on the sequel) and Austin Grossman (System Shock, Soon I Will Be Invincible.) Between them, Pacotti and Grossman handled all the spoken dialogue in the game. This left Todd to write every piece of unvoiced text. Essentially, his job was to write fifty variations on this: "Hi, how are you? The passcode is 7049. Take care (Heil Hitler.)"

Not the best job in the world but not too difficult either. Yet anyone who's played Deus Ex should recognise the significance of Todd's accomplishment. By any contemporary standard, Deus Ex is a huge game. Those strictly-referential keycode datacubes are buried beneath a wealth of newspapers, emails, diaries, news broadcasts and books, impassioned political editorials, semi-literate email screeds, and passages from Thomas Paine, Richard III and G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, all of which exist as purely optional texture. Todd did so much with so little. That he went further and seasoned the whole thing with hidden literary references and multiple chapters from fictional books indicate that he had fun with it, and I believe that the relevance of that last bit to the overall success of the project cannot be understated.


Apart from filling in a considerable backstory, Todd's prose adds a necessary emotional quality to an otherwise dry game (albeit one that is intentionally so.) It's not as simple as Deus Ex being a dull, stock-standard action/thriller with some poignant, philosophical passages bolted on, but the characters are never any deeper and never more honest than when represented in the text. Deus Ex without Chris Todd is akin to playing the game stripped to 3D wireframes.

It's remarkable that one man did this. Still, it's not a volume contest, Deus Ex doesn't win for having the most writing. There are a lot of reasons why I like Deus Ex and a lot of reasons why I like Todd's contribution. Here's one.

In the first act of the game, the player is a government agent in pursuit of a terrorist network. This involves infiltrating a lot of terrorist bases, and those terrorists happen to have left a lot of datacubes lying around containing helpful passwords, because that's the kind of game this is. After a couple of these messages, and also some of less immediate relevance, you'll notice, if indeed you do, is a trinity of names that seems to recur. Decker, Young and Todd (laziness alert.) What the player picks up in these initial missions is the close relationship between these three terrorists and that their lives are moving forward. These are not static characters who exist one-time-only to hand you a password, nor are they ghosts to whom something happened once. They're around at the same time as the player, reacting to the same events and maybe even causing them. Their situation is changing constantly, they will move from location to location throughout much of the game and the player has to work to keep up with them. It's almost chilling when, reading one of these communiques, one of the characters for the first time makes an oblique reference to the player.

Three further points of interest: the entire Decker/Todd/Young thread comprises, in all estimation, less than 1% of the script. That speaks not only to the mountain of text in this game but also how much care and detail was put into each 1%. Secondly, the player never meets these people. They don't even have in-game models. All they are is lines of text hidden deep below the surface. Nevertheless, these lines of text have been turned into real characters and an active plot thread. When I talk about the transformative power of writing in games, this is what I mean.


Third. This does not happen in any other medium. The presentation of this story to the player is entirely optional. It's up to the player to find it in the first place and then to keep themselves appraised on its successive installments. This whole experience comes off as authentic -- what you learn about these characters is gleaned from reasonable context: communications or references in other texts. It's never spelled out, because it never becomes relevant. What's the reward for doing all this? Nothing, really. Other than a greater appreciation of the Deus Ex fiction and the knowledge that you saw this subplot to its completion. You put together these pieces that other players ignored totally. I don't mean to be disingenuous, because it doesn't require very much effort, but you're entitled to feel good about yourself. And the game, for that matter.

If Deus Ex left any legacy behind, it wasn't this (but it should have been) -- a complete validation of the use of text in games. Not as a replacement for voice acting but as a fully viable, self-sufficient augmentation to the general experience. It affords so many opportunities and I've only scratched the surface in this post. For more than that, Chris Todd is the one to talk to.

I don't mean literally. Don't go call him or anything.

January 21, 2008

Press

Sam Kennedy of 1UP wrote an editorial about the GameSpot/Gerstmann fiasco. It's a good piece that outlines the chain of events quite nicely and makes a convincing case for why it is a big deal. I hope I'm preaching to the choir but what I find discouraging is the amount of gamers who don't really care. I'm not chiding anyone for not taking to the streets but there's a reliable contingent who'll respond with "this is news why?" I find that game writing and game writers are subjected to so much hostility from their audience, unlike any other enthusiast press. It's amazing how many mainstream readers you seem to lose when you ditch scores or attempts at "objective" reviews. And I'm not sure that there are readers that particularly like the reviewing strategy of objectively quantifying entertainment. (This is a digression but didn't GameSpot have a 1-10 metric for "tilt", i.e. fun? You guys.) I think these are gamers who are so used to gaming being a relatively unpretentious hobby and simplifying reviews to bullet points and scores fits right in with that mindset. How many times have you heard that gaming is something you do to get away from reality, that it's supposed to be fun and not something you have to think about. Gaming should be some big fantasy land where nothing is important and that view apparently extends to the industry. When all you have is scores, you don't have to think.

I don't know why I'm so disappointed, when it seems very easy for others to ignore this perspective outright. But for all my pretensions I'm not and probably will never be part of gaming academia (as if you couldn't tell from the tone of this blog.) Nor am I ever going to make games, I'm going to write about them. The people I'm complaining about, fundamentally, I think I'm more like them. Except I care and they don't and whatever, that's okay. I just want to say to anyone who's ever rolled their eyes at the notion of "gaming journalism" or complained about a review score that you are part of the problem.

Addendum: I wanted to link to another editorial written by Steve Gaynor which defends Kane & Lynch. I don't mention it in the interests of "balance" since these aren't competing interests but I do think it's a shame that Io's game got lost in the shuffle. Actually, I take that back -- a million copies sold? I don't feel that bad for you. But I want to point out that even if Kane & Lynch is a good game (and Steve is more persuasive as to its merits than any other reviewer) it in no way justifies CNET's behaviour; as an excuse it's right in line with Gerstmann's firing being deserved because of his Twilight Princess 8.8. These are after-the-fact rationalisations created by scorned readers who think that when reviewers have "wrong" opinions they should be shown the door and the ends justify the means.

Did you really read all the way through this? Or did you scroll down to look at the picture of the sexy vampire? Either way, please check back tomorrow (or the day after) for a very important Hit Self-Destruct announcement.

January 20, 2008

Sexy Vampiregameland

Playing games quite often means you have to go places you don't want to go. If you like the idea of RPGs, but you're not a general fan of fantasy fiction or science fiction, then too bad -- because not only are they the best games, they're the only games. The end result is that I have a game collection that looks alarmingly incomplete not bookended by the canons of Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams. My resistances are down. I accept that I have to buy the latest epic fantasy RPG because such is the state of the industry that it's probably the best game I'll play all year. Even so, there are games belonging to weirder niches that I have less trouble ignoring. Unless critics and fans swear up and down that this is an amazing experience, the best written game of the year, comparable to Deus Ex and Fallout. Fine. You win.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of me playing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and stopping. I might have played it earlier if its technical issues hadn't been made so prominent or if I was a completely different person, one who didn't find the whole erotic goth vampire scene -- sorry -- kind of stupid. This could have the greatest writing in the world and I'd still be embarrassed if anyone caught me playing it. Seriously, having to walk into a store and hand over money for this:

That's a humbling experience.

Bloodlines lasted five hours on my hard drive, which was enough to tell me two very important things: one, that the theme music was criminally similar to "Angel" by Massive Attack; and two, it was the kind of game that I theoretically would enjoy but this time it wasn't going to happen. It's an open-ended RPG with some clever side-quests, interesting writing and in an urban setting devoid of any "good and evil" nonsense. I think I was the target audience for this game. I'm not part of the actual audience, though, which loudly extolled its virtues and convinced me to try it.

That audience is manly the hardcore RPG set who are dying for games like this and Neverwinter Nights 2. It seems to me that these people have a very high threshold for technical problems, and will suffer through pretty much anything to get at the core game contained somewhere within. They are the Magnificent Ambersons cluck-clucking at the new multiplatform RPGs and how much better everything was in the difficult, isometric, stat-heavy, turn-based point-and-click days, and are desperate for anything vaguely reminiscent of that "hardcore" experience. I apologise for generalising. I know you read that Fallout post I wrote. If it makes you feel any better I think the other audience for this game are people who go to nightclubs in vampire costumes.

I didn't have much trouble with bugs. I did have trouble with the fundamentally clunky and awkward mechanics that characterise the entire game. The combat, the UI, the level design -- all the fan-patches in the world can't disguise the fact that this is fundamentally a poorly-constructed game. Technically, it's a mess.

I'd be happy to look past all that. In fact, I think I did. This is not a diamond in the rough. Yes, that certainly was a creepy hotel. Yes, that Therese/Jeanette scene was a bit dark. Yes, these characters are all as edgy as promised. And I'm sure this is the kind of game where you can recite a dozen classic moments at the drop of the hat, and the game's about those moments, those shining gems of great writing and execution. Only the lure of those moments never were enticing enough to make the whole grind worthwhile. Nothing ever convinced me that the game deserved its intelligent, mature reputation. For sure, the characters I dealt with were more realistic, pitiable and "human" than in most other games, but that just makes one aspect of the game better, not good, and what "most other games" have is a cohesion that Bloodlines does not. Bloodlines is interesting in fits and spurts and the rest of the time it's broken and deathly dull.

Bloodlines never took me to the point where I could overlook that I found all a little bit stupid. Games like this, unlike practically any other medium, have made me excited about cut-and-dried fantasy worlds, elaborate sci-fi conspiracies, Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. Bloodlines didn't sell it. It was not the Planescape: Torment of vampiric lore.

I'm happy to reduce it to that: I didn't get it. Which is a shame, because I love games like this, and I don't have many other options.

Important Baldur's Gate Update

I looked it up: it was called "Faerun"? Seriously?

January 18, 2008

YOU MUST GATHER YOUR PARTY BEFORE VENTURING FORTH

Hey, every now and then I actually do bring you timely news. Or timely supposition.

The hot rumour of the last hour is that someone is making Baldur's Gate 3. Excuse me, Baldur's Gate III. I am moved to ask "who cares?" BioWare won't be making it, of course, but I've come to realise that a franchise switching hands is not an insurmountable obstacle. I have to admit that the affection for Baldur's Gate still eludes me. If it's the gameplay, then at least a dozen other worthwhile games have since been made in that mold, and that original Baldur's Gate team aren't returning to dazzle us with their inimitable style of RPG design. I'm not sure what the idea is behind these games other than intepreting a stock-standard D&D pen-and-paper campaign as a video game. Ten years later, isn't that a little bit familiar?

If it's the setting -- oh, God, it can't be the setting, can it? Has there ever been a more mediocre fantasy world in gaming history? Who's getting excited at the prospect of revisiting the land of -- I don't even remember the name of the land. I'm sure it must have been home to an epically prosaic tale of swords and sorcery though.

It better not be the characters either, although I think Throne of Bhaal retired all of them. Wait a second, if Baldur's Gate 3 has Minsc in it then I take it all back. Sign me up! I can't wait to spend another adventure with Minsc. That loveable old ox. I look forward to wincing at his loud, stupid voice, that crazy running gag about his hamster (A proud warrior and his pet hamster! A HAMSTER!!) and of course those uneasy moments between his non-sequitur bellowing when we wonder if this guy actually is mentally challenged. I think I've missed those most of all. As far as I'm concerned, the inexplicably popular Minsc is right up there with Daxter as one of the worst "funny" characters in video games. The character epitomises a particular kind of loud, obvious, not-even-a-little-bit-cute humour that was the cutting edge of children's comedy circa 1995.

I'm sure whoever's developing this could be a great team and they might well make a great game. Still, what's the point of naming it after the ultimate generic RPG other than as a business move? It'll draw upon whatever cache of nostalgia and good will that name still has, which is left over from when the game originally captured gamers' attention because at that point there weren't already a hundred games like it.

This is a writing theory I have and it applies only to nerds. If you have a continuing work of fiction that appeals heavily to the nerd demographic (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc.), you can write something that's good or average or terrible and it won't matter as long as you throw in one extreme moment where there's a huge plot twist or an expensive set piece or an "important" story clue. This will be all anyone talks about. OMG I can't believe they did that!!! and so on. And just like that, as a writer, you get a pass. In the context of the marketing campaign for this game, calling it "Baldur's Gate 3" is that smokescreen.

This guy sucks.

January 17, 2008

You Really Excluded Me

Via the new dude at Shacknews, the WGA's nominees for their first-ever video game writing award. I wish I hadn't broken the site yesterday so I could have had this up earlier. I know how you rely on Hit Self-Destruct for your hard-hitting news.

Radical Entertainment's Crash of the Titans (PS2, PSP, Wii, X360)
Vicious Cycle's Dead Head Fred (PSP)

EA Redwood Shores' The Simpsons Game (DS, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, X360)

CD Projekt Red Studio's The Witcher (PC)

Massive Entertainment's World in Conflict (PC, X360)


The rationale behind this frankly insane list is that the writers in question have to be WGA members. Makes sense since it's the WGA's contest, but I question the point of this award when it's forced to select its nominees from an extremely shallow pool, one that just so happened to exclude the best written games this year.

Perhaps the idea is to wave a shiny new award in Ken Levine's face to entice him into joining the guild, so the WGA'll get to recognise the 2010 equivalents of BioShock, Portal and Mass Effect but also further consolidate gaming with the film industry. That's a whole other post. I don't want to write it. Maybe you can. I only want to complain about things. I'm having a bad day.

I don't want gaming getting this close to a "legitimate" award culture. I don't want to see gaming get its own Academy Awards, as if the industry isn't driven enough by marketing already. And things aren't particularly great right now: we already have three hundred little versions of the Academy Awards, and I'd gladly jettison the Spike TV horror show, but I'm not terribly enthusiastic about replacing them all with one ostentatious money sink/popularity contest. Gaming doesn't need E3 to return in self-congratulatory award show form.

January 16, 2008

They Don't Give These Out To Just Anybody

Hit Self Destruct dot com. There's now a very specific dollar value on my confidence in this blog's future.

January 13, 2008

Most Of The Time

I forgot something important in my post last week, a little caveat which I should have dropped in as a postscript: P.S. Most of the time, this is completely wrong.

Writing in video games is rarely the tightly-integrated, sublime element that it was in Planescape: Torment. Most of the time it's perfunctory, poorly-written and poorly-integrated. It's a tertiary concern to the gameplay and it's not even a close second. Story is there because of some unwritten rule. But gamers don't like it and I'm going to presume for a second that developers aren't all that interested in it either.

Months ago, Soren Johnson wrote about why he dislikes story in games. I'm not going to dwell on this because it was ages ago and I want to at least maintain the illusion that I'm keeping things up to date. Unlike Soren, I'll never skip the dialogue in Torment or Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout or anything comparable. It's because, most of the time, I like it, but I see it as such an important part of the whole experience I can't imagine ignoring it. But I completely agree that there are games in which story doesn't belong. It's easy to single out, what, Civilisation or most puzzle games. Clearly no one is playing these for the story, nor should they.

I think there's a consensus by now on the laziest storytelling models in games. I've narrowed it down to two, and I'll talk about the second one later. But the most common offender is long, discrete levels broken up by brief cutscenes. There are a hundred games that fit this description and I really can't stand it. It enforces the artificial separation of story and games in gamers' heads. It's a capitulation to the canard that story can never be more important than gameplay and plot advancement can't be its own reward. The gameplay will have absolutely nothing to do with the plot, because that would take too much work and nobody cares anyway. The story becomes an optional extra presented as cutscenes that a lot of players will skip over. Seemingly, the only value it has to developers it that it creates a thin continuity between the jungle level and the ice level. It's the mark of a story that has nothing to say. On the other hand, you have a game like Half-Life, where Valve are credited with forging a bold new direction for video game storytelling basically by virtue of not being lazy.

It's these games in which story doesn't belong. A textbook example is the Ratchet & Clank series. Each level's fun, it's a new location, new weapons, new gimmicks, it's basically all gameplay. Then a cutscene on completion, then another level. When you get a cutscene it's like the teacher is sticking a gold star to your forehead. Frankly, it's a piss-poor reward. Since Ratchet's a comedy game, so the cutscenes are terrible. Maybe I just don't get it, or maybe the writing is completely asinine and dumb. I've never seen anyone actually commend the humour in Ratchet & Clank, but Insomniac will soldier on making their funny games just like they'll soldier on trying to bolt on a story to a collection of crazy levels even though so few people give a shit on either count.

It's easy to single Ratchet out because it's not very good at this particular thing. Maybe there's a game with this exact same model and the writing is excellent (I can't picture it.) Honestly, though, it's not the format which irks me as the statement behind it, the one I get from Ratchet and so many other games: We don't want to tell a story. Please don't make us. If that's the developers' attitude then the game is probably going to end up in this style, the one that allows for complete outsourcing of narrative.

I don't condemn anyone for that. More power to you; I'll still play your game. If you don't want to tell a story, though, then take a stand and please don't tell one. If you're not interested in saying anything then don't talk to me.

January 5, 2008

Tell Me Something Special

Welcome back. I can't believe I'm still doing this. Why am I still doing this? "For myself," of course, should really be the only reason, as Mike Nowak recently pointed out. And I have been doing it for myself, ever since that first look at Google Analytics and learning there's no-one else to do it for. That still doesn't fully answer the question: why am I doing this? There has to be a purpose here. Even I don't value my opinion highly enough to record it indiscriminately. Okay, ostensibly it's all about video game writing. And to my credit, I may have the market cornered there. Still, I'm getting less interested in going back through my collection and more interested in writing about things like game journalism, which I know no-one is tired of yet. We'll see how it goes. I'm shifting the goalposts: I used to say that I'd shut this thing down the second I lost interest in order to spare everyone another slow, sad death of a gaming enthusiast website. Now I'm thinking that when I wonder what the purpose of this blog is, and can't answer -- then it's time to pack it in.

Over the last few weeks, Michael Abbott wrote a series of posts in which he revisited Planescape: Torment. I mention this because it does look like I'm about to rip him off bad. I promise that's not the case; I honestly did conceive of this post a month ago.

It's a blog about game writing, so I had to get around to Torment eventually. I'm not going to talk about specifics, however. Maybe another time. Right now I'd like you to consider Torment in the context of its then-competition: the Fallouts and the first Baldur's Gate, and why I think Torment is better than all of those.


It's a writing blog, again, so you might think that preference is simply a result of the writing; that I'm not taking into account the full experience. The first Fallout, after all, is a gaming milestone. Baldur's Gate, to be fair, isn't as well-regarded as its sequel, but fuck it, Torment's better than that one too. The conventional wisdom (in so far as there is a conventional wisdom) is that while Torment may have the better writing, Fallout and Baldur's Gate 2 are the better "games." I don't deny the power of Fallout 1. I love that game. And BG2 is probably the ultimate expression of this particular type of game. Why is it Torment, then? If you isolate the gameplay, then no, it can't compete at all.

Torment says something. I don't mean that it says something to me specifically. I mean it says something. Baldur's Gate is fully devoid of personality. Fallout has themes, but not much of a story, and I don't consider it to be about anything. Both these games are wide-open, non-linear, gameplay-focussed experiences and there's much to admire in that. They are exemplary representations of a gameplay style, but they don't leave me much to think about other than their historical significance. Torment is best appreciated after playing these other games because it shows you what can be done with that format. Torment delivers an astonishing profound, poignant and focussed experience that leaves me thinking about the emotional qualities endemic to that game. Sure, Torment was built on the backs of Fallout and Baldur's Gate, no question. But that's the way it happens. The technical details aren't important because now they don't have to be. The rest of the game, the creative qualities, become transcendent.


It's not my intention to paint Fallout and Baldur's Gate as tech demos. Let's look at them, though. Baldur's Gate is rather immature. Everything is black-and-white and the whole experience is completely straight-forward, lacking any nuance, character or emotion. It's a generic D&D game in video game form and maybe some people are content with that. The sequel's a little bit better, yes, but remains markedly juvenile and cloying. Aerie? Minsc? Terrible. Yeah, Minsc sucks. Deal with it.

Fallout has character. It has personality, it has atmosphere, it has subtlety. But it doesn't exactly wear its heart on its sleeve. For all the choices you get to make in the first game, what you see is basically what you get. It's a chessboard and you can move the pieces. There's no depth to the story or the characters and there's no larger narrative of any real significance. Intentionally, of course, this isn't a failing. But it's all about preference. And the entire second game is filtered through a detached, ironic cool that saves it from ever having to be serious. If that works for Fallout 2, great. Didn't work for me. Torment, on the other hand, is willing to say something. It's about can be about something. Put it this way: Torment has a purpose.

So, okay. I'll admit it; it is all about writing. But not as a subjective, individual metric, rather as a transformative tool. Writing turned Baldur's Gate 1 into Torment. It became something haunting and wonderful. I don't believe in the conventional wisdom, at least not in this case. Writing did not simply "elevate" this game from its standard gameplay to something special. Writing is not separate from this game experience. It is the game. It is the experience. It's what imbued Torment with purpose, something way beyond a cool concept for a game. It's why Torment will be the one I really remember, the one that holds up as fiction, the one I actually love.

Did I just say love? Oh, ick.