November 28, 2008


It's difficult to remember a time when I ever thought I would like the Witcher. I might have hoped once that the game's Polish and allegedly literary origins would result in a new and lively take on a very specific, very conservative sub-genre of diminishing relevance: the PC fantasy RPG. Instead, you play as an amnesiac, part of an elite order of monster slayers who wage war in dungeons and taverns against mysterious and evil wizards trying to take over the world, and it turns out the creative forces behind the Witcher played D&D when they were kids like everyone else in the game industry.

If I'd played this game when I was a kid I can imagine liking it. Medieval fantasy was so much more palatable back then, and the frequent cameos by forbidden profanity and women in undress probably would have sealed the deal. But the real reason I'm so currently unimpressed with the Witcher is because I don't have the patience for this kind of thing anymore.

The Witcher is extensive in the worst way. It's a long and repetitive thing, with lots of sidequests, lore text, inventory management and vaguely-interactive scenes of two people standing and exchanging exposition. I have found as I get older that I have less time for such an uneconomical and encumbered method of experiencing content. Being able to afford other games means I usually can't afford to immerse myself so completely in something as unjustifiably long-winded like this. It doesn't do well in comparisons, either: whatever pathos the Witcher can wrest from the story of a family tragedy as recited by stiffly-animated characters in cutscenes and dialogue trees is easily topped by a one-room tableau of creatively arranged art assets and 15 seconds of audio in Fallout 3.

There's something very archaic about the Witcher, especially in contrast with Fallout, which rewards exploration by scattering its best moments way off the critical path. With the Witcher, you learn very soon what to expect. Quests, whether side or main, cover extremely similar ground and being told to go kill ten monsters will never be an inspiring objective regardless of the fictional stakes. Witcher players are forever compiling one amorphous to-do list rather than exploring interesting diversions from their urgent and vital mission. Unless the player is a compulsive fixer -- admittedly a core RPG demographic -- there's not much reason to endure all these small variations on the main quest is to improve their character's stats and make the progression through all the mandatory content slightly easier. (Who hasn't always wanted to role play that emotion.) Either that, or because they want to get a look at a playing-card-sized painting of a naked renaissance fair barmaid while hoping their wife doesn't walk in the room.

The Witcher is either so enamoured of its central gameplay -- or so unimaginative -- that faced with the design challenge of extending the player's experience beyond the main quest, it just gives them as much of the same thing as possible. The developers were too concerned, perhaps, with some ill-conceived minimum length requirement and padded the game out in the easiest way. It stands to bizarre reason that if the player enjoys the basic dungeon crawling and escort missions then they should enjoy doing those things over and over again with less reward. I would have been fine with this if I was younger and if the game was all I had, but even back then there were alternatives to designing side content.

There's a line that can be traced from Monkey Island through Anachronox to Yakuza 2, and their side quests which existed as accessible and surprising alternatives to the main game. You could always entertain yourself with absurd dialogue options and non-essential content, and, when you were stuck, the game would endear itself to you again. They required little investment and paid off almost immediately. From the melodramatic estrangement between a son and his father; the burgeoning career of a street rapper; testing a litany of pick-up lines on unimpressed women to the environmental vignettes of Fallout 3; they were slight distractions, quickly resolved and comparatively so sophisticated in their brevity.

Whereas the Witcher, like every game of its type, casts you in the role of the hero unlucky enough to walk into down the day that everyone needed their problems solved and it took exactly the same thing to solve each one. It's too familiar. If there's an NPC with a unique name, I know, then it follows that there's a heirloom he lost in the swamps and I'll need to clear an hour from my schedule to venture through some caves fighting off packs of wolves and then one big wolf. I'm not thirteen anymore, and I've done this before.

At thirteen I would have exhausted the Witcher. I can decide now, however, faster than I could then, if I'm going to like something. It's a snap judgment based on years of experience and learned design preferences that tells me I shouldn't waste time screwing around in the Witcher or anything like it. It's instinct which comes with age, although the downside, it seems, is that there's now less out there for me to like.

November 25, 2008


The facts: if you register on Ubisoft's website, you can download a skin for the new Prince of Persia game that lets you play as the character from Assassins' Creed.

The spin: Ben Mattes, producer, via Eurogamer: "Prince of Persia is an incredible experience. We're thrilled to give our loyal fans another way to journey through it. This exclusive reward is a 'thank you' to our fans, who can easily unlock it when they link their accounts to their Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 gamer identities."

Sometimes you'll read a bizarre regional news story, about a gazelle running for local office or something, and think, haha, only in that country! The quote above is an Only In The Games Industry.

We have become so casually effusive when we talk about reliving the incredible Prince of Persia experience through an extreme and radical prism, we're really saying that you're basically going to be sent some cardboard 3D glasses from a children's colouring book. If you sign up for a mailing list.

What a depressingly disingenuous quote, more so for having made it as a headline on any website in the world. Either we are so self-absorbed and self-important that we really do obsess over these meaningless things, or Ubisoft are so cynical that announcing trivialities with righteous insincerity is their default setting. When did expectations get so high that they can't just say that this is a cool, if slight, bonus which players might enjoy? What can possibly be the point?

I picture a bored copywriter in a Montreal office forced to gush soullessly over an unlockable character skin and wondering if anything even matters anymore.

November 21, 2008

Video Dames

[Written by Duncan Fyfe and Alex Ashby.]

Late on a Friday night, a bleary-eyed 26 year old woman named Bridget slumped over the couch in the living room of the apartment she shared with her law student friend. Lying on her chest, she arranged the empty beer bottles standing on the carpet into a tidy circle. The My Bloody Valentine album Loveless murmured out of the stereo; the CD was possibly on repeat, you couldn't really tell.

Michelle swayed out of the bathroom holding a wine glass and slouched against the door frame. "Oh my God, listen to this," she said, articulating wildly with her free hand. "I had the best idea. We should start a website. Where we talk about games. We'll write it about girls who play games. It can be written by girl gamers for girl gamers. You know what we'll call it? You know what? Video Dames. Video Dames dot com."

Bridget rolled onto her back. "That's a funny name," she said.

Smiling broadly, Michelle continued, "We would be the video dames. This is awesome. We should really do this."

With a fingernail, Bridget flicked a bottle to the floor. "What would we, like, write about though? What kind of articles? Did you come up with anything else besides the name?"

Michelle delayed in the doorway, tilting her head from side to side in vacillation.

"I don't want to write a website," Bridget decided, "it'd be really hard. Having to update it every day? Fuck that, I don't want to do that, it'll take up too much time."

Staring for a moment, Michelle whispered "okay" and stiffly sat down by the arm of the other couch. Bridget stumbled to her feet and, bent over the kitchen counter, cracked open another beer. "Do you want to go to that movie tomorrow?" she asked.

Michelle took a careful sip of the wine. "No."

November 20, 2008

The Neutral

Every week, the reporter Joe Klein writes a column for Time magazine. In October he opined, favourably, on Barack Obama's performance in the second presidential debate. A letter to the editor took exception to the editorial:

We read Joe Klein's "The Obama Surge" in my English class [Oct. 20]. We had heard about Klein's bias towards the Democrats, but this column took it too far. There was not a single complementary remark about McCain or a single negative one about Obama. Klein also noted that McCain seems awkward because of his physical impairments. This was insulting and, I believe, irrelevant to voters. McCain has sacrificed far more for his country than Klein ever will.

I admire the author for finding the time to write this letter between complaining about video game reviews on the internet.

Imagine an opinion piece which discusses a recent game in terms that are unilaterally positive. The article focuses on one abstract element of the game, setting or atmosphere or art design or something. Whatever, it's a theme that really resonated with the author, who then wants to explore it in detail. While liberal in its praise, the piece is not exhaustive, and very intentionally doesn't mention any of the game's well-known flaws -- things like crashes, framerate issues and AI problems. Taking these alarming omissions into account, is this opinion piece ethically suspicious or merely irresponsible?

Apparently you present your evaluative thoughts on a game in any format more sophisticated than "played 3 hours of mirror's edge last night... like the music... combat sucks... more soon, xoxo" some people are going to equate it to a review. They view the article through the conventions of a review and bizarre standards of objectivity, impartiality and fairness as upheld by a constituency of impotent watchdogs. Where the original article was never supposed to be definitive, now people are reading it like it has pretensions towards being the final word on the matter. The expectation of a review is that it should cover all the good and bad points about a game, presumably in an objective, expedient and unpretentious style that educates the reader on whether or not to buy it. It should assess all the major areas: graphics, sound, story, fun, replayability. It should note all the bugs, loading times and sub-par animations. Even though those qualities are pretty irrelevant to your thesis if you want to write about the game from any perspective other than usability or hardware, the article described above still transforms from what you liked about the game to you very conspicuously leaving out everything bad about it. If everyone knows the game has a big crashing problem and that's not mentioned in the "review"? The publisher must have sent a whole truck of cocaine and hookers to explain that travesty of justice.

What about the piece has really been invalidated though? Its value as a consumer report? Maybe so if the problem in question was particularly egregious, but we're not even talking about actual reviews. Is the only thing gamers look for in any kind of critique product details? Are there really people who think the only possible purpose of criticism is to better inform the customer or the voter? I didn't think I wrote reviews anymore but apparently I still am writing someone else's shopping list. I don't understand exactly how appending your personal take on a game with some conventional wisdom about crashes is supposed to be helpful. Given the overwhelming tone of the piece, whose mind is that going to change anyway?

Maybe all these reviews and articles really should be written in the aggressively neutral, zero sum tones of a Wikipedia page's "critical response" section, something onto which anyone can project their preferences. Ideally, though, you want to write about games in interesting ways that engage readers regardless of whether they like the game, whether they've played the game or have any interest in the game. It should transcend basic responses to specific and technical points.

To offer a dissenting opinion, I don't believe anything I just wrote.

November 18, 2008

Report Card

"You failed?

"I wasn't happy when you got the B. Wasn't happy with that at all. But I think a teacher giving out an F is simply irresponsible, I really do. It's easy for them to sit behind their little desks and tear down what other people create, and they might not understand how damaging their pronouncements can be. I'm fine with criticism, all I'm asking is that it's fair. I feel like they don't respect the tremendous amount of work your mother and I put into releasing you.

"The problem with an F is that there are so many children out there and it's very hard for us to get you noticed. This has brought down your grade average and that sends a signal to potential employers, friends, girlfriends, to stay away from you. You're not worth their time. And it says to us that you were ill-conceived from the start, and we should have spent our money elsewhere. I don't believe that your teacher really comprehends everything that's at stake, which is why I don't think teachers should be allowed to teach until they've made a kid of their own.

"You know, I think your teacher might not get who you are, or appreciate what you're trying to be. I'm going to make a call to the principal and see if I can't get a different teacher assigned to you -- someone who really understands what you're going for and was a fan of our previous children.

"Look: you're not perfect. There are a dozen things I wish I'd had the time to fix. But I will always be proud of you. And all you have to do to make me happy is to start earning millions of dollars."

November 13, 2008

Interactive Journalism

[Written by Duncan Fyfe and Marek Bronstring. Marek is a professional game developer with experience designing browser-based MMOs. Visit his blog, Gameslol.]

If you are in the game industry and privy to scintillating inside information, you'll occasionally find fault with news stories as they appear in the gaming press. Usually, they're a paraphrase of the press release, containing only the readily available details. That's where the reportage ends. The story then disappears from the front page, replaced with the Top 5 Hottest Babes In Game Development and you're left saying to nobody listening, "Wait, aren't you interested in... don't you want to ask about...?" Writing a more robust feature doesn't require access to classified documents, it typically just entails a Google search and maybe a phone call. You can't fill in the blanks for everyone due to NDAs or etiquette or that it's not your job to do their job. You can't be Deep Throat in the underground garage dishing dirt to Bob Woodward. Sometimes, though, you do feel like Deep Throat and Woodward's not giving you his full attention because at that moment he's booked for three other garage appointments where he's going to be told all about new Xbox 360 faceplates, a Mean Girls-branded Puzzle Quest clone, and "what's next" for mobile gaming. You urge Woodward to follow the money; Woodward instead writes a post briefly announcing the existence of the money.

It isn't as if game journalists are closer than they'll ever know to uncovering an international criminal conspiracy. Research simply makes for a more complete story. The September NCsoft reorganizations/layoffs were portrayed largely and generically as the company renewing its commitment to competitive and triple-A MMOs. To look at the information more critically would reveal that 70 NCsoft Europe staffers were made redundant; that the company was ceasing European development; and that the political power within NCsoft US was moving from Austin and the Garriott brothers to Seattle and the ArenaNet founders -- a conclusion pretty well borne out by the recent resignation of returning astronaut Richard Garriott. It still wouldn't be Pulitzer-winning material by any means but certainly a far more interesting and worthwhile comment on the state of MMOs than a rote preview of the latest sci-fi/fantasy endeavour, wherein the author disingenuously hypothesises that maybe this will be the game to take down World of Warcraft, concluding "we'll see." With the NCsoft story, the writer even has an easy poetic lede all ready to go: "As Richard Garriott left the earth's orbit, the world too was in the process of leaving him behind."

Game journalists are never expected to be crack investigators, but in fact they sometimes do demonstrate intrepid lust for detail. Unfortunately, they only unmuzzle that nose for news when analysing marketing stunts like the Halo 3: Recon teaser trailer. The press watch Lost too and can't resist the cryptographic intrigue of decoder rings and freeze-framing grainy video. With the Bungie trailer, and the Diablo III teaser before it, the press are determined to uncover the truth. They give their own theories, their reader theories (no idea is too extreme to consider when there's so much on the line), put the story up on the front page, and will stay on the case for as long as it takes. They dig into the HTML, check what trademarks the company registered recently, what retailers are listing, what was on an old Powerpoint slide from a previous shareholders' meeting or GDC presentation. Everyone's on red alert for the hottest story of the news cycle and they work tirelessly to solve this manufactured puzzle which was created to provoke this exact reaction. Here's some sample coverage from the last time this happened: 1UP, Eurogamer, Kotaku, Joystiq, NeoGAF. NeoGAF isn't a press outlet but at this level there's functionally no difference.

The question becomes, for those who care about such things, how to translate that journalistic zeal to the cause of something greater than theorising over an incoming product announcement. How does one get the press to pay attention to the "real" story? The solution, obviously, is to remake the entirety of game journalism as an elaborate ARG to play.

In many ways, an alternate reality game is a lot like journalism. Within the basic information of a press release, there may be one or more strategically-placed phone numbers for the reader to call and glean more details about this crazy story. If they read further into the press release and Google some of the names they see mentioned, they'll see all sorts of other websites that presumably the company put up themselves to expand this complex fiction.

Those similarities alone evidently aren't doing the trick. Game journalism could do with some Web 2.0 flourishes.

Arbitrarily-selected passages on company websites or press releases should appear in code; something confusing at first but easily decipherable. To make sure it can be understood by the gaming press, it should be written in one of the two official languages of the internet: binary and Elvish. Also, game developers should post a seemingly random series of numbers all over their website, stirring the internet into a speculative frenzy. At the climax, they announce that those numbers are their parent company's annual profits.

Discreetly, of course, so they think it was a result of their own cunning, journalists should be furnished with fictitious account details with which they can "log in" to a developer's website and access secret developer diaries. These entries recount the developers' personal lives up to the point where their domestic worlds are rocked by the announcement that Activision is buying them out. Also, studios might consider releasing a series of confessional YouTube videos from "lonelydeveloper15" wherein this hopefully attractive female developer extemporises on her boyfriend and general relationship issues, building up the audience's sympathy before it is revealed to them that, really, she's even lonelier now that she and her whole department have been laid off.

It goes without saying that all televised press conferences and stockholders' meetings should be alarmingly interrupted by a video transmission of a panicked woman shouting "S.O.S.... this is Lieutenant [bzzzzzt] [krrrcchh] they're... everywhere... [kzzt] oh, God... [scchhhh]... they got Mendez... [brrt] coming from... all directions..."

The journalist, sitting at his computer, pores through pages of commendably plausible company backstory and trades e-mails with a possibly fictitious creative director, extending his reality by arranging an interview. I'm in deep, he thinks.

November 9, 2008

Escape From Vault 101

Bethesda were part of the story. Fallout 3 previews, between explaining VATS and the Megaton dilemma, made sure to note the long-standing concerns over whether Bethesda could pull this off. Bethesda had inserted themselves into the history of someone else's series: Fallout, ardently mythologised as a classic although its commercial cachet had declined. After Bethesda cultivated their house franchise into a well-received cross-platform hit with Oblivion, they suddenly had everything to prove.

Their motivations find parallel in the story Fallout 3 tells about the player character's father, James. One day and without any specific impetus, James abruptly leaves home and the security it provides to risk everything on resurrecting a certain project commonly thought to be untenable after some recent failures. Why'd he leave, and why did Bethesda decide to do this? Fortunately they did, because at worst, Fallout 3 would have been an undetermined game; a cautious compromise between the varying design sensibilities of Bethesda and Black Isle and a half-hearted and restrained remake of the original Fallout.

That's not Fallout 3. Here's why it mattered to the post-apocalyptic, profanity-laden, morally vague wasteland that Bethesda make it this time.

Game worlds which exist in their fiction as monumental achievements -- like Rapture and Liberty City, grand and exhaustive -- can reflect their developers' real-life dedication to building a quality game. Instead of vicariously crafting in-game opulence, Bethesda recreated Washington, D.C. as a blasted shithole devastated by nuclear war and depressingly rendered in decrepit detail. BioShock was a toast to failed ambition; Fallout 3 a toast to failure.

Given Fallout 3's timing, reintroducing the series' conceit of war beginning with an Alaskan invasion is faintly hilarious. Now that the resultant wasteland exists in one of Bethesda's open and persistent worlds, you're forced to survey the full extent of the destruction. You can't ignore all the bombed-out highways, the bridges to nowhere, the irradiated waters, the torn-apart schools, the abandoned cars, the skeletal remains embracing on the beds of shattered houses, the random and meaningless firefights and explosions. That's the world, and you have to deal with it even when it has no quest relevance. No previous Fallout game has actually felt so plausibly Post-Nuclear, and if Fallout 3 doesn't seem as funny as its predecessors it's because there's really nothing funny about that. A video game has never been so appropriately painted in brown and gray; the thematic prerogative of Gears of War wasn't hopelessness.

The decision to set Fallout 3 in D.C. was ostensibly made to further distance Bethesda's game from the West Coast adventures of Fallout 1 and 2, and because the Maryland-based developer were more familiar with the Capitol. Workmanlike reasoning which doesn't hint at the massive implications the decision would have on the creative direction of the game. It's not until after the player leaves the pristine sanctity of Vault 101 in search of his father and makes it to Washington proper that you remember what's specifically important about D.C. Not until you march down the Mall, through the wrecks of the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the Museums of History and Technology, the National Archives and the Lincoln Memorial to the tune of the America the Beautiful, ducking the street-gangs and mutants further blowing apart the ruins that you can tell this is the dismal coda to American history. America as it was conceived in 1776 is in gradual decline and while some civilians still go about their lives it seems inevitable that the light will blink out sooner rather than later. When you're able to casually scavenge the Declaration of Independence, and sell it, whatever immaculate prestige American history once had is probably gone. On your tour of D.C. you're made to revisit all the initial promise inherent in that document while you're picking up the pieces and kicking around the ashes. The buildings stand remarkably intact, frozen in time, for you to look up at and think about how this all went to hell.

Sitting in the Museum of Technology's planetarium, you can watch the stars flicker across the ceiling from an antiquated projector, listening to an earnest narrator explains the great dream of mankind to explore outer space and some '40s nostalgia drifting over the radio. A pair of super mutants interrupt with lead pipes and miniguns, screaming about tearing your head off. That's Fallout 3.

It's a heartbreaking picture, even though Fallout is still decorated with contrarily cheerful '50s duck-and-cover iconography, replete with the perpetually enthused Vault Boy character. As much as that imagery serves as ironic commentary, it almost exists to leaven the psychological burden of walking around awake in this nightmare. If you can point to something out-of-place or ridiculous, then you can detach from the world rather than submitting to it as a reasonable state of existence. Even so, Fallout the third is the sober one in the family, and whether you think that's a deliberate choice or Bethesda's Achilles' heel, it works for this game. Fallout 3 executes its humorous interstitials as well as anything in the first game, while rejecting the broader pop culture excesses of Fallout 2's Monty Python prostitute showcase. It is, after all, the end of the world.

Far Cry 2, another sequel from a different studio, has absolutely nothing to do with the first game. The name is a vehicle for an unrelated design document and the game's called Far Cry 2 only because Ubisoft doesn't own the Mercenaries license. The new Far Cry team and the new Fallout team offer new perspectives. Far Cry 2's Africa abandons aliens for malaria, item degradation, civil war and all-purpose ugliness while Fallout 3's wasteland is deliberately and unremittingly tragic. To the history of their respective series, they introduce a conscience. They tell gamers that they can have their open-world shooter and post-apocalyptic wastelands, with their bloody conflicts, nuclear weapons, headshots, political intrigue and all the occasionally goofy video game accouterments, but they won't pretend anymore that it's all unreservedly awesome. You should feel bad in Far Cry 2 or sad just walking around in Fallout 3. That Fallout 3 is able to convey all this entirely through atmosphere rather than disadvantaging the player (a page out of the survival horror playbook) is a pretty remarkable achievement.

Fallout 3's weirdest moment has two costumed crusaders fighting on the outskirts of a remote town, calling themselves the Mechanist and the AntAgonizer. It's a moronic premise, albeit one right in line with Fallout. When you talk to the AntAgonizer, though, and persuade her to knock it off, the game treats her with completely dignity as she presents a reasonable case for how she wanted to help the impossibly lost inhabitants of the wasteland before running away in tears.

As Fallout's setting is such an unnatural mode of existence, it's especially worthwhile to observe how the residents of the wasteland choose to live their lives. What are you supposed to do when all of civilisation's institutions have been erased? Everyone you meet has written their own self-help book on post-nuclear living. Most subsist on vice, as murderers, dealers, slavers and prostitutes. Skilled fighters hire themselves out as mercenaries or anarchically pillage towns. Others go flat-out insane. Personal survival can be so insurmountable a bar that few rise above self-interest and do what's right for what little remains of the world. Some try, like the semi-righteous order of knights, the Brotherhood of Steel, but even they're divided on how much they want to help out humanity. The Capitol Wasteland lacks any government or ideology and as chaotic and sociologically fractured as it is, it's a perfect setting for an unfocused open-world game. There's exactly one person in Fallout 3 who will sacrifice for the greater good and you can follow him if you want. It's impossible though to believe that in this world enough people like Alexander Hamilton or James Madison will emerge; a small number of smart people who, though ideologically divided, could do something as immense as drafting and ratifying the Constitution. You can't expect any such coherence or drive from the people of Fallout 3.

Most interesting among the populace are not the raiders or the samaritans but those going on as if nothing happened. Isolated in private zones or secluded in vaults, they run restaurants, sweep floors, nurse high school crushes; reintroducing domesticity to the post-apocalypse. You have to wonder how responsible that actually is. Are they doing the right thing in rebuilding familiar societal constructs, or should they accept that the world's in decline and do something about it?

You're an actor in the wasteland like the rest, with more agency and influence than all of them combined, which prompts you to consider what you are going to do. In Fallout, making moral decisions isn't a feature designed to encourage replayability, it's arguably the entire point. Fallout is distinctly unlike those "choose fate, save world" games like Mass Effect (or Oblivion, for that matter) since their worlds are never believably imperiled. The world is in pretty good shape for the entire game; the danger is theoretical and only ever exacerbated by the player allowing the linear plot to progress. Here, the world is already a write-off. You can't fix the wasteland or the war but there are so many people whose lives you can affect, and that in turn determines what kind of person you are. All that really matters is the quality of your character. If you help whoever you meet you won't get anything out of it, not really, not the world or power or glory or any kind of meaningful relationship. All it is is karma.

In a weird way, the wasteland is an inviting avenue for change. There are no rules, no institutions, no laws. What do you do when nobody is watching and you can't be held accountable? If you try and approximate the moral and legal standards of today, then that's a statement in itself: you want those structures to endure. The place is already so desolate you don't even have to do much to improve it. It reminds me, tangentially, of reading about post-invasion Iraq and the early stages of the occupation when the country, bleached to a dreamlike blank slate, so briefly overflowed with possibilities, and an influx of bright young graduates headed out to the Green Zone to reconstruct the country. I remember thinking, for one dangerously unguarded moment, that wouldn't it be great to move to Baghdad. A place where there's so much to achieve and you can finally have an impact even though you'll probably ruin everything and get murdered.

When the Ink Spots' shiftless anthem "Maybe" is broadcast over the in-game radio, the song being the first thing you heard in Fallout 1, it invokes the series' own memory. Bethesda inspire nostalgia for something they had nothing to do with and recall how unlikely it once seemed that they'd be the ones to restart this thing. The lyrics -- "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that I were near/Then maybe you'll ask me to come back again/And maybe I'll say 'Maybe'" -- contradict what this game is all about. Fallout 3 is about making a decision. It's about commitment. It's about doing something. If it seems like an overly general theme consider Bethesda's own history with this game, how, out of unspecified desire, they left the safety of the Elder Scrolls for this, and how many development studios are factories for endless variations on popular franchises or uninspired sequels nobody cares about. Fallout 3 is a tribute to intent. It's not a rallying cry for any cause or even a cautionary tale about the hypothetical horrors of nuclear holocaust. It's a statement on the worthlessness of inaction. It's about not staying in the vault.

In the spirit, then, of conclusive action and definitive answers, we are at last able to resolve every question we've ever had about this game. Does it work; did they pull it off; was it worth all the time, the money, the effort, the mistrust and the suspicion; with everything that this game says and everything that it achieves, well, finally, is this Fallout?


November 4, 2008

If Looks Could Kill

It's essentially over. In about a week, Mirror's Edge will be released and from my perspective it has run a very strange campaign. This is one of our last opportunities to talk about that process while it's still current and hopefully still interesting, although Mirror's Edge itself will be last-gen and boring as early as next January so pretty soon nobody will be talking about the actual game either. These things have a very fragile lifespan.

The debut trailer in May quickly endeared itself to the constituents of Internet City. Clearly it was something different: artistically striking and an original first-person take on a familiar third-person genre. It invited favourable comparisons to Portal (perhaps unintentionally) as both games appeared to have a visual and a gameplay aesthetic in common.

Obviously they shared a female player character and a vivid colour pallete, and it's unfortunate that those are so rare as to immediately link the games together. Otherwise, they were both first-person games with no emphasis on combat, instead preferring environmental puzzles. Where Portal was the definitive first-person action puzzle comedy, Mirror's Edge would likewise be the first-person free-running platformer, capturing the adrenaline-rush primacy of movement and physicality like few games had before it. Both are minimalist in their design, featuring sparse, bright environments and no HUD. It seemed like a reasonable assumption then to expect that this minimalism would result in a gameplay-endemic storytelling model much like Portal. Early previews suggested that radio communication was an important element, implying, agreeably, that the story would be delivered primarily through voice-over. It was all supposition; DICE never drew the comparison directly. Until, of course, they set lyrics to the official Mirror's Edge theme song and called it "Still Alive". (Sample lyrics: "Ooh, I'm still alive/I'm still alive".)

After the initial trailer, curiously, every Mirror's Edge press release reflected design decisions shockingly unlike Portal. It was as if DICE felt they had the Portal vote all tied up and needed to broaden their appeal to sway some undecideds. The marketing strategy that followed, however, was perhaps not the best move. When they had everyone thoroughly bewitched by the potential gameplay, they followed up by unloading a heavy dump truck full of superfluous lore, possibly into a local river or other municipal resource. We couldn't get the innovative platformer without the gritty saga of betrayal and revenge set in a near-future totalitarian police state/extreme skateboarding park in which sisters are framed for crimes they did not commit. My friend Steve Gaynor points out that Mirror's Edge takes less after 1984 than it does Marc Ecko's Getting Up.

Telling such a story entirely in game presents a writing challenge, as Valve well know. DICE resolved to opt out of first-person and deliver its narrative primarily in a series of heavily-promoted 2D Flash cutscenes featuring extensive expository narration written by Rhianna Pratchett. For Mirror's Edge historians, a tie-in comic book documents the everyday routine of main character Faith before it was disrupted by a video game plot catalyst. The selling of Mirror's Edge is less about making a cool game available to play and more about launching a grand multimedia franchise event. Also, please buy the original soundtrack.

At the time Portal was released, its story was an unknown quantity. It slowly unraveled and became progressively more involving as you played, and did so while remaining non-intrusive. When dispatches of fictional backstory are one of the first things published about a game, before anyone's had a chance to play it, and is revealed in a passive format unrelated to the act of play, then it's not a game, it's homework. Please pay attention to all the particulars about these crooked bureaucrats and Faith's designer sneakers because it's totally going to affect the way you climb over fences. The story is apparently so good, in fact, that it could not be leashed to just one game. DICE quickly assured us that Mirror's Edge was always planned as a trilogy, as if there isn't a game announcement any more cliche and presumptuous.

Reports came in that this was an apparently unforgiving platformer demanding precision, and the heart-pumping adrenaline of leaping across rooftops, fleeing from gunfire and helicopters is always captured perfectly by repeatedly failing at the same jump. DICE made the game's time trial mode a big deal, and promised that there would be special DLC in our future. Platform-exclusive DLC, and so the game gains value as an asset in console wars, which is what video games are all about.

None of it had anything to do with what made the game appealing in the first place, and made the whole package look kind of worse. I'm especially puzzled as to why they pushed the story so hard. My degree in Political Science almost leads me to suspect that it was damage control; getting the information out early and themselves to preempt journalists from busting open a scoop on how the 2D cutscenes were ridiculous (this isn't what we learned in Political Science at all.)

Portal was lucky it didn't have similar flaws; luckier still that it didn't have to run the publicity gauntlet that Mirror's Edge has. Portal was never promoted on a triple-A level, otherwise we would have known everything about it. We'd be indoctrinated in the full history of Aperture Science, and the backstories and motivations of Chell and GLaDOS would be well-documented in trailers and character profiles. Previews would have exhausted puzzle solutions. Penny Arcade would have done a prequel comic and Still Alive (the original) would have been Digged to YouTube stardom. Special challenge room DLC would have been announced. As soon as pictures of Chell were published, she would soon be redesigned by fans as a comely fifteen-year-old of nebulous Asian descent.

We've come to demand that level of exposure but it would have ruined Portal's chances at success. Portal slipped in under the cover of Half-Life and Team Fortress. It capitalised on low expectations, and the surprise contributed to players' positive impressions.

Mirror's Edge couldn't work that way. It came up from design documents and out of pitch meetings and was elevated to triple-A status, where it doesn't have the luxury of privacy. When your game becomes a high-profile high-talent cross-media cross-platform franchise trilogy experience, there's a lot on the line. At the start it seemed reasonable to think that Mirror's Edge could stand entirely on the merits of its brilliant core concept, and not need to include extraneous and negligibly attractive features to appeal to as many people as possible. But, no, this is the video game business. Mirror's Edge is big time now and it needs to win, and if that means bringing aboard comic book artists, "well-known music industry producers" and Rhianna Pratchett to push it over the edge, well, that's what you do when you run for president.