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So there I was, having just shot and killed half the Walton gang, busting through the flimsy doors of their desert hideout – about to rescue a rancher’s daughter from the loneliness of rapists and outlaws. I burst in like hell with legs, and see there’s still one man standing over her with a gun to her head. I waste a split-second aiming. Crack. Too slow. She’s dead. In rushes the father to cry by the side of his dead daughter, and for some reason I lose 200 honour points as if I shot her myself. I feel gutted. John Marston failed.

Then, about an hour later, I ride through the same bit of country and find that this grim show is staged again, just as it was before. This time I remember to use dead-eye, shoot the bastard, and (having already taken other jobs to get my honour back up where it was) I pick up an additional 200 points, and earn a new title and get a duster coat. And she lives. SCORE! John Marston rocks.

It’s got “redemption” in the title because you always get another chance. The clue is in your stats in the game menu: “World events encountered” then “Unique World Events Encountered”. The game is letting you know there’s only so much it can provide, but it will keep giving you those moments time and time again if you know where to look. I went back to that fort at Twin Rocks because I knew there might be a chance to save that rancher’s daughter – it took me an hour to want to do it all again but a combination of my engagement with the situation, and Rockstar’s incredible work in creating an atmosphere in a game, left me suitably haunted by my failure to save that girl last time, and compelled to ride the bloodstained road to redemption. I would like to discuss how Red Dead Redemption manages to maintain the atmosphere and majesty of The West (though by flitting oddly through all its permutations), and somehow blend an action experience with RPG elements that in a weird way feels “arcade”.

It’s a testament to the elegance of the design that an open world game like this can support emergent game play, the narrative of the story, and still retain a very ludic feel regarding your actions (its like everything you do you are doing for all three reasons). I know people will tire of the comparisons, but to quickly mention GTA4 – your actions in that game outside the story had little or no impact overall. The situations that it could have worked in didn’t really exploit their setting in a game. The phone calls that led to your driving your friends around and hanging out with them could have but the reward/punishment for succeeding/failing in these things is detached from the core experience. They make up a stat buried away in the menu that no one cares about because the reward is limited anyway. Free taxi rides? Roman? Why am I not interested? The clue’s in the title. Grand Theft Auto 4 let the burden of these situations rest in your conscience – not your stats. Red Dead Redemption does both – your penalty/reward for your performance is in the same pile as for every quest/story mission for the whole game: money, fame & honour. Side quests they are in name, but they’re not marginalized by where they benefit you.

"Why Johnny Ringo, you look like someone just walked all over your grave."

The way RDR splits up its content is key in the way it makes you care about what you’re doing, and also in how the world remains believable in its own fridge logic. Story quests are supplemented by a handful of mini-games; jobs (nightwatching or horse breaking); challenges (hunting, sharp-shooting, botany *cough* I mean survivalisim, and treasure hunting); strangers (with unique mo-capped, story-like cutscenes) who make up the traditional side-quest side of things; bounty missions which can be taken voluntarily or as a means of penance for your legal indiscretions; and finally, my favourites, the “random encounters”. When I say that, I am not simply referring to them in the strict RPG sense that they are an enemy, but much more curiously in the sense that they are occurrences that happened that for some reason keep repeating themselves in roughly the same place. They have little or no exposition, and are characteristically over in a few moments. Despite the story (which I’m enjoying, and I think has sturdy characterisation and the usual hallmarks of a Rockstar Game) my main emotional engagement with Red Dead is in these vignettes, these momentary shots of simulated spontaneity. They contribute to a whole world where the joy comes from it being a bit like the movie Groundhog Day – somehow a story and a narrative continue while the world repeats itself.

My obsession with the random encounters began in Armadillo – the first proper town you encounter in the game. Now so far in town I have had several encounters including being propositioned to a few duels, catching a few horse rustlers, catching a thief stealing from the cordial racist shopkeeper, getting horse-jacked, and saving a woman from a pack of wolves. My two favourite encounters, the ones I hang around outside the saloon or on the roof of the coach-house for, are somewhat more wild: Firstly, the moment four horsemen ride through town shooting rifles into the air dragging a kidnapped woman behind them through the dirt screaming “This is our town!!”, and secondly, the one that started my craze, a prostitute being attacked by a spurned man wielding a knife outside the saloon.

They captured my imagination, because – like with the hideout at Twin Rocks – I failed to act as decisively as I’d have liked. The first I encountered was the prostitute being stabbed. I heard the scream, saw the blue on my minimap (though I was standing right there), and for some reason I dicked around with the weapon-selection wheel, and decided I’d use the knife – because in my head that was potentially less fatal (I can’t speculate as to why I didn’t just punch him). By the time I selected knife and got close to him she was already dead. I then fatally stabbed him right after. A few moments pass while I bathe in my inadequacy as a person, then I sigh and loot the attacker’s body, and pay my respects to the departed. It is only minutes until the next encounter signified by yet another terrorised scream of a damsel in distress. On this occasion I had the great misfortune of standing in the middle of the road, and for suffering “gamer’s ego”. What is going on? And how can I be DIRECTLY INVOLVED?! This was not a blue-mark on my minimap, this woman was just a woman apparently. People were running scared into buildings. Any sane man would have done the same, but I apparently decided that John Marston is not a sane man. No, in fact John Marston finally gets his act together (after being trampled underfoot) as the posse are almost out of town and shoots one of them in the back, causing them to turn around and charge back into town. Then in the confusion he shoots several lawmen and has to evade capture. Then, apparently, John Marston has a bit of a cry about how he’s lost honour and goes to pick flowers for half an hour to calm down.

I didn’t know these things would occur over and over yet. The reason I headed back into Armadillo was because I thought there must be more things like this that could happen. I was right, as I listed earlier more things were on the cards, and thankfully – without me expecting so, I got my chance to save the prostitute. Walking by the saloon I found her being wrestled to the ground in the alleyway. I saw the flash of steel from the attacker’s knife and thought “We’re not messing about this time!” pulled whatever gun I had holstered (thankfully not a shotgun) and plugged him in the head. His knife flies from his grasp and lands a few feet away, harmlessly laying in a puddle. Then I am offered the thanks of the woman I saved, and she even gives me money. John Marston – you can be my hero baby.

It would take a few more attempts before the bandits dragging that woman would be stopped – primarily because I spent two encounters trying to shoot the rope like some hotshot. Eventually, from the balcony of the saloon, and once again by chance, I had the opportunity to swiftly kill them with my rifle. I was given thanks and honour. John Marston – doesn’t like women being dragged.

John Marston - doesn't mind men being dragged.

The reason these random encounters are much better than simply an enemy appearing is because you choose to get involved in them. They begin a story and let you apply narrative, and as many people have already been discussing, Red Dead Redemption is a game that makes great stories for gamers. In the last three paragraphs I told four stories of what I did in Red Dead, and each scenario offers dozens more variations on them. The shopkeeper’s thief for example – I killed him once. Then one time I hogtied him, and brought him back to the shopkeeper who started kicking him in the head. Then one time the shopkeeper said something racist before I could give him the prisoner, so I punched him in the head and chased him around town and hogtied him, freeing the robber. I got done on one account of abduction but sod it, it was worth it. Besides, the shopkeeper holds no grudges apparently.

So to restate my main point, Red Dead Redemption takes Rockstar’s emergent gameplay formula one step further by offering the player two things: One – the opportunity to make right our mistakes by letting us re-enact them (I would argue against it being a counter to engagement, as to play along you have to be immersed in their iteration of The West and drop your own preconceptions), and by increasing our own narrative experience of their emergent game play tools or props by granting them context – that is to say, offering us small “situations” – like the racist shop-keep’s thief – in the world rather than static things the GTA games use like stunt ramps. You may get a good crash off a stunt ramp, but you won’t get half as good a story of how you interacted with it as you will with the thief.

John Marston like’s Pina Colada, and getting caught in the rain.

Post Script: The “Red Dead” bit is because when it goes red you’re dead. I guess.

GET READY! (This article does contain spoilers… even if they are five years old)

This mentalist was voiced by David Gasman, who also voiced Twinsen from Little Big Adventure 2. This knowledge has ruined a treasured portion of my childhood.

Some time in November ’09 I browsed through XBLA’s collection, and found that in their Xbox Originals they had Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy if you’re American). Being as I was a bit excited for Heavy Rain (I don’t own a PS3 personally, but I’m hoping to get a go on a friend’s copy) it seemed natural for me to pick up one of Quantic Dream’s previous game and the prototype for their multiple narrative, contextual controls,  QTE action sequences, and cinematic storytelling. I also had an inkling (with the potential for discourse over what path to take, and given my past experiences with QTEs in games – and the way the person playing doesn’t get to actually see what’s going on) that it was a game best played in a group or at least with one other person. With this in mind my girlfriend and I have been playing this gradually, about 2 hours every three weeks since November. I feel as though I should share my experiences of the game, now that we’re finally at the end and until I can play Heavy Rain it might be useful to put down all the things I hope are fixed in its spiritual successor.

Hi, I’m David Cage… And I’m going to be all over this game.

Fahrenheit goes to great lengths early on to convince you that you’re not playing a game, or watching an interactive film, or any of the other boring ordinary things things you want to call. It’s a bit pretensious about this actually: If you select the opening tutorial a mo-capped model of David Cage, voiced by David Cage, explains to you that he is David Cage and that he’s the director of “A world where anything can happen.” That’s quite a bold claim. The general tone of the tutorial is that he wants you not to think of it as a game, but an interactive storytelling experience. Cage makes no secret of the fact in interviews he wants you to not think of his games as games either. Only they are games, really. Like Omikron – The Nomad Soul was a game (though a game with David Bowie in), and how Heavy Rain is still a game.

This is fine. Pride may be a deadly sin, but there are many good games out there that have the stamp of an auteur. Tim Schafer, Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Ken Levine – these are all auteurs of the gaming world, and each have more than a few ground-breaking titles under belts. The problems arise with Fahrenheit when David Cage decides not to make a game, but then doesn’t know what to make instead, or how to go about making it.

I move him with my thumbs…

As you will have seen from the tutorial the controls are pretty idiosyncratic. The analogue sticks control most everything, with context senstivity and on screen-prompts. Triggers are used in button mashing, or rhythm based minigames. The face keys are only used when interacting with the menus or with in-game computers. The bumpers, too, are largely ignored. As a system, standing alone from the context of the game’s narrative – as if to pitch it in a meeting – it sounds good. It’s simple. There’s not much for the player to learn, therefore it’s more accessible. Especially to those without prior gaming experience, who have no associations with more common control setups. You get the feeling that this is the audience the game was after. Especially when we consider the plotline.

Down the rabbit hole…

Fahrenheit was released in September 2005. For some reason since The Matrix was released in cinemas in 1999 there have been scores of movies, games, comics, tv shows and general media that have, in some way, tried to capture the spirit of that franchise. Mainly with bullet time and Kung-fu. Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) had the black trenchcoats, the shootouts, and the conspiracy theories. The Christian Bale movie Equilibrium had the fighting, and gunplay and the stoic cold protagnoist. Recently the movie Wanted was still clawing after The Matrix associations with it’s bullet-time style effects and ludicrous gunplay (which I believe wasn’t even in the comic it was based on). I don’t know why this occurs still now, what with the two pale sequels being recognized as general downturn in quality, but I can sort of see why Quantic Dream may have been keen to throw it in a game released in ’05. Firstly, the game was in development from 2003. The films were still coming out. And they’re not actually that bad. More importantly, The Matrix was ubiqutous in western media at the time. You couldn’t move without it being homaged or parodied somewhere. Secondly, it’s just one of the many things Quantic Dream threw into a crowded plot, and given what he was trying to accomplish – spectacle, drama, and a character who attains godlike power, it was more or less the obvious route considering the general tone of Hollywood (remember this is a game that wants to have the “storytelling” of a movie) and the technical feat of accomplishing this with a fully motion captured game.

But as I say, that was just one of the many strands that exist in this game. David Cage has spoken in interviews that he spent a year writing a huge design doc for Fahrenheit, a bible for the fiction – for other writers to use, and a 2000 page script, with the view to releasing it as episodic content. Clearly what can be gleaned from that is the game was meant to be bigger. It unfortunately shows as you play it. Cage reveals that the mellower scenes in the apartments of the main characters are hangovers from the writing of the episodes (where you’d have more time to flesh out the characters) and while there are a unique and interesting part of the game,  the lack of exposition or development for them makes these somewhat hollow. They also, unfortunately, affect the pacing unfavourably. These are minor gripes, however, compared to the main issue – what kind of story is Cage trying to tell? And what kind of game is appropriate for it?

I was enthralled in this game’s opening. You watch a cinematic (with somewhat hammy noir dialogue alas) which leads you to a diner. Your character, Lucas Kane, is having some kind of fit in a bathroom stall, then he suddenly, in some kind of weird trance, stabs a man to death. The scene has impressive motion capture, and they certainly made an effort placing the cameras for the scene. The interesting part is the tense moment you take control of the scene. There’s a cop in the diner, and he’s probably going to want a wee soon, so you had better clean up the floor, hide the body, ditch the weapon, clean yourself, and get out of the diner. Oh, you’d better pay for your bill, too. There’s a split screen that kicks in really hyping up the tension, and this is the only game I’ve played where hiding a body isn’t as simple as picking it up and chucking it into a shadow. Bits of monologue trickle through as you perform each action, and you really get the feeling that you’ll be able to play this scene several ways. It’s a brilliant opening gambit. It is also, unfortunately, the best part of the game.

The problem is, the game has set itself up to be a crime thriller, with a slight case of paranormal. The next scene is you controlling the cops at the scene conducting inteviews and looking for evidence. The leap to paranormal happenings is sudden and great, with little time spent on building tension or mystery. That isn’t so much a problem at first. The crime element is still ongoing, and if it were those two things it wouldn’t be perfect – the ending would still be completely mental, unformed, and inchoesive,  but at least a lot of the guff would have been cut out. The problems lie in the “supplementary scenes”. There are a number of scenes in the game that, at first glance, take place for no real reason in the narrative, that feel like demos, which drag the plot off into needless territory that weakens it, and confuses the player as to what it’s trying to achieve. This isn’t helped at all by some of the characterisation, and what I hope are cinema tropes that have been thrown in for the sake of making some kind of “game homage to western cinema”. I fear that isn’t the case, but I’ll give Quantic Dream the benefit of the doubt on this until I can prove otherwise.

The Cops…

Two of this game’s sins are in its two detectives you control. Carla Vallenti and Tyler Miles work for the NYPD (this game is set in New York 2009 but for some reason all of the street cops are wearing uniforms that look more like Italian ones than NYPD. I wouldn’t normally be a stickler, but since they’re one of the most often portrayed forces in fiction, it’s somewhat jarring to see NYPD officers so unusually dressed) and they’re investigating the murder your other character, Lucas Kane, has just commited. They each represent an instance when the game went too far in a needless direction.

Tyler Miles is black. Nay, he’s not just black. He’s ridiculously black. Every time he walks into a room a funky beat starts playing. If you look around his home he ignores most of the objects, but declares that he wouldn’t sell his Motown records for all the money in the world. He says “Damn!”, can call his girlfriend “Baby” withoug sounding like a tosser, and he’s in love with his basketball. He’s a caricature of every black cop in a movie ever, and his existence as a main character weakens the strength of the plot. Almost to avoid a racism backlash they’ve given him a white girlfriend (though she also falls into the same pitfall as Carla, I’ll discuss shortly), but they needn’t have bothered, as it’s impossible to really care about him as he’s so underdeveloped. He also provides one of the most infuriating pointless action sequences in the game – a 1 on 1 basketball game you have with another cop over a wager that has nothing to do with the rest of the game. All of the sequences are tied together with the Mental Health mechanic (see tutorial) but I think its a lazy excuse for a scene if it can add nothing more to the game than a boost in a stat that had little impact on my experience of the game.

I mean come on:

Then there’s Carla Vallenti. She manages to avoid any racial stereotyping for having an Italian surname. As a character she is perhaps not as nuanced as you’d hope (no one is), but generally she’s okay. I suppose you could say that for a trained police officer with six years experience on the job who claims to have “seen it all” the fact she claims to be useless around gore, or the fact you can’t put her in a darkened room without having to literally breathe for her, is a bit suspect. Making her have weaknesses as profoundly at odds with her profession is a bit of a slap in the face for feminine law enforcement, but she ends up doing much worse for feminism. In this game all three of the protagonists take a shower. We only have to watch Carla’s. It’s overtly sexualised, and for no good reason (I won’t even get into the fact that last gen graphics mean there’s nothing particularly alluring about blocky pologon ladies). Then she has a natter with her gay neighbour about how awful she is with men, but wants a baby. As though no woman in any form of employment can possibly survive without wanting a man, a baby, and someone to hold their hand in the dark. Tyler’s girlfriend is also overtly sexualised. My girlfriend and I were a bit shocked to find that one of the unlockables is a video of her performing a dance for Tyler then culminates in a striptease that continues once she is naked. Add to that the sex minigame that you can initiate if, as Lucas, you convince your ex-girlfriend to stay over and you have to wonder what’s going through their minds at Quantic Dream. What is the game trying to be? Is it a police procedural? A 30something comedy drama? A raunchy bit of soft porn? The cracks from the change of format are beginning to show.

The choice of what scenes made it into the game, and how it was crafted into  a single game as opposed to a number of episodes seems to be an unhappy compromise on what could have been an interesting, if demanding, experiment. Cage has clearly been aware that he only has so much data he can fit into the game, and he was convinced that, perhaps to get the chance to make Heavy Rain, he needed to make a statement of intent with Fahrenheit. It is unfortunate, again, that a game built upon storytelling should have such a batshit mental plot. There was clearly a lot going on in this universe, the plots and subplots weaving all over the place but, like cutting through spaghetti with a knife, those strands have been delivered in a single mouthfull – loose, and incomplete. There are principle players who are only introduced in the final scenes who serve to be a poor Deus Ex Machina, which seems like poor management of assets when considering the pondorous and needless scenes in the gym, playing basketball, dancing with a girlfriend, two torturously dull stealth missions in your childhood at an army base, and generally not figuring out the cause of the murders. David Cage tried to show us you could make a game where the little moments were interesting. It is just a pity he did it with a story with too many big moments that were ignored.

Implementation…

If it seemed like the story didn’t know what it wanted to be, then it’s not suprising that the game’s mechanics themselves had a similar problem. Cage knew that he wanted the mechanics to be at one with the narrative. I respect his intention in this regard, but when the narrative is confused and frustrating, the mechanics are too. He had his control system, and he had his little moments, but it feels like he was still bound to gamey tropes. The bonus cards, the hidden “extra lives” both seem really at odds with any scene in which you encounter them. The girfriend and I took to doing a mock-celebratory “Yay!” every time we found a bonus card. I understand that there is a lot of unlockable content but since some of it is revealed only by your progress in the game, why not all of it? Why bother with such a mood breaking device? Minor quibbles compared to what you spend most of your time doing:

Quick… time… events.

As you can see in both the tutorial, and much more fairly and representatively in the basketball scene, the quick time events rely on you following on screen prompts with the analogue sticks. The prompts appear in the middle of the screen, obscuring your view to anything else. I couldn’t possibly be less engaged in the experience. It’s like presenting a case in court and being told that instead of making an arguement you just have to play a round of Tetris. Then when you finish the court case is magically over. I had to continually ask my girlfriend what had just happened specifically, and her response would always be “He just ran around a bit. Ducked and stuff.” Which to me sounds a lot like these sequences, while they technically took a lot of time in mo-cap and (in the making-of videos) lots of wire work, they are just tools to extend the playing time of a scene. Retreading a concept (he jumps out of the way) a ton of times for content (he jumps out of the way about ten times, and then it goes away for no reason).

The sequences involving the left and right triggers are a bit more tricky. Those, at least, are trying to synergise the actions and physicality of the player with the character. They are not always succesful (I really hate the breathing sequences – as there are other things to be doing at the same time and no one thinks to breathe, and the balancing one isn’t particularly engaging so much as it is distracting from what’s occuring on screen) but the ones requiring fast clicking of the left then right in turn do bring feelings of exhaustion to the fingers that make you feel the exhaustion of the character. Their weakness is that I broke my engagement time and time again by moving in my seat, positioning the controller in such a way as to use my arm muscles instead of the finger muscles to do that one thing.

I was suprised to find Carla didn't take the time at this crime scene to recreate the famous "stripping" Levis advert for us. Probably cut by the ESRB.

What the game excels at is the converstations. The collecting evidence, and remembering what you’d done. The beginning chapters where you’re dealing with having commited the murder, and trying not to raise suspicion as Lucas, and pursuing the killer as Carla and Tyler, are the most interesting parts of the game. My partner and I discussing the best course of action, while under the clock, provided us with the best experience. The QTE system more or less ruined our enjoyment of the latter half  as they become longer and less worthwhile (there is a one where the prompts are so slow there is really no point in it being there, a dog could do it), as did the plot going thoroughly off the rails. Carla having sex with an undead Lucas while declaring her love for him (even though in my game they met like three times), and the world being nearly taken over by the internet in the form of an old lady made no sense whatsoever, and I can only hope Heavy Rain hasn’t done anything near as mental with its storyline.

Here’s one of those Matrix moments I was on about. It’s fairly late in the game though:

I suppose I like the idea of this game. A game where you control all the characters. Shape a story around how they interact and what you decide to do. However, I think if that had been concentrated on, and the control scheme maybe not led down a path of QTE sequences, then the game would have been a better product. As it stands, Fahrenheit will always be known as the prototypre for Heavy Rain. The weird ancestor with the crazy stories who looks strange in all the old photos. It’s worth playing if you don’t have a PS3 and you’re considering a purchase for Heavy Rain, and it’s also worth playing as an experience in original game design. There’s only one man making them quite like this, and it’s certainly worth trying. I’ve been rather harsh in this blog about it, but it’s only because I wanted this game to be so much more, to deliver on its promise and potential, that I’m driven enough to write so much about it. That must tell you something.

If anything this game teaches you there is love after life.

Wait. That’s not right…

Mike Dunbar

This article written by Cage himself is also a useful read.

Well I’ve seen the power of the lightning storm,
I’ve seen the endless ears of corn,
I’ve seen the lakes at the break of day,
And that shit takes my breath away.

“Freedom Road” – The Divine Comedy

Garnet's Screenshot from the guide I didn't know about... doh.

Well, not visually. The game isn’t the prettiest, but then sometimes I look at it, and I see the massive destructible geometry and I know what it means. I see what it’s trying to be. And that does the job. The reason I’m bringing you another tale from Wurm Online so soon is because I don’t live in the PC Gamer village on the starter server anymore. It was a ghost town. The people living there (few) were not the villagers I went to join, they were the vultures picking at the resources left behind by a brave group of travellers who went to the Freedom Kingdom. To start afresh. Expand! And get away from the griefers on the free server!

When I discovered this, it made a lot of sense. Walking around the Golden Valley you start in you can see the scars on the countryside where people have raped the landscape. Patches of trees are all signposted “Only chop v. old and overaged trees!”. Some trees are fenced up, like in real life, to keep people out. The chat tabs are filled with people complaining of thieves, and chatter rings of their friends who have left for the Premium servers in the wake of the news that Rolf, the creator of the world, is merging the PvP premium accounts with the free places. If you’re on the wrong side of that division you may find the starter area even less appealing.

I took the plunge. Zephyr’s arse was a false idol. The place I was now headed wasn’t even built yet. It was only founded a week ago. The land it was in was much more dangerous than the one I had left. It was much more sparsely populated, and the creatures roaming the landscape were larger, and more mystical than the wolves of the Golden Valley. Here I could look forward to Lava Fiends, Giant Scorpions, and the obligatory Huge Spider. The best part: I was still the same low-levelled schmuck that couldn’t handle a fight before. Imagine Frodo without the ring, or his mates.

I approached the transporting portal stone that would send me to Freedom. It gave me the option to think it over. I ignored it. I wanted to get stuck in with the business of building a new village, and being there at a new beginning! The screen went dark. After a few moments I found myself, instead of looking into a wood at the top of a hill, at the shore of a beach. Looking at a huge mountain over the sea, surrounded by some more. It was quite a breathtaking change, and it hammered in that we would be stuck here. There were no working magic stones here. It’s a one way trip.

The first thing I felt compelled to document was a paddock FULL of unicorns. Frickin' unicorns.

I had a quick browse on the PC Gamer Village blog to be sure about where it was. I’ve since found a step by step guide, but at the time I just read the Lewis & Clark style account of how the Mayors pioneered the site for the town. The first thing they went to was a “Lake Colossus”. Fortunately there was a sign pointing down a road that said “TO LAKE COLOSSUS”. Handy. First impression was:

"Bloody hell, this road's long."

But that was naive. See, the road wasn’t long. It was endless. If the road hadn’t actually led somewhere I would have titled this “Road to Nowhere.” This is a screenshot taken some 15 minutes later:

"Bloody hell, this looks much the same!"

I then thought I should inquire over the Kindgom chat if anyone online was from the village I sought. They were, and they agreed to meet me when I arrived. That was a weight off. On this server PvP is permitted, so there was always the (somewhat slim) chance that I’d be killed on sight, and my body would be returned to the starting area, which was already about half an hour’s walk behind me. Onward I went:

I hope that was joke.

It was going fairly well. That said, I did spot the giant corpse of a young scorpion. I didn’t want to see a large one, or what killed it. I was too concerned with running away at this point to take a screenshot! THEN… literally out of nowhere (and the chat started buzzing with this) fog… occured. Instantenous fog. Then people started saying things like “I need to get out of the forest!” and “I saw my first champion skorp in the fog!” So that cheered me up a lot. It was just as this was occuring that I reached, after a long long hike, Lake Colossus. Unfortunately that made the chances of a decent picture of said lake slim:

There's a lake there. Somewhere.

Then I went the wrong way. There were two directions and the passages I read from the explorer’s journal weren’t too clear… in fact they got lost themselves and ended up somewhere called SILENT HILL. There was no way I was going somewhere called Silent Hill in this fog!! Besides, after that the journal peters out into being a description of how they killed several deer. No… I had to go back to chat. A chap named Prospero guided me back the right way, and so I started to head right where I went left at the lake.

Lost in the pirate fog.

Not so much Silent Hill, but more Alone in the Dark.

Yes, night was falling again. But I wasn’t scared of the dark, no, because some clever sods had captured a couple of Lava Fiends, and built fences around them! Like living art street lamps, the lava fiends moped in their little fence, and I wandered past, amazed at the effort required to do that.

As I walked along the shore, a road only 1 tile wide that seperated the lake from the mining alongside a great mountain, I spotted a causeway, and a Colossus. Surely not another Colossus of Zephyr?! Nope… the Colossus of the Lake of the Colossus, of course. Prospero asks me where I am. I tell him, and he asks me if I can see his boat. The “Mud Skipper”. I do see it! My spirits lift considerably, and finally I’m on a boat with a genuine PCG Village person, who’s taking me to the new village. I’m not alone. When we arrive some new folks emigrating from the old village are there as well. We are all inducted into the new village.

My little ferry trip.

This means I now officially am a villager! We all get to work immediately. The village is still in the planning stage, so there’s a lumberyard to build (I’m doing that at the moment, though there’s much left to do now and I expect to find someone else has finshed it by the time I get back). There’s already barracks, an HQ, temporary housing… a dock with some boats. A jaunty sign that says “PCG Pirates!”

All good fun. I had cut down a tree, made a bunch of planks (as had Prospero) and I was building the walls for the Lumberyard when all of a sudden the villager chat fires up with mention of a Giant Spider being loose in the village. I’m half afraid to die (I think I’ll spawn again in the village but I’m not 100%) but also very curious. There were about 5 of us in the village at this point, and I head down from the hill where I was working. There it is. A huge spider just sitting there in front of the HQ. A couple of the guys have shut themselves in a house getting ready to fight it, then it turns on muggins over here. Brilliant. I have to run away and jump in the lake to get it to leave me alone! After that we all surround it, and fight it next to a tree. Once it’s dead it gets buried, and we all agree it’s time to call it a night.

It’s fun living in a village!

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Yes, it was too stressful getting nearly killed by the spider to take any screens of that too. I must get my “war corrospondent” head on.

I'm the dumb pilgrim you've been hearin' for twenty days and smellin' for three.

I am tired. Tired, wet, malnourished, and I have no map or compass. I’m in a forest. It would be pitch black were it not for the light of the stars through the clouds and the light from a suspisiously pink moon. I am bereft of hope. I’ve been travelling for 3 days and 3 nights, lost on the moors. I’ve been literally foraging for my food, which has been nothing but lingonberries, and I’ve been drinking out of puddles. Just as my will to go on is at its lowest ebb and I’m going to give in to my fate at the claws of  the wolves stalking the hills,  I see something breaking through the trees: A silhouette. It’s an arse. It’s the massive arse of a huge statue – The Colossus of Zephyr.

“Finally.” I think to myself,  “Finally I am here. I’ve made it. My journey can finally begin.”


There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

There, through the trees, a moon shone brightly.

This, arguably, isn’t really how you’re meant to begin your journey on Wurm Online – a free, Java based, MMO by a Swedish dev team led by the enigmatic Rolf. And I did go through the tutorial motions. I spent some time in the starter town cutting wood, making kindling, setting a fire, doing some mining, and making planks of wood. Having done those things I was then told by the NPC that I might want to hang around the starter town for a bit and… yeah, do whatever I want.

So… I should explain how I ended up searching for the Arse of Zephyr.

I only heard about this game because I listened to a PC Gamer podcast yesterday afternoon. I was was doing what I’ve spent this week of holiday from work doing: Sitting at my PC wondering where I can go out this week, casually throwing blocks at the unfortunate “Grey Guy” from Sumotori Dreams. While asking eachother what they’ve been playing, Scottish Graham mentions this game Wurm Online. He explains that PC Gamer has its own villiage in the world, a nice little community in a strange game where you can live out a “Little House on the Prairie” life, but more importantly – every resource has to be made from scratch. Basically you’re a pioneer in a fantasy world with goblins and the like, only instead of the WoW thing of orchestrating raids and having that experience, you’re basically just trying to survive together with farms, blacksmiths, and other community projects. What makes it interesting is the politics that occur with your neighbours and neighbouring villages over resources and space, and the game’s strong suit – it’s use of destructible terrain (for mines, and tunnels!).

Graham then told an amusing story about the PC Gamer village. Another player in the game called Zephyr, who has been playing the game for years, had orchestrated a community project whereby dozens of people gave up their time and resources to build him a Colossus in the  middle of the village, on the top of a mountain. Graham has this to write on the PC Gamer Villiage blog:

Ah, Zephyr. God of the colossal statue, lord of all that is wonderful, his benevolent arse looms down on our little village like a smiling father. His statue’s arse, that is. Zephyr is, from what I have learnt in my first week of Wurm Online, a very powerful man. On the starting server, Golden Valley, he is the only person to ever have orchestrated the construction of a colossus, the giant statue that strides across the large mountain where the PCG village resides. Every morning when I emerge from my small wooden shack overlooking the western sea, I get a nice good view of that behind; hands firmly placed on hips, staring out across the lake in the east over Zephyr’s island villa.

The statue required “2000 clay”, and “2000 rock”. Landscaping, plinth-building, an entire infrastructure around the project, farms sat neglected, and other building works were put on hold for this superhuman effort, at the hands of a hilarious megalomanic. He’s not the Mayor, he’s not the King. He’s like some kind of fantasy land Don Corelone. I want to meet him.

So I knew what I’d do. Since my only prior experience of MMOs was City of Heroes (which I got tired of quite quickly) I’d join up, and then seek out the PC Gamer people, as we’d all (probably) have the PC Gamer Magazine/Podcast thing in common, and I had the info that there was a villiage out there near to the start that wasn’t openly hostile. But I didn’t know how to get there. I went to the villiage’s blog, and looked at a picture slideshow of directions. Sadly, due to the whole building/terrain mechanic, most of the landmarks in the pictures had gone. And also, I had no compass or map. So I had to bite the proverbial bullet (there’s no guns in the game) and Jeremiah Johnson it…

“Jeremiah, maybe you best go down to a town, get outta these mountains.”
“I’ve been to a town Del.”

There was a sundial that doubled as a compass in the starter town and I prayed it wasn’t just art. I head North. My character’s stamina and speed use depend highly on what terrain I’m traversing, so I try to stick to the roads at first, but I sharply realise that these twisting roads that fork off into settler’s cul de sacs are far too confusing to navigate and keep your direction. I decide to go as the crow flies. Alas, I decided this a bit too late, and was already horribly lost. The weird thing that Wurm Online manages, that Oblivion and other open world games haven’t (to me), was the genuine concern about being lost. It reminded me of a time on Exmoor when I was 10 and I got seperated from my family for an hour. A genuine fear crept over me. Then something awful happened.

It started to get dark.

I’d been told by that NPC to be careful of the dark. I’d strolled off into unsettled territory, but on the way there I’d come across the butchered corpses of wolves and mountain lions (now since this is an MMO there are emotes, and I have to say now that despite my fear I did “fart on the butchered corpse of the young mountain lion”). Whatever lay out there? Before I could find out I came across a fence. I followed it around, and found a stone-walled house. While looking back into the woods I had come a ginger-haired lady had approached me from behind, and said in a man’s voice (the default voice for all emotes) “HEY THERE!”. I was then told that the girl smiled at me. Meekly, and taken aback, I smiled in return. Then the event dialogue said that she was attempting to heal herself. “From what?” was my immediate thought, but before I could find out she had darted into her house and locked the door. Then I heard wolves.

I managed to get away without an encounter, but I was on edge. I kept going, but my nutrition had dropped to 30%, and I hadn’t drank any water since I started. It showed in my stamina. I was blundering slowly through the woods. I thought to get to some water.

Somehow on my journey I managed to walk to Centre Parks.

“Where you headed?”
“Same place you are, Jeremiah: hell, in the end.”

After a spot of bruise-enducing scree-running I was by the shore of a lake. There was an island in the middle, and on the opposite side I spotted a large statue. A colossus, if you will. I squeed in excitement (After that harrowing wolf thing and all) and confidently strode across the penisula feeling as though my troubles would all be over. Imagine my disappointment as I saw a sign infront of me. It read “Brohalla”. Brohalla? Where preppy frat-boy vikings go when they die? Fantastic. With a name like Brohalla I could only wonder what kind of reception I’d get, bedraggled and starving as I was (by this point the Lingonberry foraging was in full swing).  I didn’t get a chance to find out, however, as I was attacked by a goblin. A little goblin. I tried to fight it for a bit, but it got me dangerously low on health and there had been no combat tutorial, so I was learning as I went. I ran off and escaped the spooky git, but now I was hurt.

Finally, the sun rose. I was also at the coast. A mix of luck, and the general idea that the way I had been going was totally wrong, I followed the coast back up the way I’d come. Most of the day walking later (I endured another period of strolling off course on another goose-chase I thought was “home”), and I found myself near to starter territory. In a bay, and looking at a mountain. I had to take a chance. Though, by this point I was feeling the same delusion I did in real life on the Isle of Rum when I hiked across the island equally ill prepared (to last me the day I had only a litre of water, and a tin of sardines that I ate raw using two pens as chopsticks). I began to question why I was on this hike? Why don’t I press the X in the corner and end this torment? What would I even do when I got there? I couldn’t tell them this. I couldn’t say I spent TWO real life days looking for this place! I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out. After half an hour of walking what must have been North-east I climbed that mountain and found a sign. A wonderful sign. “PCG Fort”. Night fell, and the rain lashed down. The villiage must only be close. But what way?

Not South.

I am a massive tool.

PCG Villiage is sickeningly close to the starter town. It’s literally 10 minutes walk North from it. Up the big hill infront of you. I’d been following the directions on the site (Take the road WEST out of Glitterdale) and that was my problem. The problem is it’s down to the community out of the game to make the maps. I suppose that’s not a problem, really, though. It’s not like whatever force that created the earth left a map behind. This is how it’s meant to be. It’s the robust survival, and community, that gives this game its edge. It’s an MMO, it doesn’t need to cater for the single player.

I have no land to call my own, and seeds to plant if I did. My foraging days are long from over.

Upon my arrival in PCG Villiage I found one villiager asking if anyone could lend a hand as he was building his house. “Brilliant!” I thought. I’ll help him build his house, and he’ll help me, and tell me how to, build mine. That’s as far as I’ve got. But we had a chat, and I was told I was allowed to build in the villiage. So at least I have a home. The next challenge is building a house for myself, then I suppose, finding my niche in society.

“Hawk. Goin’ for the Musselshell. Take me a week’s ridin’, and he’ll be there in… hell, he’s there already.”

Mike Dunbar

(I’m not sure how many parts this will turn into, but they probably won’t be consecutive)

I’ve been faced with the temptation to blog about games  with the wholly subjective fanboy eye, and give almost useless qualitative rhetoric about why it’s the best thing ever and that you should play it before you die many times since I started this blog, which is impressive as it was only a month ago. I have relented customarily, as a young man in the first throws of passion is quick to remind himself not to propose marriage, but now… now I’m hitched. Against my insticts I’m going to try and discuss a game a lot of us are discussing, and I’m going to try and be fair.

I totally respect her. I didn't even cop a feel on the first date.

Some people may sigh wearily, and that’s fine. This isn’t a perfect game. No such game exists, but I love her. And I would like to yammer on as to why. I’ll avoid spoilers.

I start with the admission that I didn’t play the original Mass Effect until this one came out. I’ve done one playthough of each, and I’m at the beggining of a second playthrough of the (I think) superior sequel. The second admission is that I didn’t play Mass Effect until after I’d completed Mass Effect 2 despite buying them both on the same day (via Steam). CALL MYSELF a GAMER?! Yes, I do. Sorry. I was too tempted by shiny graphics and all my favourite podcasts and blogs talking about the sequel, and for some bizarre psychologial reason the promise of day one DLC, to hold off playing it. That and I’d heard all about the “broken combat” of the first one.

This isn’t my first experience with Bioware, don’t worry. I did play Baldur’s Gate 2 (I know, not 1) and KOTOR. I can’t really tell you why I hadn’t played Mass Effect. I assume it was a money thing, or that I’d simply never got around to doing it. For instance, in all this time talking about Bioware I also haven’t got Dragon Age: Origins. I know. I should go to hell. I also haven’t got Blade Runner on DVD.  It’s just one of those things that I managed to let pass me by, though I know I should have taken care of it.

I digress. The reason I’m taking the fanboy stand on this game of all games (within mere weeks of its release, too) is because it represents something wonderful and important to this game industry we all love so much: clarity of vision. That’s clarity of vision on a big scale, too. It’s easy for an indie to stay true to their beloved design, but in the big boy’s game your idea has to get passed through so many filters it becomes a real testament to how good an idea is to survive it. I’m not saying all Triple A games are good because of who published them, a thousand times no, but an idea that’s difficult to pitch financially – a trilogy where you can’t even wrap up the first game just in case, because the second game follows on, and it’s a key part of the marketing – that makes it because of the developers work, that deserves a bit of credit.

I suppose EA deserve a bit of credit, but then they have a lot of my money so I won’t bother.

Okay, so anyone who’s been following the game’s progress will know that like the first one, choice plays a big role. Choice plays a role in the significant ways that the Fable series has yet to manage, actually, but I won’t go there. You would also know about the hoohah around importing your ME1 save game to form the base of your character for ME2. That, I think has worked very well in my experience so far. The events of the first game are referenced and embedded in the universe of ME2 from the get-go, down to the gender of your Commander Shepard, the choices made in ME1, their general manner, and suchlike. If this wasn’t continued throughout the game, and offered you different possibilites not found in the default quest (with no imported character), than it would be little more than a neat trick. What it is, instead is massively effective (had to, so sorry) tool to immerse you in the continued narrative of your Shepard (and I’ll briefely mention here that forming the second act of a trilogy leaves it with certain restrictions you have to accept when Bioware are formulating a tight story arc over three games. If you feel as though your choices in the original Mass Effect haven’t been considered as much as you’d like, remember that it’s perfectly likely you just haven’t experienced their consequences yet – especially re: The Rachni, in my opinion).

I’m not embarrased to reveal that at several key moments in this game I punched the air in glee, exhiliration, relief, and (in-character) anger. I also chewed my nails in worry and anticipation. And at one bleak moment in my own life licked my lips in anticipation. That’s emotional engagement. That’s the holy grail. And deciphering it is the key to the world, my son. The story is fantastic, I’ll say. The characters for the most part are wonderfully realised and you want to learn about them (I don’t much care for Jack, or the DLC character Zaeed, though his loyalty mission is very dramatic). And because the squad number is increased greatly over ME1, you’re bound to end up liking at least two of them, which is all you need for a squad if you play your class wisely.

Now there will be those who maintain that this “choice” thing is destructive to narrative. I would say it depends by what degree if choice we’re talking about. I railed (after my own moderate fashion) the elements of choice in Bioshock*, and I’ve always looked at “emergent gameplay” with something of a suspicious eye. I sometimes wonder when I’m trashing cars in GTA4 if the “emergent gameplay” is what I slip into doing when I’m bored by the missions and narrative, and I haven’t realised that I want to stop playing the game yet. It may be endemic to GTA4 since it tries to force a heavy narrative on you (compare it with the loose approach of Saints Row 2 and you’ll see what I mean), but when I’m mucking about making choices in that game I’m actually less engaged in the experience because I’m consiously aware that I’m messing about instead of getting on with the game. The other big critiques of “choices” in narrative are that they’re too binary to reflect a real choice, and that the more you have the weaker your narrative structure becomes. Let me shock you all by proclaiming in my weediest fanboy voice that Mass Effect 2 averts this trope. Sort of.

This is the screen shot I've seen the most, so I'm adding creedence to my post by using it as well.

Choice in the Mass Effect Universe comes in three flavours. There’s the narrative choices that affect the world in the grand scale, there’s choices that won’t really reverberate to everyone because either outcome is the same more or less – the choice is how you get there (these are often the less drastic Paragon/Renegade situations – think of things like getting discounts at shops), then there’s the usual RPG stuff – levelling and assinging points, squad building. That sort of thing. It’s this three-pronged attack that really makes the choice thing work. Mainly because unless you’ve tried to write a blog about it, you don’t recognize them as three different things. The impression you get playing it is “Cor blimey, everything matters!” The wonderful truth is, yes – it does matter. I don’t want to spoil anything, but yes. Every element of how you play the game, all three kinds of choice I have mentioned, all work in what must be a very sophisticated algorithm to dictate the nature of important plot points, and the glorious kicker – plot points that will be carried forward into the final installment. I would like to highlight the second kind I mentioned. The smaller (though sometimes in the main quest) situations where the outcome to a situation is more or less going to be the same, but how you get there isn’t. A lot of people wouldn’t call that a real choice. I’d say it’s possibly the most immersive kind. During the quest, like in life, you’re going to be in situations that are going to end one way. How you deal with it, the decisions you make contemplating it, is the part we most relate to. By getting into the mind of Shepard and thinking “What would he do? My Shepard” and considering the consequences (you obviously never know what the consequences of anything might be) you get more immersed.  These moments interspersed with the bigger choices (and the fact that you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to say or do) keep up the momentum and excitement of The Universe. The fact that your Paragon and Renegade points also serve a purpose in the mechanics of the game (in a sort of universally karmic morality system  of sorts) gives them the neccessary depth to stop them being a superficial RPG add-on**.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first game to use choice mechanics. It’s not even the first Bioware to use choice mechanics. But it is definitely the most robust use of one. This game is a benchmark for many reasons, and I’ve only discussed one here, but all I’ll say (in a typical fanboy manner) is that you owe it to yourself to play this game, man.

I’m not going to mention the romance. Except then, when I did.

Mike Dunbar.

P.S. Oh, and I got one of the hoodies. The Bioware Mass Effect hoodies that are selling out all the time? I got one. So, yeah. Fanboy.

* Which there isn’t: The game being about being a brainwashed slave, essentially. Except when there is: Oh, but choose which plasmids you use to fight the bad guys and play the game any way you want! But really there isn’t: But you’d better use a lot of electricity, as there’s lots of water around. And fire if you ever want to get past the bits blocked by ice. Which there are many. Except when there is, but it doesn’t matter: The little sisters.

**Fable and Fable II both suffer from a morality system that is superficial to the point of unimportance. If you do bad things you look bad, but so what? And maybe you need so much evil to unlock a demon door, so you do some bad, you unlock it, and then you do some good to compensate. What was the point? People on the street say different things to you if you look good or bad, but since they convey all the depth of a gap-year student in a Disneyland Mickey Mouse costume – waving inanely and laughing for no reason around you – then why would you care what they think? You can barely interact with them one on one (though Molyneux has promised to rectify this with Fable 3. But then again, Molyneux is always promising things. He promised to water my garden last weekend, and he’s still not helped my tree grow.).

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