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This is Twinsen from the planet Twinsun. In other news I've changed my name to Eurth.

I mentioned in a caption in the last article that David Gasman ruined some of my treasured childhood memories by voicing the lunatic Lucas Kane in Fahrenheit (Quantic Dream, 2005). The only reason that happened, though, was because he played a part in making them in the first place with his voice work for Twinsen in Little Big Adventure 2: Twinsen’s Odyssey (Adeline Software International, 1997). I was eleven when this game was released, I think I got a copy when I was 12 and it had been re-released by EA. At the time I was using a Pentium 166 MMX and the full motion video of this game, and the inviting 3D worlds blew my tiny little mind. What has made me so very fond of it, though, is its character. It’s a wonderful universe to get lost in, and I intend to in this blog post, in the hope you’ll dig it out, dust it down, and play it – or if you don’t have it, find it and take your first step into a wonderful new world. Also, and this is important, I’ve discovered the development of a fan-made Little Big Adventure Prequel!

Loading times were not that bad, but hardly helped by these two standing on the disc.


Relentless…

Twinsen’s career as a dress-wearing world saver began at the end of 1994 with Little Big Adventure (Adeline Software International). It was also released shortly after with the title Relentless: Twinsen’s Adventure. In his first outing Twinsen had to rescue his girlfriend Zoe from the clutches of the evil “FunFrock” –  a nasty wizard and dictator of Twinsun, and he must also save the goddess that lives in the planet’s core from said nasty wizard, as he wishes to kill her and steal all her power. The first game was completely in an isometric 3D perspective set entirely on the planet Twinsun. Alas the first game is rather hard to come by. It isn’t, repeat isn’t, classed as abandon-ware, but who exactly owns the rights to the franchise is somewhat tricky to decipher as Adeline Software International was officially dissolved in 2004.

Twinsen’s Odyssey…

My exposure to Little Big Adventure began with the sequel, and it supports the notion that in games – in contrast to movies and other media – sequels are often better than the originals. It also goes some way to furthering the idea that Ray Muzyka of Bioware spoke of only two days ago at GDC: “If you try to build a franchise around a single character, that can be a problem. If you build it around world, anything is possible.” Sure Twinsen is the star of these games, but the best thing about them is the wealth of characters you encounter. They were notable back in the 90s for being some of the only games in which every person you enoucntered had their own unique views, voice, and general character. Quite impressive compared to the mess that is the voice-work and NPC system of Oblivion, a game made 10 years later, that claims to be of incredible scope, where characters voices can change dramatically mid-conversation, and it can be difficult to tell people apart. When you add the fact that Little Big Adventure characters can often be walking sausages, and that they have more character and you won’t mistake them for any of the other sausages, it really stands as a testament to the brilliant design, and care that went into every detail.

LBA2: Who'd win in a fight? The cast of LBA2 or the cast of Grim Fandango? Both had cast "photos" like this.

Before I go on, I should mention this game’s great innovation: The behaviour system. By deciding what “mood” Twinsen is in, it affects what actions he is capable of, how he moves, and how he throws his magic ball/uses his weapon. This can have an affect on gameplay (the AI is also quite intelligent, LBA was one of the first games where guards would run to seek re-enforcements or sound the alarm instead of just attacking or chasing Twinsen) in terms of stealthy movements or solving puzzles. It’s main success is that it simplifies controls, which otherwise would have been convoluted.

The general tone of the LBA universe is quite light, but rich with variety, wonder, and an innocence that I think is the main reason I keep returning to it. To best set the scene you should watch the opening cinematic and beginning of LBA2 (from a “Let’s Play…”) below:

The game plays like a child’s daydream of adulthood, of adventure, and of wonder. With the mix of the fantastical and the familiar it recalls the bizarre things you would day dream innocently as a child. The mysteries of the universe are alluded to but not explicitly explained, and the most mundane things are just as mundane there. The game opens with your friend, a talking, flying, dinosaur crashing into your back garden. So you go to the pharmacy – a somewhat mysterious place for any kid, but in a boring sort of way. When you get there you find a woman (who is little ball with legs, incidentally) who can help you as she works for a wizard. When you get to her house, she’s doing the hoovering. There is a grounding in the things you observe in the world around you as a child running throughout the game. There’s a wonderful cinematic in a ferry where Twinsen gets imbroiled in the “I’ve made eye contact with another passenger – do they think I’m looking at them?” moment. It’s only short, but in this bizarre universe there are still moments like these for the character that children and adults can relate to. Innocence seems to be the by-word for LBA. There is combat, but it never feels malicious. Most of the laughs come from funny voices, or slapstick humour. And your willingness to experiment is rewarded – not by slapping you with a morality system, but by kindly forgetting your actions most of the time.

It could be argued that I’m taking it too far. Perhaps I am, but this is a game that is aimed at children, but I don’t feel is speaking down to them. It is, however, and I think quite intelligently, playing to their imaginations. As an early example of a game where free-roaming in a 3D environment was done well (the French have a way with breaking ground in 3D things if Isabelle was anything to go by) it found a way to reward a lot of the things your childhood mind could throw at it. Yeah, you could hump a cow. They knew you’d do that. If you went into the school and for some reason hit a child their big brother would meet you at the gates and box your head in, only fair. And if what game would provide you with a car for getting around, and not throw in a racing track? Not LBA2.

Not long ago I wrote an article in which I discuss GTA IV, and how in that game you’re being pulled in two directions – emergent (or dick-around) gameplay vs a linear mission structure. The beautiful thing about LBA2’s tone is that – due to the fact that the story is sufficiently lighter in its presentation (at one point all of the children from your home planet are stolen, but this is done quite elegantly, showing an empty school bereft of activity. An empty field where once lessons were taught -the actual kidnap being over in moments) you never really feel hurried. It is only later in the game where a cutscene of a moon that is hurtling toward Twinsun is shown (at random intervals) that you feel encouraged to get on with things. This isn’t enforced in the design, thankfully, as by this point you are on the planet Zeelich, and they’ve given you a casino to muck about in, complete with a Wheel of Fortune game hosted by a talking, monocled, crocodile. If that doesn’t scream “Mess around with me!” I don’t know what does.

I’ve always been interested in the idea that if you’re going to make a game you should know what sensations you want to encourage before you get started. Adeline, it seems, knew that they wanted to make an Adventure game here that was fun. Not just entertaining, or engaging, but specifically fun. That seems like a redundant thing to say, but I don’t think that fun is a prerequisite of game design – I said in the previous article that I enjoyed the opening of Fahrenheit, but I didn’t think hiding a dead body was fun. Stressful and exhilirating maybe but not giggly fun. It brings forth to mind the idea that games can have the same draw as a Fisherprice activity centre and that sometimes you can have fun without a forced narrative at all. That often doesn’t last when its done alone (Amanita Design’s The Pantry is more-or-less just that: A pantry where you can click on things on screen and see unexpected (though scripted) interactions take place. A fun distraction/experiment but you will tire of it after 5 minutes), but the LBA series takes that idea and runs with it in the context of a linear narrative adventure game. If there were no little distractions, easter eggs, secrets or whatever you call them,  then – partially due to the graphical limitations of the time – Twinsun might feel a bit lifeless. As it stands, and especially with LBA2, you get the feeling that every corner of every area has had something interesting put in it so you’re never just darting through thoughtlessly. In a genre that is known primarily for being one where the story is the main focus, the LBA series manages to spread its charm, wit, and personality, equally and thickly over every element of the game. From character design, voice-acting, animations, world design, and certainly not least its sound design.

The music of LBA is another big draw for me. I personally love it, and it fits perfectly with the tone of the game. Take the main theme of LBA2 (embedded below). Being of better sound quality than that of the first game, it captures the excitment, joy, and wonder of the adventure without sounding gamey. It’s not overly dramatic, fast, or grand sounding. Compare it with the music of Zelda, and you begin to understand that the music also supports the idea that the game is encouraging a feeling of innocence while playing. There is dramatic music when the situation calls for it, but the main theme is the aural stamp of the game. The mission statement as it were, and LBA’s mission is innocence, wonder, and fun.

It would disservice to not mention that LBA2 is supported in text and voices in several languages, with the ability to set the speech and text to different languages. I, myself, and I know of several others who have used this to supplement their learning of another language, and the game has a certain noteriety for it. I used it for my German exams at school in 2002 even.

As I mentioned at the beginning of the article there is a fan-made prequel in the works, and potentially a game set between the events of LBA1 and 2. These, I feel, deserve their own article that I’m preparing.

Mike Dunbar

P.S. Does anyone know where I can get the item-recieved inventory sound effect for my phone?

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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)

“Hey, Niko. It’s your cousin, Roman. Do you want to go bowling?”

“Hi, Roman. No, I am too busy to go bowling right now, another time.”

“Okay Niko. Let’s meet up soon though.”

The exchange above is something I believe anyone who has ever played for than four hours of Grand Theft Auto 4 will be familar with. It’s the call on your mobile phone that asks you if you’d like to step out of the game’s main world for a while, and indulge in a minigame. It’s also your reply that you’d rather not. Most games don’t actively seek you out to have you play a minigame, some (like parts of GTA4) require you to at least try them out to progress however, while some merely include them to add flavour. Of course some titles are just collections of minigames, as anyone who has a Wii would attest to, but I would like to keep the focus on those games where the minigame is just the small part of the package. I would like to examine what the inclusion of minigames does to enchance the player’s experience of a game, and the reasons why they’re included.

Minigaming

Firstly I should mark out what I believe constitues as a minigame, for claritys sake. Quite simply it is a small game that is accessed in another game, usually while you are playing in game time. They are generally much simpler than the games they inhabit, and are commonly puzzle games or short games of skill (such as shooting galleries, or fast paced arcade-style games). Now I’d like to go through what I think are the most common reasons developers have included them in their titles in the past, and currently:

1. When there simply aren’t enough keys in the world (Or we don’t want you to see that yet).

Not always a full “game” as such, but commonly enough – mainly with games that require you to explore an open world – you’re going to come across doors, chests, lockers and the like that cannot be opened with brute force. They don’t even have keys a lot of the time. Enter: The Lockpicking Game. Otherwise known as The Hacking Game in other cases.

Oblivion had a particularly frustrating one, as the ease in which you could do it depended on your secruity level. It makes sense in the game world but when you think about it, since the locks never get harder to open (in my experience), this minigame starts hard and progressively gets easier – which flies in the face of game convention in one sense. What it’s really doing is keeping the world interesting, and giving the player a reason to return somewhere. It’s making content hard to access at first, and revealing it later when the player has levelled up, or rewarding their skill playing the lockpicking sim. Bethesda struck again when they did the same thing on Fallout 3. This time it was more explicit, you had your probability of opening the lock shown to you, and certain locks could not be attempted until you’d increased your skill. Fallout 3 also included a hacking minigame in which you saw a computer terminal, and were given a page full of garbled nonsense in which words that contained similar arrangements of letters could be clicked on. To “hack” the computer you had to click on the right word before you ran out of attempts (in which failure could be easily bypassed if abandoned the “hack” before using your final attempt).

Oblvion and Fallout 3's lockpicking both relied on amassing lockpicks, adding inventory management to the equation.

Fallout 3 hacking: Impossible to lose if you kept quitting before you ran out of attempts.

Bioshock also used a hacking minigame to open locks, but I think for slightly different reasons.

2. Let’s take a moment here (Or help us help you).

2K Boston/2K Australia (Now back to being Irrational Games – Hooray!) had a hacking minigame in Bioshock as we’re all probably aware. It was used to hack the security cameras so they wouldn’t see you, to hack the flying security bots, and static turrets so they’d fight on your side, and to open safes and locks. Now, potentially for technical reasons, the game world paused and let you have your moment to attempt the hack. The hack itself had a time pressure mechanic as you were given the set of pipes, with water slowly flowing from one side, and you had to complete the pipe and connect it to the right end before the water escaped the pipe. In itself it may have been a representation of the rush you’d be experiencing attempting to hack these items under threat (I don’t believe the locks and flying robots had water sloshing around inside them). However, they weren’t always particularly challenging, and you could attempt a hack in the middle of a big firefight, and if done well could completely change the course of the encounter. It’s for this reason that I think it classifies as a minigame that is meant to give the player a break, and provide a temporary ingame reward. Often minigames will bleed into other categories (after all these are arbitrary categories I have marked out) but the reason I didn’t include it in the first one is that Bioshock isn’t really an open world game in the truest sense. The whole game’s narrative is about being told what to do, for one, but mainly because once you’ve progressed past a level there isn’t always the ability to back track, nor any explicit reward for doing so (sure you can pick up ammo, but since it’s lying around everywhere like confetti after a wedding why would you?).

Bioshock: Would you kindly refrain from hitting me until I've played this old sinclair game!?

3. No pressure, moneybags, just line your pockets why don’t you? (Or- isn’t it funny how the in game worlds are all capitalist?)

This is probably the most common minigame type, and the first thing I thought of after I scratched my head playing GTA4’s bunch. It’s fairly simple, you’re in an RPG/Action-adventure game. Final Fantasy VII, Fable 2, KOTOR, whatever. You’re wandering around the place and you walk into a Themepark/Tavern/Cantina/whatever, and some bloke wearing a silly hat tells you that if you spend five gold coins playing his game you can win a shedload back. So you do. Why is it here? A little of the second type above, to give you a hand. But mainly to give you a bit of variety in how you earn money (developers only make so many quests, so to prevent people flying through the game these can act as speed bumps – a way to get resources without burning up content), as an alternative/or compliment to a jobs system, but mainly to give their world’s a little flavour, local colour.

Of course most of the minigames offer you a fairly pedestrian gold reward for playing adequately. What they do to keep you playing, sometimes, is offer you the chance to win big, and get a legendary weapon, or some valuable item that can only be obtained by playing. Final Fantasy VII’s minigames could get you money for playing them, and as an added incentive a reward in that if you concentrated your efforts at the Golden Saucer’s Battle Zone you could get Omnislash, Cloud’s limit break. This is partly how this kind of content justifies its existence, and also how it is plain and clearly the speedbump.

Fable 2: The lower image depicts, cheekily, the point that you can max out a characters wealth way beyond what they'll ever need.

Of course every minigame has to be introduced to the player. The developer spent money and time making it, and they want you to see it. So you’re bound to encounter these whether or not you want to take part. One of my favourite commentaries on the minigame as a neccessary evil came in Monkey Island 2: Le Chuck’s Revenge. It was only subtle, and I wonder if it was intended as such, but there was a Wheel of Fortune game which you needed to win to progress. Aside from the prize you needed, there were several other prizes on offer and you could stay and win them all. None of them, however, ended up being of any use (including the gold, which Monkey Island has always made a point of declaring it a easy mechanic to exploit for gameplay by lazy developers). Then again, this is from the series that brought us the best minigame of all: Insult Swordfighting.

There was no reason to include this image except that I absolutely love Monkey Island(tm).

4. The Minigame as cash-in material (Or how I learned to stop worrying, and love my phone).

Final Fantasy snowboarding for your phone? Need I say more? Need I say more?

Then there’s Grand Theft Auto 4…

"Ah Niko! Just one more frame, cousin come on!"

There is no real in game reward for playing GTA4’s games as such. Your performance in games can give the player Xbox 360 achievements, and to attain 100% completion their required (Ed. Thanks Ian), but that does not benefit the in game world at all. No, merely the act of taking time out of Niko Bellic’s day to go an pick up his cousin, or gangland cronies, dive them to the Bowling Alley/Pool Hall/Bar/Resturant/Comedy Show/Cabaret, endure their company, and then drive them back again… that is what you are being rewarded for. For choosing the activity wisely, or just taking them where they want to go. This builds up Nikos relationships with the characters and in return they offer him services, such as free cab travel, the ability to reduce his wanted level when he’s in a tight spot. Sounds good? Debateable.

Grand Theft Auto 4’s desire to integrate life-sim elements into its core gameplay as a way of providing exposition is at once a brave decision, and a natural progression from the things they were doing in San Andreas. For an adventureous game, with a long story quest, and a huge open world,  having your characters converse in a moving car with no need for a cutscene every 5 minutes (there are already many cutscenes in GTA4, and they’re of a great quality, and well written I feel) as a means of introducing game concepts and plot points then it seems like a wise and frugal decision. As a fun game mechanic? Not so much. The reason why? “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Here’s the situation: You’re driving around Liberty City, you’re somewhere in Algonquin, the city’s equivalent to Manhattan. It’s beautiful. You’re surrounded by awe-inspiring sky-skrapers, you have the radio on and you’re listening to Phillip Glass, or the satirical talk-stations.  You’re pelting around at tremendous speed on a dirt bike looking for a stunt jump to attempt. Or you’re having a walk around Central Park listening to people’s conversations, and admiring the scenery. Then your phone goes off. It’s Roman. He wants to go bowling. He’s on the other side of town. You have an in-game hour to get to him. The question everyone is asking, “Why is he calling me now?”

Is it to make the world feel alive? To give the player a keener sense of time progression (which despite day and night cycles it doesn’t feel as though time progresses as there is no change in the world day to day)? Perhaps R* weren’t confident about the world they’d created and didn’t want you in it too long unsupervised (which is hard to imagine as there are games that have come out since that claim to be open world that fall very short of this high watermark)? Or is it to try and make you care about the characters? I feel it’s the first and last of these, from a narrative perspective. And I’ll say that from a ludological perspective there is a larger metagame in progress that I will get into, but for those (like me) uninterested in what it’s offering, I will say three things in its defence:

1) You can cancel plans with no cost to your relationship. Though you’re still being forced to partake in this bit of pre-fab throwaway story. You can also put your phone on a Sleep Mode, but this prevents you tackling the main story quest as well.

2) The activites vary in the level of interaction required. Should you want to increase the relationship score, you can go eating, and it’s basically a drive to and from the venue. Or a taxi journey which you can skip should you be very lazy.

3) The game itself demonstrates the ability to refuse invitiations and shows there is little consequence during the course of story missions, by refusing for you.

Really, what is occuring with GTA4’s minigames, and more prominently with Fable 2’s pubgames is this metagame I mentioned.

5. The Mingame as Metagame (Or it’s not just you, it’s everyone)

Fable 2 and GTA4 both have online mulitplayer game modes. Both, however, are fairly limited and it’s abundantly clear to anyone who has played either that these are first and foremost single player games. Single player games in a climate of gaming globalization. Nothing is single player anymore. Not even your Xbox360 dashboard. If you don’t have Xbox360 Live it doesn’t matter, it’s still there on the dashboard telling you what you’re missing. And when you do have it, it’s telling you who is online, it’s inviting you to rifle through their games collection and look at their achievements. Through playing all your games you’re playing Microsoft’s (and Sony’s with PSN Trophies) metagame absolute. But aside from that each of these titles keeps stats of how you’re playing. And others can see them. There are leaderboards for every GTA4 minigame (in a system called the Rockstar Social Club), and street race, and everything else it seems. Fable 2’s minigames were released before the full game so that players could amass a fortune, take it to their game when they got it, and the ingame world reacted accordingly to your wealth and how you got it. The idea of the games communicating with eachother – building your own profile as a gamer online, and that your GTA4 minigames are contributing to a worldwide leaderboard – that is the minigame as metagame, and it’s Rockstar’s best hope of justifying their existence to those who don’t care for the game’s narrative, or find them that appealing.

In the end all forms of minigame fill a service of some kind, and I think that like all elements of gaming, you just need to excercise moderation, and avoid letting them become a crutch to lean on when content is wearing thin. GTA4’s games are harmless enough, it’s being harangued into playing them by the supporting cast that creates resentment.

And… Metagaming (A few short words)

Metagame as impetus:

The concept that a metagame can be the explination that justifes a game isn’t singular to GTA4’s minigames. Noby Noby Boy (a beautifully bizarre and wonderous creation from Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy, another game with metagame elements) almost relies on it’s metagame elements to bring reason to the chaos of his creation. In a game where you basically muck around, eat things, and stretch your character for no narrative reason, and if you removed the entertaining chaos of your actions and focused on the mechanics makes it a game of snake you can’t lose (not thrilling, exactly), then people would be justifed asking themselves why they would continue playing this once you’ve grasped the concept and had a bit of fun. The answer, wonderously, was that upon its release players had the unique chance to achieve a common goal as a whole collective. Every single player’s high score in terms of how long they managed to make Boy (the character) stretch was recorded, and then added up across all of the PS Network, and when that distance was equal to the distance from Earth to The Moon, The Moon became a level that was unlocked to everyone after a mere 4 days after release on Feburary 23rd last year. Mars was unlocked on May 23rd. It was a wonderful stunt, but better than that, an idication of what could come in terms of getting the entire gaming community to contribute to how a game functions.

Boy is on your windmill, messin with your flour.

Metagame as consequence:

The closest thing we have known over the decade up to now have been MMOs. Specifically the way economies work in MMOs. Much like in real life they’re monitored, and the balance of supply and demand (which is controlled by the dev team, really – but in response to the way the game is being played – I hope). But they have shortcomings. It would be unfair on new players to have a finite supply of resources, so they don’t. What happens then is that players end up accumulating massive amounts of tat. When you try selling it on, it’s practically worthless, or if it is a higher class item, it has a value that isn’t representative of the fact they’re in infinite supply but tricky to get a hold of. Besides that, it’s being controlled and monitored by the dev team.

The future?

Currently, however, we’re seeing a way in which the metagame is an element of the overall gameplay, but not the focus of development (as in Noby Noby Boy) or running in the background to the point that it barely affects our experience with the game (in MMOs – does the cost of a pelt going up by 2 gold really matter in the grand scheme of things?). Demons Souls for PS3 has one of the most interesting metagames that exactly describes the marriage of gamer interaction changing the world for everyone, and the changes informing the player’s experience in a tangible way. Demons Souls allows you to leave messages on the ground for other people to find as you play, alerting you of traps and whathaveyou. That in itself is great, but then there is the ghostly apparitions of other player’s deaths that you witness, leaving clues as to how not to deal with an enemy/situation. And finally there is the ability to have random people with whom you don’t interact with personally (so the game is in charge of your experience with them, essentially) to fight with you when you cannot succeed alone, so the game shifts around your experience. This is probably the best example of a game getting the metagame right, in proportion to the core mechanics. It is more or less afterthought in GTA4, and games like Dragon Quest 9, and Animal Crossing suffer from having great ideas but ones that won’t (in my eyes) be too succesful in the west because the Nintendo DS/DSI isn’t as ubiquitous a platform over here.

To wrap it up, I think it will only be a matter of time before elements of metagame such as those in Demons Souls start appearing in more games over the coming years, potentially as a way to fill that “demand for a mulitplayer function” that titles seem to have thrust upon them.

Mike Dunbar

EDIT: A couple of weeks have passed and Irrational Games have announced Five Cut Features from their games. It mentions the hacking minigame from Bioshock, and that initially the pipe system was meant to represent an “ADAM addicted mutant” whose loyalty you effectively bought buy giving it ADAM. Still not exactly representative, then.

A relaxing thing of beauty: