Friday, November 23, 2007

Firday Freakout: A Message From the Queen

Wax Mannequin. "God bless all the children, each dear one... meow meow meow meow meow meow!"

Thursday, November 22, 2007

No! I wanna play dolly!

One of my favorite Simpsons moments comes during the hearing in which the family is suing the Sea Captain’s “all-you-can-eat” seafood restaurant for false advertising. Pressed to tell the court what they did when they couldn’t find another all-you-can-eat fish place to satisfy Homer’s cravings, Marge breaks down and sobs: “We went fishing!

I’m right there, sobbing along with her. That’s what can happen when you get a taste of something and it simply isn’t enough; you take whatever you can find that might sate that hunger, desperately cast your line. But even the finest line-caught trout, shining silvery in your bucket, isn’t the same as a restaurant-poached salmon, or even a manky plastic basket of deep-fried shrimp, unless you can go all Gollum-style and dig in right there on the pier. Still, you’re so hungry for fish you’ll take whatever the water puts on your hook…

Extended metaphors aside (I’m not really hungry for fish; apparently, I have to cut down if I want future generations to know the joys of sushi), it has been a hard few weeks of craving, ever since those schoolyard pushers over at BioWare gave me my “first one’s free” taste of Mass Effect. But it’s not so much the sci-fi RPG gameplay itself I’m jonesing for – though, you know, duh -- it’s the primary, adventure-starting act of character generation itself. Those few sweet minutes of tweaking an avatar’s face, facts and stats have had me itching.

Any – or maybe just many – old-time Dungeons and Dragons players will tell you the same thing: the purest joy in role-playing gaming is the making of your character, the process of turning rules, points, dice rolls and wish-fulfillment power fantasies into a brand-new, never-before-seen spellcaster, karate man, mutant laser-eye dude or hired killer. A new character, all pristine on a fresh sheet unmarked by grimy eraser-scars and pop-stains, represents a pure product of imagination and fantasy, a clean idea not yet grimed up by the frustration, compromise, disappointment and tedium of actually playing the game along with four or five other nerds and their own (clearly inferior) little dream-puppets.

Role-playing video games – especially single-player games – don’t have the same limited-only-by-the-imagination quality of the tabletop, though, even when they offer as much freedom of characterization, or a convincing simulation thereof, as Mass Effect. The options for your character’s profession and background are relatively few, and choosing from a handful of dialogue choices isn’t the same as extemporizing your character’s words, but let’s be honest; in practice, imagination can be quite limiting. Ninety per cent of characters’ backgrounds are plucked straight off the stockshelf, and a similar portion of players’ improvised dialogue comprises hackneyed threats and other tough-guy inanities. More important than character itself is external detail: “Yeah, I guess my dad was killed and I swore revenge, whatever; anyway, I’ve got these glowing red eyes, right, and these two wicked swords that…”

The magic of character creation in a game like Mass Effect is exactly in these externals, starting with the hours spent tweaking your character’s appearance in the face-building tool. This can be obsession at its best, fiddling with the scores of little sliders that adjust your Space Marine’s skin tone, the length of the bridge of the nose, eye shape and size, chin strength, lip poutiness, brow thickness, cheekbone height, haistyle, makeup…

Makeup? Yeah, makeup; given the choice – in videogames, not on the tabletop -- my characters will always be girls. Maybe there’s some sort of theory-level psychological reason why this is so, something about being able to use a play environment to safely experiment with gender roles or something, but it really boils down to simple aesthetics: in a dialogue-heavy game like ME, the camera’s either right up in your character’s yammering face or following obediently behind, and if I’m going to spend 100-plus hours in this virtual world I’d rather have my field of vision filled with the face and backside of a simulated pretty girl.

But it’s not all Weird Science wank fantasy, a digital Pygmalion trip. Building a character at the facial-detail level creates a deep investment in the game world, a bond of significant power. My cravings right now are not so much for the opportunity to whip up some kind of fantasy asskicker – I’ve been desperately downloading freeware and shareware RPGs, the role-playing addict’s cheap fix, and they haven’t cut the jones – but for making that investment, feeling that bond… and then playing hundreds of hours of action-packed, sci-fi dress-up-dolly. I’d felt that connection forming at BioWare’s press day, and having my bonding time with “Irene Shepherd” cut abruptly short gives these pangs their special bite.

So, it’s back to Oblivion, I guess; I’ve got to do something before I go crazy and start searching craigslist for a local LARP chapter. Gronking again through that played-out world, trying to find bits of unplayed game, doesn’t really appeal to me, but that’s a secondary problem which can be smoothed over with gallons of Gallo; the character customization is there, the face-creation is there and the dress-up dolly is there, even if the novelty’s gone. It’ll be another couple of weeks before I’ll be served fresh fish, so for now I’m going fishing.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

plink plink plonk plink...

Man, this show would have been ten million times better if they'd let Worf keep it this consistently real...

Also... it's weird, but I get such a Mike Winters vibe from Dorn's delivery, here...

Friday, November 09, 2007

Game writers on writing games

BioWare's Drew Karpyshyn and Ubisoft's Clint Hocking talk craft. Originally appeared in the Toronto Star

When the Writers' Guild of America, the trade union representing TV and film writers in the U.S., announced at the end of September that video game writing would be honoured at their 2008 awards ceremony, it was a bit of an "arrival" moment for games. Granted, the recognition might have something to do with the WGA's desire to organize the caffeine-fuelled legions putting words in the mouths of countless ninjas, wizards and lone-wolf Marines, but still. The award is acknowledgement of games as a form on par with movies and TV, and of writing as an integral part of their creation.

We've come a long way from the days when "INSERT COIN" and "GAME OVER" might comprise a game's entire script; even today's most button-mashy of action games are expected to offer something resembling a compelling storyline. The poster-genre for the game writer's task is the role-playing game, in which players must inhabit a character and make story decisions that branch the plot along multiple lines. Dialogue is king ... and there's plenty of it.

"We have 20,000 lines of dialogue," says senior designer Drew Karpyshyn of Edmonton game developer BioWare, describing science-fiction RPG Mass Effect, set for release Nov. 20. That's the equivalent of 15 to 20 movie screenplays, created by Karpyshyn and five other writers, working with the rest of the creative team. (The new Simpsons Game enlisted the TV show's writers to come up with 8,000 lines – a full season's worth.)

Amazingly, Mass Effect is, says Karpyshyn, "far and away our smallest game, in terms of BioWare standards. Because of advances in digital acting and the cinematic feel of the game, we can now tell more by saying less.

"We do try to follow a lot of cinematic rules. But we have to be careful; (games) are very different from a movie. The player isn't passively watching, they're actively involved and they can steer it in a number of different directions."

Writing for those directions bulks up an RPG's script; characters may need several sets of dialogue to accommodate the role a player has chosen. A simple example is in the Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare's 2003 Star Wars title, where the fundamental choice is between Dark and Light sides of the Force. Through their choices, the player character will become either a Jedi saint or a Vaderesque paragon of bastardry, and non-player-character attitudes will vary accordingly.

The contingencies multiply fast; as Karpyshyn puts it, "How can I let the player make significant choices, steer the conversation as they want, but still manage to control the amount of content so that every time they make a choice it doesn't double the amount of work?"

Mass Effect's answer has been to offer the freedom of multiple side quests while keeping the plot's "critical path" within a matrix of four possible endings. "This was a difficult lesson to learn," Karpyshyn says, "but we (had) to come to the realization that spamming the player with options is not something they're necessarily going to enjoy."

Clint Hocking, creative director at Montreal's Ubisoft, comes at the problem from a different direction. His current project, the first-person shooter Far Cry 2, is more action-oriented than an RPG like Mass Effect, but has the same requirements for managing player choice.

"The most important thing for me is to stop thinking of story as something that we write and then integrate and the player then experiences," he says. "Game stories in general are going to evolve to a point where the player is playing the story the same way you'd play Tetris."

Hocking's approach to realizing this in Far Cry 2 is to develop a style of game writing that takes those player statements and retroactively justifies them. "The player is making statements about what he's interested in by the actions he takes," Hocking explains.

"Instead of providing the content that tells the story that we've written, we provide an encyclopedia of content that the game calls on to provide the meaning, rationale and background for the decisions the player has made. We detect who you shoot and when and then we provide the `why.'"

For Hocking, any comparison between games and film breaks down, as players given real choice will naturally act to defuse the situations ("Don't go in there!") that, in traditional narrative, create drama.

"A lot of the most powerful tools of filmmaking need to be abandoned in order to make a game that equals or surpasses a film. When people say, `You need to make your game more cinematic,' what they're really saying is, "You need to make your game better.'

"It's not the `how' that we need (from film)," says Hocking, "it's the result. We need to be targeting the same emotional results. The `more like movies' that people are asking for is the hard decision that makes you tremble and weep, and I think we have the ability to do that now."

Clearing off the Cobwebs

Three months? What the hell have I been up to? Well, in addition to moving south to Nanton and getting (poorly) adjusted thereto, I...

...attended the best wedding reception, ever; considered the return of the Lapsed Gamer; attended South Country fair, and had a romantic moment ruined by drunken carnies; experienced the badass, eye-of-the-tiger side of Mario; mourned the passing of Klondike Days; lost myself for a while in the Marvel Universe; experienced Mario again, this time in his dimension-bending incarnation; said a mopey goodbye to Edmonton; played the shit out of BioShock; shrugged indifferently at the mediocre Doctor Strange animated film; thought some more thoughts about BioShock; searched for sexiness in a stack of ancient Nintendo Power magazines; got a cracklike taste of Mass Effect that still has me itching; hated the living shit out of RPG disaster Two Worlds; sat my ass down in a beanbag chair; slogged through maybe half of Heavenly Sword; interviewed Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak; gushed over Phantom Hourglass maybe a little bit more than I should have; rocked drunken Halo 3 with a bunch of Slashdot geeks; got kind of creeped out playing The Eye of Judgment; and, finally, took stock of my virtual shoebox of "old-school classics" and came away kind of disgusted with myself.

All those words... why am I broke?