If someone asked you what “genre” of game Dawn of War is, what would you say? Would you call it a “Sci-fi game”? Or an “RTS”, or possibly a “strategy game”? The problematic disconnect here is that in non-participatory forms of entertainment, the metadata you have about the thing really just boil down to descriptions of the story’s structure, tropes, setting, and style. That’s where we get genre from.
In games you have often had only some or none of those traditional categories, so the data we’ve based “genre” upon have been information about how the game is played, whether in regard to perspective (FPS, third person), the sequence of play (turn-based, real-time), the type of thinking involved (strategy, tactical), the type of action that occurs (shooting, brawling, sports), and probably a dozen other axes of evaluation.
This is fine for Tetris, but has always made genre sort of a problem for games that have both stories and mechanics to describe under the rubric of “genre”, as illustrated in the example above. Admittedly, this isn’t a huge limitation in describing games over the last 25 years, since 95% of them have had stories that obviously fit into the sci-fi, action, or fantasy molds. But I have to wonder: if we had a better language than “genre” to encapsulate games, would it be easier to make high-profile games that embrace story idioms other than the big three? I’ve been enjoying LA Noire a great deal in spite of its dreadful shooting and driving, impossible interview mechanics, and psychopathically unlikable player character just because there’s no dragons and no spaceships in the story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with elves or space marines, but just to have a big-budget story without either is fantastically refreshing.
It’s been noted elsewhere that I have a bit of a knack for picking out video games that my sister will enjoy. Honestly, it’s not that hard; she likes games that star remorseless murderers with firm butts. Fyre tries to reciprocate, bless her flame-wreathed little soul, and that’s how I came to own a copy of Sins of a Solar Empire, which is the most infuriating game I’ve played in probably the last five years.
I should have loved this game. I cannot front: I find the design appealing, the graphics are handsome, and the course of play is stimulating. There’s a lot that Sins gets just right, which makes it a damned shame that the few problems it has are total bunny-boilers for me.
I was unable to resist the lure of GameStop’s big sale two weeks ago, and picked up a number of games that I hadn’t been interested in buying at full price. One of these was Prototype, which never really looked to be worth $60 or even $30, but became a bit more sexy at $20. I played the game for a while during the voting period for MMPVG2, and a gap week review may be forthcoming at some point, but there’s an aspect of the game I’d like to take a moment to discuss right now.
Alex Mercer, the protagonist of Prototype, sucks. So, a problem for the game.
Before I get too deep into this, let’s be clear that I don’t want to bag on Prototype as a whole. It’s a fun game, a fine budget title. As a playable character Alex controls well, and while I reckon I’m only about halfway through it, the story is engaging if a bit familiar. It’s just too bad that every time Alex says or does anything in his role as the main character of the story, I check the extensive movelist for a command to make him smack himself in the face.
It’s interesting to me that despite the numerous inducements to go corrupted in Chaos Rising – the nifty corrupting wargear, the ever-growing list of corruption traits, and the bullshit difficulty of some of those secondary redemption mission goals – most of the people I’ve seen writing on the Relic forums, as well as both Fyre and me, have gone as pure as possible for at least their first run through the game. This is in spite of the fact that players who strive for purity will only get a single purity-based trait, as well as having to deal with irritating missions and occasionally needing to literally cripple their troops with redemption items that cause them to take more damage in return for purging a bit of corruption after each mission.
Fyre’s turn away from the Dark Gods in particular is a bit of a surprise. Seriously, Kidd, I though Khorne was your boy. What happened?
I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case it’s a matter of self-image. I know that the Force Commander, Tarkus, Cyrus, Thaddeus, and (mostly) Avitus are righteous hero types. I’ve been through the fire with them for 20 hours already, and to see them fall to Chaos seems pretty damned wrong. I’m going to try it out, of course; I want to see all of the stuff Relic took the time to craft for my enjoyment, after all. But my initial playthrough, the goody-two-shoes purity one, that’s going to be the canon version of the story for my guys. All the others are going to count as what-if stories.
I did the same thing in the first Mass Effect. The Baker and I sat down to play the game together having already huddled up and determined to make our Commander Shepard a scary badass biotch with incredibly severe makeup. By the second hour of the game we’d gone totally Jimmy Stewart. Our terrifying space lesbian coddled aliens, let criminals off with warnings, and preached tolerance and understanding like it was going out of style. The urge to be good, at least for the first trip through all the content, was just too strong.
Tender, baby-soft spoilers for Chaos Rising and Star Wars after the break.
While my progress in Far Cry 2 has been slow and steady, it is certainly real, and I’ve spent some time thinking about the contestants for the experiments still to come.
That got me wondering why exactly it was that I ever stopped playing FFXII in the first place. Nostalgia, misty memories and a certain amount of remaining franchise goodwill had me seriously thinking that I’d missed out by dropping my controller and abandoning Vaan, Ashe, and Penelo, never returning to their story in the four years since. What made me quit this game that was apparently so full of fond memories for other gamers after only a few hours of play?
And then I stumbled across a post on Gamasutra from last October that brought it all rushing back to me:
An Eternal Recursion of Idiocy
Final Fantasy XII, a game with a fair share of both wildly successful and completely backwards game design, isn’t the first to do this to its players, but it is certainly one of the worst. Specifically, it is the weapon called the Zodiac Spear (specifically, the secret of obtaining it) that is an example of game design that is so mind-numbingly cynical that even reading about it causes me to feel mentally cross-eyed.
Secrets exist to be discovered. Some don’t, but they aren’t intentional, and they range from the merely embarrassing KotOR II to GTA’s multi-million dollar cup of hot coffee. But it isn’t often that a secret is paradoxically meant to be revealed but also impossible to find on a player’s own.
The Zodiac spear was not intended to be discovered through natural play or even unnatural play.
Dante’s Inferno is out and plumbing the depths of mediocrity essentially as expected. I’m going to use Dante’s pointless redemption/damnation system as a jumping-off point/excuse to bring up an issue that’s been sloshing around in the back of my gamer consciousness for a while now: games are not depicting morality properly.
Moral choice in games seems to have devolved into either a tedious form of stat allocation (a la Dante’s Inferno and Infamous), or a way to pad out playing time by offering two sort-of-but-not-really different versions of the story to play through (as perfected by Bioware). Morality is offered as a way to tailor the story to the player’s ideal – “play your way” etc. – but so what? There rarely seem to be any lasting effects as a result of the player’s “moral choices”, so where does morality come into things?
Without any consequences, you don’t have choices to decide between, you merely have selections to make. In which case, who gives a fuck? That’s just a skill tree, they’ve had that forever. Whether you put points into your “be a douchbag” skill by using a menu screen or by shooting 50 babies doesn’t really matter; you’re still using a resource (skill points or choices) to purchase an upgrade. When games like Infamous make you chose between acting bad or good, they aren’t creating a dynamic story with depth and replayability. They’re just creating a skill point allocation system with an incredibly tedious and burdensome UI.
Part of what I think I’m bumping up against here is that there’s a chasm between story and gameplay when it comes to consequences. The story consequences can be completely different from the gameplay consequences; if the story is telling you that doing something would be bad, but the actual rules of the game don’t punish you for being bad, or even treat you the same as if you had made the “good” choice, you get a disconnect between what these two sets of moral systems are telling you. If I were a pointy-headed movie lover who studied film for three years at the University of California, I might call these two sets diegetic morality and mechanical morality. But I won’t.
On the off chance that I’m not explaining myself well, here’s an example. In a Star Wars movie, staying true to the Force and not going over to the Dark Side is a constant struggle with temptation, the failure of which essentially risks both a poisonous addiction and eternal damnation. In a Star Wars game, you stay on the light side if you want telekinesis and you go over to the dark side if you want force lightning.
Peter Molyneux has given an interview with Edge Online wherein he talks about the decision to re-release Fable II as an episodic download, with the first 45-minute “episode” available for free:
Now, I hate demos. I think demos are the death knell of experiences. Over the years I’ve done demos and they’ve either completely ruined the game, given too much to the player, or they’ve confused people, so I said that we should give away the very first 45 minutes of the game, completely free, and just before you get to Bowerstone up comes this message saying, ‘If you want to continue playing press this button, but if you want to buy the rest of the game, press this’. So people that are interested but don’t want to commit to the full purchase can play more, and people that are into it can buy all of it, and they don’t lose experience or gold they’ve collected.
So, uh, Pete. How is that not a demo? Maybe you and I are using definitions of demo from different sides of the Atlantic or something, but last I checked, a game demo was a brief taste of the entire game that allows you to try it out and see if you want to buy the whole thing. I’ll grant that you may have streamlined the process a bit (letting people buy the product from within the demo? slick!), but what you’re describing here? A 45-minute experience that ends with a tease to get you to buy more of the game? That’s a demo, buddy.
45 minutes. Come on, man. I can get longer “episodes” of Mad Men.
Hey Fyre, guess who found out how to rip .scenario files out of the DoW2 .sga archive files and start goofing with the official maps in the World Builder? ‘Sme!
Here we see a screenie of good old Calderis Refinery with the textures swapped out for the Typhon jungle set. It still looks a bit desert-y because all of the desert objects, splines and splats are still there, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
I’ll be adding to this post later with details on where I found the info, what tools I used, the steps to take, and where we’re going from here. But for now, sister, know that our vengeance on this map is near at hand.
UPDATE: Aaaand a whole lotta info added. The doorway to madness lies beyond this jump: