Thursday, 26 February 2015

Paralyzed By The Butterfly of Consequence: Life is Strange, Episode 1

So, today, as an early birthday present, I got Life is Strange episode 1. It's an adventure game in the tradition of Telltale's Walking Dead, with multiple choices, consequences, and all that jazz, and it's published by Square Enix... But it has a twist: You can, in a limited fashion, change your choices. Let's take an inconsequential example, and one that may or may not have consequences down the line (More on why I don't know yet in a bit.)

One of the first examples is part of a tutorial: You're Max, a shy college student who loves photos, but you need to get out of your class quick for... Reasons. Neither of your starting choices are any good, because they both involve detention (I can almost hear Max berating herself for her choices in the VA too, the acting is a definite plus in this game!)

...But you have a third choice. You see, Max... Can rewind time. No, she hasn't always been able to do it. No, she doesn't understand her powers... But, as of certain events, she can do it. So you have a third option: Rewind time, and say what the teacher wants to hear.


Now, as someone who's said exactly the wrong thing in class, I can certainly understand that seeming awesome. But there's something that has stopped me from playing the rest... Well, so far, anyhow, because I want to get back to this one, for multiple reasons.

You see, just like the Telltale games, Actions have Consequences. And not all of them are good. By definition, the choice I'm going to present isn't a spoiler, because I haven't seen the consequences. And I'm actually kind of scared to, because, as more spoilery reviews have shown, the stakes are actually quite high, and implied to be pretty high from the word go.

Okay, that's a face you could grow to hate, but... :S

So even a seemingly inconsequential choice (To comfort a preppy "mean girl" for her ruined cashmere jacket) Has Consequences. And I'm scared of them. I like Max. I empathise with Victoria, because so far... Well, she may be a bitch, but hell, I was a cock in college too, and I knew a few folks I thought were jerks who've... well, actually turned out alright, without making anyone's life go to hell in the process either.

I helped a girl dodge a rugby (Well, American Football) ball. I opened a cupboard. And however inconsequential that sounds... There's a little Butterfly in the corner, telling me "Your Action Will Have Consequences."

If the intro's anything to go by, Bad Shit Will Go Down, People Will Die... And I'm not sure I'm up to riding the emotional rollercoaster of finding out what my seemingly harmless pranks and explorations have really done.

Well, not today, anyway. The game is really well written, the VA is quite good (IE - People sound normal), and it looks pretty darn nice too. So I know I'll go back to it. But that little Butterfly scares me. And I think it should.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Shotgun Yak: Music Taste, Dating Site Profiles, and VACUUM CLEANERS, AWWH YEAH.

Even though I blog about games a lot, it's important to talk about other things, including (LE GASP) my actual life. So I'm going to start with what, at first, seems the most underwhelming shit in the world.

I have a new vacuum cleaner. And it is fucking awesome. You may disagree on this point, but hear me out, if only because I'm also gonna be talkin' about online dating later, a thing I know a few friends have experience with.

So, why is this so awesome? I mean, it's a fucking household tool, right?

My Vacuum cleaner, a 3d mockup courtesy of Keyshot. It is awesome, I will brook no arguments.

Right. But it's one this house has been lacking for a while, and it showed. It didn't help that my last vacuum cleaner was weak as fuck... And this is awesome because of another factor: A clean house, a clean mind. Now, I wasn't sure of this statement myself, because I kind of like shit strewn about. I know where it is, y'see, and an empty floor actually makes me freak out a little.

But mess... Mess is a different matter. I'm not talking about "Dude, you have, like, fifty art books strewn around the floor!" (That's relatively fine, so long as I don't damage the books by leaving them open and strewn about, don't deliberately step on them, that kind of thing), I'm talking about the little shit that adds up. Sometimes, little bits of tobacco fall out of your rollup, ash, dust, crumbs... Little things that nonetheless add up to a grody experience. The kind that makes you feel bad for seeing it, and isn't good for your physical health either. You can dust with a brush, broom, and dustpan all you damn want, some of that crap isn't going to go away.

But a vacuum cleaner, that's a huge load off my mind when it comes to keeping my space clean and relatively healthy. And seeing as I see a lot of my room in Winter, and that it's my little retreat from the world when the sadbrain hits, that's actually really fucking important.

Okay, this is a bit of an extreme clipshot for such a point, but I hope you get where I'm coming from here. This is bad.

So that is why a new vacuum cleaner is awesome.

Moving on, let's talk a little bit about online dating. I have two online dating profiles, both on "free" sites: PlentyOfFish and OKCupid. And I'm relatively okay with both my profiles. But online dating has a lot of frustrations, and one of them is summed up quite simply...

...I can't be "Looking for a Relationship" and "Looking for Friends" at the same time, or rather, I can, but people will have issues trusting one or the other motive. And this is Not Technically My Fault. In fact, I'm fairly certain I can drop the technically there, because dating sites like to simplify shit. And people buy into that.

Not that my messages are top notch or anything, any issues with folks just not wanting to talk to the guy who suddenly pops up and can ask a buttload of questions are my fault and my fault alone... But there's other factors out there, and one of them is tied into that whole Culture of Fear thing I talked about a long while back.

This is useful. But not always your friend.

See, some folks genuinely aren't interested in more than a random date, maybe a short fling. This is a good thing, because that's their comfort zone, and so long as they're responsible about it, it's all good. But when someone who has "Looking for a Relationship" on their profile messages them, that sends lil' warning bells that maaaaybe that person wasn't meaning to ring. So they're less likely to respond to that kind of messager, out of the (Sadly, often genuine) fear that the person will become clingy, creepy, or stalky. That's just one example of how a system with hard categories, however useful hard categories can be, isn't helping anyone.

"But Jay," you cry "You can, on some places, set it for Friends, Hookups, and Relationships, all at once, it doesn't have to be black and white!"

Yes. Yes you can. And sadly, this often leads to the perception that, instead of being someone who's laid back and fairly open minded, they're sad, desperate folks clinging to whatever they can get. Because here's another problem with dating profiles, and writing them.

Sell Yourself... But Don't Make It All About You. In practice, this is a hella delicate balance, but those two rules are often just thrown out there, with little practical advice on how to balance them. Me, I talk about me, and I would like it if you talk about you, profile wise. When talking over the direct messaging, it's more mutual, but when it comes to profiles themselves? Hell fucking yes, make it about you. Because if someone's not interested in you, and you're not interested in them, well, that's a helluva fucking great start, isn't it?

Dating sites try to sell you a lot of concepts, and not all of them are actually useful. Let's take a digression into interests. Dating Sites looooove generic categories for interests, and people loooove the "Just Ask" as a replacement for talking about themselves, partly because People Are Lazy, partly out of fear of attracting the Creeper, and partly because dating sites encourage pigeonholes.

A sadly very apt image, on multiple levels!

So often, I see something along these lines:

"Hey there, you wanna know more, just ask!"

- Socialising
- Family and Friends
- Shopping

...Wow. You could be the most bubbly, lovable person on the planet, and I will never know, because online dating, no matter how much you pretend otherwise, is a time investment (Moreso for women than men, because men, on the whole, do seem to message women a lot more than the other way around. At least partly because a lot of women's time is spent going through the hundred and fifty or so variations of "HEY BABY, WHAZZAP" that they seem to get every god-damn day, which cuts into their time) ... And this has told me nothing. What do you shop for? What do you like about socialising? Why do you list keeping up with the family and friends as a hobby? What the hell can I ask?

I could be the most bubbly, lovable person you've met (Probably not, I'm a regular Doctor Doom at times, and not ashamed to admit it), and you, too, will never know. All because of a bunch of shitty factors. Let's sum up some of them.

- The aforementioned Lazy Profile. Often encountered in the wild with the Duckface Selfie, or the male variation, the Man Poses With Tiger (This has become almost a fucking meme)

- People are told to sell themselves, and guess what? This has often had connotations of Make Yourself Appear Better Than You Are, because retail marketing does that, so why shouldn't you? (Protip: It's better in the long run if you actually improve the product... In this case, you. This also works in the long term for retail, but hey...)

- It is a long term thing. But everybody wants a fix now, now, now.

- Text communication needs work too.

- Creepy Dudes. I'm not gonna lie, there's Creepy Ladies out there too, but Creepy Dudes appears to be the bigger problem here. This all ties into the final point, which I'm going to separate and emphasise..

Relationships Need Work. Do The Fucking Work.

Thanks to Orange for this pic that sorta shows how this should go down.

I'm guilty of this one just as much as the rest of you. There are folks I've forgotten to message, and then not messaged later out of guilt. There's one lady I'm talking to right now (I do like guys, but am not exactly fond of my own gender these days, as a whole. Specific dudes I know are awesome though, just to clarify!), who's working on their uni assignments, so I know they won't be able to message back right away. And there's folks who seem awesome, but I'm not willing to send a second message a lot of the time out of fear of being a Creepy Dude.

But yeah... Again, using a dating site is about peace of mind, and, like cleaning the room, it takes work. Which yes, sucks, I know... But, in the words of Jennifer Connolly in Labyrinth

"Yes... It isn't fair... But that's the way it is." (Note: This doesn't apply to certain concepts, like misogyny, classism, and general bigoted assholery. That isn't just the way it is, it's a shitty thing that folks can deal with, and should deal with.)

A little understanding, a little more communication, and a little more effort in that communication, and you'll be happier overall for it.

Finally, I'm gonna segue into Music, and wrap up what you may have noticed has a theme here. Linking it back to the dating sites, you may get frustrated when you just see "MUSIC" under interests. But I'm more tolerant of that, because taste in music is not a thing that can really be pigeonholed. It's not terribly helpful, but that's because we should really concentrate more on why we like the music, not what music we like.

Music wise, there's only two things I really don't like: Gangster Rap, because fools take themselves too damn serious, and Happy Hardcore, because I refuse to believe that shit is music. That's the prejudice part of things over with, out the way, done.

But we like music for a variety of different reasons, and often, we like music that's ideologically contested.

Wait, Ideologically Contested? What The Fuck Is This?

Okay, let's take a few examples, all from the period I grew up in (Which has a lot of it). Let's start with New Order's Blue Monday. Blue Monday is an awesome track, with a great backbeat, some good synth, and vocals that make me wonder what guitar pedals they hooked to the mike, because I wanna sing like that. But the song itself? It's about a dysfunctional as fuck relationship. Just the chorus should clue you into this:

But tell me now, how do I feel?
Tell me now how should I feel?

Two fucking lines, and it establishes a cornucopia of "This person is fucked". They're numb, confused, and dependent on the other person to tell them how they feel. It doesn't get much better:

Those who came before you,
Lived through their vocation.
From the past unto completion,
They'll turn away no more.

Okay, "Those who came before you"... The people they've dated before... "Lived through their vocation"?!? Vocation, a job, a duty. Serious self image issues. Everything about this song (Go look up the lyrics) screams dysfunction, but I love the expression.

Turning Japanese. Teardrop. Tainted Love. Didn't Mean To Turn You On. You Spin Me Right Round, Baby (Right Round). All about things turned sour. And at least two of those are really fucking catchy.

But, at the same time, I love Doki Doki, by Smile.DK. Science Genius Girl, by Freezepop. I love Thrift Shop, by Macklemore... Because they're all expressive as hell. Mary Black. Apollyon Sun. AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. I love music in general because it expresses these things. And sometimes I love things I shouldn't.

Good example, I think Skullcrusher Mountain, by Jonathan Coulton, is, in its twisted sense, romantic. But it's not a healthy romance. Oh, goodness me, no. He specifically wrote it as a Bond Villain Lovesong, and that's not healthy at all. In fact, I wouldn't blame you for disliking me for liking that song. That's Not My Name, by the Ting Tings, is the anthem of clubbing boys and girls who go out, get pissed, and don't understand why nobody will take them home, for fuck's sake. It's not a nice song. The male backing even goes into this, while the lead continues to tell you how pissed they are:

This song was in my head, now it's in my mind,
Call it, reach it, get some words, and get some timing,
Now I realise, I cannot emphasise,
I'll stick around, but just a promise, nothing binding,
However can't you see, that you're so desperately,
A standing joker like a vocal one liner.
This song is sing-a-long, but it's so monotone,
Gotta get some soul, gotta get some feeling

Emphasis mine. The first half is kinda shitty on the dudebro end of things. I'll stick around, but even though it's a promise, I don't feel the obligation to keep it? Way to fucking go, brah, and I mean that in the most sarcastic sense possible. But the other half...

...It's like that one Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic. Here, lemme link you the comic in question. In this case, it's not the guy doing this... It's the lady. And a lack of communication really fucking hurts.

So, let's wrap this up. You may have noticed a common theme here. Two, actually: Communication, and Safe Space. This whole blog post was a very thinly veiled set of analogies, while also dealing with examples of how they're actually fucking important, yo. Dating sites aren't necessarily a safe space (in fact, for some folks, they definitely aren't!), but part of the problem with them is the whole Humans Are Lazy At Words thing I talked about (Yeah, I just provided you at least two more examples for that.) Music is expressive, but sometimes it expresses things that really aren't safe (I like some of these tunes, not just because they're good tunes, but because I have darker aspects, just like everyone else, and being aware of them helps me just be a Moustache Twirler, as opposed to That Fucking Creepy Villain Nobody Likes Because He's Super Repellent). And a vacuum cleaner, a simple fucking household tool that's really common in the First World, is important to me for helping to create a safe space in my own home, in terms of both mental and physical health.

Now excuse me, I have to do a second pass on the kitchen, and watch those hairs on the carpet get SUCKED INTO OBLIVION, SUCK IT, CARPET DEBRIS!


Friday, 13 February 2015

Why SHOULD I Read The Fucking Manual?

Manuals for games are a big can of worms, because there is this feeling in game design these days that it's just plain better to design things so you don't need a manual. Games are, after all, meant to be for everyone, including those of us who don't fink so gud. That's inclusive, and inclusivity is a nice thing... But I'm not entirely sure I agree, for several reasons. Still, let's start this discussion off with "What the heck do game manuals look like, and why did we need them way back when?"

This here is the original game box for Wasteland, an RPG you may have heard of considering it recently got a sequel, currently in Early Access, and both its director (Brian Fargo) and its spiritual successor (Fallout) are pretty well known. Now, look a lil' closer, and you will see... Holy shit, that's a big ol' honkin' book, isn't it? And there's more than one of 'em! Gaaaaahd, how could you be expected to read that shit?

Well, firstly, you were expected to read dat shit because RPGs are often quite complex, and limitations of the systems they were on meant that you couldn't fit everything into the game. In Wasteland's case, there are two books: The actual manual, which describes the stats, how they interact, some skills (manuals of the time sometimes had misleading information for reasons of plot or designer dickishness. Not quite cricket, I know), and how to control what, at the time, was a fairly complex game (and, to be fair, still is). The manual served a second purpose, which is part of why manuals largely fell out of vogue: It allowed the designers to take shortcuts. Why work harder to make your UI more intuitive, when you can have a manual to describe it?

(Sometimes, though, folks are just bad at UI design...)

The other book, however, was the real doozy. It was a combination of copy protection, and a way to get around size limitations. See those floppy squares? Those are 5.25" Floppy Disks, and they had a maximum filesize of... 360 Kilobytes. Go look at your "My Computer" screen, or equivalent, and let's go downward. I have a 500 Gigabyte and a 3 Terabyte Hard Drive. My DVD-RWs for Let's Play backups have a 4.75 GB limit. Tera... Giga... Mega... Wow. Them's some tiny files, right?

The Wasteland Paragraph Book contains any long talky bits for the game, along with fake talky bits so anyone who wanted to try and skip ahead in the story could very easily fuck up, and it had something like 500 paragraphs. Let's assume the paragraphs had an average of 50 words, with an average of 5 characters. That's 125,000 characters. Each one of those characters takes, effectively, 1 Byte, so encoded in the game files, that would be 125 KB, or slightly less than half the allowed filesize on a disk of the time. In practice, it would end up a fair bit smaller (Probably around 40-60 KB), but like I said, it doubled as an anti-piracy measure.

It also ended up getting around another limitation. Here's a Wasteland screenshot.

Hrm. That's something like 20 words. They could have displayed the paragraphs, but it would make the game a lot more tedious to play. Since it's not really real-time, it takes very little effort to flick through the book, and everyone's happy.

But anti-piracy measures moved on from something as easily circumvented as "Read The Fucking Book/Take numbers off a card", and I'm actually sort of glad about that, because while they sometimes got inventive in a good way, they also started doing such boneheaded things as black text on carbon paper (which is red), and really small fonts, in order to discourage copying. If anything, this had the opposite effect, and I remember Dad and I tearing our hair out at trying to decipher the codes on the TMNT anti-piracy sheet, and eventually writing what codes we could on a TXT file and printing it off. Since not many folks I knew even had a PC at the time, this wasn't a ticket to easy pocket money either, more's the pity... Because the TMNT game in question was shit.

Another hotly contested thing manuals did was set up the lore for the world, or provide a miniature encyclopedia. "But Jamie!" I hear you cry "You can have an in-game encyclopedia now!"

This is a bad in-game encyclopedia. Partly because it's badly written, but mostly because it's a FUCKING RACING GAME.

Yes. Yes you can. But it has exactly the same potential flaws as a lore-book, and it has one flaw that printed versions don't have: You can't read it outside of the game. Why would you want to read it outside of the game? Well, if your in-game encyclopedia is actually good, it would be because you wanted to learn more about this strange world you'd found your character in, to know things the designers didn't put in.

And here's where it gets complicated. Because modern game design quite rightly states that the hierarchy of tutorial methods (and, to a lesser extent, world building) is Do > Show > Tell. Whenever you can, it is better to either outright show an aspect of a culture in a game, or at least imply it. However, to show that it's not all that simple (Give respect to game designers, yo, they have a hard job), we have to consider flow.

Whoops. Somebody fucked up their flow!

Flow is not, as some believe, a nebulous, arty farty game design concept, but something any good game designer has to worry about. Ever had that "Ugggh, this cutscene came in the middle of a fucking boss fight, and he attacks right after!" or "God-fucking dammit, now I have to look at my journal while I'm being attacked!" ? That's bad flow. It's not always on the game itself, as well: I've complained, in the past, of "Ugh, fighting breaks the flow of this game too hard" in Mirror's Edge, and in fact, that was a common complaint when it came out. But on examination? A lot of that was me, not the game. There are rarely places where you have to fight, and those places, it's pretty clear that, well, that's the only way out. The rest of the time, you have lots of options for just plain avoiding the cops that try and bar your way, and the game's simple visual language means you have very little excuse for not using the environment well.

In a turn based game, you don't have to worry about flow so much, so you can leave lavish descriptions and lovingly crafted stat pages right there in the game (although most double down and have a PDF you can alt-tab to or print sections of.) But in a more action oriented game, you just don't want to know right now, thanks! So doing this well helps a lot. I'm Let's Playing the series now, and have a soft spot for it, so let's talk briefly about lore done right in the Wipeout series.

It helped that the game was fairly pretty for the time, too.

Wipeout's manual was pretty simple. It had to be, because PS1 manuals were generally quite small. But they wanted us to care about the world and teams. So they had team profiles they felt they couldn't fit in the game. Okay, we get a favourite team (Qirex for the win, as an aside!) But they also had little press releases that told us about the world... And it wasn't as nice a place as you'd think, considering Anti-Gravity had pretty much decimated Big Oil, and helped the environment a little bit. They had track blurb, that also added to this, and later games in the series also had tidbits of lore tucked into press releases on the official site, a timeline we could build up of the world... It was a technical racing game, but we had added reason to want to play it because the world was interesting!

That, and PS1 parties at raves, were both pretty useful marketing tactics, and the series sold pretty well, for the most part. So manuals can serve a useful purpose that isn't just "haha, you need this manual, noob!"

But the biggest concern, the one that really nails the lid shut, is that it's a) not cost effective to print manuals much anymore, especially when you have the PDF, cutting printing costs entirely, and b) It's more environmentally friendly. But there's a good reason Official Guidebooks, especially ones that hint at the larger world, or give info that just couldn't be put into the game, still exist, and sell like hotcakes.

So how do we resolve this? Well, different companies resolve it in different ways. Portal and Dark Souls both do the "Implied world" and "Teaching through play", and that mostly works. I say mostly, because sometimes, not even excellent design can help some folks. Yes, you've tried to put a portal on not-white surfaces for the last half hour, dude, maybe it's time to try something different?

There is nowhere here to put a portal. Stop fucking trying.

Thief (the original one, not the bastard child of 2014) had optional lore, a tutorial mission, and again, implying details about its grim world, often through the hilarity of some seriously obnoxious guards (In a good way... You'd have to have played to understand why "Y'wanna go to the bear-pits tomorrow?" can send me into peals of laughter)

Paradox strategy games, and many others, do indeed have big honkin' manuals, and lengthy tutorials, and ohgodihavetoomanyindustrialistswhygodwhy... Maybe Paradox, as much as I love them, aren't the best example... And many RPGs have... the same WALLS OF TEXT AND LORE, but in dialogues with other characters. That's... a double edged sword, because when the writing and the voice acting is good, just like a manual, it's engaging, but when it isn't, you get "And LO, Did The Archimandrite Of Thessalinicamanica Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Why Haven't You Hit Skip Already [important info] Blah Blah Blah."

So, when you're designing a game, spare a thought for the manual. It's good design not to rely on it, but it, and your in-game encyclopedia and whatnot, are important tools, even in something as simple as, say... A twin-stick shooter series. It can give players a reason to care about your game, it can clue players in to advanced strategies. You have to account for the fact that folks might not read it, but if you're going to do it, do it well. In game or out, it may well help deflect that old saw of "UGH, THIS GAME SUCKS BECAUSE [Long rant translated to: I didn't pay any attention whatsoever to the game] !"

It's still a valid option, even today.

Games Journalism: We Are *All* Only Human.

For anyone keeping up with gaming news, Peter Molyneux recently got it in the pants over Godus. Bigtime. While some things needed to be said to the British GameDev Wunderkind, others didn't, and it made me think of something we tend to forget: Everyone in the Games Biz, from the devs to the journos, to the players, are only human. And we tend to forget this. All of us.

The Devs

Warren Spector, from Martian Dreams.

Richard Garriott. Warren Spector. Graeme Devine. John Romero. These, and many more, are names to conjure with in the games industry. But we, both players and games press, tend to overlook the oddities and failings of these folk. Go look at Martian Dreams and Savage Worlds. You'll find a literal self insert of Warren Spector in both. In fact, Wikipedia has a selection of his self-inserts on the page about him.

They're good folks, but they're not rockstars. They have their failings. Tabula Rasa was a flop. Thief: Deadly Shadows definitely had flaws. Even the series I'm currently Let's Playing, Wipeout, Made Mistakes.

But we have a tendency to ignore this, and when we do discover folks have their human qualities, not necessarily good ones? We tend not to react too well. An extreme case in point: Phil Fish. Phil Fish is another dev who's been raked over the coals, for the crime of... Being abrasive and temperamental. And because he is a public figure, a celebrity... The reaction is disproportionate.

But let's look at the other two sides here.

The Journos

As someone who used to review, I'm just as guilty as every other game journo out there for being attracted by something that just... Doesn't... Work. In my particular case, a prime example would be Nuclear Dawn.

If you can instinctively make sense of this, congratulations, you could be a Nuclear Dawn Commander!

What, you haven't heard of it? But it rewards good team-based play, actually talking to other players, and... Oh, yeah, it didn't do very well because it wasn't accessible to the average player. See, the average player, for various reasons, just wants to god-damn play. They want to shoot mans, not stand in a corridor waiting for an enemy push they're not sure will come. They definitely don't want some asshole telling them what to do (Especially if said asshole turns out to be incompetent), and they don't want to spend time guarding said asshole from the enemy, even if that's a vital element of the game.

So what ended up happening was that whoever co-ordinated and/or had a decent team leader would steamroll the pubbies. Again. And Again. And Again. And lo, it Wasn't Fun. So the servers were nigh ghost towns, and the game didn't do nearly as well as its interesting gameplay could have gotten.

On the other end of things, for me, was Blur, by Bizarre Creations. Blur had problems. The track design meant that a reasonably skilled player could DNF (Did Not Finish) all the other racers on many tracks, people were having connection issues out the wazoo, and a third to half the vehicles were basically reskins. But the first part and the third in our equation, Players and Devs, came into play here...

Blur: The Big Boys Mario Kart. Oh ho. Ho ho ho ho ho.

...You see, Bizarre Creations also made Project Gotham Racing, which was, in many folks' minds, a Good Series. So when a review score was lower than expected, they came out to complain. I didn't get a whole lot of complaints (A whole ten, I think... I'm not a celebrity writer, never was), but, on the strength of those, my editor at the time claimed that I had been "experiencing day-one issues".

Three months later, I issued a re-review (Something many game journos will tell you is a bad idea), and nobody appeared to care one way or another. Bizarre, you see, had started copy-pasting responses to bug reports, claiming it was being fixed, while already talking about a sequel, and working on another game (Bloodstone, which also Had Problems).

They folded a few months after my re-review. Now, here comes the weird part. The players came out again, but they didn't yell at me (Who scored the game pretty low). No, I opened up the letters page of PC Gamer, to find someone blaming them for the demise of Blur. This was pretty irrational, as PC Gamer had been a lot nicer than I had, and didn't even mention many of the issues seen with the game.

It was a head-shaking experience. But it leads us nicely to the third part of our little equation.

The Players

The Bush-Wookie in his natural habitat.

In a very real sense, the players are a more diverse group than either the developers or gaming press. But what you see isn't that diverse at all, because what most folks see of a playerbase are comments, forum posts, and meeting them in actual play... And the bad tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

The Mass Effect 3 Ending. Starbound's "Caveman Tier" play. Fucking Bush-Wookies. The list of things players complain about, not always making sense, is immense. Let's take the Bush-Wookies as an example.

Bush-Wookie is a nickname for Snipers in the Battlefield series, especially Bad Company 2, because their camouflage... Well, it makes them look like Wookies from Star Wars. Also because it helps them hide in bushes. Duh.

The problem is, a good sniper, in pretty much any multiplayer game, can lock down entire areas of the map. And it's a massive pain in the arse to dig them out. Never is this more prevalent than in the Heavy Metal map of Bad Company 2.


The map doesn't show it very well, but the middle capture point here is flanked by two hills, and there's an AA gun in the village, just off to one side of the point itself. Snipers/engineers in those hills can fire as far away as either of the other capture points, and getting them out often requires air support, which... Oh. Oh. Again, we find that the fun of the game is instantly ruined for the average player if they're up against a co-ordinated team. And, in the case of BC2, it doesn't even have to be voice co-ordinated, because the classes make it fairly obvious where you should go. The snipers will graduate to the hills, because there's a lot of cover and disguise up there. The engineers will graduate to the hills, because it's relatively safe from the AA guns, and allows them to kill the vehicles they're meant to. Meanwhile, the medics will assist the assaults, who will die in droves as they either try to take the next point along (Which will have everything coming their way), or try to take B (Which will be protected by a force that can efficiently deny you entry if they're even halfway competent)

In this map, among others, snipers are a massive force multiplier. It doesn't help that playing a sniper as realistically as possible (Moving after shots, not revealing themselves as best they can, staying outside the range of the other classes) means that the sniper has a reputation as a player out to ruin other people's fun.

It's not an entirely unfair point either, because some of them genuinely are. Which is annoying, because there's no easy solution. Battlefield 3 went with making snipers easier to spot and more likely to get into short range firefights (Which they'll often lose), but this makes playing a sniper less fun.

Wait, that's not the right image... DAMN YOU, GOOGLE SEARCH, YOU SHOULD HAVE TOLD ME WHAT TO LOOK FOR!!!

Part of this problem though, is that players go in with expectations, and when those expectations aren't met, they're unhappy, whether because it wasn't properly explained what sort of game it is, or because the mechanic was genuinely badly designed... Often, it's because they just don't get it. Good example of that: The Portal Gun. The Portal Gun doesn't make portals on anything but white walls (Covered in moon-dust, apparently), and both games try to show you this. But, because they don't explicitly tell you, and remind you, you get folks who completely fail to understand how it works.

Those people aren't necessarily stupid. The game isn't necessarily bad. But the players' expectations coming into the game may be unrealistic, or the game isn't communicating to the level of the average player.

Even this commentary on expectations is going to be subject to problems. I've seen these points examined before, and you know what I hear when they're discussed?

Entitled. No Moron Left Behind Policy. I Shouldn't Need A Tutorial, Or To Read The Manual.

Yeah, okay, players can be entitled (Oh, dear lord, they can be entitled!) It only takes a quick look at comments on negative reviews to see that ("How DARE you give X a 6/10! It's CLEARLY PERFECT!"). But many of these are knee-jerk reactions, whether on the part of devs, or players, or journos, and there's no easy fix for any of it.

No, really. We could say "Devs, please try to be more human", but that won't work without players shifting their worldview, and journos not instantly squeeing the moment Big Name is mentioned, and a lot of other things, too. We could say "Journos, please think more critically", but that would require devs and players alike agreeing what that means... And we've all seen how well that's been going so far... We could say "Players, please try to read tutorials more/shift expectations", but that's massive generalisations about a very diverse group, and it can't help but offend at least some of them.

We could say a lot of things, but a lot of it has to do with one basic principle, which I fully understand is hard for people (myself included). Be More Aware. For example, be aware that once a game has a flaw baked into it, it's often going to be very hard, even if you genuinely are a rockstar super-developer, to change it and/or get it out. Be aware that sometimes, you're not going to like the writing in a game, but that's no reason to scream bloody murder (Sometimes quite literally). Be aware that not all games are for you, specifically, unless you truly want to learn how to play them. There's a lot of "Be Aware", and while all those examples were for players, there's a lot of others for the journos and the devs too.

Funnily enough, this blog post isn't about fixing the problem. It's about Being Aware That It's There.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Going Back To BASIC(s) Part 2: Adventure Games Made BASIC.

So, here we are again, and we're back to the Usborne BASIC books. But instead of a mish-mash of genres, we're looking at three books from a single genre: Text Adventure Games, aka Interactive Fiction. There were a lot of IF games back in the day, and authors like Steve Meretzky and Scott Adams made... Well, a lot of IF games. The earliest was made around 1976, Colossal Cave Adventure (ADVENTURE for short), and, for a long while, they bloomed. Even now, there are folks who write Interactive Fiction, some of it extremely witty or thought provoking!

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Still played today, still people complaining (Rightfully) about that fucking dog.

But we're in the wayback machine right now, and the three books in question are "Write Your Own Adventure Programs For Your Microcomputer", "Island of Secrets", and "The Mystery of Silver Mountain"

This, ladies and gents, is where we get into "More planning" territory. And the authors of each book know this damn well. They even, in some circumstances, tell you how much memory you're going to need if you expand the game. Because hey, RAM was a limited resource back in the day, and tricking the system into doing things cheaper was the way to go. But we'll deal with that soon enough, let's move onto the books.

Requires... 16K? But... Isn't That Tiny?

The latter part is still true, especially now, when descriptions are pretty much expected.

Adventure Programs (to shorten a somewhat unwieldy title), as with the other two books in this post, has a listing for only one game. Like the other two books, it's a book of two halves: The first half deals with what goes into the game, how it's pre-planned (And how you should too), and the second is the listing, with modifications for relevant systems as needed. The program is no slouch-fest to type out, at 214-280 lines (Depending on which 8-bit computer you were wearing out the keyboard on), and needs, at minimum, 16K to run (Your average BBC Micro B had 32K, but later models near the end of the BBC's lifespan had as much as 512K... Less common as they were...)

280 lines of code doesn't sound like much, until you realise that's 64 rooms, with 25 verbs (Actions) you can perform, and 30 items. Another 17 lines adds four (Admittedly awful) sounds to the game, and all of this is done, with deaths and an ending... In a tiny amount of space, for a tiny amount of RAM.

And if you hadn't read the first half of the book, you're not going to understand most of what it's actually doing. It gives you a hint on Page 7, but it takes the rest of the first half to hammer home how very true the first statement on that page is: "An adventure program is really a kind of database." The room names are data. What is in those rooms is data. The Verbs are data which have special cases attached to them, and all the game is doing is checking that if VERB+ITEM is used in ROOM, then a thing happens. Or doesn't happen. Or displays a different, and quite tragic result (Yes, it's an oldschool adventure game, so things can kill you.)

It sounds so simple. But at least three of those 280 lines of code are big, honkin', itemised lists.

Oldschool Values

Baticide: Noted as AEROSOL in the item database. No descriptions for items.

Thing is, this is also a relic of its time, and it shows. All of them do. All three books have treasure to collect. Adventure Programs even states how you can change the concept of treasure to Clues or Spaceship Parts, or whatever the hell... But it will still think of it as treasure throughout the book. Score is another thing. Nowadays, a lot of IF games only use "score" in the abstract, although we've rarely moved completely away from "score", or, more accurately "High(er) Score"... But since this is an 80s adventure game, the Skinner Box is in full effect, and every action towards completing the game rewards you with points. Which you can compare to the total. And bilk yourself out of.

In a reference to Colossal Cave, Light is important. And is in limited supply. There are no death states in the game that I can spot, but it would be pretty easy to put them in. And since there are no descriptions loaded, beyond simple names, you have no actual way of knowing (Except, of course, by being the poor schmuck who typed all this in) that the Aerosol is actually Baticide (Yes, it's Bat-Shark-Repellent.) So it's got its fair share of dick moves, too. How very 80s game design. Also, all three books share the VERB+THING parser that was to be common in IF for... Not a whole lot of years after this book, actually. Oh, did I mention it was called Haunted House? Maybe I should have.

The other two books, in fact, aren't as nice to you, albeit in different ways. The settings differ too: Silver Mountain has a treasure hunt, several uncooperative NPCs, and death states (including at least one Dead Man Walking if you miss an item you won't be able to get back to), all set in a fantasy world with an evil wizard, tyrannical mongol warriors, and, of course, trolls, goblins, and elves. Island of Secrets is somewhat similar, being Science-Fantasy, but has a time limit, strength and "wisdom" (mental strength) counted and changed, and some truly mindbreaking puns (The hero is Alphan, the villain is Omegan. AUUUUUGH!)...

A typical Dead Man Walking scenario. At least the book tells you it will be!

...Look, let's just say the writing of the games themselves is definitely not its strong point. The artwork, on the other hand...

That's one of the character spreads, from Island of Secrets (EDIT: Er... Later in the page). The location spreads are good enough that someone could probably use them as concept art for locations in their own game (So long as they don't mind some places being generic, but looking nice), and, just like every other book in the Usborne BASIC series, the explanations are also riddled with little illustrations showing you analogies for how various programming or gaming terms "work". While Haunted House was 280 lines, Silver Mountain and Island of Secrets both hit at least the 400s, up to 500 lines of code on some systems...

So, What Are We Learning, Here?

For all the flaws inherent in the programmed games, as modern game design would see them, these do adequately teach the more mind numbing side of things. A platformer, even today, is not as difficult as a graphical adventure game. Which isn't as complex as a good Realtime Strategy. Which, in turn, isn't as complex as a good Turn Based Strategy. And the more complicated you get, the more book-keeping you have to do, and the more planning you have to do. In this respect, only Adventure Games gets a free pass, because it tells you the kind of planning you're going to need for a good 10-20 pages. The other two, by contrast, spend most of the time making the locations and characters a hell of a lot more interesting than they mostly end up.

From top to bottom: Swampman (1 interaction), Omegon (3 interactions), Boatman (1 interaction). I do like the art style though!

I like to think of Adventure Games as the low-intermediate end of this set of books, showing you what needs to be done, while the other two show what can be done (Without, necessarily, doing it all).

Next time, we'll be dealing with just one book, that I consider the high end of things... Before we finish up with more of the beginner level stuff, which is, to my mind, the weakest.

...But still important,