Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reductionisim in Discussions of Games (The Bad Kind)

Reductionism as a method of critical attack is highly popular among message board users, bloggers, and podcasters alike. One common argument I've seen is the use of comparison to an older game as a means to demean the game in question. In other words "your game from 2007 is no different than this game from 1987. And that's bad."

We saw it pretty strong around the release of Call of Duty 4 and it's single-player component. The endless spawn closets, enemies with set positions, and linearity drew claims that the game was no better or different than Hogan's Alley or Point Blank. This, of course, is a valid claim. Much like Call of Duty 4, Point Blank was a game with near-realistic graphics, a diverse arsenel of weapons, vehicle missions, and a fantastic, well acted-storyline that plays on modern issues. Oh, and don't forget the ability to move and take cover. All of these were ripped straight from Point Blank. Right.

Sarcasm aside, I feel like that's where this argument breaks down. The level of reductionism required to say "X game is basically Y game" to the level people have with Call of Duty 4 is not only absurd and a disservice to the game as a whole, it also feels disingenuous. It seems to me that when you go into a game with the mindset of ignoring everything about the game in favor of a straw man comparison, you've gone into it with a vendetta.

Depending on what theory you subscribe to, there are one to thirty-six plots in literature. I think it would be interesting to ask how many and what are the basic game types (plots?), perferably outside the review or discussion of one particular game. Despite all the video game industry has innovated over its many years of existence, it falls to reason that game mechanics are no more complex than literature, and can probably be boiled down in the same way.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why I Can't Play Evil in Fallout 3 (and Why I Can in Fable 2)

Having completed Fallout 3, and currently playing through Fable 2, memories of the comparisons of the two around their release dates are all coming back to me. With two sandbox, time intensive RPGs being released within the same month, comparisons were bound to be made. Sides were chosen. Months later, now that the dust has settled with neither game a slouch in sales, the similarity that has been sticking out in my mind is the element of moral choice, an element both games were promoted highly for. In particular, I was struck by my own moral choices in both games.

My character in Fallout 3 is basically John Wayne of the American Wasteland. The fearless avenger; always looking out for the little guy. Rather than bother with diplomacy, I killed the entire slaver camp on sight. By the end of the game, my Karma was about as high as it could go. Fable 2, on the other hand, has pretty much been the polar opposite. My "hero"-in the loosest sense of the word-is a dirty rotten bastard decked out with horns, glowing eyes, and whatever having your corruption-purity slider all the way to the left side does to you. I've taken almost any opportunity to be Albion's biggest asshole; from gleefully murdering the entire city of Oakfield (which, much to my chagrin, didn't seem all that affected by it upon my return ten years later) to sacrificing my husband for points at the Temple of Shadows. And don't get me started on monogamy and extra-marital group sex.

Several hours into Fable 2, I realized that I was playing these two games as polar opposites. It confused me at first. They're both games with good-and-evil moral choices. I should be consistent on both, right? Now that I'm close to the end of the game, I think I have a few theories as to why not.

First, and what I first thought of, was the tonal differences between both games. Fallout 3, for all it's satire, black humor, and science fiction underpinnings, is fairly realistic and, in comparison to Fable (or anything Molyneux), tonally consistent. It picks a mood-the bleak, mutually oppressive environment commonly associated with post-apocalyptic fiction-and sticks with it 'till the bitter end. Everyone, from the defenseless NPC to the bandit oppressor, is having a shitty time. The depressing, poverty-stricken imagery of Fallout serves to add more weight to the "good" side of moral choices; do you really want to screw this guy's life up more than it's already been?

Meanwhile, Fable 2, true to Lionhead fashion, is a cartoon. While it's story goes serious and interesting places, the game's self-aware humor, colorful visuals, and Nick Park-esque character designs give the world of Albion a far less depressing outlook than the Wastelands. Moreover, it's a world where both good and evil seem to coexist in equal portions. The mechanics of the game play into this as well. It is a game where you can slaughter an entire village of innocents, true; it's also a game where the rite of passage to join the quest-giver is eating "10 baby chicks". It's a game where you can cheat on your spouse, and then pose for a couple minutes to make it all better. It almost feels like I'm slighting Fable 2 when I say that the game's tone and style give the moral choices in the game a lot less weight than Fallout 3, but it rings true. Unlike Fallout 3, playing the evil guy in Fable 2 has been a no-brainer from the get-go.

My other theory, the one I've found most revealing of myself as a player, is the sense of empowerment these choices give. As stated, Fallout 3 is a world where even the most well-off inhabitant isn't doing well for himself by our standards. When given the choice between doing good or evil, leaving my mark on this world factored into my thought process. Certain moments in the game aside (big changes can be made to the world by playing the bad guy), I found that playing the good guy many times held a rebellious quality to it. When I'm giving random guy outside of Megaton a glass of purified water, I'm going against the grain; sticking it to the man, whatever that might be in this game. In a world where the bad is turned up to "11", I've found the way to leave my mark was to play the good guy.

My play style in Fable 2 is largely a reaction to how different the environment is than in Fallout 3. In Fable 2, a game with less emotional baggage and a goofier atmosphere, playing the bad guy feels empowering. The game's renown system and the fearful dialog your actions can inspire from NPCs certainly adds to that (despite some weird inconsistencies I'll highlight on in an upcoming review.) It's the guilty pleasure that many gamers still feel uncomfortable acknowledging: in the right game, it's fun to be the villain. The sales of the Grand Theft Auto series confirm this, while much of the critical reaction to Grand Theft Auto IV confirm my point about Fallout 3. The fourth canon edition in the GTA series stripped away much of the goofy playground aspects of the old games in favor of realism, and in response, many critics and players approach GTA IV in a different way. While some claim that the ability to go on a killing spree breaks the overall narrative, I've seen many who reacted to the game by not even wanting to go on a mindless killing spree in the first place. The strength of the story was probably a factor for some people, as was the more difficult police chases and realistic car handling. But I think some of this reaction must have been from the overall realistic approach. Killing an innocent person in Grand Theft Auto IV feels less like killing a doll like the previous games, and more like killing an innocent person.

It is worth noting that, at least as far as I've gotten, Fable 2 hasn't tried it's hand at a choice as big as the Megaton bomb. In fact, some of the choices feel forced to the point of self-parody; in The Spire, you're forced to listen to prisoners begging for you to feed them. It isn't trying in the same way as Fallout 3 but, as Peter Molyneux has been adamant about since the original Fable, it is trying, and it's interesting to see my own reactions to the moral choices in both games.

Friday, March 20, 2009

I could never be a thug, they don't dress this well.

Kotaku posted a link to this gem of a nerd rap mashup today. It's Team Teamwork's Ocarina of Rhyme, a grab bag collection of rappers set to Koji Kondo's Ocarina of Time soundtrack. Video game hip hop mashes are nothing new (for some good ones, check out Chrono Khalid's amazing American Cyborg or the infamous Snoop Dog V.S. Kirby mix from YTMND), but Team Teamwork has preformed quite a feat here: namely, limiting themselves to samples from a soundtrack that even diehard fans tend to forget and creating a highly listenable mixtape. Best moment? The use of the treasure find theme in creating a highly kickass beat. I'm definitely more partial to the indie rappers on this mixtape, though things like this tend to address one of my biggest problems with mainstream rappers: often times highly talented artists rapping over near unlistenable Casio keyboard riffs. Whatever your opinion, if you like hip hop at all, you'll like this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mobile Game Review: Wolfenstein RPG

Someone at Id Software must really like Chunsoft. I like to think that that someone is John Carmack; a man trapped into his own niche of creating first person shooters, when really all he wanted to do was make his own Shiren the Wanderer sequel. Perhaps in his current situation, the only he could pull this off is by shoehorning the genre concepts into one of Id's well known properties. This is the only way I can internally rationalize Wolfenstein RPG, Id Software's attempt at turning the original first person shooter into a psuedo-rougelike RPG.

Released for various mobile platforms, Wolfenstein RPG is a halfway sequel to the just as outlandish Doom RPG. In both cases, the rougelike comparison is apt. Despite being in first person, you have four possible movement directions. Moving, using an item, or attacking uses a turn. Once you take a turn, each person in the game (mainly enemies. This game has little in the way of NPCs) take their turn as well. Unfortunately, this comparison breaks down when you note the lack of random items, randomly generated dungeons, and the rougelike genre's emphasis on changing it's world rather than character persistence. Right off the bat, that's where we get to the root of Wolfenstein RPG's biggest problem: despite it's RPG trappings, the game feels like more of a gimped, nonsensical first person shooter.

The Wolfenstein part of the title is certainly there. Despite the weird controls, it plays just like Wolfenstein 3D (and Wolfenstein 3D had pretty bad controls to begin with.) The enemies are an outlandish mix of awkward Germans and even more akward supernatural monsters (some of which look like they were ripped straight from Doom.) The story is more linear than something like the original Wolfenstein 3D, but it's still incoherent and nonsensical. And, of course, there's the basic weapon progression that shows up in any generic first person shooter: start with a pistol and work your way up until you have the best weapon in the game. Where the RPG in the combat comes in is that many of these weapons, especially the machine guns, allow you to attack more times per turn. The pistol gets one shot, the chaingun gets four. Despite some extra weapons found throughout the game (a sniper rifle that can shoot outside of the four cardinal directions at the price of putting the game in semi-real time), it is a definite progression. Eventually you get to the point where you have the "best weapon in the game." There's almost no reason to use an old weapon once you've found a better one. It's one of the problems in the game that prevent any sense of reward from the various loot drops in the game (the other problem being that most of what else you'll find are health packs.) When you take this into account with the high level of linearity in the game, lack of any real NPC interaction, and it's almost single-minded focus on combat, there's little in this game other than it's interface to distinguish it from a plain old first person shooter.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. My Chunsoft joke aside, Id were smart for understanding that the fast-pace action in games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D don't translate all that well to a Cell Phone keypad. The RPG part was more than likely an attempt at adapting Id shooters into a phone-friendly game, and that's already worlds better than my excruciating experiences with Contra and Megaman 3 on phones. But as I alluded to, it's not a particularly good shooter, and the interface downright clashes with it. In the game, the amount of actions you can do per turn is figured-as best I can tell-decided by your agility. The problem is that as the game progresses, enemies get higher agility. It eventually gets to the point where almost every enemy in the game can attack and move in the same turn, while you... can't. Sometimes, pumping yourself with syringes (stat altering items found throughout the game) can make you fast enough to keep up. Sometimes, not so much. What this mechanic amounts to is that almost every firefight is a boring, repetitive activity as you get shot, shoot, get shot again, wait for the enemy to move back in the same spot, and so on. What's worse (or better, given the combat) is the games total lack of difficulty. Despite the aforementioned movement issues, health pack placement is highly liberal. The damage you take isn't all that significant. The two boss fights in the game are easily won by binging on syringes.

At the end of the game, I was surprised to find John Carmack and a good portion of Id software worked on the game. It just feels like something that was farmed out to some random Asian country. The dialog could not have been written by a native English speaker, or at least a sane English speaker. My thoughts about the dialog are summed up by the final line from the game's last boss:
NO! *GRRRR* I will find your blood! your descendants will pay! I-WILL-BE-BACK! NOOO!!

Wolfenstein RPG is a cool idea. Rougelikes aren't exactly common nowadays, and it's almost unheard of for American developers to take stabs at the genre. But unfortunately, the game falls short in many respects. Maybe I'm just expecting too much out of a cell phone game, but I know a flawed product when I see it. Be that as it may, I'd like to see Id take another stab at RPGs. Despite how the game turned out, a sequel could improve on the problems I've outlined. It'd take a hell of a lot of work, though.