One of the great strengths of a game like Dragon Age is that it wisely shied away from strictly good or evil choices with a few exceptions (I think it is safe to say that letting a demon keep possession of a child is probably an evil choice, for example). The world of Dragon Age thrives on grey areas for your Grey Warden to find himself navigating, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the various political situations that seem to get in the way of stopping that whole “Blight” thing that seems so urgent. It is a cynical view of a cynical business, and where the game really shines is in its absolute refusal to give you any one safe choice. These aren’t paragons of virtue; they’re generally people with goals that may seem noble but are really just interested in plays for power or else they are despicable people who happen to have noble goals. As a disclaimer here, I should explain that I played through the game as a dwarven commoner, and that particular origin influenced at least one of my decisions a good deal more than I thought it ever could.
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An aborted effort to play retro classic Maniac Mansion leads to a discussion by the Moving Pixels crew about differences between older and newer games.
We wonder how well retro games hold up with rapidly changing platform generations, as well as higher expectations for graphics quality and overall accessibility.
On the surface, Bulletstorm looks like your typical male power fantasy. Our avatar Grayson speaks with a low, gruff voice. He’s got big muscles, big guns, and a devil-may-care attitude. But beneath the surface, Bulletstorm is entirely different, offering a surprisingly cynical critique of this typical heroic figure.
Grayson is an impetuous screw up. Sometimes this trait can be turned into a charming quirk, as with Uncharted’s Nathan Drake who always acts before he thinks. But Drake’s mistakes never really blow up in his face, he always finds an escape or a solution, he always saves his friends, and no one holds his impulsiveness against him. Grayson comes off as a similar kind of character in the prologue. He and his squad break into an office and kill a man that they think is a terrorist. After a quick search of the victim’s computer they learn that he was a journalist and that all of their assassination jobs up to this point were orchestrated by a conniving General to get rid of annoying political opponents. When they call the General to confront him with this truth, he happily admits to it, and Grayson suddenly shouts, “I am going to kill you”, while shooting the hologram. A teammate grabs his gun and shouts back: “Hey man, what the fuck! That was a giant group decision you just made for us!” The scene is played for laughs. No one really seems to care that Grayson has just made them all outlaws, so the lack of serious consequences makes his impetuousness funny.
Author’s note: This essay was written based on Version 15 of Inside a Star-filled Sky. On March 22, 2011, Version 16 was released. It introduced major changes regarding the game’s structure. Unlike Version 15, players of Version 16 all inhabit the same procedurally generated world and also have the ability to place flags marking their progress on a global server.
Obviously, this undermines certain themes in the essay, particularly the ones regarding the individuality and isolation inherent in each player’s experience. However, most of the material remains relevant.
Although they throw a monkey wrench into my essay, I think these changes are quite interesting, especially in light of the game’s previous versions. What started out as a unique, solitary journey has slowly become a more uniform, social experience. Inside a Star-filled Sky is still a big place, but players are no longer alone in its universe.
Additionally, this event is yet another example of the medium’s ephemeral nature. The game I wrote about is substantially different from the game as it now exists. What are the implications of such malleability? How do we study the history of the medium in light of its ever-changing nature? Is there a way to determine the “canonical” version of a particular game? Is a game ever truly finished? Are these questions even worth pursuing? In any case, they are questions for another day.
I hope you enjoy this piece on Inside a Star-filled Sky, Version 15. Thanks for reading.
Jason Rohrer’s Inside a Star-filled Sky is a difficult game to grasp, not only due to the game’s ambitious scale, but because its layers aspire to divergent goals and achieve varying levels of success. It’s nearly impossible to offer a single evaluation of a game that defies boundaries, so perhaps the best way to evaluate it is to mimic its own structure, zooming in and out between its nested layers of meaning.
On a macro level, the game encapsulates the medium’s current thematic fascinations with recursion, randomness, and challenge. These ideas are clever, but their implementation is hobbled by mechanical weaknesses that illustrate the difficulty of marrying an artistic vision with elegant craftsmanship. Finally, and most broadly, the game’s overarching themes offer philosophical messages about the humbling search for meaning in video games and beyond. Inside a Star-Filled Sky may be composed of simple little sprites, but those unassuming figures house sophisticated concepts.
Chapter 1 of Rage Quite is available in .pdf format here.
This was familiar alien territory for Lea. She and 2,311 others like her had fought and died on this ground over the past two years, and as far as she could tell there was no end in sight. But that was OK; fighting and dying was what she was supposed to do, the only thing a 100% dedicated, veteran soldier like her was supposed to think about. At that moment the mission was all most of her was thinking about – how to fight her way through the warren of hostile-infested caves without some spiny-tailed thing dicing her into blood-red mist. Only the smallest part of her thoughts harbored any hidden doubts about fighting another battle against the endless legions of alien soldiers entombed in the fortified tunnels, and she wasn’t ready to listen to those doubts. Not yet she wasn’t.
Her HUD’s radar showed four green dots, the one in the middle was her, the three behind and to the left her squad mates. She knew that if she’d looked at them she’d see identical male figures wearing green and brown power armor, dark visored helmets covering their faces. Visually there was no way to distinguish between them, but she always knew exactly which was which. In contrast to her own unique yellow armor was tightly tailored to match the curves of her body, a symbol of her rank that left no doubt as to who was in command. She’d trained all of them herself and trusted them to fight to their best ability, but they all had only 36% of her experience in battle. None of them possessed her instinct. To win they would have to obey her commands without fail or delay. Assuming of course those glitches in the comm system had been ironed out and there was no longer any lag between her thinking an order and them carrying it out. Clearing the caves of enemies would require perfect timing, and even then, experience told her that it was probably impossible. She knew the layout of the tunnels backwards and forwards, down to the placement of each auto-turret and the murder holes of every hostile trooper. There were a million different tactical options open to her once they got inside, none of them very hopeful. Right now the gaping maw of the tunnel forty meters in front of her was the only course that presented itself. She and her team had no other choice.