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Monday, Apr 12, 2010
This week we continue in our series on storytelling in video games by discussing the centrality of mystery to many video game narratives.

Curiouser and curiouser.


Given the tendency for “solution” to be an end goal in video games, it is probably unsurprising that solving a mystery is at the heart of many games’ plots.  In this edition of our six part series on stories told in video games, we look at the centrality of mystery to many video game narratives, including games that may or may not be considered traditional fare of the mystery genre.


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Friday, Apr 9, 2010
The men of B-Company are those rare kinds of anti-heroes that are extremely likable, completely selfish, and show zero desire to ever change.

In so many games, we’re always tasked with saving the world, sometimes the universe, or at the very least, the day. It can get tiring after a while, so I find it refreshing when a game gives me a different kind of objective, something selfish and un-heroic. The first Battlefield: Bad Company did just that. It put me in a squad of likable, selfish soldiers who would rather go chasing gold than follow orders. It was a fun adventure, but in creating these anti-heroes the game walked a very fine line.


Anti-heroes are nothing new in games, but creating a likable anti-hero is a challenge in any medium. Kratos from the God of War games has always been held up as the epitome of the anti-hero: violent, seemingly without morals, and uninterested in any conversation that doesn’t further his quest for revenge. Yet, despite these traits (or because of them?), he remains a very popular character. However, one of the more common criticisms against God of War 3 is that Kratos has gone over the edge. The level of violence that he inflicts on others is excessive to the point where he seems more like a villain than an anti-hero, and so picking a side in this battle between Kratos and Zeus is really just picking the lesser of two evils.


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Thursday, Apr 8, 2010
For a large portion of Heavy Rain, I was angry.

I’ve written three thrillers, novels with complicated plots that relied in part on big reveals at the end of the stories. Because I know so much is riding on those final revelations, one of the first things that I do is give early drafts to friendly readers and quiz them mercilessly about any plot holes. Did anything not make sense to you? Were the surprises satisfying? Are there any huge, glaring plot holes? What the hell is wrong with this thing? I always get some useful feedback. Outside readers see things in the text that I didn’t. Likewise, I’m often confronted with the fact that I’m thinking with a whole different set of assumptions than my readers are, mostly because I tend to know the ending well before I’ve written it. For me, the logic of the story has to hold together at every stage or it all just falls apart and I get angry.


For a large portion of Heavy Rain, I was angry. I think that the gameplay is fun and innovative and builds tension well. I think that it does a great job of splitting the narrative among different characters who are each distinct enough that their perspectives on the hunt for the Origami Killer are all different and interesting. There’s a lot to like and admire about the game’s structure. And when all was said and done, when all the secrets were revealed, I thought it was okay. The big, huge reveal at the end was one of the few plot points that really worked for me, and if you’re only going to have one plot point that works, they picked the right one. I was surprised, it made sense, and it made me rethink much of what I’d seen in the story up to that point. These are textbook examples of a good surprise ending. If only I hadn’t been yelling, “Why are you so stupid?!?!”, at the screen so much on the journey to those final scenes.


 


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Wednesday, Apr 7, 2010
Darksiders offers nothing especially new in terms of teaching the player to kill, but what it it does do better than many games is teach the player to be a more efficient and effective murderer by changing up some existing mechanisms of training the player in the deadly arts. Largely, this boils down to creating some rules for murder.

I’m getting better at killing.  It stands to reason, since I’ve had good instruction.


I have written before about how highly stylized violence is used in games as an encouragement to learn their combat systems (”Splatter Porn and Additionally Strange Visual Stimulation in Video Games”, PopMatters.com, 17 June 2009).  I was also extremely appreciative of the way that Bayonetta provides a means of practicing combos between the action during loading sequences (”Learning from Loading Screens: The Pedagogy of Bayonetta, PopMatters.com, 20 January 2010).  Finally, I have also considered the various strengths and weaknesses of active and passive styles of tutoring players in various gameplay principles (”Active Learning: The Pedagogy of the Game Tutorial”, PopMatters.com, 16 September 2009).  However, rarely have I been schooled in slaughter so well as I have been in playing Darksiders.


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Tuesday, Apr 6, 2010
Perhaps synthetic worlds have begun to offer a new mythology.

As the MMO grey market profits pass into the billions and the populations of the games themselves now exceed several small nations, the question of whether or not we should take synthetic worlds seriously has ceased to be relevant. More important questions about how these places work, what kinds of culture arise there, and what they imply for the future are all being explored. One of the most important books on the topic of synthetic world economies is Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds. Based principally on his experiences with Everquest, the book outlines the basic set up that a synthetic world needs to induce trade and create an artificial economy.


The thing that you’ve got to grasp about a synthetic economy is that the money in the game “is just a convenience for recording choices and their effects. The economy is the choices, not the money by which I register choices and their effects” (174). So saying something like, “one gold piece equals 100 silver pieces and that’s the economic system” is missing the point. The economy is instead grounded on a series of structured institutions like market-making, monetary policy, transportation, and banking to just name a few. To have an economy, the game must have trade. To facilitate trade, you need specialization. One person can get resource X but not Y, another person is in the opposite position. To make sure that these two folks get to talking, you make sure that the design imposes a lot of needs on the player. These needs must be resolvable by consumables more than durables. A consumable would be a good that is used up after one use like a health potion. A durable is something like armor that you can use repeatedly but degrades over time. Any MMO should avoid permables or items that never degrade because there’s not much point in them existing. You always want people to need something to keep the economy going. (184) Eventually once a large enough group of people all think the same things are valuable, then they become valuable. There doesn’t have to be anything more to it. Money is valuable because we think it is, not because it does anything by itself. (102)


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