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Tuesday, Sep 20, 2011
The threat of permanent demise adds a certain zest to the proceedings, which gives the game legs that it would not have otherwise.

My barbarian is doomed.  He is absolutely—without a doubt—going to die one day.  I don’t know how or even when (though I have a few guesses as to when), but sooner or later the sword of Damocles suspended above his shaven head is going to drop and that will be that.  I will not have a barbarian anymore because my barbarian will be dead. 


When his end comes—and it will come—and probably before I’m finished playing with him, he will not show up in camp.  He will not be able to revive his companion, run for his corpse to get his equipment back, and continue the fight.  He will just be dead.  This is a difficult thought for me to process, although as soon as I see my barbarian’s health start to drop I panic, start chugging potions, and scramble to open a town portal to escape the fight so I can regroup.  So at least some part of me realizes that there’s a lot at stake here—nothing less than an investment of time that is slowly creeping higher and higher to an inevitable moment when it will all turn out to have been wasted as my barbarian’s corpse rots on the floor of some dungeon.


I know that my barbarian is going to die because if I’m perfectly honest, I am terrible at playing Diablo II.


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Tuesday, Aug 16, 2011
The Stanley Parable demonstrates that the Author isn't dead at all.

An important note:  If you have not yet played The Stanley Parable, I strongly suggest that you download it and do so before going any farther.


One of the big things that we were told back in those early days of interactive storytelling was that now the Author was truly dead.  It was the Reader who had control of the story now, which even lead to some academics using the absolutely awful portmanteau of wreader in order to illustrate the new relationship.  It was no longer Author and Reader, it was some shambling combination of the two that is able to create truly unique experiences.  Since then, there have been an awful lot of games claiming to give the player control over the story, but there’s always the nagging sense that you’re not really being given real control over the story beyond a few arbitrary points—and this is the case even for games that I have and will continue to praise for their storytelling (see: almost any Bioware release, especially Planescape: Torment.). 


Then last weekend I sat down and played The Stanley Parable, the Half Life 2 mod that was released a few weeks ago to almost universal delight.  Like every other game promising a narrative, there’s an illusion of player agency—you can go wherever you want to, and the game will allow it, and that decision becomes part of the story.  The difference is that >The Stanley Parable has an ending in mind for the player from the beginning, and the narrator (who sounds somewhat like the union of Stephen Fry and the narrator from A Series of Unfortunate Events) has absolutely no problem with letting you know when you’ve deviated from his plan.  There is an ending that the narrator wants you to play to, and his narration is a way of insisting upon the player’s cooperation.


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Tuesday, Jul 5, 2011
What's more freeing -- exploring a world or creating a character?

After talking about the open worlds of L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption a few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about the subject, which in turn caused me to realize that I had more to say on the topic.  Having just finished a run through of Dragon Age II, it occurred to me that the end was somewhat less indicative of my impact on the city of Kirkwall than I’d thought it would be—but I didn’t care.  Sure, in Dragon Age: Origins I had saved the whole world from a Blight, chosen the next dwarven king, cured a whole society of lycanthropy, and done a bunch of other things that would have never been resolved if not for the timely intervention of me, the Grey Warden.


Alternatively you could keep werewolves around.  It is Your Choice.

Alternatively you could keep werewolves around.  It is Your Choice.


In the world of Dragon Age: Origins, your control extends to the fate of the world.  In Dragon Age II, you are in control of your own fate—but only just.  Both games have stories revolving around choice, yet there’s no “open world” to explore.  Indeed, both games in the series make the decision to cut out all the travel time between locations.  There’s no overworld to explore, just a series of locations that you can jump to by pointing at them on a map. 


Interestingly, the choices in Dragon Age II do not have the large, world altering effects of Dragon Age: Origins (apart from the end of Act II, in which Hawke saves the city).  That is in part because of the differing narrative foci of Dragon Age II, since Hawke is meant to be an individual who is merely caught up in events far beyond his control (evidenced by the indication that really there’s very little difference in the ending depending upon who the player chooses to side with)  Sure, siding with the Templars nets you a cushy viscountship, but there’s still widespread unrest and Circle rebellions all over the damn place.  That said, the player has an awful lot of control over the sort of person that Hawke is, which is thanks largely to the conversation system, a system that allows you to joke with some characters, be nice to others, and be a complete dick to the rest.  My first time through, I played Hawke as utterly devil-may-care, which is largely why he wound up romancing Isabella.


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Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011
One world's too open, and one world is not open enough. Is there a middle ground, and if there is, should we even use it?

I recently ran across an interesting article that Tom Bissell wrote about his experiences playing Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, and one comment in particular stuck out to me. “When I stopped thinking about him as someone with whom I was supposed to feel any kinship, Cole Phelps became a deeply compelling character,” Bissell writes of his experience, saying that the game became much more enjoyable once he’d divorced himself from the illusion of “being” Cole Phelps (“Press X for Beer Bottle: On L.A. Noire, Grantland, 8 June 2011).  Having spent some time playing L.A. Noire myself, I was surprised to find that on the whole I agreed with the sentiment.  While originally I had indeed sat down to play the game so that I could become the weary cop, the One Good Man on an overworked and corrupt police force, I quickly stopped thinking of the game that way and started thinking of it as a way to get to the bottom of who Cole Phelps was and what, if anything, caused him to be such an aggressive, angry guy all the time.


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Monday, Jun 6, 2011
The beginning of a game has to convince the player that it's worth playing, draw the player into the game's world, explain the game's mechanics, and do it all in a way that's not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game.

Games are difficult to begin. I don’t mean that in the ‘sitting down to play’ sense, although depending on how much free time one has on their hands, that may indeed be a problem. Rather, the beginning of a game has to convince the player that it’s worth playing, draw the player into the game’s world, explain the game’s mechanics, and do it all in a way that’s not so slow and plodding that players give up before even getting to the meat of the game. A good example of this problem is in Final Fantasy XIII, which has taken a lot of heat, deservedly so, for taking so long to get to the actual parts of the game which feel like a Final Fantasy game. Games need to fill players in on how to play them, but at some point it becomes tiresome. Not only that, but a constant interruption of instructional windows can break the flow of both gameplay and narrative.


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