Monday, 24 November 2008

It is dark, you are likely to be eaten by a Zombie

Cory Dotorow in his book Down and out in the Magic Kingdom introduced a fictional system of currency called ‘Whuffie’. In his novel, set in the distant future where ‘scarcity economics’ no longer rules, whuffie is based around personal reputation, and is accrued when other people attribute something like ‘coolness’ to you, and add whuffie to your account. It’s also not a zero sum system, so a person with zero whuffie could give and take away from other people, exactly as much as someone with a million whuffie could. A quote from the book, to help explain:

"Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn't starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented — your personal capital with your friends and neighbors — you more accurately gauged your success".[1]

What’s this got to do with Left 4 Dead? Well, L4D embodies perfectly a real world Whuffie system. In L4D you will be hated, hated, if you don’t work with your team. In one game of vs. mode in which I was participating, a fellow survivor (the humans) was evidently an inexperience player or deliberately stuffing around and jumped off a building, killing himself. Rather than just accept this act, someone initiated a vote to kick the player, and it passed (I’ll admit, I voted him out too). You just cannot tolerate incompetence, or worse, a deliberate gung-ho attitude. You will die horribly and quickly, even horribly quickly, as there will be no one there to knock that pouncing hunter off you when he gets you from behind. Your team-mates save you from your helplessness, and in return you just cannot help but like them for it. Speaking only for myself, of course, but I think a degree of this applies across the board, it makes me want to save them just as much in return. This is the essence of good cooperative play – the encouragement to work together with little to no incentive to abandon people to a grisly fate. After all, if they’re dead then they can’t help you.

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blogging front lately, and it’s all because of Left 4 Dead. The game is really quite hard to stop playing, and largely because it facilitates a strange, temporary bond between a small group of players. Like war veterans, by the finale we are in a groove and all know to when to duck or when to avoid moving, so we don’t cross each others line of fire. Conversely, you can usually tell before the finale if you’re going to make it or not as a team. I can almost not count the number of times I’ve stalled on the third act.

I do have a small criticism, perhaps, for Valve if they ever drop by my blog, and it’s that they didn’t give us more! Sadly, until Valve playtest further and make the necessary tweaks and changes, you can only play versus mode on 2 of the 4 campaigns. That seems an unfortunate limitation. Still, if the modding scene is any good (and all early indications are that it is) then I’m sure we’ll see more than a few custom campaigns before too long.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Fun and Loathing in Las Vegas Washington D.C.

Why is this not as funny as it should be?

Lately, I’ve been trying to play Fallout 3 in a way that doesn’t get me as angry and annoyed as the situation I described in my previous post about the game. I’ve started using a few mods that both improve the interface and make the ‘karma’ system more opaque. While welcome, sadly the changes are a case of ‘too little too late’ to enable anything more than a “meh” feeling about Fallout 3 in general. While the rage has died down, I can’t resist but add my .02c on what’s still bothering me.

Mostly it’s to do with the moral judgments the game makes and the attendant Karma system. One reviewer (I fail to recall who, perhaps Alec Meer?) in their write-up of Fallout 3 mentioned that whatever character you chose to play, the Fallout 3 world would resist the temptation to punish you harshly or judge you for your actions. Having only first hand experience with Fallout 2, I can’t speak for the whole series, but this seems quite consistent with the feel established by the first two games. If you wanted to kill random people and take their stuff, you’d be feared, naturally, but that was about it. There was really no judgment about what kind of person you were. Similarly, the villains were primarily cartoon-stereotype individuals, deluded madmen (and women) or brutish bullies. They conformed to typical archetypes that allowed them to transcend cliché and enter the realm of intelligent satire.

In Fallout 3 there is a character called Mr. Burke. He is a suit who works for a very rich man and apparently revels in nihilistic destruction. Let’s imagine how this character would have appeared in Fallout 1 or 2. He would probably be suited, probably comes with a bodyguard or two and would fit into the “madmen killer” stereotype. You understand him, and that he is meant to be a stereotype. You know that he is unstable, a ruthless killer, but also otherwise completely rational. He sees life as something that is made more precious by death, and so seeks to spread death in order to re-value life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland. You understand his twisted and flawed logic, his broken personality and know that there is some kind of rationale for why he is this way, something in his past, perhaps. Maybe he just read too much Nietzsche, either way, you are never supposed to believe that he is inherently bad or evil, just misguided in the extreme. There is no presiding moral outrage here unless you choose it yourself, just impartial acknowledgement of the fact that he must be stopped or he will continue to kill. End of story.

Let’s contrast this with the character of Mr. Burke in Fallout 3. His voice and character says he’s some of these things, and his dialogue is written to make sense this way… but his voice actor (voiced I am sure by the same person who did the The Speaker for The Dark Brotherhood in Oblivion) inflects in his voice that, “I am slimy and evil”. His voice drips with “evil” and “nastiness”. You should hate me and be outraged by my actions, it says. This is not Fallout. This is too ham-fisted for Fallout. If Mr Bourke is to be serious, it should be more like the disturbing style of Heath Ledger as ‘The Joker’ than cartoon-villain Jack Nicholson.

The difference lies in that while my earlier characterization of Mr. Burke was intentionally simplistic, he was a parody of and commentary on that simple-minded, 1950’s aesthetic. His character manages to pose deep questions while being simplistic when the latter is a po-faced affair that lacks the same semi-aware playfulness that says “I know I am a stereotype and I’m playing up to it”. In short, Mister Burke pisses me off for taking himself too seriously. It would be fine if he did, except there is no accompanying pay-off in additional depth. He should be scary to be around, intimidating and edgy.

This picture also has nothing to do with this post.

I think most of this is a result of a combination of voice acting, writing and animation, and Fallout 3 to me seems to end up making judgments without asking the real questions with regards to the Mr. Bourke character. Instead of traditional morality being destroyed by the nuclear bombs that wiped out so much else of civilization, it has been dragged into the apocalyptic wasteland without a care for how well it fits. It fails to capture the levity of the original titles and loses the accompanying ability to contrast the whimsical with the horrific. It would be all too easy to blame this on the transition from cartoonish 2D sprites to full 3D models, but I think that’s a bit of an easy out.

I don’t quite know what the answer to this problem is. I have the feeling, though, that there’s something they could learn from Left 4 Dead’s ability to blend being constantly surrounded by death in the apocalypse (the serious) with the decidedly upbeat characters. The aesthetic at least seems closer to my taste than Fallout’s. That said, however, the beautiful wasteland remains pretty much the only place in Fallout that I can enjoy without cringing at something or someone every other second.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The unofficial VGC Zombie Survival League wants YOU!

Left 4 Dead looks set to be a runaway success, revolutionising the way we play Co-op games. If you, or a colleague, is interested in coordinating with others to increase your chance of survival in the Zombie Apocalypse, then head on over to the Vintage Game Club Unofficial Zombie Survival League thread and sign on!

Join the fight!

(Also for those interested, we're currently playing through the vintage PSone/PC game Abe's Odyssey, and it's proving to be a veritable goldmine of both videogame design mistakes and triumphs. Join in the discussion anytime in this forum board.)

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

...In which I rage against the ending of Fallout 3


This post is, of course, a rather self-indulgent, passionate rant, but I really, REALLY need to say this out loud. Plus, I think it's kind of a funny piece.

I really, really, really hated the ending of Fallout 3.

It seemed to sum up the whole rest of the game for me– sloppy, slap-dash, ill-conceived. An anecdote perhaps to elaborate.

First time through I tried to “save the wasteland” through the powers of verbal persuasion (just because I could and indeed, I did) and after convincing evil Colonel Leaves-turn-brown-and-fall-to-the-ground that he should just up and leave I was promptly stuck in a locked room with no exit and an obvious script failing to run. GG Bethesda, you cagey fellows.

So I did a bit of a RRRAAAGGGEEE and a reload back to the admittedly conveniently placed autosave which had occurred upon entering The Final Room Of The Game… dun dun DUN! So instead of exercising my charm, wit and powers of persuasion I just blasted Captain Trenchcoat in the head several times until he was dead. Did I mention I was already level 20? Well I was, and it was boring, everything was already too easy. I honestly don’t know why they even let me go past 15, as that would have been the decent thing to do to stop me form becoming some sort of super-god-man creature that explodes heads with a single look… But I digress.

So now, after blowing this guy away and instead of standing there like a poor excuse for a shop-front mannequin, my Brotherhood (Sisterhood?) of Steel compatriot Miss Lady Lyon starts her “finish the game now in the most clichéd and overwrought manner possible” script. You’ll remember this one from before, as it was obviously the one that didn’t start correctly earlier. So anyway she runs up to me and fills my screen with her waxy complexion and tells me that it’s all over and we win – YIPPEE! Then Dr Li tells us over the intercom that, oh noes, the plant is about to explode maybe from being damaged by the fighting or maybe by the sabotage that might-or-might-not have been committed before we even got here insert breath. You can tell how important it is by how breahless I am. Truly, a dreadful situation, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But wait, like a bad 90’s infomercial, there’s more. Someone maybe very possibly you will have to go into the control room which is now filled with deadly radiation to activate the purifier or it will explode!

So. That’s the 411. Miss Lyon turns to me and says “One of us will have to go in there and activate the purifier but the radiation is sure to kill anyone who goes in there!” Now I’m a smart guy, I thinks to myself – hey, I’ve got an advanced radiation suit, and I’ve got enough Rad-X and Rad-Away to walk through the reactor room of Chernobyl, I could maybe probably perhaps actually do it alright. But then I thinks to myself, hey I have a better idea- do I know anyone who could stand abnormally-high-and-sure-to-be-lethal-for-a-normal-person-dose of radiation? Oh yeah, that big green Meta Human dude who is STANDING RIGHT FUCKING BEHIND ME. *ahem*.

So I, in my most noble voice, tell Miss Lyon, with a wink and a smile, “Why certainly, old gel’, I’ll venture into yon radiation filled room and give that switch the old flickeroo. It won’t know what hit it, wot wot!” I turn to my traveling companion with a twinkle in my eye and say. “Fawkes ol’ buddie ol’ pal – I want you to go into the room with massive levels of radiation which are completely and totally harmless to you but would kill me faster than a green-snake up a sugar cane and save absolutely everyone in the wastelan. You're practically born for the job!” To which Fawkes ol’ buddie ol’ pal replies “Fuck no! You have a destiny, rah rah rah. I ain’t goin in there witchu!”

Bah! Fine, I didn’t need your help anyway… idiot. So in I go, stiff upper lip and all that, (rather chipper actually what with my advanced rad-suit and my small mountain of anti-radiation meds) rather convinced of the certainty of my own safety and survival. I enter the airlock and it opens up into the control room. See now, that wasn’t so bad was it? Rad count within acceptable levels, nothing actively killing me...Now where’s that switch I have to flick? Is it over there? (I run off round the back) HOLY SWEET JESUS THERE’S ANOTHER MUTANT IN HERE MOMMA!!!

Astute observation and correct but only insofar as there is a mutant in here, rather than another. Fawkes, by virtue of me not telling him to “stay where he was” outside, has followed me INside thanks to the miracle of the spawning distance. Yah rly. GG Bethesda, you cunning, cunning linguists, GG. /sarcasm and all that.

Okay fine. Whatever, it’s a bug. I’ll pretend he’s not there. Input the code, purifier starts, everything is honky dorey. Wait, what’s this? I’m swaying slightly. Now I’m keeling over! What the FRAK?! I feel fine! Seriously! Those Rad-Away’s I took make me less irradiated than I’ve been for days! And now you’re SCRIPT killing me?! Awww man!

Bah! I’ve had enough of being forced into the binary dichotomy of being a self-sacrificing hero or a treacherous villain in games! I’m going back to Far Cry 2 where no one judges me for being a complete fucking asshole as long as I get the job done. Fuck yeah.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Embodiment and Immersion: Fallout & Far Cry, FIGHT!

Not to harp on about a single topic or anything, but I’ve been pondering why I’ve felt so disappointed by Fallout 3. Yep, you read it right – I don’t entirely feel like the review scores it got were wholly deserved. I think I’m doubly stung because, in confluence with the hype train, they influenced my decision to go out and spend my hard earned dollars on the game. Okay, so I’m complicit in the last point for being a sucker for hype and the former can easily be countered by the suggestion that the review process is entirely subjective, which I tend to agree with, so lets skip past finger-pointing and try and identify why.

I’m a bit of a one trick pony at the moment, because I think it largely comes down to the sense of embodiment that the game offers, and certain things which only break my sense of immersion. For starters, when compared to Far Cry 2, my character in Fallout 3 feels like a lifeless sack of potatoes, and as Michael Abbott has recently noted, so do the other inhabitants. Why would I want to play a game in which I have to plod around everywhere like some machine reminiscent of Marvin the Paranoid Android when, with the swap of a disk and a click of a different icon on my desktop, I can effing sprint-slide into cover in Far Cry 2, and rip pieces of shrapnel from my body with a pair of pliers.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as Kieron Gillen noted somewhere that I can’t seem to recall, in Fallout 3 you can do outrageous things like jump up on a table in the middle of a bar, and no-one cares. It would be fine, actually amazing, if there were responses for these out there actions but as it stands, nary a soul has one whit of a comment for many of the crazy things you can do in that game. And so as a player I find myself having to think up some (usually extremely tenuous) excuses for why other characters are downright uncaring about my kleptomania and other inexplicable behaviour, in order to maintain narrative coherence.

Take for example, any number of houses in Fallout: in a great many you will find a number of items that will fail to be marked as ‘owned’ by another character (shown by red text in game) which when picked up by the player results in thievery. Obviously, the majority of these are accidents, but as a result of this accidental design I find my sense of immersion broken by having to do a kind of “meta” thinking and decide whether or not I would (in character) take these items. More often than not I find myself reacting purely out of function and take the items anyway (sometimes I don’t) and take advantage of the exploit, but the fact is that every time I do it is immersion breaking. In a similar vein, by allowing me to jump on a table before beginning a conversation with an NPC, Bethesda has allowed for the occurrence of a situation in which the logical response of an NPC (which could be anything from “What do you think you are doing?” to “Get off mah dinner table, whippersnapper!”) is not present within the game. I find this extremely irritating.

The obvious counter argument is that “well you should be role playing, and if your character wouldn’t stand on a table then neither should you” and I suppose that is a valid argument. However it is most definitely NOT how I want to play a videogame – for me it’s all or nothing. If you can do something in a game, then there should be an appropriate response for it. Why even bother to let me jump on tables? What purpose does it actually serve? It’s not even as if it would be impossible to implement a system to prevent the majority of these oddities. Far Cry 2 contrives to make 100% certain that, when in a context for which a certain kind of action makes no sense (read: certain indoor areas), then you are stripped of the mere possibility of performing an incongruous action. Most notably, when you meet with certain mission-critical people indoors, you can no longer run, jump or fire your weapon – often having had your weapons taken off you before entry. This makes perfect sense, so I am only too happy to oblige!

I believe some of the reason for my difficulty in accepting the incongruity of an NPC ignoring my strange behaviour comes from not possessing a strong skill at, or even inclination towards Role Playing. And yet, even Role Players I know have commended the vintage game, Deus Ex for some of the small details that work to build a consistent and convincing world, specifically the noting of your characters entry into the womens’ bathroom. It seems to me that, while it is undoubtedly possible to force ones self into a way of playing that “only makes sense” in the game world, it makes even more sense to me to enforce certain behaviors unless they serve a purpose. In an interview I conducted with Marty O’Donnell, the audio director for Bungie studios’ and responsible for the sound and music of the Halo series, for my recently completed thesis we got onto the topic of giving the player control over “every aspect of the game”. O’Donnell said to me,

…game players have gotten into a habit [of thinking] that they should have control over all these things and basically I’m saying, you know what, no – you shouldn’t.

So, Bethesda, if you’re listening; in the future, either put in things to make sense of all my possible actions or please, please limit them to just sensible ones.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Spoiled Gamer, Am I.

I am a spoiled gamer. For the past few weeks I have done little but play videogames and write about them; in between deciding that I don’t want to pursue a PhD and career as a life-long student, of course. However, that is not exactly what has spoiled me.

I’ve been playing Fallout 3 for the past two days (pretty much to the exclusion of all else) and while it’s certainly a lot of fun, by my reckoning it seems weirdly perverse to award the game a 10 out of 10 score, as a number of outlets have[1]. I can’t help but wonder if these reviewers were even playing the same version of the game as me. A 10/10 game you expect to be polished to perfection and bug free. Fallout 3 is not. A 10/10 game you expect to push gaming conventions forward in new and unexplored directions. Fallout 3 largely does not. Finally, a 10/10 game you expect to be as good or better in every respect to other, lesser scored games of a similar vintage and again, I cannot help resist making certain comparisons that say Fallout 3 is not.

The main thing that I find particularly hard to swallow, amplified a hundred fold by the fact that the last game I played was Far Cry 2, is the sense of embodiment in the world. Far Cry, in this respect, is the more truly Next-Gen game in my opinion, and I discussed how a sense of embodiment is one of its greatest achievements in a previous post. While there are obviously other areas of the game that are less inspired, the importance of what Hocking and his team have achieved in giving you a sense of body, I believe, cannot be over emphasized.

So comparatively Fallout from the moment you begin feels different. Ignoring the fact that I had an audio bug during the intro video which obscured the voice-over behind some static noise (10/10? Really?), your character’s movements in Fallout seem like a direct rip from Oblivion. While Far Cry 2 goes to extraordinary effort to animate and portray you as a character to the best of current technical limitations, Fallout 3 reflects a character design aesthetic stuck in yester-year that doesn’t seem to mind stilted and jerky animations. It was fine in 2006 that your character slid around the world on somewhat greasy shoes, but in 2008 (nearly 2009 now!) haven’t we come a bit further? I’m by no means the only person to pick up on this aspect of the game, notably Alec Meer in his (in my mind much more clear-headed review of Fallout[2]) noted some very real issues with the game and scored it much more appropriately, giving it an 8.8. Additionally, I was linked to a piece on Boing Boing Gadgets by friend of SLRC, Aandnota, that described an encounter with a prostitute, saying:

The prostitute NPC mutely follows you up to your room and lies down on the bed beside you like a fetal lump. You then get to sleep on the bed beside her. And that's it. The next morning, you wake up, and she patrol-puppets out without a word.[3]

After experiencing Far Cry 2 in all its whacky, embodied insanity I am now spoiled for a sense of physical connection to my character. If Kieron Gillen is right, and Far Cry 2 follows a similar trajectory of influence to the original Half-Life, it will probably be two to three years before we see games directly ripping-off its focus on a sense of body. Which somewhat saddens me because I think a Bethesda-style RPG with Far Cry’s animation and determination to be grounded in the world would be an absolutely KILLER combo. I hear all the time people saying that they just wanted a tiny bit less of being always on the run in Far Cry and maybe a little bit more of some RPG elements, like a heightened sense of factions. Traditionally, these things could be sorted by fan made modifications, however it’s been stated that there will be no modding tools for Far Cry 2. What I wouldn’t give to see that change.

Ah well, a guy can dream, right?

[1] See, - The list includes, Eurogamer, Gamespy, GameRevolution, G4TV, Thunderbolt, and LEVEL.

[2] See for a quick summary and a link to the full text.

[3] John Brownlee, “Fallout 3, or "Why can't Bethesda make fucking post-apocalyptic hookers fun?",

Saturday, 1 November 2008

In honour of the occasion - IT'S THE ZOMBIE-POCALYPSE!

Also, Left4Dead has a new zombie-killing trailer/intro-video out, which can be found here. I'm getting pretty darn excited about killing zombies with some fellows from the Unofficial Vintage Game Club Left4Dead League, conceived and (probably) organised by yours truly.