Thought of the Day: Are computer games the new megamedia or a (big) flash in the pan?

For as long as I can remember, computer gaming has been a growing hobby. It still is. Every year, more and more people play games on their consoles or computers, whether they be social facebook games, multiplayer deathmatch shooters, single player, or MMOs. Games are becoming more and more a part of the cultural fabric of society. Maybe the norm is still guys playing shooters on their xbox/ ps3, but it’s not a weird thing to do any more.

And yet, Syp has looked at various surveys on the average age of gamers and found that it is rising. (Even the more conservative figures here agree that the average age of gamers is rising.) It is possible that the surveys just don’t capture younger players well. It’s likely that they tend to play on consoles owned by older family members, or play games that aren’t included in the survey.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say that the surveys are right and the average age of gamers is going to keep increasing. Younger people will drift into new, different hobbies. Probably they’ll involve internet connectivity but not the big AAA games, increasingly looking bereft of new ideas, that we’ve seen in the past few years. (If I say AAA games are looking short on ideas, it’s from having been trapped in an office with a fanatical black ops player – I know a lot about that game now! And pretty much all of the battlegrounds/ win conditions are things I’ve seen before.)

Whilst gamers are still in the money making part of their lives, studios will pander to them. But in 30+ years time? It’ll be on to the new hotness. It may be less than that depending on how the next generation of consoles shapes up. If you think that games are the 21st century’s big media breakthrough in the way that cinema and TV were the media darlings of the 20th century, then you have to wonder how the next generation will be enticed to make them a part of its life.

KOTOR vs Planescape: Steel Cage Deathmatch

I enjoy interactive storytelling. From first ventures in playing D&D with my sisters and cousins as a kid, experiments in playing by post, MUDs/MUSHes, more roleplaying games as a student, Freeform LARPs, to computer RPGs, playing by email with IRC interludes, cooperative fanfic, party games like Pantheon and Baron Munchausen, letter-writing games on blogs, and eventually MMOs, it’s been a long strange trip and I’m sure that it isn’t over yet.

I’ve played a few computer games with good storylines (Gabriel Knight, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Diablo II Act II with Tal’Rasha etc comes to mind) but three of them really stand out when I look back. These are, in order:

  1. Planescape: Torment
  2. Final Fantasy X
  3. Knights of the Old Republic

Why Planescape?

With Planescape, Black Isle picked the most brilliant and iconic of all the 2nd Ed D&D settings and brought it to life. It is pure fantasy, but it isn’t the standard medieval elves and knights in shining armours. I don’t think there is even a single dragon.

Instead, there is the disturbingly weird magical city of Sigil, a hub between the planes where even gods dare not tread. Any doorway (a category that can include wells, cracks in the wall, etc) could hide a portal to one of the outer planes. Demons and strange elemental beings go to Sigil to rest from their eternal wars. It’s like a fantasy-steampunk London – anything is possible there.

Also, although there have always been fans of D&D artwork (and they have had some fantastic artists working with them), Planescape is the one setting which everyone in the fan community always associated with its brilliant lead artist, Tony DiTerlizzi. You can get a feel for the style here. So it was always a setting with a strong visual identity, and also a strong writing style. Characters had their own slang (it was intended to have a London Cockney feel to it, I think).

So that’s the setting, which is cool in itself. Add in a storyline about the mysterious and amnesiac Nameless One who appears to be immortal, gathers a bevy of fantastic and well-loved allies/ enemies, and explores the setting within the confines of a very tightly written story. And then if that wasn’t enough, explore some of the philosophical implications of what the Nameless One finds out about his past and give him the chance to make some big moral decisions.

What can change the nature of a man, indeed?

But what made the storyline for me was how much I was drawn to care for his allies. I never could bring myself to play through the game as an evil alignment because I just didn’t want to hurt them, and you were given some truly evil ways to torment your allies if you really wanted to do that.

I can’t really talk about Planescape without feeling betrayed by the game industry. After I played through that game, I hoped that just maybe it would be the harbinger of a new age of brilliant interactive storytelling RPGs. But it never happened. Maybe it didn’t sell well enough. Maybe there just wasn’t the demand. Maybe people just wanted WW2 shooters instead. I don’t know. Planescape was the end of an era, not the beginning.

But for all that, if you can get hold of a copy and put up with the 1999 era graphics, it’s one of the best storytelling experiences you’ll ever have with a game.


I’ve been meaning to play Knights of the Old Republic for ages and just never got round to it. (Playing MMOs will tend to do that to you – I see  a game, think ‘I must play that sometime’ then come back to it 3 years later). But I did recently play through it myself, and it was tons of fun.

I’m comparing it to Planescape because the stories have a few similarities. You wake up with no memory. You gather a team of friends around you. You go off on adventures. You find out more about your characters past, which turns out to be fairly important. You are able to play as good or evil or something in between and the moral choices you make will affect how the game plays and the outcome. There are some cool revelations, so no spoilers here. (Although honestly, when you meet someone right at the beginning who says specifically that jedi can erase people’s memories, I don’t see why people get too surprised if this turns out to be the case later.)

You also get to play with the Star Wars setting. Despite being set X thousand years before the films, it turns out that apart from the political setup, not a lot has changed. You’ll get to play with lightsabers, train as a jedi, fly jet-powered swoops, have your own pet droid, and wookie, turn to the dark side, or not, and go to a lot of the planets mentioned in the films.

Unfortunately it just isn’t as good. If Planescape is steak, KOTOR is burger (it’s good burger, mind). If Planescape is ‘Carter Beats the Devil’, KOTOR is ‘something really popular but not so smart or deep’ (I was going to say ‘The Da Vinci Code’ but then I remembered that I hated it and never got past the first page, which is a bit unfair because KOTOR was fun).

Unfortunately the NPCs are extremely bland, which is I suspect what really brings the game down. Planescape had amazing NPCs, and I really cared about them. KOTOR has mostly dull NPCs (apart from the killer robot) and I really didn’t. On the other hand, you as the player do get to be the big damn hero is a very big way.

So like a harlequin romance, KOTOR is pure ego bait. You are the hero. No one else is as interesting or important as you. They all exist merely to stroke your ego, entertain you, or throw themselves under your lightsaber. The romance plotlines are amusing but a bit creepy. I guess I just don’t like the notion that if one can only say the right thing to the NPC at the right time, they’ll fall madly in love with you. And I think it encourages you to relate poorly to the NPCs. You always think of them as puzzles which you can unlock rather than as characters in their own right.

Call me an old romantic but I prefer to subscribe to the theory that if someone is into you, they’ll not mind if you don’t always say exactly the right thing. And vice versa.

But it certainly does stroke the player’s ego to feel that cool and important people from the setting are falling at your feet. BUT I expect that in the fanfic (I haven’t checked but there’s bound to be fanfic) most people prefer to write about the relationships that the developers did not allow. Forbidden fruit, etc.

Oddly, even though the dark/lightside nature of the jedi should lead to some philosophical musings (I mean, if one can switch from light to dark or back again so easily then how strong precisely are jedi in a moral sense?) it never does. The game never once asks ‘what can change the nature of a man’ even though it’s about that even more than Planescape is. It never really answers the question either.

And on another side, the actual game sides of the game are very hit and miss. Some of it is painfully easy. The puzzles aren’t difficult at all. Then some bits are arbitrarily hard (the later swoop races, shooting stuff down in the ebon falcon etc) and you’re given no chance to really practice in advance. I saved my game a lot while I was playing it.

So, good fun game. Recommended, especially if you like Star Wars and fanfic. Probably better storyline than the actual films. Prepare to have your ego stroked.


Final Fantasy is a rather different beast to the games I mentioned above. For a start, it’s a Final Fantasy game with conventions of its own. But what really marks it out as a storytelling game is the relationships you have with your companions.

Auron in particular is one of the coolest and most badass companions in any game ever. And even he has a cool revelation of his own before the game comes to its inevitable end.

And I defy anyone not to feel a pang of … well something … for the little summoner when you realise that she’s going willingly to what may be a fate worse than death.

I really cared about the NPCs in that game, which was what brought the storyline to life.

Picking a Favourite?

Well for me it’s clearly Planescape by a country mile. And I realise how much I appreciate a storyteller who can make me care that much about the setting and the other characters in the game while still making it all about me. I loved it so much that I picked up a lot of old boxed sets of the D&D setting, which are very much prized possessions for me even though I never got to play/run it as much as I would have liked.

And going by past history, I rather think I’m more intrigued by FFXIV than by SW:TOR as upcoming MMOs. I know which storytelling team have the track record for me.

If Cryptic stopped futzing around with Neverwinter Nights MMO rumours and just got the Planescape license, I’d drop everything to play it.

Do you have favourite stories in games?

Why do villains get the best plots?

Have you ever noticed how in storytelling/ RPG types of games, it’s always the villains who have the coolest plots?

They must have spent years recruiting minions, devising and populating huge dungeons or castles, building up networks of spies, and plotting over their careful spreadsheets. We talk about evil genius for a reason. Even though the plan probably has a fatal flaw, it takes a certain amount of dedicated effort and creativity to put it into practice.

Not only that, but any great villain has an actual goal. Not just ‘defeat the good guys’ or ‘get more xp’ but a real honest-to-goodness goal. Something that they genuinely want to accomplish in the world. It’s probably connected with money and/or power and the reason that they’re a villain is because they’ve picked an unconventional route with which to get it. Revenge is another great motive. Being mad (while overused in WoW) is not actually a motive in itself, although it may mean the villain picks goals for illogical reason. And any memorable villain probably has a dose of megalomania too.

As heroes, we’re usually reactive. We follow clues. We find out more and more about the Big Bad and what they are planning. And when we finally decide to thwart them, it usually involves the sophisticated ‘CHAAAARGE’ tactic. Even when our tactic is a little more interesting, it’s because we’re following some other NPC’s suggestion.

More to the point, our character’s goals aren’t always the same as the player’s goals. The player may want to socialise, to progress their character in specific ways, to get more xp, to get more gold, and so on. As soon as we talk about our characters’ goals in game, we’re roleplaying (ie. “what would my character want?”) and that’s simply not why most players play.

Not that it matters because even if your character does have goals, it’s quite possible that the game won’t allow you to pursue them anyway. Let’s think about that.

The only way you can fulfil In Character goals in an MMO is if you (ie. the player) pick it very carefully. If my new Death Knight wants nothing more to do with the Scourge and seeks only to retire quietly to a cabin in the woods I can do it, but only if I stop actually playing the game. If my character has a grudge against some particular NPC and wants to plot against them politically, it’s not going to happen unless it’s programmed into the game, in which case everyone else will do it too.

Even in a more sandbox type of game like EVE, there are some valid in character goals which simply aren’t possible in the game because they’d involve NPCs or NPC factions. If you wanted to take over one of the NPC factions for example, you simply can’t do it.

So if you enjoy setting and achieving goals in these kinds of games, you simply have to narrow your scope. I think this is why roleplaying in MMOs is so limiting. And sometimes very frustrating.

The best MMOs are set in fascinating worlds, and yet we’re so limited in how we can interact with the setting.

When other players are involved, the gloves come off

As soon as you are plotting with or against actual players, things get much more interesting. On the downside: they’re players so will be frustrating, anti-immersive, unpredictable, and unreliable. On the upside: the game won’t be getting in your way any more.

If you want to plot politically against your guild leader (don’t ask me why!) then you can go ahead and start that whispering campaign. If you want to beat the bank, you’re competing against other real players in the economy and there won’t be a helpful NPC there to tell you their cunning plan that somehow involves disguising yourself as a cardboard tree.

What if you don’t have goals? And this, to me, is where a lot of games fall down. Characters should have goals in games. Players should also. And maybe, just maybe, players could be given a bit more assistance in setting goals appropriate to their preferred playing style.

Imagine a game where when you create your character you get to pick some details about their background and history and what sorts of goals or play you are interested in as a player. You might be asked whether you’re more interested in playing good or evil. You might be asked if you prefer to be part of a faction or a solo operative. You might be asked whether you’re interested in romantic types of plot or not. Whether you’re interested in being involved in politics. Whether you’re interested in being a merchant.

And although these views could change in game, you could start with a set of game defined goals to help direct your play.

It sounds odd, but it’s how we go about running freeform LARPs. In a game like that (which may run from a few hours to a whole weekend) all the characters are pre-written. They have detailed backstories and many of them have reasons (written into the background) to need to interact with each other.

Players are given questionnaires to fill in to help the organisers assign them to a character. When you get your character sheet, it will have some background information and also a section marked ‘Character Goals’. And a well written game will give you a mixture of easy and more difficult goals. You aren’t marked on them. It’s accepted that it’s actually impossible for everyone to fulfil all their goals because some are written to be mutually exclusive.

Computer games: they have limits

A game run by and with real people will always be more flexible in terms of what you can do. In a pen and paper RPG, you can do anything that you convince the GM to let you try. No computer game will ever reach that level of simulation.

But some kinds of games do offer more flexibility. In a RTS you have a lot of freedom as to what tactics you choose to use. Maybe you’ll never be a supervillain but you have minions, you can build structures, you can try to funnel your enemy tactically. It’s why we call them strategy games — the game is all about working out your strategy.

In a storytelling RPG, you have very little flexibility. You follow the story. Some games may offer more options but you’re never going to control your side’s strategy or be able to implement some really off-beat plan. If you sign up for the story, it’s assumed you’ll be along for the ride.

Part of the appeal of sandbox games like EVE is that there are real players involved in each faction. So the gameplay is a lot more flexible than a storytelling game, but the actual story may not be as good. If you’re a minor peon in a big corporation, you may never find out what actually happened in that corporate takeover. Your whole game world may have changed and you will never find out why. No other player is required to tell you. There won’t be a helpful NPC explaining exactly why the defias got kicked out of Stormwind. You just have to go.

So there’s always going to be some give and take. If you want every player to have total freedom to set their own goals, your personal story and experience may be less interesting in the game. It certainly isn’t guaranteed to be good. If you want the game to guarantee you an exciting story then you’ll have to go with the goals they set.

But MMOs are the eat-all-you-can buffet of the gaming world. Part of the appeal is that there are lots of different things you can do, lots of different types of gaming available in the world.

I wonder if somewhere in the mix there’s room for the freeform LARP style of character assignment. To give players some forward momentum and help them set goals that suit their style of play.