Portraying relationships in games, or where did all the mothers go?

We’ve had a slew of powerful storytelling games released recently featuring characters who are strongly defined by their relationships.  For example, the Big Daddy/ Little Sister relationship in Bioshock 2. Father/ Son in Heavy Rain. Father/ Son again with Sazh in FF13.

This is an important step in storytelling, because many of us are defined by our relationships at least as much as our ‘stats and abilities’. If relationships in stories ring true, then a lot of players will identify far more easily with those characters. I was struck by The Brainy Gamer’s reaction to Bioshock 2, which was that it was the closest he had ever come in a game to conveying what it meant to be a father. We do feel emotional about our own relationships. And that’s a deep vein to mine for storytellers. Not only that, but because of the peculiarly interactive nature of games, a well portrayed relationship allows the player to actually experience it themselves in a very immersive way. You don’t have to feel protective over a game character’s child … but you can, and you might.

But why does it always have to be fathers?

Half the freaking NPCs in Wrath have father issues. Arthas, Darion Morgraine, Garrosh and Varian, for a start. Not to mention the initially poignant but quickly tiring scene between Saurfang and his Son in ICC. All three of the examples I gave above (Bioshock 2, Heavy Rain, FF13) feature father issues.

Do none of these people have mothers? In FF13, the only mother who is featured is Hope’s mother, who makes a brief appearance before dying tragically in order to give him a suitably emo backstory. That, by the way, is the function of mothers in heroic fantasy.

And yet … in the article referenced above, TBG compares Bioshock 2 to The Odyssey. And Homer wasn’t shy about portraying strong women, and strong female relationships. People in Ancient Greek Myth had mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives, who were an important part of their lives. (They also had husbands, sons, fathers, etc etc.)

FF13 does redeem itself with some strong female characters, with strong female relationships. For example, Lightning is cool and badass. But when you see the relationship that she has with her little sister (fiercely protective, guilty about not having had faith in her, suspicious of her boyfriend) the character really rings true.  Fang is badass, laconic, and bristling with bravado (it was a stroke of genius to give her an Aussie accent in the translation, I keep expecting her to crack open a can of lager) and her relationship with the bouncy, chirpy Vanille is one of very deep affection and probably more. More than that, they both obviously look out for each other.

The obvious answer is that games are written mostly by men, and many of these men are also fathers so they write what they know. But part of the skill of writing is also to be able to research and write what you don’t. It still doesn’t explain why so many heroic characters in games either focus solely on their fathers, or have mothers who conveniently died in the backstory.

We do have some good female characters. And any powerful and well written relationships are better than none. But isn’t anyone else feeling that the constant focus on father/son relationships is getting a bit tired?

LOTRO update, Final Fantasy screws the pacing, and can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

mirkwoodbynight

Mirkwood by Night (not sure how well this will come out)

The first time Arbitrary showed me around the daily quests in Mirkwood, I was scrambling along behind her hoping not to get lost. Although there are paths and roads through the zone, it’s also a big dark scary forest without obvious road signs all over the place. Strange as this sounds, obvious road signs (for no obvious reason) do feature in a few of the latter WoW zones. I never understood why Horde/ Alliance didn’t go mess with the signs in order to throw off the opposing armies.

A couple of the quests are scouting missions, in which you have to check out four different locations in order, and then report back to base. There are maps which help navigation, but still, when I started doing these dailies on my own I used to have to keep stopping (in stealth, naturally) to check my map like some kind of lost tourist.

No longer. I was able to save up enough daily tokens to buy a new horse for my character – a nice study black creature which seems fitting for a burglar. And I noticed that I was smoothly completing my scouting missions without having to stop and check maps any more. I feel like a veteran of the Mirkwood front!

goalsblackhorse

I took a screenshot of the new smoky black horse in Bree, since a screenie of a black-clad burglar on a black horse in a black forest might fail to impress. Whereas in WoW, your basic horse will do the job but the more expensive epic mount is faster, in LOTRO the advanced horse runs at the same speed as the basic one but it is a bit sturdier. Or in other words, you don’t fall off it every time a monster looks at you funny. Acquiring one was one of my in-game goals, and I’m pleased that the black one was the more accessible to me from the Mirkwood elves.

The other picture is a demonstration of why glowy daggers and stealthy burglars don’t really mix. Gosh, I wonder where the stealther is in this picture? Fortunately orcs are very very short sighted … or something.

In which I want to slap final fantasy 13

A couple of people commented on my affection for the extremely on-rails presentation of FF13. What can I say? I wouldn’t want every game I play to be linear like this but it’s refreshing to see it done well, like a palate cleanser. In general, the games I have most enjoyed on the PS3 so far have had strongly directed, well designed gameplay. It seems to be a general strength of console games.

Or in other words, I like smoked salmon and could probably eat it for every meal, but I also like other foods and some of them don’t go well with salmon. Ultra-linear, highly directed gameplay is not really what I look for in a MMO, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun in its own right.

Having said that, the pacing of FF13 became glacial during chapter 6. I don’t expect to actually feel bored during a Final Fantasy setting. Interestingly, it was the gameplay pacing that was off, the narrative pacing was fine. It’s perfectly OK to have a long sequence in which two characters who didn’t get along have to travel together, and along the course they learn to trust each other.

Just usually in films you’d go to a travelogue or montage sequence to show the passage of time without boring the pants off people via a sequence of forgettable fights.

odinlightning

But I am a mercurial gamer and the game picked up massively in chapter 7. So now I love it again, I genuinely enjoy all of the characters and their development arcs, and can’t wait for our next session. It’s quite a feat of storytelling to show such marked character development for all of the main characters. They don’t quite pull off the marriage of gameplay with narrative, but I still love what they are trying to do.

Also, Lightning is awesome.

Can SWTOR really get 2 million subs?

A few bloggers have picked up on a report that EA chiefs have high hopes for Star Wars: The Old Republic, and are shooting for 2 million+ subs. I’m not linking to them all because what everyone says is, “Is that realistic?”

Yes. Star Wars is a big and very well known franchise. But if that was all it took, then why isn’t LOTRO larger than World of Warcraft? Still, it certainly helps to get word out of the door, and Bioware’s stonking recent record of story based games (Dragon Age, Mass Effect et al) surely doesn’t hurt either.

I can only conclude that:

  1. Bioware have a lot on their plate at the moment. They’re known to be working on Mass Effect 3, and almost certainly on a Dragon Age 2 (sequel). On top of that, SWTOR is a vast undertaking and also the most expensive project in EA’s stable at the moment.
  2. SWTOR is an incredibly risky project. I’m still amazed that both EA and Bioware chose to go the AAA MMO route at this point in time.
  3. SWTOR rather failed to blow reporters away when they tried a demo at GDC. People liked it, but no one came away saying, “Oh my god this is the next big thing, give it to me now etc etc.” Having said that, the trooper sounds quite fun – a dps class which can switch from ranged to melee and has big guns.
  4. I think they will get their 2 million subscribers. They may end up redefining what a subscriber means, especially if they go with a hybrid pricing model but they’ll get the numbers.
  5. I’ll play it! So now they only have to find 1,999,999 other people and they’re golden.
  6. But I’ll still wish it was Mass Effect Online rather than Star Wars …

And the gratuitous female fighter in platemail picture

alg_alice_wonderland_vid

From Alice in Wonderland, of all things. But now I wish Tim Burton would take on The Faerie Queene as a project — I’d pay just to see the visualisations.

Restricting player choices to make a better tutorial

I’m still working through the first few hours of tutorial in Final Fantasy 13, but I know already that it’s one of the most astounding feats of game design of anything that I have ever played.

At some point in the future, the game will open up. There will be airships. I will be able to decide which of the spiky-haired moppets will be in my team. I will even be able to decide where to go next. I know this because I read spoilers and game reviews.

As of now, I’m still in Chapter 4 (which is several hours into the game) and although I’m looking forwards to having more freedom later on, I no longer mind the railroading. Because, you see, I’m learning to play the (complex) game properly and the game is satisfied with nothing less.

To anyone who is used to MMO levelling, or even the typical CRPG, this comes like a bolt from the blue. But when you limit player options, that means encounters can be very very finely tuned to the characters, abilities, and gear which are available to the player.

How often do you fail an encounter in an MMO and think ‘Oh, I’ll go level up some more,’ or ‘I’ll buy some better gear,’ or ‘I’ll get some friends, guildies, or random people in to help’? What if none of those were options, but you knew for a fact that the encounter was designed so that you could do it with whatever resources you had right now? What if helpful tutorial tips introduced new concepts, walked you through using them, and then you had lots of opportunities to practice before hitting the really hard boss fight where you have to use what you just learned … or fail?

What if the penalty for failing was quite soft? In FF13 you can always go ahead and retry the fight again straight away if your main character dies.

What it means is that FF13 is very very determined to teach YOU how to play. It is very patient, it won’t give up, and it won’t offer easy modes that allow you to sidestep any key strategy. So if you are the type of player who often ignores buffs and debuffs in RPGs because you can usually just load up the highest possible dps and blast straight through everything – that tactic won’t work here. There’s a place for spikes of dps, and also a place for buffs/ debuffs/ heals/ tanks.

This is quite probably the gamiest RPG I have ever played. It is the game that will turn every player into a gamer, will teach them to understand the strategies and tactics, and will encourage them to switch paradigms on the fly like a pro. And I’m loving it. It doesn’t hurt that the battle system itself is a thing of genius. You have a lot of control over your group without needing to handhold each one of them personally, and it’s still fast paced and exciting.

Right now, I feel that  Square-Enix have achieved one of the nirvanas of single player gaming. A game that is tuned perfectly to the player, and continues to be tuned perfectly even as it adds in extra complexity. A game that teaches you how to play as you play, rather than leaving it to the game guides and blogs to fill in the missing content.  Where balance has ceased to be an issue.

Still counting the minutes until the next session!

Can’t write, have to play Final Fantasy 13!

Or rather, counting the minutes until I can sit down with my partner again and play it some more.

First impressions:

  • This game is gorgeous. The animations are also excellent.
  • I like the characters! Which is a vast improvement over FF12. Sazh (spoiler alert if you read past where it says ‘spoiler alert’) is probably the closest I’ve ever seen to an everyman character in a Final Fantasy game.
  • Square-Enix read about the concept of ‘show not tell’ and decided that didn’t apply to them. If you want to have any hope of understanding the rather complex background and story, you must read the datalog every time information is added to it.
  • Despite the wall-of-text syndrome, it is very worthwhile to read the datalogs anyway because the setting is fascinating. It would not have been possible to present this much information if the player had to personally experience all of it.
  • Combat is fast paced and fun. One criticism that has been levelled at the game is that it takes several hours over its tutorial. This is because combat also gets very complex and involved. I still have a long way to go with the tutorial but I was finding the combat fun from the start and can’t wait until I can unlock the full complexity.
  • Also, if you picked up a PS3 version, there is a code in the box which apparently gives you extra stuff … such as an increased chance at a FF14 beta spot. (I will get round to trying this later, since our box did have the code in it.)
  • One of the characters attacks people using something that looks like a lacrosse stick with a ball/s attached via elastic. Since one of my schoolgirl fantasies was beating people up with a lacrosse stick, I’m all over this.

vanille

I do notice though that playing console games with a friend/partner can be dull if it is your turn to watch. It’s very unlike playing either a 2-person game where you both have controllers, or playing PC games where you each have a computer.

I continue to think that this will be a huge barrier in the takeup of console MMOs. Developers don’t fully understand how many MMO households have several players in them who want to play together.