Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alternative Input: The Devil's Due

I want to talk about something that is not very fun. Pain. Thanks to a life integrated with computers, I have been dealing with chronic wrist, hand, and shoulder pain for the last two years. Some of my friends know about this, but I've never really revealed the extent of how it's affected my lifestyle.  It has affected a lot of things, but it hasn't affected anything like it's affected my gaming habits.  It has affected what I can play, how long I can play it for, and how I can play it.  And it's affected one game more than others…

Let me start by saying that I love the Diablo series of games. I have loved them since the very first game.  I can remember it as one of the first truly addictive experiences that ran on our first family computer, a Pentium 90.  The dark, Gothic aesthetic; the atmosphere drenched with morose and yet slightly folksy music; the writing, which I found to be pretty strong with the original game; just an overall sense of being pitted against a grotesque menagerie of things you could never understand or predict (it was one of the first games I remember playing with random dungeon layouts). And it had some truly memorable enemies.

Still, one of the incredible things about the first Diablo game was that, in multiplayer mode, when you died, your character simply dropped everything on the ground.  It was the original hardcore mode, and while playing this way, it was actually quite easy to lose every single one of your items if you died in the wrong place on a high difficulty setting. I can remember playing as the Warrior getting into a particularly bad situation somewhere in the caves section, the third major environment you encounter.  I believe it started with me walking into a small enclosed cage with a treasure chest inside. I was then murdered by a pack of invisible ghouls.  Coincidentally, these monsters have some great backstory:

But back to the story.  When I died, all of my equipment was dropped inside a small cage filled with murderous invisible ghouls. You can see that this was a problem.  I also wasn't left with very much money. Without a full set of armor, the ghouls would likely kill me in one hit, so it would be pointless to buy a new melee weapon.  If I died again, I probably wouldn't have enough money to buy a single item, and I'd have to start over punching rats on the first floor.  The only thing that seemed useful for purchase in town was a Staff of Firewall.  This is a staff with a limited number of charges of the spell Firewall, which, predictable, creates a wall of fire.  So I spent all my money on the staff and trudged down to the floor I died on for an all-or-nothing charge.

My valiant charge went something like this:
  1. Enter level.
  2. Hear the sound of an invisible ghoul moaning at me.
  3. Panic.
  4. Spam-right-click Firewall on every visible open space, filling the ENTIRE SCREEN with fire.
  5. Hear the sound of dying ghouls.
  6. Wait for the inferno to dissipate, walk out and claim my equipment, then flee.
I can remember many experiences like this. The prospect of losing all of your equipment added something that I had never experienced in gaming - true fear.  We actually played in multi-player mode, even when playing alone, for that feeling.  The adrenaline kept me playing, and my Dad who played alongside me as well, for a very long time. 

When Diablo 2 came out, it was more of the same, with better graphics, more spells, and more items.  You can probably imagine how much time I spent with that game.

Let me take a moment to point something out about the Diablo games. Although they can definitely be challenging, they have extremely simple controls. Left click, move or attack. Right-click, cast a spell.  Some assorted hot keys for other spells (most of which also are mouse targeted). Easy. But when you're facing rooms full of 50 monsters at a time, you end up clicking quite a bit. I would venture to say that there are few games that require you to move the mouse and click as much in the course of playing.  Diablo is a game about slaughtering hordes and hordes and hordes of monsters. And you have to click on each and every one of them.  Not only that, you need to click on every single item you want to pick up, often sorting through piles and piles of trash to find the one good item that dropped.  Lots of clicking.

Now, the first two Diablo games I played back when I was in school and not working so much.  For a moment, consider that activity added on top of an eight-hour workday spent almost entirely using a computer, respond to emails, doing database entry, etc. – basically, clicking and pressing keys tens of thousands of times in a day.  And that sets you up for the dramatic conclusion to this story: the release of Diablo 3.  A Diablo even more fast paced than its predecessors.  A greatly enjoyable game, especially with friends; and, one that I couldn't play for more than an hour without my hands hurting.
It was a hard thing to acknowledge. My body has limits? Surely in avoiding physical sports throughout most of my childhood, that was no way I could hit these kinds of limits!  But as I kept trying to keep up with my friends, it became more and more obvious that I had hit a very firm limit. Diablo was no longer the type of game that I could really play and enjoy. And it was not the last casualty. As I came to acknowledge the price of interacting with physical interfaces all day, and to acknowledge the cost of all that information burning along my wrists and down my fingers and into the keys, it was clear to me that a lot would have to change for me to continue to be able to use a computer in any recreational sense.

So began an era of experimentation with input devices that continues to this day.  I have programmed a WiiMote to control the mouse cursor on my computer using software called GlovePie; I have set a mouse pad on the floor and used the mouse with my foot; I have purchased piles of devices, touchpads, trackballs, foot switches, joysticks, gamepads (many of which I configured with the excellent utility Joy2Key); all eventually winding back to the same point, the point of strain, the point where the game is asking more of me than my body can give it without undergoing stress. 

And that's the reason that I'm typing this post with my voice, and not with my hands. 

It's quite hard to play Diablo with your voice.  I haven't given up on games; I have found that there are still games out there that I can play and enjoy. Games that ask a little less of the player than 100% twitch reflexes, and constant input.  Yet, I can tell that this is not something that's just going to go away. What this has really taught me is that staying healthy for me will require a lifetime commitment to using the resources of my body in moderation.  And, unfortunately, charging into the fray with a Staff of Firewall is probably not on that menu.

Staff of Apocalypse, on the other hand...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Want to Play This

Very badly.  I've been following No Man's Sky since RPS first posted it.  I am of course a huge fan of procedurally generated worlds, prime examples Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, yet I've not found one that approaches the term "world" on the scale, at least visually, that this game is presenting.  It's just plain beautiful.  Sniff... something in my eye...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storytelling in MMOs

I want to talk a little about storytelling in MMOs. I have been playing the Wildstar Beta on and off over the past week, and it has really made me realize just how much I am craving something new in the storytelling department when it comes to online games.

It amazes me that these games focus so much on creating an individual "identity", in character appearance, class, abilities, equipment, etc., and yet focus so little on changing the story to match that identity. Everyone wakes up in stasis, performs the same series of quests, and follows the same main plot line. If that's the way you're going to do things, why even give players distinct characters? Why not give everyone characters with firm identities in the story, dialogue of their own, some reason to be notable in the world other than "I am a player, not a nonplayer"?

One of the few MMOs I have played them attempts this path is Dragon Nest. In it, you do name your character, and customize them, but the role that you plan story is treated as the role an actor might play in a film – when the performance is going on, everyone who chose the "warrior" class is actually playing the role of a specific character in the story of the game. Of course, the problem is, you then have a bunch of players running around as clones of each other. The illusion of individuality wouldn't be possible. And, in my eyes, the real point of these games is not to tell a story, but to provide that sense of individuality in a fantastic yet mundanely social setting.

So why am I complaining about the story when I've just admitted that the story really isn't the point? Because I feel that it could be the point. You can create a feeling of individuality purely through aesthetics, but you can create something much stronger by tying the player into a store unique to them, supported by the game's mechanics and not just sprinkled on top like confetti. Imagine the extreme – a game tied into your Facebook account which pulls elements of your life into the plot as obstacles or discoveries for other players. Or a game where every element of the story is spun up by players, with little worlds being born, dying, and reborn to support the cycle.

What kind of mechanics would make these games tick? Any kind of mechanic where the player makes a meaningful choice that impacts their relationship to other players more than it impacts their standing with the world's fictional characters.  Mechanics that take player behaviors into account, turning grief causing players into outcasts and nemeses, turning benevolent players into allies. One might argue that these kinds of events are already built into our psychology and don't need to be supported by game mechanics, but I would reply that for the story to be the focus of the game and something that distinguishes one player from another, it must be able to etch itself into the game's reality in meaningful ways. That is why such a game would exist – to be a blank canvas upon which the players detail, elaborate, and record their stories.

I guess I'd just like to see a lot of the fun storytelling mechanics that come out of many pen and paper role-playing games make their way into online games.  So many interesting stories are being told and can be told, that aren't really recognized by online games and leveraged into giving their worlds more life. And without that extra injection of vitality, I fear that more and more the bones of the grind at the heart of games like World of Wacraft and Wildstar will be visible underneath the story that comes in the box.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I finished Brothers this afternoon.  I went into the game expecting a serious but rewarding experiment with an unusual control scheme I had heard about, wherein you control each brother with the same controller, using the two joysticks simultaneously.  I was expecting a short game with OK graphics, and a strong story to make up for middling technical specs. 

In other words, I was completely unprepared for the experience of playing through this game.

Technically, the game is exactly what it needs to be, at all times.  It is at times as sunny and upbeat as Disney, as dark and tragic as one of Grimm's fairy tales, loud and intense, quiet and subtle... the presentation is masterfully executed.  It's never excessive. This finesse with its presentation only makes the rest of the game feel more credible.  The control mechanic which I have heard so much about works very well, and even if the puzzles are often fairly straightforward, they still feel inventive and fun to solve.

This kind of technical credibility is certainly a staple of a top-notch game. However, what Brothers achieves, which I have seen very few games achieve before, is an effective cashing-in of that credibility.  It opens the way to tie you so closely to the story of the two brothers, through directly helping them to overcome each challenge, that you feel a personal connection with what happens. I knew it would be an emotional game, but roughly halfway through I realized that it was punching way above its weight, in unexpected ways, and at the end would probably leave me an emotional wreck. I was not wrong.  It takes an awful lot of credibility with the player to pull this kind of story off correctly.  That is what makes this game such a gem.

This is the kind of game I would recommend very carefully, without mentioning many details, because the sanctity of the experience -- the gradual ascent, aesthetically, mechanically, and emotionally -- is something that requires a little bit of mystery to have the impact that it is capable of having. 

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a beautiful and sometimes painful experience, and one that I think is worth having for anyone with the means to do so.  It is what I think of as the best kind of story: one that tempers its beauty with tragedy, and its despair with hope.  Go and play it, if you get the chance.