Thursday, December 30, 2010

Role of Character

I read an article on the Escapist about How Game Stories Suck because the protagonist doesn't change. It got me thinking about the role of characters in a game and narrative. Why don't game characters change?

Dual Role
In my narrative heavy games, I sometimes feel there is a disconnect between the narrative character and my avatar. The narrative has set up this character to seem like a certain kind of person. However, as I begin playing, the character is no longer like that. For example, when playing a game like Legend of Zelda, Link is set up to be heroic, courageous, and trusted. However the actions the player performs as Link are hardly heroic. The cover up of course is that the game narrative ignores certain player actions. Particularly in Role Play Games (RPGs).

A game character has two roles in a narrative style game. The story character and the game character. Most games play these off as separate entities. This disconnect reduces the effect of change or perceived change in a character.

Story Structure
Narratives are truly linear in their presentation. That is the way narration works. A game narrative is not linear. Sure we may play "linear games". But they are only linear in level design or connected by cutscenes. However the narrative is mostly handled by cutscenes or dialog, character actions rarely make an impact on the story. Think about time within a game. In dialog, a character will tell the player to please hurry there's not much time to complete this task. The player may choose not to complete that task until later and suffer no penalty. The character requesting the action recites dialog as if the player completed the task on time instead of taking an in-game week. Time is a funny thing in games. Unless there is a timer on screen there's no rush. The narrative is 'in-charge' of real time, so you can stay several nights at an inn if you so desire.

This time anomaly removes the sense of danger or urgency, unless said timer is present. Danger and urgency connects the audience to the character in a narrative. Having that same urgency or time limit in a game does not add to the narrative or player-character relations. In most timed situations it can be a detractor as the player must now focus on completing the task instead of taking in the world and narrative.

The narrative however is not told through dialog alone but the whole world. Anything the player can look at or interact with tells part of the story. So much can be missed if the player is not looking. This is meta-data that a narrative story would portray only if it is necessary but this allows the story to be enriched in a way the player can care about if s/he so chooses. A player that stops to smell the roses gets to take in more of the game narrative.

Elements of Change
As I've pointed out before player action seems to have very little impact in terms of story and character behavior. Any impact that the player could have is predetermined by the game writer/designer. Narratively, if the writers lend us the control of a story character then through dialog and cutscenes the character develops. Gameplay does not develop the character per se.
However, open world games or sandbox games DO let game play affect character. In the game Red Dead Redemption, if you run over a dog there are in game consequences as townsfolk are enraged at your cruelty to animals. The character's reputation and ability to explore are affected by these actions. This makes moving through the story different based on player action. The changes occur in both game and narrative. Similarly in 'choose your own adventure' style games in game action affects the narrative but not the character necessarily.

Player Change
If the player is immersed in the game they become the character. Changing a person is a more difficult feat than changing a character as it turns out. Not all players get immersed in a game fully either. For example, when I play a 'choose your own adventure' style game like Dragon Age or Knights of the Old Republic I have multiple desires. One, I like being immersed in the story and playing as a character with specific traits so I try to choose dialog options that would pertain to that character's beliefs. Secondly, I want to achieve a certain ending for this character so I want to select dialog choices that will net that ending. Thirdly, I want to make sure that my character has the right abilities to complete the game and fight the next boss.

Often times, I find myself at a self-imposed struggle when it comes to options and choices. I have to choose which desire I will give into. Will I stay "in character" and select the choice I know will not give me the ending I'm aiming for? Or do I make an out of character choice to get the best game advantage? But not everyone plays like this. Where every dialog choice is a moral dilemma.

Player motive and play style changes how they play and how a character develops.

There are all sorts of pleasure in a narrative experience that stem from dynamic characters and points of change. Likewise there are pleasures in the visual-interactive that allow a player to see things engulfed in flames and explore fantastical places. When these work together it's heaven, however, it's difficult to write a story for a game and have it be meaningful if our hero can break into a house, break their pots to steal rupees but still be considered our savior.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Your Princess is in another Castle

How many stories do you know where there is a male protagonist out to save his kidnapped girl? There are quite a lot and I think it's a tale as old as time. Men are expected to defend their women. However, why does the story feel so alienating in a video game?

The Analogy
As I said the "save the princess" story is very old and deeply rooted in our culture/instincts. In animal terms, it is the story of winning females away from a rival and gaining exclusive mating rights. It speaks to our basic nature of males proving themselves to a female by show of strength. And there is something in us that accepts this. Women want strong men who can defend them. Men feel the need to show off their strength to impress said woman.

Where the analogy falls apart is that in a story, the attention is always split to focus on one party or the other. If the focus is the captured princess (a la Sleeping Beauty/Snow White), then the Prince is not given much of a personality. He's just the muscle or the symbol of sex that shows up to win the day. All the while the story focused on the princess' assets that she could give him: her nurturing, good looks, singing talents (in the case of Disney) or anything else "special" she could offer.

If the focus is on the prince, then the story is an adventure and the Princess is not given much personality other that "prize to be won" (thinking of Aladdin/Hercules). She represents the reward of pleasure after performing successfully a mating dance. The story highlights the actions of the hero, his achievements, and his strength of course.

That's the gist of it. But I'm sure deep down everyone KNOWS this.

The Modern Woman and the Princess
So in recent history, there has been a DRAMATIC change in how women are viewed and where they fit in society. For the first time, women are considered equal to men for the most part. (Equal but not the same...just to clarify). Women work, fend for themselves, and prove that they can be physically competent just like men. How did this happen? Well, contraception finally became successful. Now sex is not as high risk for pregnancy as before.
In the female "need" to assert herself as capable, most female audiences shun the old stereotype of NEEDING to be rescued. Or being passive and waiting for a man to save them. Women want to save themselves. Women do NOT want to be a victim and hate being portrayed as such. Women are survivors.

So the "princess" stereotype is something attractive to the male ego. She's sexually primed, submissive, and only for him. But modern woman is at odds with this old tradition. To a modern woman the princess represent what we fear most: objectification and victimizing. Being a victim of violence is a reality for many women. Victims are wounded more than physically. Internally they are weakened and a negative self image is put in place. Think of the victimized nerds in high school comedies. Are they confident, happy individuals? Not usually.

Objectification is something all humans dislike. We do not like to be used.

The Dragons (why women don't really like this)
Outside of the objectification and victimizing of women, there are other things that alienate women as an audience in these kinds of stories. Looking at video games at this point. Okay, video game stories about saving the princess/girlfriend/wife are extremely common. Aside from the princess being practically useless as a character, the satisfaction with the story end is primarily for men.

For example, what would motivate a woman to play a game like Dante's Inferno?
This is a game where you play a male crusader battling through the levels of Hell to win your wife back from the Devil. Or something like that. It is implied in the opening that the wife was taken by force (victim of violence) and during the game the wife does not seem very prevalent until the end. And the reward (because it's a medieval setting so a wife has "duties") is suggested to be sex with wife. Which I guess would be restoring the status quo.
As a female player, this story does not win me over because I receive NO satisfaction. It seems she is just trading one sex partner for another. She is not an object that holds interest for me.
More on this later.

The Knights (The men who save)
Men in modern times have definitely become more feminine which seems to be the proper reaction for women becoming more masculine. The other reaction is to become MORE masculine. But let's look at characters for a moment here.

Let's think of the hyper-masculine Duke Nukem and his valiant escapades on Planet Babe.
Is it understandable that women do NOT find him appealing, but men do?
He's obviously strong, virile, and well...not handsome in any stretch of the word but it is 'suggested' that women find him attractive. What he does not have is a friendly attitude or a sympathetic one. He gets his fast-food burger, eats and leaves with nary a backward glance.
In any lifetime movie for women, he's that big, abusive brute that the woman is trying to shake off. Not appealing.

But there are GOOD knights too. Unfortunately, it's usually a younger hero. The key is that this hero is not just interested in the prize of mating rights but interested in the relationship or in the princess as a person.
In the original myth of Hercules, the hero just wants the girl as his wife so he takes her. In the Disney adaptation, the hero meets with our own cultural standard of respecting women as people. So his interest in Megara was in part sexual but because it's a family film, he was interested in her as a person.

I think this is in part why Link from Legend of Zelda is popular with both male and female audiences. It is not obvious that his motives are purely libido (although because he's a silent protagonist we can project that).

The Other Castle (fixing the plot to gain more appeal)
So what might "fix" this classic tale to fit a more modern standard? Especially in games.
A direct role reversal does not work...for obvious reasons. If it's not obvious, what need does a STRONG woman have for a WEAK man?

I'd take a cue from some Japanese RPGs. (I know...I'm sorry). But the fact is that these games have wide appeal for both male and female players. Even IF there is a 'save the princess' story or theme. They achieve this in part by DEVELOPING the princess character. And usually in a game that means she is INVOLVED somehow with gameplay. She can be a partner (similar to Prince of Persia, Midna from Legend of Zelda) or one of the group (Aeriss from FF7/Colette in Tales of Symphonia).

If she is a partner/group member, she is an active character for at least a portion of the game. The player gets to know her a bit better than if she was just in the opening cut scene.

Another method is having the princess be the Initiator. Meaning, she requests to be rescued or commands the hero. Something like Zelda in Legend of Zelda. She often requests Link to do something and then waits for him to do it. Even though she's still a passive character, it's at least by consent. It is not ideal but having chosen the hero makes it a little less offensive...just a bit.

Finally, having less "sexualized" prizes as princesses. Say that that princess is actually the hero's sister/daughter, so she is rescued out of a sense of duty to family. If the character is young enough, saving a female friend as a friend. (I kind of feel like Kingdom Hearts is like this and Zelda games where Link is a child).

If you do have two consenting adults, then the princess has to SOMEHOW be portrayed as an appealing person. Show them together prior to the capture being happy. Similar to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where the father is shown playing happily with his daughter. (I know these are not consenting adults but showing the happy status quo immediately instills us with the sense that the story/game is about returning to that status quo.)
But as for consenting adults think of Twilight Princess's Illia. She is portrayed as one of the villagers and the status quo of her relationship with Link is established. They have interests in common, namely the horse. Similar things are done in the early game to establish relationships with the children characters too so that the story impact of them getting kidnapped is stronger.

Dante's Inferno does NOT show the status quo in the early cutscenes. We can only GUESS that they were happy together judging by his reaction. Or who knows, maybe he was the only one that was happy and she was not.

The best way to exclude a female audience is to objectify women within the game as a prize to be won or the whole goal of the game. Even when playing or reading from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, I need more of a reason to care about the princess. The promise that the character gets mating rights holds little interest to me. As a female I'm drawn to relationships. There needs to be some emotional attachment from the audience to the couple, not just sympathy for the poor man who lost his wife.

A tale as old as time does not need to be discarded, but to be appealing to a wider audience then it is important to humanize BOTH princess and prince. Not just one or the other.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What I've been Playing

Wow, several months without a post. So bad!
But things have been busy at work so I can't really complain. Plus I picked up a couple extra hobbies. :P

In that time, I've also FINALLY gotten on the bandwagon and connected my PS3 to online play. Yay right? Currently only playing with co-workers as I hate playing with strangers. A co-work also gave me his old wide-screen HD TV. So now I can actually see what I'm playing!

For PS3:
I'm playing 2 games on and off: Sacred 2 and Valkyria Chronicles. (Not to be confused with Valkyrie Chronicles...which I screw up all the time. XD).
Sacred 2 is a basic MMO - plot game where you collect quests, complete them and get stuff. I find the gameplay uninspiring and a little awkward since this is apparently a port from PC to console. :P
Valkyria Chronicles is fun...when I get to actually PLAY. Sweet sister there's a lotta cinematics. (Thankfully they're all skippable...but there was a line I'm glad I didn't miss: "YOU MADE ME HOLD POO???")

For Gamecube: Yes I still buy games for this system...I like it okay!
I recently acquired Skies of Arcadia Legends. I started playing and the art style reminded me SO MUCH of my N64 days that I had to stop and finish Ocarina of Time. Which I did.
The game play is a kind of Final Fantasy style turn base which is all right.

For PC: WAGH currently dealing with a virus problem. But before I was having this problem, I was playing:
KOTOR 2, which I've put down for awhile because other things hold my interest.
Sims 2 and 3...still. ;)

For Laptop PC:
Various independently made Flash games and Visual Novels. (Heileen 2 has been my fave so far.)
Age of Empires 2...because I can.

DS: Has seen so much neglect. :(
I was playing Pokemon Soul Silver before I put it down for a couple of MONTHS.

PS2: Actually started playing Odin Sphere AGAIN for the hundredth time.
Still trying to finish Disgaea 2 and the other ten titles I've started but not finished on that system. ^^;

What's Been Standing Out

Valkyria Chronicles has been holding my attention pretty well. I really enjoy the battle strategy system. Although I still don't know why I get such poor grades when I finish. :( And I LOVE the detail they put into NPC soldiers and their personalities. This provides (at least for me) an actual interest in random soldiers in the field. Sure I still mostly mock their silly battle cries, but I'll NEVER get tired of my tired, manic-depressed Engineer's cry of: Mmm...yeah I'll try.

Heileen 2 is a Visual Novel distributed by Tycoon games and developed by Winter Wolves Studio. The story is kinda lame but at least slightly engaging. It's really the art that sparkles in my eyes more than the writing. ^^

What I'm Waiting For
The New Nintendo 3DS. :D :D :D Skyward Sword and Kid Icarus.

Civ 4 or 5...I've heard bad things about the newest Civ game. My last one was Civ 3: Call to Power. So I'll probably go with 4.

Cross Edge - Just looked interesting.

Final Fantasy 13 - Late to the bandwagon because I have too many games right now.

Disgaea 3 - Because I like series to be complete.

I'm also considering the Persona series. Looks pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Girly Games: Horse Games

Recently I finished playing two titles that I would consider very "girly". Meaning that the theme is something that would appeal to a female crowd between 9 - 12. The two games are Bella Sara Horse Adventure and Champion Dreams: Born to Ride. Horse games basically.

Part of the purpose of buying these games was to do a bit of unofficial market research on games with horses. The other reason was guilty pleasure, I love horses.

There were a few things I "learned" about these games since they are games marketed for girls.

Girl Marketing
In both games the main character was a female. One was an adult(Champion) and one was a pre-teen (Bella). Horse care or "caring" seems to be a common theme in a girl-themed game. (Baby sitting games, vet games, Sims, wow...isn't that just like handing us a baby? doll. XD) Both games also has a collection element and a dress up element. (Both again guilty pleasures).

I'll discuss the two games separately for a moment.

Bella Sara
This game is based on a card collecting franchise: Bella Sara. The cards features fantasy images of horses and some characters. There's apparently some peaceful ranch village that takes care of these horses but I'm not familiar with the lore. I just wanted to raise fantasy horses.

The start of the game had a limited customization for the game character. So girls of multiple ethnicities could make their character. You start with a "non-fantasy" type horse. The point of the game is to do quests and collect the right cards to unlock new horses and explore more of the world. Parts of the world are locked by gates that only certain horses can open. (fair enough at least there's a purpose!)

The quests are usually collection quests of objects around a particular area of the world (for example: collect x number of apples from the orchard. And non of the apples are in the apple trees oddly enough). Or timed races.

The levels have horse shoes (currency) and Bella Sara cards scattered throughout. Collecting these cards helps unlock new horses and new parts of the world. Horse shoes allow you to buy costumes for yourself or tack/snacks for the horse.

The control scheme is basic. The horses can run and jump...that's it really.

Riding the horse makes it tired and hungry. While riding you don't see the horse's affection/hunger/cleanliness meters. Returning to the ranch these meters are apparent. Restoring these meters is pretty easy but time consuming. Feed, brush and pet the horse until all are full. Some snacks make the meters refill faster.

There were 5 horses in all. The normal horse, a "fire" horse, a "water" horse, a "thunder" horse and Bella Sara herself. I could not find anything particularly "special" about the new horses. They might have been a bit faster but I couldn't tell. I was hoping that one would be a flying horse like Pegasus. That's what I think of when I hear "fantasy horse".

Champion Dreams
This game was set in the "real" world at a dressage horse academy. There was an over-arching story and the characters were all stock characters. The game had two aspects: the human character's social life and the horse part.
Part of the game made you make a schedule of things to train for (show jumping, cross country and dressage), horse care, relax time, study time, etc.
The annoying part was that sometimes story elements would interrupt your schedule without warning.

Controls were stiff and there were lots of visual bugs. Basic horse commands like go and jump were simple enough but dressage is more than that! Pirouettes, shoulder-in, flying lead changes, extending or controlling different gaits all had different commands. (Tough to remember too).
These moves were unlocked by reading about them in the library.
There were a lot of nuances in the game that I don't really have the energy to delve into but the important thing was your academy report card. It was graded based on your training performance, your horse's happiness, and your popularity. @_@ Popularity? Really? Ugh! Anyway, at the end of your training week you'll have a score and you need a certain score to be able to compete or do the week over or get kicked out. (I don't know if this really happens or not.) After the competition you're whisked away to a new place to train.

The story was a weak melodrama where someone is trying to sabotage your horse and your performance. *sigh* Anyway, the game is quite challenging in a fun way but there are a couple of really annoying quirks. Talking to the horse and trying to decipher if he's tossing his head or "nodding" is pretty much impossible. It's hit or miss in that case. (Not to mention remembering if that means he wants a hug or needs vitamins.)

What I learned
We have two ends of the spectrum here: Light fluff and Realistic-ish.
Now, I used to have a horse of my own as well. One time I went to camp (not band camp) and had to take care of him all on my own for a week. It wasn't that hard really.
Horses need feed, water, hay/grazing, clean bedding (if a stable horse), clean hooves/coats and exercise.

Champions overdid the cleaning aspect in that you had to brush the horse, bathe it, pick the hooves, and clean the stall every time you selected "horse care". Bathing the horse is not something you have to do very often really. (Or perhaps just the awful controls made it harder than it needed to be. ^^)

Bella, because the point of the game was the completion of quests and not "leveling" a horse and rider, the "horse care" aspect took a back seat and was more simplistic. (Feed, clean, affection)

And a funny thought crossed my mind while playing these games...I wanted an option for a male character! Bizarre right? But Bella Sara wouldn't feel so annoyingly sweet if I could play a boy. Champions, because it had a story element, probably would have more trouble pulling off the "boy" element.

Elements for My Game
Since the player will be responsible for a "herd" of horses, care will be incredibly simplified or merely an optional feature. Leveling the horse will be done via training (similar to Champions) and experience. (The rider will also need training).

Fun Elements: Collecting (collecting horses), competition, completing a story, exploration, strategy, relationship sim (rider-rider and rider-horse), multi-player elements, character progression.

I would prefer if even "girly" games could be made appealing to a general audience instead of a mostly female audience between the age 4-12. But they have their place too.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Game Design: Game Making Engines

Dang, two months and no posts? Well what can I blog about now?

Well how about I write about various game makers eh?

Thanks to the internet and programmers with energy for side-projects (or in some cases main projects) there are a plethora of game making programs for people who can't program but want to make a game anyway.
Now there' s no way I could know or list them all but I'll make an effort to list what I do know, have used and like.

Things Beginners Should Know
You know that the favorite advertisement ploy for free engines is that "no programming is necessary". That's only HALF true or not really true at all. No programming is necessary but SCRIPTING is. And while some engines will provide you with shells to work within you still have to learn the script language to make things work.

And heaven forbid you design a game that relies on the ADVANCED stuff. Not really a complaint but a heads up for any n00b who finds a programming-free engine and starts planning something too complicated.

Speaking of N00bs...It's almost guaranteed that THIS should be the stuff you know before making a game on ANY engine.
  • Learn the Engine first - if the site has a practice game or tutorial go through that.
  • Start SMALL - As exciting as it is to share stuff online, start by making crappy 10 minute games. JUST so you can be familiar with the way the engine works.
  • Join the Community - nearly all engines have a forum to join. This is where you can get individual help for your specific problem.
  • Play Other People's Games - So you know what's been done, what can be done, possibly reverse engineer and make friends.
  • Games Require Code - Don't be fooled...even if you don't write the code, the game still runs on one. (Or scripting). If you don't know it, then it's just that black box that works in the background and magically makes your game work. If you understand a little bit about how programming/scripting works then you're able to manipulate it a bit more easily. If you don't then you're limited to very simplistic games.
  • Copyright Laws - This is something to be aware of when using things like sprite sheets or music in your game. I don't have the space to go DEEP into this now, but in general use creative commons or free ware stuff. Or ask permission.
  • It's Mostly Work - Even with an engine to help you making a game is HARD WORK. It takes a lot of time. Don't be fooled.
  • Be Creative - have fun. Because there are aspects to be enjoyed about making your own game.
Nearly every major genre of game has a game maker engine if you know where to look. Google is valuable in finding FPS makers and such. I've found makers of the following genres:
RPG (Role Play Game)
FPS (First Person Shooter)
Point and Click Adventure
Visual Novel
Dating Sim
Arcade Fighter

I'll now list the engines I know of and what genres they can make.

Script Language: Game Maker Language (GML), an Object Oriented Script
Opinion: To be honest I just know of this engine and have never tried it myself. It seems very flexible and there's a great deal of free resources available to use. I may consider using this for a couple of ideas I have in the back burners.

$RPG Maker - ($60 for a full license copy/30 days free demo)
Script Language: Ruby RGSS, RGSS2
Games it Can Make: RPGs, and others if you're clever
Learning Curve: Medium
Opinion: This was one of the first I was introduced to. If you like Final Fantasy style games or RPGs this is the go to engine. I've utilized it and it took me awhile to wrap my head around the event based system. But it is very point and click and making games is pretty easy. It's just keeping organized that's hard.

Adventure Game Studio - (free)
Script Language: Java/C# based
Games it Can Make: Adventure, Point and Click, Visual Novels, Puzzles (think Monkey Island).
Learning Curve: Medium
Opinion: I've looked at this and most of the work is handled by the engine nicely. The hard part is making the images and writing. These are a very old fashion style of games but they have their place.

Script Language: Python
Games it Can Make: Visual Novels, Dating Sims, RPGs, Management Games
Learning Curve: Medium/Steep
Opinion: This is a Python based maker for Visual Novels. However, the script is very flexible so I have seen basic RPGs, Dating Sims and other Simulations made with it. My own experience has been nothing but frustration. If you want to make the simple novel then you can reverse engineer your way through using the sample games. However, I'm a little over achiever and wanted to make a dating sim but it was more than I could handle. The interface is pretty much non-existent. It's just the code.

Script Language: WYSIWYG/Java/C++ based script
Games it Can Make: Visual Novels, ???
Learning Curve: Low/Medium
Opinion: I've been futzing around with this one and I really like how visual it is. What you see is what you get indeed. I'm not sure how fancy you can get with the script. I'd eventually like to test if a Dating sim is possible on this engine.

Script Language:Uses an Object Oriented C-based code.
Games it Can Make: Anything
Learning Curve: Steep-ish
Opinion: I was trained to use this in school and it's easy in some ways but coding knowledge is required. It's not quite one of those pick-up and run type of engines. But it's very powerful.

Script Language: Uses an Object Oriented C-based code.
Games it Can Make: Anything in 3D!
Learning Curve: Steep-ish
Opinion: We used this one too and we made a cool game. I couldn't code it but it's very powerful.

$Adobe Flash - Over $200
Script Language: Action Script
Games it Can Make: Anything
Learning Curve: Steep.
Opinion: I've only made one game in flash and I could sloppily code it. Sorry...sloppily script it.

MUD Maker - Free
Script Language: C++
Games it Can Make: Text Adventures, Multiplayer Text Adventure
Learning Curve: Steep-ish
Opinion: A great way to learn programming is to make a text-based game. MUD maker is something I just found so I can't say I have an opinion of it. I intended to just build one up from scratch.

So there are some choices to try. Not everything is free but even working with no budget it is possible to make a game to share with friends or to improve your own skills and build a portfolio.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Value of My Dollar

Just a light hearted thought bubble for now. I was just browsing some game blogs and saw something mentioning World of Warcraft. And I was just thinking back to this time last year when I was actively playing. I want to go back to it. But I have one problem...

...actually there's more than one's more like 20...

I have too many unplayed games! Somehow I managed to buy a ton of games this year thanks to peer pressure (in a sense) and actual titles that interested me and nostalgia. OMG did nostalgia bite in the bum this year. I BOUGHT Oregon Trail 4 and was this close to buying Super Solvers Treasure Trove.

On top of that I now have co-workers who want to play MMOs with me and I just don't have the time thanks to hobbies. Plus I have a long list of games that I still need to finish.

The List of Game Titles (if I can remember them all)
Age of Wonders 2 (PC - my coworker gave this to me. D: Why do they keep feeding me!?)
Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic (PC - why!?)
Knights of the Old Republic (PC - half way through)
KOTOR: 2 (PC - most of the way through...not finishing)
Dragon Age (PC - finished one playthrough. I want to play again.) Replayed 3 times.
Dragon Age 2 (PC - Making good progress with my first character). Reyplaying
Sims 3 (PC - I keep making characters and not playing.)
Champions Dream (PC - a dumb girly horse game.)
Bella Sara (PC - and even dumber, girlier horse game. I like them both okay!)

Oregon Trail 4 (PC - I don't think I'll really finish this one.)
Jak and Daxter (PS2 - half way through not going to finish.)
Jak and Daxter 2 (PS2 - not started)
Jak and Daxter 3 (Ps2 - not started)
Disgaea 2 (PS2 - Most of the way through)
Guilty Gear AA etc (PS2 - Probably not going to bother playing more.)
DDR Party - (PS2 - My exercise routine?)
Folklore - (PS3 - fin)
Valkeria Chronicles (PS3 - started.)
Ocarina of Time (GC - I stopped at the water temple...AS USUAL!)
Majora's Mask (GC - Well...I'm replaying it.)
Harvest Moon Sunshine Islands (DS - this game will never end.)
Avalon Code (DS - I made progress. My opinion is still the same though. I made my hat MORE awesome though).
LOZ: Spirit Tracks (DS - at the water temple...why do I always stop there?)
Rune Factory 2 (DS - barely started)
Pokemon Soul Silver (DS - Up to the League)
Harvest Moon: Grand Bazaar (DS)

And this doesn't count my iPod game apps or the Big Fish games I love to download and play.

And I want to play these before buying or playing more games so I can get the full value of the dollars spent. :(

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Higher Level: Games and Religion

There's this trend I notice in media that tries to obviously incorporate a religion's teaching into something popular. Be it comics or games, it always feels forced to me. I would know I've tried making a comic like that. Serious Games are often met with the challenge of teaching something. Some methods work better than others. And since I've now studied the theory behind it...I've learned which ones don't really work as well.

As expected Christianity (Puritan-Protestant Christianity) usually is the subject being preached in the game. So let's do a short bit of history and then figure out if its really possible to make a FUN game with religion as its theme...or just a good one.

Old Testament Style
The few examples of Christian games I know of are from the Angry Video Game Nerd's Review of Bible games. These were basically reskinned games based on popular or unpopular Nintendo games. They took well known bible stories like Noah and the Ark and made a platformer game of some kind. These games were not well balanced or designed.

Beyond these examples I know of very few video games with Christian based themes. Many of them are "Bible" games that help kids learn the stories or somehow make them interactive. I don't seem to recall any GOOD or well-known Christian Games or Bible Games.

Can I hear an AMEN?
Why does Christian media have such a hard time? Is it because video games are so widely accepted to be evil? Or because religion, like sex, is something people hold too near and dear? You can't please everyone. And I really don't think there's a lot of money in the production of such games. Why would there be at this point? There haven't been any commercially successful Christian games to my knowledge. And this is a market society. But this is also true for lots of other Christian Media like books, comics and cartoons. Many are just very poorly done.

But you do get gems in other forms of Christian media like Veggie Tales. Big Idea had a GREAT idea with their quirky veggie characters retelling stories of the bible, parodying popular series (like Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings) and super hero stories. And while there's always a moral to the story and they are serious about promoting good, they do something right. They have fun. They don't tell the bible story word for word or accurately, but they add in silly or absurd humor. And it doesn't get into the way of the story or the lesson learned. In fact it might make me want to re-read the actual story.

So can games also be like Veggie Tales? Something fun? I believe so, but I haven't seen or heard of it yet.

Are you Listening to What I say?
I think sometimes people take things too seriously. When I was trying to make a Christian-Catholic comic, I was SO focused on making sure my message got across that I ignored details like well the story. That's the beauty of art and storytelling is that they can offer representations of truth in a way we can process. Like a spoonful of sugar and medicine. But I feel like the medicine approach is taken by the creators of Christian media. Preach, Preach, Preach.
I mean...holy cow, even Jesus used parables! No one, especially an audience that wants to be entertained, likes to be told what to do.

Games can be a pulpit, but like any media it's delivery should not force the medicine.

In many way though, Christian games estrange a large audience, despite a majority of Western Culture proclaims to be Christian. So what are some of the methods games can use to talk about faith?

Tell us a Tale! A Tale!
Chronicles of Narnia is about Jesus and Christian life you know. But it can still be enjoyed as a fantasy. The same thing can be said about Jesus' parables. They can be enjoyed as little stories that tell a life lesson, but they can also be dissected to something much deeper. And many games do tell stories. In my opinion, Christian games should aim more at being parables instead of blatant Sunday School lessons. This would also widen the audience to non-Christians.

They Will Know We Are Christians by our Love
I've played a few games where there was one very religious character. This can continue to happen because it's part of a believable character.
However this is usually twisted into something else. The religious character is seen as narrow-minded, preachy, arrogant, stubborn or naive. This seems to be a popular view of people with faith. Oddly enough the opposite is true of people with real faith. People who truly believe and follow their faith are accepting of other beliefs and lovingly try to resolve differences.

But that's not popular belief. Game stories like to assert that logic and science explains religious superstition. It makes a fool out of our naive priestess and eventually she either remains "blinded", is betrayed by her deity or "sees the light". (And dutifully follows the religion of science.)

A better solution is to not victimize any one religion or really make it obvious. It should be feasible to make a diverse group of faith work together. It happens every day. There's a wide range of faiths in the office I work in and even in my circle of friends. We don't see eye to eye on faith but we can work together and we don't spend time forcing our believes on others.

Personally St. Francis of Assisi's philosophy works for me and should work for stories: Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words. A character or story's action should highlight or show off an ideal or lesson or belief. Instead of a narrow-minded, sheltered, naive priestess make her kind-hearted, generous and honest about her faith life. She shouldn't live to preach her faith but live her faith. If she doesn't agree with another character's faith or moral, have her be honest that it makes her uneasy or inquisitive. "I'm sorry I don't understand why you do this." Even people with strong faith can question their faith...and in fact they should. For doing so makes faith stronger.

Conclusion, Amen
So there is potential to have Christian values or stories in Games. It just needs the right kind of execution. Like serious games, fun should still be a priority. Because learning made fun is better remembered. There is a place for blatant preaching but its a turn-off for games. And there is definitely a call for games that have a "positive message" in the market.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Visuals: Sylized vs Realistic

The look of a game is its selling point. In our market society, we judge a book by its cover so we judge a game by its looks. I've often complained about the looks of characters in some genres.
So let's talk about graphics and realism.

History Lessons
When looking back on some of the earliest computer games, graphics were always the added bonus. For the most part the graphics were iconic. This means they were symbols or like hieroglyphs. The icons represented something else that we can translate in the context of the game situation.

As the graphic abilities of computers advanced the less iconic graphics needed to be. They did not need to be abstract shapes to represent a player or an enemy. It could vaguely resemble what it was suppose to be.

The semblance of what the game environment is and what we recognize as real are slowly becoming closer. The uncanny valley is all we have to watch out for.

On the Trail
Perception is what graphic style or visual style changes most in a game. Let's bring up an example: Oregon Trail.

The first/original version of the game used somewhat iconic graphics. The text log sat under some single color pixel animations of a oxen pulling a cart. The user gets some visual feed back but text was needed to clarify.

A few years later they upgrade the graphics. While it's still a text heavy game. There is now color and images made with pixel art.

Then the game changed a bit and the player is more likely to talk to people and a very visual GUI was introduced.
In one version that I recall vividly was Oregon Trail 3. Photos and live video of people in costume were used.

Most recently, I got the iPhone/iPod Touch version of Oregon Trail. The graphics are cartoons.

Between the 4 versions of the game I brought up we get very distinct perceptions for each.

Iconic graphics rely on imagination and need text to support the visuals. (or in some cases clarify).

While this isn't the perfect example, it's enough to prove a point. The player recognizes a wagon with an ox.
A game like this is taken "seriously". It's educational.

Stylized Art
Then we see the upgrade.

While not realistic, it represents semi-accurately what you were doing.
This would be perceived again as something to take seriously and as educational. At the same time it's more enjoyable to look at.


This is a photoshoped looking setting. But the images are realistic. Again this makes the game seem serious but could be considered more immersive.


The most recent Oregon Trail has cartoonish graphics. Which gives it a tone vastly different from its predecessors. It seems goofy and less serious and perhaps more fun.

1000 Words in a Picture
As the saying goes. What do you want your game to "say" when players read the images?
The visual style will say a lot about what your audience can expect. The challenge will be to meet the expectation or to throw your audience in for a loop.

As seen above, a cartoon style graphic can be perceived as "easy fun", "casual", or "childish".
In now times, the iconic style can be perceived as "nostalgic".
The platform you work with limits the range of visual style to apply. PC has the widest range.

The more "serious" your graphics the more critique your game may get for visual and game design flaws. In some ways a stylized graphic game may be forgiven because it's a "cartoon".
However, there are always going to be truly heinous design flaws that can never be forgiven.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

LOH: Status Report

I've written nearly all of the script. I'm at least in the third act.

The next step will be all the artwork. Backgrounds will be the most difficult.

-Open Desert
-Village Exterior
-Village Interior
-Sacred Ruins/Trial Grounds
-Sacred Realm

-City Streets
-Back Streets
-School Exterior
-School Foyer
-Bed Room
-Throne Room
-Temple Interior
-Temple Secret Chamber
-City Gate

-Mountains Exterior
-Mountain Hall Interior
-Temple Entrance
-Temple: 1 tunnel; 1 Corner; 1 Sacred Door; 1 Locked Door Room; 3 tunnels
-Temple Djinn Room

-Beach Exterior
-Castle Interior
-Temple Entrance
-Temple: 1 tunnel, 1 corner, 1 Sacred Door; 1 Locked Door; Djinn Room

-Forest Exterior
-Village Gate
-Hidden Village
-Temple Entrance
-Temple: 1 tunnel, 2 tunnels, 1 corner, 1 Sacred Door; 1 Locked Door; Djinn Room

-Air Temple Gardens
-Melek's Home Interior
-Temple Entrance
-Temple: 1 tunnel, 1 corner, 1 Sacred Door; 1 Locked Door; Djinn Room, 3 tunnels

Mara - 4 Costumes (normal, Travel, School, Dancer); (Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Laughing, Sad, Worried, Ashamed, Surprised, Grief(crying), tensed/determined, irritated, angry, Reflective/Reverant, Shy, Flirty)
Shamir - 2 Costumes (Travel/Formal); 5 Forms; Expressions: Neutral, Pleased, Smug/Arrogant, Surprised, Embarrassed, Grumpy, Angry, Rage, Worried, Sad, Happy)
Rama - expressions: Annoyed, Neutral, Devious, Angry, Worried, In Love
Lucios - 2 Costumes (Village/Royal) Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Laughing, Very Happy, Flirty, Surprise, Irritated, Sad/Worried, Cryptic, Secret Silly)
Melek - 1 Costume (uniform); Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Pleased, Laughing, Awe/Wonder, Surprise, Sad, Determined, Shy, Embarrassed)
Shakil - 1 Costume (shepherd) Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Worried, Laughing, Irritated, Embarrassed, Shy, Sad/disappointed, Loving)
Opal - 3 Costumes (village/travel/fight); Expressions: Neutral, Smug, Devious, Irritated, Sarcastic, Angry, Happy, Very pleased.
Young Opal - Expressions: Shy, Sad, Happy, Embarrassed
Young Mara - Expressions: Happy, Laughing, Shock, Embarrased
Rosalia - 3 costumes (School, Dancer, Royal); Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Very Happy, Laughing, Worried, Angry, Embarrassed, Surprise, Sad, Wistful, Crying.)
Daire - 3 costumes (School, Dancer, Royal); Expressions: Neutral, Smirking, Happy, Laughing, Flirty, Surprised, Embarrassed, Sad, Angry, Rage, Crying, Arrogant)
Lady Miret - 3 costumes (School, Formal, Noble); Expressions: Neutral, Happy, Arrogant, Crazed, Surprise, Laughing, Crying, Angry, Shouting)
Mother - 1 costume; Expressions: Neutral, Knowing Smile, Happy, Sad
Aurens - 1 costume; Expressions: Neutral, Angry, Happy, Embarrassed, Sad
Mistress Maple - 1 Costume; Expression: Haughty (neutral), Smiling, Disappointed, Angry/Scolding
Queen - 1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral, Smile, Serene, Disappointed, Angry
Lord Tianal - 1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral, Arrogant, Happy, Sad, Angry, Upset
Opal's Father - 1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral
King Folin - 1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral, Happy
King Dynx - 1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral, Happy
Village Elder -1 Costume; Expressions: Neutral, Happy
4 Djinn
Triune Goddess
Neir - Expressions: Neutral, Angry, In Love, Surprise