I was recently kvetching about Dragon Age II for various reasons, but then decided to zero in on something that seems to be a problem for almost all modern games: crude exposition. By "exposition," I mean the parts of any narrative where you have to break from the action and provide context. For example, if you're describing a spy breaking into a safe, you might need to stop for a moment to let the reader know who the spy is and what he's doing there, where and what time period this is taking place in, etc. Most authors break this stuff up and distribute it throughout the piece, so you aren't just suddenly hit with page after page of facts, but get them piecemeal as you proceed through the story. For instance, the author might mention in passing that there's a flag with a swastika above the safe, thereby letting you know this is probably taking place in Germany during World War II. Then she might put you in the spy's head, imagining scientists building a missile based on the schematics in that safe. Without any kind of exposition, the reader will have no reason to care about what's taking place and probably stop reading. One sign of a good author is that the exposition doesn't impede the action too much, but maintains a certain flow that keeps us turning pages.
I've encountered so many examples of crude exposition in games recently...the "codex" in Dragon Age 2, the tape recorders in Bioshock 2, the consoles in Halo ODST, the pages in Alan Wake...It seems when confronted with presenting context, the first instinct of a game designer is to make it superfluous.
As you can imagine, the business of exposition is tricky for any medium. Watch some of the early X-Files episodes and you'll see a lot of rather blatant expositions, usually something like this: "Stonehenge? Oh, yes, the ancient druid stones that researchers think may have served an astronomical function, but some conspiracy theories think could not have been built by anyone but extraterrestrials," etc. I mention this show because the exposition is usually so blatant that it feels forced and thus obvious to viewers. Obviously, they didn't expect the audience to know much, if at all, about the subject matter of the show. Games shouldn't ever have this problem because designers know exactly what the players know--assuming they have done their homework and not made the context superfluous to the content.
Let me say here that it makes no more sense to interrupt the gameplay with a screen full of text than it does for a bag of fried chicken to include an instruction manual. If your game requires players to read text, re-design it so that it doesn't.*
A lot of peeps have been asking me to compile a list of my top ten favorite CRPGs of all time. Like most fans of the genre, I have many favorites, and these will shift around as I come in and out of different phases. Also, this is just a personal list of what I either enjoy now or look back on with the most fondness; I'm not worried here about what is most influential or innovative. It's just my top ten favorite CRPGs, as of this moment. I'm also going to skip hybrid games that try to cross genres, such as Mass Effect and Deus Ex, as well as MUDs and MMORPGs. Okay, enough disclaiming already! Here goes the list:
10. Knights of the Old Republic. I have to admit the bulk of my appeal for this game comes from its setting in the Star Wars universe, which I love almost as much as Middle Earth and Krynn. There were times playing this game where I felt I had actually entered that universe and was a part of something bigger than the game itself. It seems to me that after this game, Bioware cut the cord and went Action, Action, ACTION. There's some of that tendency here, but compared to Dragon Age and Mass Effect, at least this still reminds me of a true CRPG.
9. The Bard's Tale. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure to love this game so much, since it was heavily derivative on Wizardry, but what can I say...It didn't take me long to really want to explore the town of Skara Brae and get my pack of wimpy, glass-jawed heroes up to snuff. I also really like the Bard as a class and character; it seems obvious today, but back then it was really fun to think about a guy out strumming a lute as the rest of the party fought for their lives. I also really like the artistic style, which adds a certain character that really is unique. It also has a great box that you can fold out and see a lovely map of the city. Good stuff.
8. Dungeon Master. Another game that I am deeply saddened to have missed out on when it was fresh. I know I would've absolutely loved it. Unfortunately, it required 1 megabyte of RAM to play, and my Amiga 1000 was limited to 512K. That still frustrates me to this day! Still, when I finally got to play it, I was really impressed with the interface, and it's obvious at once how the real-time elements set it apart from its predecessors and contemporaries. It's a bit hard to get into today because of the magic system, which definitely requires some reading, but overall it's still lots of fun. I remember the ads stressed that you need to wear headphones and only play the game at night. I don't know if that was necessary, but it was a neato game for sure.
While the old 7800 is connected up I may as well cover the other games I have, including a homebrew effort.
Hi, folks. I thought that today, in the spirit of the "top" lists that are so ubiquitous these days, I'd offer you a list of five reasons why you should care about Armchair Arcade. Many of you may not even know what it is or how it got started, but even those of us who've been around since the early days might like a little refresher and a personal view. So, here goes.
Reason #5: Founded in 2003. That's right, folks, Armchair Arcade has been around for eight years. Actually, its birthday is in September. There's not many non-commercial websites that can make that claim, especially not many dedicated to vintage games and computers. You should feel comfortable making this your home base, because you can rest assured we are here to stay. You can read our about us page or our FAQ to learn more.
Last week I had the pleasure of traveling to Bogotá, Colombia, to attend and present at Campus Party Colombia 2011, a fantastic industry event that evolved out of LAN parties. The place was packed with thousands (tens of thousands?) of gamers, most of whom stayed up all night playing multiplayer games and then sleeping in tents provided by the event. It's like a summer camp for gamers! In the past few years, though, they've been adding on game development features, with the government and Colombian companies trying to spur some interest among young people in building games. I assume they realize (correctly) that a strong interest in making videogames will lead to a flowering of many related industries, including many that are good for business.
I could write a book about my adventures, but I'll just stick to the highlights. Two were getting to see Captain Crunch (John Draper) and Nolan Bushnell. I didn't get to meet CC, but did hear him speak (he sounds like Dennis Hopper). Somebody asked him what he thought about Anonymous, and he replied with something very witty: "Anonymous? I've heard of them. That means they're not good hackers." Haha!
Everybody who's been gaming or awhile is well aware of the Videogame Crash of 1983, a period that saw the collapse of the American console market and a strange period when many people thought the videogame was dead. The causes are numerous and hotly contested, but it's likely just an unexciting story of a bubble that popped. One strain of the story I've always found interesting as it is improbable, is that two games are primarily responsible for the crash: Howard Scott Warshaw's E.T. and Tod Frye's Pac-Man, both for the 2600. In both cases, we're talking about massively hyped games that sold tremendously well, but then got returned to stores in droves. My thought for today is whether something like this could happen again--could a rapid-fire succession of massively disappointing games topple the industry like it did in the 80s?
We've recently seen five games that by all rights "should" have been great--expectations were high, fanboys numerous, and, for the most part, very talented people were in control. However, in each case, the major critics either dismissed them as mediocre or blasted them as if they were almost personally offended by their perceived lack of quality:
Duke Nukem Forever. Metacritic score: 55.
Alpha Protocol Metacritic: 72 (Gamespot: 60, IGN: 63).
Hunted: The Demon's Forge. Metacritic score: 63.
Alice: Madness Returns. Metacritic score: 75 (IGN: 65).
Dungeon Siege 3. Metacritic: 73 (IGN: 65, Gamespot: 60).
Even Nintendo seems to be having problems. Despite the waves of hype the 3DS is currently receiving over the re-release (yawn) of Ocarina of Time, I still see the whole thing as another Virtual Boy with a much better marketing campaign. I see an upcoming backlash, though, as more purchasers find that they aren't getting full refunds when they try to return the devices that give them headaches. That's the kind of episode and bad publicity that can make anyone think twice about buying a game. As for Nintendo's new console, it sure looks like that "U" stands for "Useless." Sony, of course, is unlikely to ever recover from the PSN nightmare, and Microsoft doesn't seem far behind. Even if the new console is great, who can justify it in this economy?
Let me start by saying I haven't played Alice: Madness Returns and will probably never play it. After all, avoiding games like this is why I read reviews, such as this one, this one, and this one. If you don't want to read all those, let me sum it up for you: The baby has turned into a pig.
It's funny how so many quotes from Lewis Carroll's work seem appropriate here. Consider:
March Hare: Have some wine.
(Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.)
Alice: I don't see any wine.
March Hare: There isn't any.
Alice: Then it wasn't very civil of you to offer it.
March Hare: It wasn't very civil of you to sit down without being invited.
It's been a long time since I've been excited about a forthcoming CRPG. I usually just find myself disappointed and then bitter when I find that the latest "CRPG" is just another mindless twitch-fest with bigger boobs than ever before. Sigh.
So, what would I like to see in a CRPG? I thought I'd provide a wishlist.
#5. Quality packaging. Yes, I know that games are data and are best distributed over the internet. But that doesn't mean that there can't also be a tangible component, such as nice printed manuals, maps, and reference cards. The goal here should be to make those "extras" not only a pleasure to hold, but truly useful in the game (i.e., no collectors' edition bullshit of interest only to fanboys). Periodically the game should refer you to them, as well, since there is nothing more boring than being asked to read a lot of text on a screen. Why not do like the old games did for copy protection, and ask you to read entry #43 in your lovely printed journal? Hellz yeah! That sure beats trying to read a bunch of stupid text on a screen, or, worse, hearing it read by some voice actor without a clue of its context. As for nitwits who can't be bothered to actually read a book, those idiots wouldn't be interested in my kind of game anyway so to hell with them.
I had recently written about what I perceive to be the false notion of console gaming holding PC gaming back (and, frankly, with a recent release like L.A. Noire and future releases like Skyrim, again, it's hard to make that argument outside of a purely superficial (audio/visual) - not contentual - standpoint). Perhaps, as this new article puts forth, it's not consoles, but tablets, that the traditional PC industry has more to worry about?
Of course, as far as I'm concerned, we're actually still at least a few years off from that happening, at least until Apple breaks the required link between their iOS devices and a computer equipped with iTunes (and that's a question of "when", not "if"). Android devices are of course close to completely breaking free of the computer tether, but there are other issues for those classes of devices to overcome first. Other tablet OS's, present and future, are probably somewhere in-between the two.
Interestingly, there's a girl here at my day job who had bought an iPad 2 about a month back and then recently got an iPhone 4, but was frustrated that there was no way to copy what was on her iPad 2 (purchases) over to the iPhone 4. You see, she considers her computer horribly outdated and really didn't want to go through iTunes on her rickety old PC! Obviously, very flawed thinking, but it's very interesting what the non-techies have in their thought processes (and in this case how she wants to basically compute outside of work exclusively on the iPad 2 and iPhone 4)... Definitely a paradigm shift of some type! In any case, it's the old argument that it's not so much computers that are being challenged, it's the limited generalized definition of what a computer is that is being challenged. Does a computer really mean that desktop or laptop many of use a good portion of the day? Sure, but that's not all it means. As an iPad 2 user - outside of the tethering restriction for the occasional iTunes sync - I can argue that my tablet is as much of a computer as most desktops and laptops, with strikingly similar functionality (and in some cases, then some).
Ultimately, I think it's clear we're all headed to a connected eco-system of devices, where a lot of stuff is in the cloud, with minimal need for local storage. You'll simply use whatever device is handy or whatever is best suited to a particular task (say a touch screen or a keyboard). We even already have brilliantly functional cloud gaming services (and of course, VOD, like Netflix), so, outside of artificial bandwidth restrictions by ISP's, there's little reason to think that the future has anything to do with increasingly more powerful traditional computers. For some of us who have been in love with technology since our earliest memories, this is a tough sell, but it's hard to argue that's not where we're headed, and perhaps it's just as hard to argue that it's even a bad a thing. I'm sure even the most hardcore among us have tired of the upgrade/incompatibility/instability cycle at some point, if only briefly.
Here's my take on the hottest news for Wednesday, May 18th.
PSN logins exploited again, Sony takes pages offline. Sony in consultations with TSA to improve security; new system utilizes The PlayStation Eye and requires taking off shoes and submitting to nude-ray scan.