Extra! Extra! Blog Begets Blog!

Good news everyone, I've started a gaming blog! It's called No Robots, and it's where my enthusiasm for computer games flows into the world like Niagara Falls.

I write about current trends in gaming, some of my more interesting experiences, and at least once a week on a Friday I'll put up something beautiful or fascinating from the world of games, like this:

Or this:

I hope you'll swing by and check it out.

 

Choice is Changing

[intro]You walk onto the forecourt of a dark and desolate gas station, your dog at your side. The old-timey old-timer sitting by the pumps asks you the dog’s name and you hover over answering, “His name is Homer.” but then think better of it and reply, “Her name is Blue.”[/intro] 

[dropcap]K[/dropcap]entucky Route Zero is a small kickstarter-funded project to be released in several acts, and it remains to be seen how your choices affect the story, but while it may seem like a quirky-if-traditional interactive work of fiction, like The Walking Dead, the scope of the choices reveals something quite different.

When I played KRZ, I came to a choice about whether to take a glowing die with me, or leave it on a table for somebody to find. I agonized over this choice, but quickly realized it wasn’t because I wanted to affect the future; it was an ethical choice without clear ramifications. The dilemma was real, personal and internal. Sure, it was a little non-dramatic, it may not have had the bombast of the dilemma posed in harvesting Little Sisters in Bioshock, or the amusing clarity of the dialogue options in Knights of The Old Republic (“1. Don’t worry, I’ll save you! 2. I’ll go and get help; you’re going to be OK! 3. My word, you’re ugly. Bye.”), but it was a choice with a very different flavor. Why would you think twice about choosing the name and gender of your dog? It’s a mechanically pointless choice, but it offers a surprising screen for emotional projection.

Bioshock-Infinite-interview-3

…this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful…

It would seem apparent that the best way to design a choice system is to post a clear signpost at each crossroads so that the player doesn’t feel cheated. In her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal explores the thesis that games provide what life often lacks; clear and constant feedback. The reason people engage in games, what essentially amounts to “optional work”, is that the work takes place in a framework of feedback recognizing the why and when of work that’s both good and bad, something missing from most jobs and life decisions.

This otherwise brilliant insight starts to fall apart when we look at games as works of art intended to reflect life. The decisions we make in Kentucky Route Zero are difficult because they reflect the difficulty of living in a world where we choose what to do and say without a clear idea of what’s going to happen. The character you play in KRZ ends up being more of you than would have seemed possible because he is a cipher. The choices you make while playing him come from the gut or random chance, without strategy. His problems may not be yours, but by deciding who he is, you can explore what you would do if you were him, not just in his shoes.

In a recent interview with Polygon, Drew Holmes, writer of Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, went into the problem of giving moral, emotional choices a strategic quality.

[cite]”Looking back at Bioshock 1‘s choice system, it’s something that’s really powerful the first time, not really powerful the second time and by the 10th time you’re not really trying to decide whether to harvest or save the little sisters,” said Holmes. “You’re not thinking about it on a philosophical or moral level at that time because it just becomes ‘I want the more special juice to make me do the thing.’ It numbs people over time.”[/cite]

Referring to a demo of Bioshock Infinite, Emily Gera who authored the piece retells a decision you can make on whether to hurl a baseball at an interracial couple. There’s no clear consequence in the narrative of the game but the personal consequences are clear: be a decent person, or see what it feels like to be an absolute dickhead. You could be the hero, antihero or shades of grey in-between.

As a movement, this new kind of storytelling could be the beginning of something very powerful, a true maturation of a process that started with choose-your-own-adventure books and interactive fiction.  Narrative videogames have struggled with the creative restraints imposed by their predecessors since they began with text adventures, MUDs and point-and-click adventures. The challenge seems to be balancing emotional attachment with a feeling of agency; for emotional attachment you need to provide the player with some kind of personality to latch on to, but giving them total agency makes it very easy for the player to break the spell.

Strategy games like Command & Conquer or Civilization seemed to be the shining light for agency, even Minecraft could be said to be a perfect example of an emergent narrative, but the lack of character means it’s more like Lego or chess than a novel. You can develop an emotional narrative, but it has very little to do with the author of the game. Sure, games like Alpha Centauri come along that give you a rich backstory and clearly defined characters, but that effect is diminished on each playthrough until it’s just wallpaper, like Holmes’ example above from Bioshock. The other end of the spectrum is a character like Gordon Freeman in the Half-Life series, a voiceless cipher in a strong linear story. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel some affinity for him after playing a Half-Life game, he’s a bundle of characteristics and traits you inhabit and grow to love like a great hat, but for all of the emotional attachment you develop for him and his world, the story is static, which is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t do much to further the cause of the interactive narrative.

We don’t know yet what Bioshock Infinite or the rest of Kentucky Route Zero will do for decision-making in games, and whether this trend is going to deepen, but it’s an exciting time to be a gamer looking to play through stories.

The Castle Doctrine

[intro] A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to make it into the limited (to 100 people) pre-alpha test of The Castle Doctrine, the new game by Jason Rohrer. If you don’t know Rohrer, he’s the mind behind Passage and Sleep is Death, two of my favourite art games, and Chain World, one of the most impressive examples of conceptual game design I’ve ever seen.

The Castle Doctrine is a turn-based MMO about burglary and home invasions. Bear with me, here. [/intro]

First Impressions

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] started off with my family and a vault in an empty house, with a princely $2,000 to spend on home improvements. With some playing around, I realised that I could place walls, wiring and various security appliances around the house. There were some teething problems, since there aren’t really any instructions, but it seemed clear to me that I would want to make my place as difficult to burgle as possible. I put the vault in the middle of the house and built a doorless room around it. Dusted off my hands and grinned smugly. That should be that. Like to see them cut through that one.

All that hard work done and I decide to go see what other people have tried, so I hit “Done” and get a strange screen:

Prove That Your House Is Fair

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“Prove that your house is fair:”…eh, how? Then I realised what was going on. This was a simulation and I had to show that the challenge I set up was winnable. I had to rob my own house. I couldn’t, of course, my house was extremely, prejudicially unfair. That was the whole point. I was also unable to skip or escape out of the screen. Hitting ESC just brought up the pause menu (more on that later). I realised that the Suicide button was the only way out and hit it.

[box style=”note”]UPDATE Jason Rohrer has pointed out that in a situation like mine above, you can actually just walk out the front door and go back to editing the house without being penalised.[/box]

I arrived back into the Build Your House screen, but I was back to square one; I had $2,000, and nothing in my house except my presumably loving family and a vault. This was going to be tougher than I’d thought.

After a LOT more tinkering, I figured I had a pretty good trap set up, an elaborate series of circuits would trigger in sequence, seeming to trap the burglar in a corridor tantalisingly close to the vault, but then with some careful backtracking, they could get past the electrified floors and grab the loot. I hit Done and began my dummy run. I accidentally got electrocuted and died, losing all of my work. What a fucking dummy.

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When you hit ESC you bring up the pause menu – anything you type into that goes to the server, which Rorher can read through, a brilliant idea for feedback. I made several notes about how annoyed I was that a simple accident could kill me in a simulation of robbing my own house. It didn’t seem to make sense, so I went back to the game and tried setting up something similar again.

I tested it and accidentally died. Again. Fucking again. I made some more notes. I set up the house again. I died in my own Home Alone-like palace of pain. Right, that’s it, I thought. I’m going to bed.

I hit ESC to get to the menu so I could quit, but the image of the defenceless family and vault with $2,000 in it, in a big empty house somehow resonated with me. I didn’t want to leave them defenceless. I wanted to come back to something, anything at all.

Right, just one more pass, I said, just one more quick little setup and then I can rest easier knowing that someone else will pay the ultimate price for daring to cross my threshold. Having created my funhouse at least fifteen times by that stage I had gotten pretty good at it, and I was proud of my handiwork. Instead of quitting, I thought I’d have a look at what else was going on. I mean, it’s an MMO, right?

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Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 01.38.52
Rob Lowe – great in Parks & Rec

Hmmmm. Three people died, huh? Well, I couldn’t resist. I double-clicked and got the now-familiar screen I got when playing the burglar, only this time of course the place looked totally different, since it was built by someone else. What’ve I got to lose, right?

[rev_slider invasion]

Turns out this asshole had pitbulls. Two of them. So I died. And lost everything. All of the work I had done. FFS. I started again. I had no choice at this point. I robbed two houses successfully, armed with drugged meat and a gun. I got a serious nest-egg going! I was killed. I started over. A couple of times.

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Wifey, the two kids and your life's savings.

It’s a very interesting game; full of good ideas, both conceptual and mechanical. I like the art style. I don’t know how finished it is, whether the gang of pre-alpha testers I’m a member of is expected to help make the game more fun or just more stable. As it stands, I think that not being able to tweak the design of your house without risking death is a big mistake (more on that in a future post). I know it got its hooks into me, but I was genuinely annoyed by it – it kept slowing me down, regulating my speed and fun.

I like that all of the players are anonymous, it makes it something of a hybrid, both MMO and single-player. You don’t chat with anybody or fight them in real time, you just assault one another’s homes. The only realtime element is the “Leaderboard” – the list of unattended houses.

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[headsubline subline=”The Castle Doctrine has some lovely little touches…”]>The Little Things[/headsubline]

  • Your family always faces towards you – I think it creates a sense of responsibility.
  • The method of ensuring every house is solvable by making you solve it before you leave is very elegant.
  • When you drug the dogs, you still have to go around them, or you’ll wake them up, so you have to be careful where you drop them.
  • Dogs and cats trigger pressure plates, so they can be incorporated into a trap system.
  • Your wife carries half of the money in the house, so as a burglar, you have to option to kill her or let her go.
  • When a family member has been killed, the remaining members don’t run when an intruder enters. It feels like they have nothing left to run for.
  • Chihuahuas are provided as stand-ins for pitbulls.
  • Houses can be rigged so they can only be broken into once. IF you’re clever.
  • Players are given randomised, anonymous names.
  • No chat system.
  • You can search for people who robbed you by name to find and burgle their houses.

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Minecraft Map

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hose of you who know me have probably heard me talk about Minecraft, one of the most wonderful games I’ve ever played. A kind of virtual sandbox, it can be difficult to get started, especially since there’s no tutorial or manual, but it’s definitely worth the initial work up the learning curve.

One of the coolest aspects of Minecraft is multiplayer. Anybody can create a server and have their mates come and join in. With a little bit of networking know-how and some awesome plugins and 3[sup]rd[/sup] party software, you can put together something quite full-featured.

I’ve been hosting a server for some time now, and have recently overhauled the mapping system. Using Tectonicus, I’ve created three maps:

The Nether
The Nether
The End
The End
Regular World
Regular World

If you’re interested in joining in, drop me a mail.