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Love and Other Games

Quick, name a recent title whose story has shaped the gaming industry. Okay, done that?

The ones that readily spring to mind, and I suspect some of you may have picked, are Call of Duty’s shocking Modern Warfare stories and Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect stories with their homosexual romance options.

Call of Duty generated a lot of buzz in the press in MW2 by allowing the player to participate in terror attacks, gunning down civilians and in MW3 by graphically blowing up a small child. While it got people talking about it, it’s really serves as a cycle of oneupsmanship to create the most shocking, and therefore by extension the most “mature” game. Though there’s little that anyone could actually call mature about it; quite the opposite, it’s really pretty puerile.

There are often calls, particularly among the “games as an art” camp, to grow up as an industry. A great majority of games find themselves falling into the categories of “shoot the terr’ists” or “save us, chosen one!”, few are willing to tread the ground of genuinely mature territory, that of “serious issues”. It’s easy enough to see why, it’s a risky move on any level. The big boys are only interested in the mass appeal, big bucks type titles, and on an indie level, your success could well be the difference between eating ramen or living in a box.

Bioware flirts with this in their games’ romance options, openly allowing gay and lesbian relationships. It’s a hell of a step forward, no doubt, and hopefully the herald of better things to come, but it’s still only toying with the issue, it’s always optional and never has any real impact, either emotionally or on the course of the story.

Enter Christine Love, a Canadian game designer. Or Visual Novelist. The distinction’s a pretty grey area in my book. They’re stories told through the interface of what looks a lot like a game. And they’re nonlinear, have options and the occasional puzzle. That’s marking them out as being pretty close to a game to me. Irrespective of what you’d call them, in terms of narrative, Love’s works are strides ahead of the rest of the medium.

Her first title, Digital: A Love Story is set “five minutes into the future of 1988”. The player, having recently acquired their first “Amie” computer, joins a local BBS and finds the poetry of a girl called Emilia. From there it spirals into a world of romance, computer hacking and conspiracy. The entire game is played through the Amie interface, and you can respond to any post on any BBS and send private messages to any other user. You never once get the chance to see what you’ve written, though, only infer it from the responses you get. A lot of developers are given credit for a good silent protagonist, but Samus, Link and Gordon Freeman still all had an appearance and a certain amount of personality. By leaving the protagonist as a complete blank slate, it leaves plenty to the player’s imagination, adding a great deal to the story.

Her second title, Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, sees you take the role of John Rook, a high school English teacher in the year 2027. This being the future, social networking is huge and all your students are on a network called AmieConnect, reminiscent of Facebook. The school has arranged for you to be able to view all of your students’ public and private messages in secret in order to better assist them. this obviously raises very strong issues of online privacy. You’ll frequently be presented with scenarios where you can guide your students through tough situations, but you’ll only be well equipped to deal with them by violating their privacy at regular intervals. Being high school, bullying and LGBT issues are also prevalent.

Her latest title, Analogue: A Hate Story, has you play a similar role to the first game, a faceless, silent protagonist an unknown number of years in the future when mankind has colonised the stars. You are given the job of a salvage operation on the Mugunghwa a deep space generation ship lost thousands of years earlier. You contact the ship’s AI, but system issues mean you can only communicate in binary choice answers and by showing items of discussion to the AI. By trawling through the logs of the final seven years of life on board the ship you can piece together a picture of their civilisation. Primarily viewed from the perspective of a 13-year old girl put into stasis in the hope that future technology would cure her terminal illness, the civilisation has reverted to a deeply misogynistic culture based on that of the patriarchal Joseon Dynasty of medieval Korea. “Men are honored, women are abased” is the cliché the game asks you to keep in mind throughout. In a society where women are perpetually dehumanised, the game tries to show what life would have been like for those women. All the characters deal with differing degrees of tragedy and scandal, some powerful issues and shocking stories, others merely asides. Ultimately, the dehumanising culture, accepted as the norm for all but the young girl, is the root of it all.

Love tackles head-on issues that most people would rather tiptoe around or turn a blind eye to. Sexism, homophobia, suicide, alcoholism, and complex relationships are all expertly dealt with, even if not always the outright theme. The result is stories that are entirely captivating and deeply thought-provoking, and leave a far greater impact than any dime-a-dozen “chosen one” plotline.

I said at the start that there’s a contingent demanding games grow up, and I can get behind that. Christine Love’s work shows that it is possible, and it can work well. We need to sit up and take note. I think Christine Love may very well be one of the most important video game writers to date.



Lamenting the Stigma of Free-to-Play

“So yeah, I’ve been playing this new game, it’s really fun, you should try it, it’s free!”

“No thanks, I’ll give it a miss.”

“What? Why? It’s free, all it’ll cost you is time and bandwidth just to try it.”

“Those games are always won by the kids with the richest parents.”

That’s paraphrased from a few different conversations I’ve had, but the general theme is always the same; if it’s free it can’t be any good and it can’t possibly be anything other than Pay-to-Win. The counterpoint I usually hold up at this stage is the wildly popular Team Fortress 2 from Valve. Already a cult hit, the game moved to a free-to-play model almost a year ago. All non-cosmetic items in the game can be earned without ever spending a penny, and Valve’s dedication to balance among the game’s items mean almost nothing will give you an advantage, anyway. Sounds good, right? You’d think others might have adopted this model for themselves. They have. Plenty have.

Dude riding a levitating dugong? Free.

Valve, despite their sterling reputation for it, didn’t even pioneer this concept. The earliest example I’m familiar with of Free-to-Play, Pay-for-Hats is League of Legends. As a game I’ve covered before, I’ll jump straight to the business model. There are 99 champions to choose from to play but on any given week only 10 are available. You can permanently unlock a champion with currency in-game or, if you so desire, with real money. Each champion also has a number of alternative outfits available, which you can purchase with real money, and there’s also a few extra non-essential metagame things you can buy to make your life easier. So there’s nothing that’s absolutely integral to the game that can’t be earned for free.

Spiral Knights, in spite of recent DLC controversy, initially launched using a very similar model two months prior to TF2’s transition. My own personal vice, Super Monday Night Combat, uses an almost identical model to League of Legends. In my recent review of Moon Breakers I noted that while the accessibility of free content could use some rebalancing, it’s still all available to those who would put in the time.

Jelly King? Totally free!

So, in the light of so many demonstrably fun and balanced titles, irrespective of whether you’ve flashed the plastic or not, why are gamers, broadly speaking, still so opposed to the idea that a free product can be a good product?

While League of Legends may have been arguably the first to “do it right” so to speak, it was by no means the first to use free-to-play as a business model. There’s a long history of MMOs marketed as free-to-play and these have historically run the gamut of downright awful through to merely mediocre. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reasoning behind this, but these games have broadly speaking been of Korean origin. Keen followers of MMO games will likely have heard the term “Korean grindfest” thrown around. These are the ones I mean. Bland, slow-paced, mostly centring around the “kill 10 boars” type of questing, with no real effort to engage the player’s interest. The principal selling point being that unlike the big hitters out there it won’t be setting you back up to £10 per month, it’s completely free to play! Once upon a time, this would have been a unique selling point, drawing in a crowd just for the chance to get something for free. Those who stuck with it would find themselves inclined to invest, with exp boosts available to minimise the grind and a whole armory at their disposal for the right amount of money. These are the titles deserving of the moniker Pay-to-Win. Drop some cash and your character can have a glinting mithramantium sword, or that shiny diamontanium armour, then go hop into a game with those less fortunate souls.

These guys? They're free too!

The times, though, they are distinctly a-changin’. Developers, as they are wont to do (indies particularly), have seen where the Koreans went wrong and built upon that formula to create something a lot more friendly to the end-user, especially those with little or no money to burn. For the consumer, however, it’s a case of “once bitten, twice shy” and a lot of consumers have been bitten. Those wounds are going to need some healing before we see any degree of success in this area. The best any of us can hope to do is give them a shot. At the risk of repeating myself here, it’s free! Worst case scenario, you don’t enjoy it, wasted some time, but at least you took the time to try something new. In the best case, though, you might find something you absolutely love, purely by accident because you were open to trying new things.



Let’s Talk About DOTA

Defense of the Ancients. DOTA for short. It’s a strange beast. I’ll begin by describing the basic premise because I’ve known plenty of hardcore gamers that didn’t know what it was.

It began life as a mod for the RTS game Warcraft 3. Instead of having a hero unit commanding an army into battle, and permitting the player to command all units from above, DOTA simplified the strategy and made the focus the hero. Your base will continually spawn an army of grunts, usually called creeps, the enemies’ bases will do the same and, taking control of your hero and only your hero, you must help push forward against the opposing army to reach and destroy the enemy base. Each hero is equipped with their own abilities and it often ends up like TF2 on steroids, with over a hundred different characters each with differing abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Balancing all that must be a nightmare. Defeating enemy heroes and creeps earns you exp and you can level up your hero to have a greater impact on the game. As it happens, this concept became a huge success and has become a genre in its own right. One of the problems facing it though is that nobody has any clue what to call it or what it really is, so that’s something I want to explore now.

One of the first games to follow in DOTA’s successful footsteps was Demigod. This was soon followed by the now wildly successful League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth. All these three have a very similar play style. In contrast to DOTA’s top-down RTS perspective, these three had a third-person RPG perspective, but the gameplay was very similar. They play more akin to something like World of Warcraft than an RTS. So can you call it an RTS when it’s essentially the same game? Probably not, and there are a few ideas out there on how we can define it. The simplest one is DOTA-like. As far as naming convention goes, it’s not without precedent, after all we have roguelikes, named for the game Rogue. But even then, the genre has come a long way since its origins and something like, say, Monday Night Combat, whilst the fundamental mechanics are there, doesn’t really bear all that much resemblance to the W3 mod.

League of Legends coined the descriptor MOBA, or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. That strikes me as a rather broad description. It’s a title that fits equally well to League of Legends, Unreal Tournament, Smash Bros or even Mario Kart. They’re all multiplayer games involving battling other people online, often in an arena of some kind. What else can we call it? Valve, with their upcoming DOTA 2, have pushed the name ARTS or Action-RTS. As for what kind of action-to-strategy balance DOTA 2 brings, I couldn’t say, as it’s still in closed beta and naturally everything’s pretty hush-hush. With the kind of fortune I couldn’t have planned, I’ve landed an invite today so I’ll be able to find out shortly. As I’ve already mentioned, I feel RTS is a bit of a misnomer for the genre now, broadly speaking, but equally there’s exceptions. Having had the privilege of being introduced to Carbon Games‘ AirMech at PAX, I’ve seen that strategy doesn’t need to be completely absent. AirMech combines the usual infinitely spawning creeps with the ability to buy more advanced units and then, because your avatar can morph into a jet plane, pick up the units and ferry them about the battlefield strategically. Crazy 300 actions-per-minute Korean pro-gamers will be restricted by the plane’s movement speed, so strategy elements are held back to a pace that the normal human brain can handle, but without sacrificing them altogether and turning the game into a World of Warcraft battleground or a simple team deathmatch.

Sometimes though, you do just want to chill out and blow stuff up. Uber Entertainment‘s Monday Night Combat and newly launched free-to-play Super Monday Night Combat are great for this. It’s a third-person shooter, really, when you’re playing it. A lot more tactical than your typical shooter fare these days and a lot less lethal in combat, making teamwork and strategy a lot more profitable, but if you’re not a god among gamers you can still dive in and make a dent. The creeps, towers and bases are all there and all work like you’d expect, but it feels so much more like you’re playing TF2 than Warcraft 3.

On the whole, it’s pretty trivial to take any two of these games, view them side-by-side, say they’re pretty much the same and bundle them all up under a single label. If absolutely pressed to, I’d still go with DOTA-like because that’s where it all started, and anyway there are hundreds of different roguelikes, all uniquely different, they still all get thrown in a big pile together. No, it still doesn’t adequately convey what the hell I’m talking about, but I’m content to explain it over and over again ’til we all know that it’s a genre. A rich, diverse genre that’s still in it’s infancy. I’m certain Eul never anticipated all this when he first sat down to make a fun variant of Warcraft 3, and I’m equally certain developers will continue to surprise us by trying exciting new things with it. It’s something I very much look forward to seeing where it goes.



Tell Me Why I Ought to Buy Mass Effect 3

Forewarned is forearmed, I’m about to do my ranty indie hipster thing.

I’m not sold on Mass Effect 3. There, I said it. A very unpopular opinion, of that there can be no doubt. Don’t get me wrong, I adored Mass Effect 1, and played through Mass Effect 2 at least three times before grinding to a halt about halfway through insanity difficulty because everything took so long to kill. This is not a series I’m predisposed to disliking. I adore space opera. Alastair Reynolds and Isaac Asimov are my two favourite authors. This should be the ultimate thing for me. The thrilling climax to a series I thoroughly enjoy in a genre I can’t get enough of. But every single time anyone mentions 3 now, all I can muster is a huge feeling of “meh”. Why?

Yes, I tend to steer clear of the major AAA titles these days. I’m not denying that. I won’t touch Skyrim or Deus Ex, much less anything like Call of Duty or Battlefield. It’ll tell you the last title I paid more than £10 for: Halo CE Anniversary. A big title, certainly, and ultimately if we’re frank little more than a glorified map pack, particularly when you consider I already have Halo CE. The one notable difference between that and every other title I’ve mentioned so far? I didn’t realise the game was coming out until about a week before launch, at which point I ordered it off Amazon and forgot about it ’til it dropped through the mailbox. The others you saw coming several miles away with a horde of metaphorical heralds trumpeting to the entire world. Between advertising, previews, reviews, interviews and the mainstream masses clogging up every discussion forum with it I was burnt out on the product before it even shipped. I just didn’t want to know any more.

I know correlation doesn’t equal causation, I’m not an idiot, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a link between how much you force feed me your marketing before launch and how much I will resist buying it.

So here we are. It launches tomorrow. £40 for a game I’m already of tired of hearing about. I do want to play it, really. I know I’d enjoy it, and I certainly don’t want it spoiling for me by some big mouthed internet-type person. It’s very hard to justify £40, as well, especially when part of me feels like I wouldn’t want to play it. I’m currently enjoying Sequence; that set me back all of £2. And then Spiral Knights, SMNC, and Realm of the Mad God; all of which are free unless I feel like going out of my way to drop money on them. Stacking just launched at £8 and that’s currently downloading.

That’s my stance then: Don’t tell me to buy your stuff, I’ll decide for myself and you pushing me will only put me off. And certainly give me a reasonable price point for the content you’re offering. When I can get 20-40 hours entertainment out of a game that’s 5% of the cost it certainly looks a lot more attractive. It also means I can afford to take a risk on it, I’m not out of pocket badly if it’s no good.

I do want someone to sell me on Mass Effect 3 though. That’s the point I’m belabouring. Give me a good reason why it’s totally going to be worth £40 (plus DLC). Someone needs to make me not entirely bitter and jaded. Otherwise the plan is to wait a year and pick up a GOTY edition with all the DLC built in for like £5 preowned, and that’s even if I still care at all by that stage. Go on, leave me a message in the comments as to why I should leave my comfortable indie bubble.