Thursday, February 26, 2009

Springtime fo' Fitty

A breaking news flash regarding 50 Cent's new game.
Apparently the game has solid gunplay, sound AI, decent controls, and an entertaining story.
All I can ask is... what the hell went wrong?

They had everything so perfect: A crappy predecessor; a story about a "gangsta[sic]" rapper fighting terrorists in the Middle-East to retrieve a priceless skull-McGuffin (which clearly worked so well for the Indiana Jones franchise). The whole thing was clearly destined for the bargain bin. Yet somehow they managed to screw it up and produce a good game.

I highly suggest Max and Leo get outta town before all the bling-sporting little old ladies come to collect.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

With Lyrics

I find this song endlessly entertaining. Whether you remember the old Final Fantasy games or not (I'm only old enough to have grown up with VII), I think we can all appreciate poking a little fun at the sadistic nature of the average videogame protagonist. I mean, look at Kirby. He's senselessly devoured countless hapless creatures and stolen their essences. This seems, frankly, kinda evil; and all King Dedede ever did was take his little wand thingy.
But ultimately I guess a protagonist is only as good as his player.

...I'm looking at you, ya sickos.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Office Story

Here's a short story I wrote recently. It doesn't really have anything to do with games, but is that a crime I ask? (That's really a rhetorical question more than anything.)

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Office Story

By Orin Bishop

Jim and Brad crossed the threshold separating the light-rail and the platform as several car alarms went off.

“Did you see that guy back there?” Brad asked, “He had, like, a bun in his hair. Doesn’t that seem weird to you?”

Jim thought about it for a moment.

“It seems okay to me,” he concluded. “ I mean, it’s the 21st century. I think in this day and age we can reevaluate the traditional gender roles we’ve previously seen ourselves cast in, you know?”

Brad looked confused.

“Wh- no. No, I mean like a hotdog bun.”

They were silent for a while as they crossed out to join the downtown crowd on its way to do the morning’s business.

“Maybe he was going to eat it later” Jim finally offered.

“What, his hair?”

“No, the bun, I mean.”


Brad seemed somewhat satisfied.

They rounded the last corner and pushed their way into the cool lobby of IndustraCorp, pausing for a moment to watch the old woman who seemed to be caught up in the revolving glass doors. Jim briefly contemplated trying to aid her, but she didn’t look to be in any particular distress. He waved hello to the security guard, and Brad did some kind of friendly fist-poundy thing which the fellow seemed to regard as slightly offensive.

“Any hopes for the day,” Brad asked as they made their way to their cubicles.

“Only that Trent doesn’t need me for anything,” replied Jim, “that guy drives me nuts. He’s got that whole fake-o British accent and everything. Gack.”

“He’s British.”

“Well he’s a jerk!”

“Agreed, but, I mean, it’s not really ‘fake-o’ if he’s British, is it?”

“It is when he does it.”

“Hey look, there’s a note here from Stan the overlord.”

Jim pulled off the sticky and read it aloud.

“ ‘Jim, I need you to deliver the Stevenson account. Tube thingy isn’t working today. –Stan’… Well that’s alright then; we don’t hate Stan.”

“No,” said Brad,” we just think he’s clinically insane.”

“Shh, he’ll be listening through the carpet.”

They both had a good laugh until Brad spotted the second note.

“Hey, Stan left you another one below that.”

“ ‘P.S. – the Stevenson account is with Trent.’ Dammit!”

He cursed loudly enough that several people looked up reproachfully from the water coolers.

“And I think he also did this other one with a t-rex fighting a robot,” said Brad.


*  *  *


Trent was holding a meeting when Jim reluctantly slipped into the room, awkwardly knocking aside the projector which had inexplicably been placed in front of the door. The room was silent so he cautiously spoke.

         “Uh, Trent, can I talk to you for a m-“

         “Epepep,” Trent stammered, looking up irritably, “Jim, we’re in a meeting right now, and we don’t really… like you all that much. Jeffrey, you were reading the minutes.”

         “Eight forty-five, Jim waked in. He was being annoying.”

         Jeffrey emphasized this last bit by pausing to stare balefully at Jim. He looked back at his computer and continued.

         “Eight forty-six, Jim left.”

         Both he and Trent stared balefully at him.

         “Probably in a huff,” Jeffrey concluded, apparently reading off his monitor. Then he gazed at Jim some more, and when this didn’t seem to be working, he began making encouraging circles with his hand.

         “Look, would you stop reading the min-“ began Jim

         “Continue reading the minutes!” screamed Trent.

         Jeffrey glanced briefly at his enraged supervisor, then looked back at Jim and, failing to think of anything else, began moving his hand again.

         “Look, I just need the bloody Stevenson account.”

         “Yes yes,” said Trent, “it’s in your desk. Somebody around here actually reads the notes you get.”

         “What?” Jim said, taken aback, “why do you think I’m in here?”

         “Out!” yelled Trent, “and put that projector back the way it was.”

         “I don’t think both of those tasks are physically possible, sir,” said Jim.

         “And that is why you are not management material, Chris.”

         “It’s Jim, actually,” he said, mostly to himself, as he awkwardly closed the door while positioning the projector by its cord and gratefully headed off down the hall. “It was in the minutes.”

The meeting resumed its silence.


*  *  *


Jim returned to his cubicle in a less than jovial mood, but the Stevenson account was in his desk just as Trent had promised, along with several fliers advertising some sort of Lithuanian cruise. It seemed Trent wanted him to leave the country.

He hurried out through the lobby past the revolving doors in which several more elderly ladies appeared to have congregated. The Stevenson account felt inordinately heavy under his arm, and though he was unsure of the contents of the bulging manila envelope, he had a peculiar feeling that his task held great importance. Spotting the InnovaTech building (with which the package was addressed), he hurriedly bustled his way through the downtown crowd, and collided with something short and loud.

“Blaaa!” said the old gentlemen he had just knocked over.

“I’m terribly sorry!” said Jim as he helped the man back onto his little stool. “Er, why are you sitting on a stool in the middle of the road?”

“Because you kindly helped me back up, young man,” said the fellow in a voice that reminded Jim of pemmican. “Otherwise I would be lying beside my stool.”

Jim couldn’t really argue with this conclusion. He was about to bid the fellow a good day and take his leave when the man spotted the envelope tucked under his arm.

“Could I see that?” asked the old man.

Jim felt rather bad about knocking the man off his stool and embarrassing him (though in truth no one in the surrounding crowd seemed to be paying them any attention), so he reluctantly ceded the package. The fellow tilted it this way and that, held it up to his ear and shook it, and then began trying to wrap it about his knee.

“Er, could I have that back now,” said Jim, “I need to-“

“It’s a good envelope,” interrupted the gentleman, “I’ll give ya that,”

He looked thoughtful for a moment and then said “I’ll give ye four magic beans for it.”

Jim was taken aback. “It’s not for- uh, beans, did you say?”

“Fine, five beans, but you drive a hard bargain, son.”

“Look,” explained Jim carefully, “I can’t just go around selling important documents. I’d be fired from my job, and… uh, magic beans?”

“Well they ain’t Tijuana beans,” said the man, taking five lima-bean-esque objects out of his coat pocket and holding them out for Jim to examine.

“Er, how do I know they’re magic?” asked Jim.

“Are you kidding?” said the man, “these are the most magical beans I’ve ever owned, and they’re guaranteed to make your dreams come true.”

“Ah,” said Jim, “and I suppose that’s why you’re sitting on a stool in the middle of mainstreet?”

“Exactly,” smiled the man softly, an enigmatic glint in his eye.

“Uh huh…” said Jim, “well okay then.”

He handed over the Stevenson account and took the beans.


*  *  *


Jim experienced the first pangs of buyer’s remorse about half way to InnovaTech. Then he stopped walking.

“Why did I sell the Stevenson account for beans?” he said out loud to himself, taking them out of his breast pocket to examine.

‘And why am I still walking this way?’ he thought. ‘Am I going to deliver these beans instead?’

He half considered it, just to get the accursed things out of his possession, but then he realized that perhaps the old man would let him trade back. After all, what use would a bunch of papers be to him anyway? Unless he were some sort of corporate spy… with beans.

Jostling his way through the crowd, he came to the place he thought the man had been, but there was no trace of him or the stool. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. He looked down at the beans in his hand and discarded this theory. Beginning to panic a little, Jim frantically wandered around for a while, and then gave up and decided to go back to his office. Perhaps Brad would have a suggestion. He dashed into the lobby past the revolving doors. The old ladies were gone now, but they had left behind a surprising amount of graffiti.

“You gotta help me,” Jim pleaded when he reached Brad’s cubicle. “I traded the Stevenson report to an old guy for some beans!”

“Why?” asked Brad.

“The guy said they were magic!”

“Are they?”

“I severely doubt it!” Jim leaned in close. “Look, you gotta help me. What should I do?”

         “Well, my wife sometimes makes a nice stew, and we-“

Jim shook him by the collar,“I’m not asking you what I should do with the beans!”

 “What’s all this then?” demanded Trent as he rounded the corner with Stan. “Did you manage to deliver the Stevenson account?”

“Who do you think would win in a fight?” interrupted Stan, “A t-rex or a robot?”

“Err,” responded Jim, “I suppose it would depend on what sort of robot.”

“Hmm,” said Stan pensively, “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“The account!” Trent cried exasperatedly.

“Ah yes,” said Stan, “did you deliver it?”

Jim looked awkwardly at the floor, and Brad looked awkwardly down his own shirt. Finally Jim decided to come clean.

“I was going to deliver the Stevenson account,” he began, “but...”

“But what?” demanded Trent, “You instead spontaneously decided to wallow in your own incompetence as usual? Is that it?

“I sold it to a man on the street.”

Trent said nothing. He looked as though he had been slapped with a wet fish. Finally he turned to Stan.

“I assure you, I did not tell him to do that. I gave him specific instructions-“

“So the Stevenson account is currently in the hands of some random fellow you met in the street?” Stan asked slowly.

“Yes,” said Jim ashamedly.

“And you don’t suppose this fellow has any intention of delivering it himself?”

“No, sir. I’m very sorry, sir.” Jim looked away.

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Stan gave a huge sigh of relief.

“Thank god. I’ve been terribly worried. I realized there were all sorts of errors and typos in that report just after you left, and I had feared the worst.”

“What kinds of typos?” asked Brad.

“I accidentally called the CEO’s son a persimmon,” said Stan.

“What did you mean to say?” asked Jim, feeling greatly relieved.

“I meant to call his son a terrorist,” said Stan, laughing at his own ineptitude.

Trent was reeling. He said nothing, and looked ready to vomit.

“You did well, my boy,” said Stan, clapping Jim on the shoulder. “Now if I could just find something to eat around here, everything would be perfect.”

“I think Jim has some beans,” said Brad.

“Shut up!” said Jim.

“Yes,” said Stan, “it’s impolite to offer another man’s beans, when that man might want them for himself later on.”

Trent looked as though he were in a strange fantasyland and couldn’t understand the local dialect.

Jim took the beans from his pocket and presented them to Stan. “I just have these five here. If you want them, please feel free, sir.”

“Excellent job, my boy. You save me from both embarrassment and hunger in a single day, and all before ten-o’-clock in the morning. I’m promoting you to manager.” And with that, Stan took the beans and strode off.

Trent fainted. Behind him, Jim spotted the old man waving to him from outside the window. Jim regarded this as odd since they were currently on the 32nd floor.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Your Ammo Upgrade is in Another Castle...

So I just watched The Good The Bad and The Ugly for the first time (I know I know, I'm an uncultured plebeian). It's a near-perfect film, with one of the best musical scores of all time, and it got me thinking about storylines and suspense. At the confrontation at the end of the film, it isn't clear exactly which men are going to walk away from the gunfight. With the level of formula that we have come to expect, a film has to go a long way to achieve this level of uncertainty, where anything might happen.

With games, we have this uncertainty in abundance, and yet we squander it. Sure, I may or may not survive this level, but if I don't, I'm just going to try again until I do. The plot is still going to end the same way. Sure, some games go for multiple endings, and I think this is a step in the right direction, but it always feels a little tacked on. Games like The Sims have plenty of emergence and unpredictability, but they don't feel, to me anyway, like they have much of a plot. When games do have a plot, it always feels separate from the actually gameplay mechanics because I'm almost never concerned with the same things as the protagonist. He's bent on trying to find the princess or save the world, and I'm trying to get that ammo upgrade or make sure I don't run out of lives.

I feel that if a game is going to have a storyline, it needs to match up more closely with the game's mechanics. Players are sad in a very personal way if they permanently lose a good item, so why not make that item a person? Instead, the people in games usually seem totally irrelevant, and are only important when we have to keep their stupid butt alive in an insipid escort mission. If we fail in our task, that should be that. The character is dead. We shouldn't have to play it again because we didn't conform to the plot that the game had in mind. Can you imagine if, in a game of D&D, the DM said "I'm sorry, but you weren't supposed to let that character die. We're going to have to start over from the staircase again. Jim, erase that battle-ax you picked up, you haven't found that yet."

[upcoming spoiler for anyone who knows nothing about Final Fantasy VII yet intends to play it in future; all three of you may wish to leave the room now.]

Many gamers were deeply affected by the death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, and I think this is largely due to the fact that she was a good healer. She healed you party. And then she was dead. I don't mean to sound callous here. I just think people are particularly sad about things that are gone if they once contributed to our happiness in some way. I mean, sure it's sad when a random person in Peru is hit by a bus (unless, perhaps, they were a supervillain?), but we are sadder when the person who died personally contributed something to our lives which is now missing, whether it be companionship, snappy dialogue, or in the case of Aeris, nice healing. It would be nice to miss someone for their love, compassion and strength of character, but there's only so much that you can do to make someone care about a 2-inch tall, 32-bit sprite with a bad hairdo.

If a game is going to have a plot that we are supposed to care about, that plot needs to be part of the game and not just something running parallel to it, like a television in another room that someone has neglected to turn off.

We also have the potential to create things which could be virtually spoiler-proof. I can tell you about some awesome thing that happened to me in FarCry (it involved some dangerous serum and a lack of familiarity with the controls), and it doesn't ruin your experience of the game one bit. It's true that we cannot design a branching storyline to accommodate everything that a player might do, which is why we need to work towards making more of the storyline emergent and procedurally generated like the gameplay. You may say that this can't be done, but all I really ask is that the game's plot and dialogue acknowledge its gameplay in some way.

For example, in his recent review of Thief: The Dark Project, Yahtzee expresses how impressed he was when, after hopping back into the shadows after being spotted by a guard, the guard yelled "Don't think you can just hop back into the shadows, boy!" This sort of thing shows that the game is acknowledge you as the protagonist and not merely as the audience. If I'm playing a first-person-shooter and decide to search the level for machine gun ammo before facing the boss because I'm running low, I want one of the characters to say "maybe we should find some more machine gun ammo before we go in there." This makes what I'm doing feel like part of the storyline and not just part of the gameplay.

If we as designers and developers can tap into this power of uncertainty and agency, we can redefine the whole concept of a hero's journey, and potentially reinvent the story. "Are games art?" Psshaw.

(I do believe that games could one day make spoilers obsolete, but to be fair gaming does open up the potential for a whole new type of spoilers, namely "strategy" spoilers, but we'll talk about that one another day.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"A Beautiful Animal..."

Wow, it's been a while.
I haven't posted for a bit as over the non-denominational holiday season I was frantically attempting to finish designing, playtesting and prototyping a new game, which I did actually manage to do about an hour before I had to leave and catch the plane back to Ontario.
It's a cardgame. With zombies. Pretty much sells itself I think.

Anyway I don't really have anything to say gamewise at the moment, but I stumbled upon a couple of comic gems in this malignant cesspool we call the internet (some people call it the blogosphere, but those people are stupid).

The first is a fabulous show that everyone should watch. It's called SPACED, and involves most of the Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz crew before they did those slices of fried gold. Contrary to the title, it is not in fact Sci-Fi, but it is definitely for geeks. I just watched it on YouTube but you should all go out and buy the DVD box set ya cheap bastards.

The second thing is this. It must be watched to be fathomed. Er, ... I'll get back to you.
(Disclaimer: some profanity and a whole lot of peculiarity.)