Saturday, November 19, 2016

Musical Themes in Civilization VI

The main theme to Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, “Baba Yetu”, composed by Christopher Tin, is one of the most memorable main themes to a videogame I’ve ever heard, and with good reason. It’s a great song, and is thus far the first and only piece of music composed for a videogame to win a Grammy Award, but have you ever thought about what those words mean or what they say about the game itself? Music is one of the main methods of establishing the tone and themes of a game - a strong main menu theme can say a lot, and “Baba Yetu” certainly is that.

“Baba Yetu” - which means “Our Father” in Swahili - is a translation of the Lord’s Prayer used by christians in East Africa. Swahili is a lingua franca in East Africa, which means that relatively few people speak it as a first language, but it’s often used as a go between for people that otherwise wouldn’t have a common language. It was often used when trading with Islamic Arabs along the Indian ocean trade routes in the pre-colonial era, and thus the language includes many elements of Arabic, including a fair amount of vocabulary. The end result is that “Baba Yetu”, as made for Civilization IV, feels like a celebration of all the cultural elements that led into its creation. The Civilization series has often come under fire for portraying a eurocentric view of the world, with a heavy focus on European civilizations and a generally Western outlook. Civ IV pushed to fight this perception - mostly successfully, in my opinion - and “Baba Yetu” was a huge part of that. Between being the first installment in the series to prominently feature religion and allowing citizens to convert nationality from culture pressure, one can easily imagine an east african city with Islamic influence being converted to Christianity as happened (is still happening!) in real life.

Civilization VI, however, is a different game with a different focus, and its main theme, “Sogno di Volare’, reflects that. This song is based on a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” It is steeped in the ideas of the Italian Renaissance, and particularly in da Vinci’s efforts to create a flying machine. Much of the Renaissance was about rediscovering the works of the past (particularly of Greece - “Sogno di Volare” reminds me of the story of Icarus, flying to the sun only to fail and fall to the sea, recast as a success) and using them to push towards a better, more wondrous future. As Christopher Tin said on a reddit AMA, it is also evocative of a strong sense of exploration. Civilization VI as a whole feels much more aspirational and it views human progress as a net positive to strive for, even more so than other entries, and “Sogno di Volare” is indicative of that.

My favorite aspect of the Civilization VI soundtrack isn’t the main theme, though, as great as it is. It’s the way the soundtrack adapts to your play. Each civilization in Civ VI has a different base theme, often based on a local folk song or similar of that culture, that develops complexity as you progress through the different technological eras of the game. It even incorporates the themes of the other civilizations you meet and the eras they are currently in, weaving a brilliant tapestry of the story of your game. I absolutely love this idea. It’s a great way to represent a civilization building on its own base ideas and on its interactions with other civilizations, and results in some wonderfully varied music. It also ties in neatly with the mechanics of the game, where the map evolves through play as you place buildings and wonders throughout a campaign, ending in a map absolutely transformed from humble beginnings. Another example is how civilizations maintain part of the bonuses acquired from earlier government types when switching, leading to an endgame where you can track your path through the different types of government simply by looking at your bonuses. It’s not often I see such a clever interweaving of soundtrack and mechanics, but in Civ VI this works brilliantly.

Not every soundtrack can be as integrated into the way the game plays, and music in games can take a lot of different forms, from backing soundtracks to diegetic examples in universe, but it all has essentially the same purpose: to aid in conveying the tone, atmosphere, and overall aesthetic of a game. It’s often not given much consideration by players, but it’s vital, and when it’s great it can elevate an already good game into something unforgettable. I hope next time you’re playing something you can stop and listen to the music and appreciate something you’d never noticed before.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst and Parkour in the Open World

'Parkour' is defined as "the activity or sport of moving rapidly through an area, typically in an urban environment, negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing." It's all about efficiency, choosing the proper path, and adapting to what's in front of you. Mirror's Edge endeavors to take those ideas, and put them into a game. It's not an easy task, but the initial result is beloved by many despite quite a few stumbles.

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst, released June 2016 after eight long years, made one huge, quite controversial decision in its attempt: It has an open world. Where the original game has very limited levels and few alternate routes the, Catalyst throws you into a huge, varied area and expects you to figure it out.

And you will have to figure it out. Catalyst takes practice. You have to learn the routes, the types of obstacles you encounter, and different techniques as you traverse the rooftops and scaffolding of the City of Glass, and every time you think you've got it's number the game pushes you to a new area, with new obstacles to overcome.

This is a brilliant idea. It's reminiscent of how many people learn parkour in real life - organically, running around the concrete playgrounds of their city. The biggest problem - and it is quite a problem - is level design. In a lot of open world games, one area is much like another, and you often don't have to pay too much heed to the flow of traversal through an area. Stack a few crates around, throw some clotheslines between some buildings, some nice tall towers, and there's your Assassin's Creed town.

The City of Glass is an entirely different proposition. Every roof, every ledge, every railing needs to be tightly designed to allow for Faith's freeform, off the cuff traversal style to flow properly. Allowances have to be made for the evolution of her abilities, to both reward the player when they master (or unlock) a new ability, but also to be tolerant if they haven't yet. It also needs to be able to teach the player organically through the introduction of new obstacles and elements. It's an amazingly tough job.

They mostly pulled it off! I had my share of hair-pulling moments, particularly with some of the random delivery missions early on, but the feeling when I realized how much better I was getting was amazing. At first I felt slow and clumsy, adjusting to new controls, new abilities, and a very different environment, but before too long I felt like I was flying over the rooftops. It was a great experience, and in the end almost exactly what I wanted from a Mirror's Edge open world sequel.

Witcher's Work: Side Questing in the Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

What was the last truly great side quest you played in an RPG? Side quests are often disregarded as filler content, just the stuff you have to do to fully complete a game and progress properly, but this is a mistake. Side quests are vital to fleshing out your world, giving it the proper tone and establishing and ground your setting. The Witcher 3 is a great example of this idea in action.

In the Witcher 3, almost every quest matters. Care and attention is paid to even the smallest, and very few go the way you expect. A prime example of this is in the intro area of White Orchard, where one old lady asks you to fetch a pan for her, and when you find it you discover the man that borrowed it was a spy who wanted the soot off of it to write a letter. It's fundamentally a basic fetch quest, but it's written and designed in such a way to say something about the world. 

The highlight of these side quests is invariably the Contracts, where Geralt is commissioned by some town alderman, small noble, or local guardsman to go solve some supernatural problem. Geralt haggles a bit (coin is hard to come by for a wandering monster hunter!), and then goes to investigate. Sometimes it can be routine - find the location of the attack, identify prints and wound marks, and track the beast back to its lair to kill it - but even the most routine contracts take the time to ground their story in the world and establish Geralt as what he is - an experienced Witcher with decades of experience.

Some of these, however, tell self-contained stories as rich and complex as any of the subplots of the main game. The first contract most players will encounter is a great example. Geralt is contracted to clear out a wraith that is haunting a nearby well - but first he has to figure out how to break the curse. In the course of doing so, he discovers a story involving a greedy lord, desperate peasants, and the tragic death of a young woman - who became a Noonwraith, a terrifying spectre who only appears under the bright noonday sun. 

Side quests are just as important to establishing a world and a fiction as any of your set piece moments. They generally make up the majority of playtime, and thus are central to establishing the feeling and tone of a game. So the next time you pick up an RPG, think about those side quests you pick up and what they convey about what a game is trying to say. Maybe you'll find more than what you were looking for.