Friday, August 4, 2017

Mass Effect Changed My Life. How Can It Again?

I wrote this back in March, just before ME: Andromeda came out, partially to work through my feelings on a new addition to a series than meant so much and partially as an attempt to pitch something. Needless to say, it never got published anywhere, but I've been reminiscing a bit and figure why not put it out. So, without further ado, here's the piece. -----

Mass Effect is the first game I ever fell in love with. I’d played games before, of course, but Mass was always something different.

Let’s start at the beginning. When I was around 14, in 2008, I discovered Mass Effect on some top 10 list somewhere - what a prosaic start to something so special! I already knew BioWare from their previous work on Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect looked like exactly my sort of game.

It was. Mass Effect grabbed me instantly. The slow prologue on the Normandy, the hints at something grander on Eden Prime, and the absolutely magnificent introduction to the Citadel were compelling in a way like nothing I had played before. I met Garrus, Wrex, Tali, Liara - characters who in some ways feel more real than people I’ve known. I saved the colonists of Zhu’s Hope from the insidious plant-like Thorian, I freed the insectoid Rachni queen from a life in a cage. I encountered Saren, and Vigil, and Sovereign. I saved the galaxy from total annihilation. Every moment is etched into memory.

There’s something different about experiencing a story at that age, I think. Early in life, a lot of media consumption is largely dictated by what’s readily available; my defining experience as a kid was reading from my mother’s bookshelf. I grew up on Tolkien, Asimov, and Harry Potter, and I still cherish that, but Mass Effect was something I really chose for myself. At a time when I was starting to discover what it meant to be me, it became integral to how I saw myself and the world. Grand, wondrous, aspirational, and somehow still willing and able to care about the little guy and the nitty gritty, Mass Effect was a vision of the world as I wanted it to be, as I wished it could be.

Since that start, I’ve played Mass Effect half a dozen times, the rest of the trilogy nearly as often (it’s a yearly ritual when I can find the time), and spilled thousands of words of digital ink exploring the series from every angle I could conceive of. It drew me into the wider world of video games and video game criticism. I’ve met more people who are better friends, better collaborators, and people who push me further in my work and my life than any classmate ever did through spaces I traveled because of Mass Effect. In some ways it feels like it opened my eyes to the world.

My relationship to the rest of the series all follows from that first. Mass Effect 2 was the first game I followed before release and played on launch. I spent hours on forums and blogs and social media debating the relative merits of Mass Effect 3, including the infamous ending - an experience I now realize helped prepare me for a lot of the current realities of this subculture I’ve found myself totally immersed in, and maybe even its controversial relationship to the larger societal climate. I can follow many of my interests and proclivities directly from this one moment, this one turning point, this one game. Mass Effect, both as a single game and a series, changed my life.

And now we come to the question that has dredged all this up and forced me to confront it: How do you follow that up? How do you possibly expect someone else to? How do I even bring myself to dare to hope something could even come close to matching that experience, five years after it seemed finished forever?

I know it’s unfair to compare Andromeda to something that is obviously so much more to me than just a game, but I don’t think I can avoid it, especially when it has made such a compelling case for its own existence. The main idea, the promise, of Mass Effect: Andromeda, is one of new frontiers, new worlds, new beginnings. But I don’t know if I can give it that chance.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Equipment Progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Let's get this out of the way: I don't like the equipment progression in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It's a whole lot of busy work that has me spending too much time flipping through menus and worrying if I have enough beryllium. That said, complaining about the specific way the latest AAA RPG screwed up crafting isn't particularly novel or interesting.

So here's how I'd do it.

My main design goals for this are:

1: Allow the player to experiment with different equipment choices while allowing a sense of progression as they go through the game.

2: Emphasize the role of the Andromeda Initiative where ever possible. The Pathfinder doesn't do everything themselves, after all, they merely clear the way.

3: Make sure the player isn't worrying about the exact numbers or combing the world looking for something in particular too often.

My main inspiration for this is RTS building trees, except replace the different units and upgrades with weapons, armor and modifications.

Basically, the core loop is that the Pathfinder finds sites for the outposts to collect resources and research new tech. Instead of the current system, where you deploy probes, mine mineral nodes, and scan everything in sight, the Pathfinder investigates potential building sites on a somewhat larger scale. For example, in the current game, where there is now a mineral site, the pathfinder finds some problem preventing the Initiative from harvesting in that location, solves the issue, and moves on, unlocking the main outpost to expand into that location and harvest the resources. You could make this as much of a narrative beat as you want - something as simple as clearing out a Kett patrol or as complex as a lengthy, planet-spanning quest.

You can expand this out to a lot of other areas as well, although scope would be an issue. Limiting ourselves to what's already in the game, distinct Remnant sites and mineral locations would take the place of the current research points and materials and increase the viability of the colony, allowing the main outposts to use the Andromeda Viability Points or something similar to create facilities to develop new weapons, armor, and modifications. You could have different materials and research types required to develop the different tech categories (milky way, andromeda, remnant), but instead of unlocking individual weapons for development, I would go by rarity - unlocking all the common items first, then upgrading the buildings to unlock the rare and ultra rare items. (Incidentally, I don't think the inventory or equipment tiering add anything to the system, so they can go too. Tiering would likely be pretty simple to plug in, though.)

I particularly like how this system might represent the idea of a growing and developing colony, something that the current game significantly lacks, as far as I've seen. A place might start out wild and dangerous, but as the pathfinder moves through and solves problems, people move in and start making it a home. I also think it would be a great way to characterize each individual planet in a fashion I've not seen - lots of little problems dealing with the peculiarities of the planet, instead of just "once we clear out the radiation this planet will be viable for our colony." It also bypasses the invisible perks on the Nexus, where I don't think it makes sense for the pathfinder to have much authority anyway, and focuses on the ground colonies and how they develop over time.

Something that would require some more work is the details of how the main outposts function in the system - consideration should especially be made for developing the assets to represent these buildings. My current thought is marked off plots, with certain types of buildings (or building trees) able to be built in specific locations, allowing a unique, identifiable character to be attributed to individual outposts while still allowing a fair amount of customization.

You could also extrapolate this out to add a lot of other systems - food, housing, defense, etc etc (like a less freeform Fallout 4), but would quickly explode to the point where it detracts from the other aspects of the game. That said, I think this system as I've outlined here would do a lot to eliminate many of the frustrations I've had with Mass Effect: Andromeda and better represent its thematic and narrative ideas.

P.S. This idea as laid out would admittedly require quite a bit of art and other assets, which are time-consuming (and thus expensive) for a development team. I believe you could make a version of it minimizing that aspect without compromising functionality - basically just having it work similarly, behind the scenes, without a visible representation in the world. That said, this being tied to one of the main thematic beats of Andromeda, I personally think it would be worth the investment.

P.P.S. Thus far I've only explored most of Eos, but given the way it's been set up so far I feel confident that at least this aspect of the game isn't going to get much better.

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.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Victoria 2: The Crisis system

I've always thought it was kind of strange that I have a thousand hours poured into various Paradox 'Grand Strategy' games, and not a single post on any of them. Part of it is that I have one in mind that might be a little too ambitious that I might want to pitch somewhere professionally if I feel I have a decent handle on it, and part of it is that I have a tendency of playing them the most when I'm feeling down and thus less likely to feel like writing, but strange nonetheless.

Anyhow, that changes today. I'll be discussing a very specific mechanic in one of their less popular games, so this will require more than a bit of background information.

Victoria 2 is a strategy game where you control a country through the 'Victorian' era, specifically 1836-1936. (I believe an expansion was required to take it through the interwar period, but I got into it after all of them were released) Likely the most unique aspect of the game is the complex production and industrial system, but that's for another post. This one is discussing the 'crisis' system, which is the game's main way of forcing conflict between major powers. (

Basically, how the crisis system works is that areas of high tension (colonial races or separatist movements, usually) a meter ticks up based on various factors, and when it hits 100%, a 'crisis' breaks out, and the involved parties (typically the nation wanting independence and the ruling nation) look for 'Great Power' (top 8 scoring countries) backers to support their side (unless they are a great power themselves, in which case they head up their own side and only need an opponent). After each side has a GP power involved, other GPs on the same continent (I think) (basically 'not the US' until Japan and China westernize) are asked to take sides, with a harsh penalty if they try to stay neutral. If no decision is reached (white peace or concessions), war breaks out, people die, etc. etc.

Critically, if no one backs both sides, the crisis peters out and nothing happens. We'll get to that later.

Anyway, the system works... okay, most of the time. I certainly understand the need to force some kind of conflict between the great powers, who usually need a *very* compelling reason to fight, and it does that fairly often. It does, however, feel very forced and arbitrary. Aesthetically it almost feels like the GPs backing one side or the other are doing it just as an excuse to fight the other GPs - very rarely is it actually a critical issue (sometimes it is, mostly in the case of Poland or Hungary - neither are sovereign realms at game start). Of course that would sometimes be the case, but it still feels awkward.

One thing Victoria 2 is bad about is throwing numbers at you that describe what is happening but not why. One example is how crises are generated - you can see the progress on a dedicated map mode, and a breakdown of how it's changing, but those numbers are very obtuse. (greek unification movement, +.12 per month! ... why?) I've played quite a bit, and I still have no idea how pops (populations) decide to back nationalist movements, although I assume the crisis progress is based on the strength of the internal movement. It just kind of happens and you respond.

My biggest issue, however, is that unresolved crises have a tendency of repeating themselves. Many of the games I've played have had one crisis repeat half a dozen times in a row over a couple of decades. (one in particular, usually - a greek reunification movement in.. Macedonia? Thessalia?). One side or the other almost always fails to garner a backer, and nothing happens, which seems... odd. Particularly if someone backs greece and no one backs the Ottomans. Logically, if someone backs the nationalists and no one backs the status quo, either the rebels should win or at the very least war should break out between the GP and the ruling nation (90% of the time with the same result, or worse), and if that was the case, crises wouldn't get nearly so stale, forcing a resolution much more often and thus allowing other crisis areas to develop.

Another idea that actually just came to mind was an idea for a new type of crisis - but this requires more background gameplay information. Sorry, it's an.. involved game. Each GP has a 'sphere of influence' - basically the countries they dominate politically and economically. (Ex: Indian minors with Great Britain, and german minors with Prussia or Austria) Anyway, you add new countries to yours by generating 'influence' with them, and oftentimes this evolves into a kind of 'bidding' war between two powers as each competes to gain dominance - a cold, soft war that seems like the perfect situation to evolve into a hot, hard one, and not a hard one to implement into the current design, although I won't get into the specifics more than I already have.

Despite all these issues I have with what is definitely one of the most important individual mechanics in the game, I do enjoy Vicky 2 quite a bit, and the crisis system's basics are a very interesting way of reflecting geopolitics in the period where the concept really began to take center stage. These ideas are just me nitpicking something that's irritated me while playing and trying to come up with fixes.

P.S. If you're interested in reading a bit more about how Vicky 2 works, I recommend this Let's Play on the Something Awful LP Archives. It's how I learned to play, and it should be reasonably easy to follow even if you don't have the game itself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cosmonautica: Thoughts

Cosmonautica is an interesting little game. It's in Early Access, starting just last week - but there's some potential here. Basically, you captain a ship with up to 8 crew members, cruising around the solar system (around 15 planets) trading, fighting pirates, completing missions and whatnot. There's some story to it, but the main campaign isn't available yet, just the prologue.

The ships are modular, with a certain layout and specs, and you have to decide what you want to prioritize. Do you want a smaller, faster ship with more weapon capacity, to fight off pirates, or become a pirate yourself? A fast passenger liner? Or a huge freighter with space for a ton of cargo - and all the amenities to support a huge crew? (There's 4 ships in the game so far, one starter and three others, each fulfilling one of the archetypes I mentioned above. I went with the passenger liner, although I was more focused on cargo than passengers, who are dependent on missions instead of the procedurally-generated prices)

Each crew member has certain skills, and you manage their time spent performing those tasks and free time, to take care of their needs - food, hygiene, exercise, etc. As they level up, they become much better at their tasks, but they also have more needs, requiring more room on your ship to satisfy those needs. It starts out simple - with a pilot, mechanic, and janitor - but relatively quickly ramps up as you add a scientist, maybe a weapons tech or a hacker, and have to balance their needs and tasks.

The trading system seems to work quite well for such a small game. I'm not 100% sure if prices fluctuate, but you can't buy and sell infinite numbers of goods (actually, the good routes are fairly harshly limited, if incredibly lucrative), which is good. The customs/smuggling system also seems pretty neat, although I think it could bear with a bit more fleshing out. I wish it told you the success chance for bribes, and there's only one type of non-mission-specific contraband so far.

One thing that makes Cosmonautica particularly interesting in my opinion, particularly when more content is added, is the research system. You have to unlock the outer areas of the system, where the trade routes are much more lucrative and the pirates much more dangerous (although I don't think the pirates are actually IN the game right now? It's very early access.) The interface promises more things to research later on, as well - new ships, new weapons, new rooms, etc etc. It makes for surprisingly effective progression and pacing, allowing you to putter around in the small starter area before pushing you out to the far reaches of the system.

The basics of the game are pretty simple, but I'm a sucker for trading in games like this so I found it reasonably fun for a couple hours - although very quickly I totally ran out of things to spend money on, and that 2 hours was enough to do basically everything as far as I could tell (well, I didn't mess with combat so I don't know how that works) Again, early access. If you want to take a look, here's the steam store page, where you can get Cosmonautica for just $10, ramping up to $15 when it hits full release in 4 months, according to the steam page. I'm looking forward to seeing them add features over the next weeks and months.

Disclaimer: I got this game for free from a giveaway IndieGamerChick has been doing on twitter, so thanks to her and Chasing Carrots, the developer, for letting me take a look!