Saturday, January 21, 2012

Time to make a game

After talking about the use of time travel in fiction and games I figured it was time to put up or shut up.  So here's how I would make a game with time travel as a narrative and gameplay tool.

First off, the method of time travel I'm thinking of involves having time pass universally no matter what point in time you are.  So if you're in time period A, travel to time B and spend the day there, you return to time A one day after you left.  Think of the Langoliers...except less goofy.

Regardless of what style of game this is, FPS or RPG or...OMG I guess?  Let's say the game has five different time periods that you have to travel to, A through E.  Each period has a primary goal that has a direct impact on the others but that impact changes depending on what order you complete the goals.  For example, the primary goal of time A results in you killing a criminal.  But unless you go to time C first to collect proof that he's a genocidal monster you end up as a wanted felon in time D.  However, going to time C first then killing him in time A makes you a hero in time D.

I think that would be more interesting then most other uses of time travel I've seen.  Each time you play through the game you have complete freedom over what order you go to each time period and when you accomplish each goal.  But since time passes equally in each time period you can't backtrack to undo something.  No looping timelines here.  But because you have the freedom the game could have as many different combinations of play as there are time periods.  Order them A to E or the other way around.

Obviously this could use some more story, characters...plot and etc.  But there's the basic idea at least.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are we set on repeat?

After I posted the other day I remembered a PS2 game I played a few years ago, Grim Grimore.  It's a Real-Time Strategy game which isn't most suited for console play, but that isn't why I'm bringing it up.

The story of the game has you playing a young witch named Lillet Blan joining a magic school, we'll skip the Harry Potter jokes.  Each chapter of the story progresses through cut-scenes interspersed with RTS fights.  After the first five chapters taking place over her first five days at school.  Our heroine is attacked by what essentially amounts to the Devil, and does not survive.  Yep, she dies.

Then she's back at the first day and only she remembers what happened.  For extra fun from a gameplay perspective she also keeps all the power and skill she gained over the past five days.  So Lillet spends five days trying to prevent the deaths of everyone in the building, but fails and is reset again.  This happens a total of five times with Lillet getting stronger each time until she is finally able to save the day.

I was thinking about this game again after beating Back to the Future and remembering other uses of time travel.  Back to the Future goes with the idea of how changes impact the future (we'll ignore the plotholes of that series, and believe me the game is full of them too.) which is excellent from a story point of view.  But story is only half of what makes a good game, gameplay is the other piece.  The time travel in Grim Grimore works for the story but also serves to boost the gameplay.

Trying to change the events of each five day loop leads Lillet to different RTS encounters, but as she is constantly resetting and getting stronger the gameplay ties directly into the story.  While I don't want every aspect of the story to connect to the gameplay or vice-versa, in cases like this it makes the story substantially more engaging.  At least for me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Time to Travel

I dunno, I thought the title was clever...Shut up.

Anyways, I just beat the Back to the Future game.  Between that, and some other news items I'll get to in a moment, has me thinking about time travel and how it's used in fiction.

Time travel is a funny thing.  I'm not going to get into the details here, that is (as I've said before) a topic for another day.  But as a story tool it can be pretty interesting.  Note that I say tool rather than plot device.  If the time travel is used as a framing device for the story, by which I mean it's one of the pieces of the setting it tends to work.  Back to the Future of course being an example of that, and I can't bring up this subject without mentioning Chrono Trigger.  If you've played that one you know what I mean, and if you haven't played it then you need to correct that mistake.

Sticking with Back to the Future for the moment, the game takes place after the third movie, and Great Scott did they stay true to form.  It feels exactly like the movies, from pop culture jokes to characters accidentally altering the time stream and changing Doc Brown's personal history so he doesn't become an inventor.

Oh, Spoiler Warning by the way.

So yeah, about half way through the game you change Doc Brown's life when correcting one time travel mistake, and then have to go back in time again to correct that mistake.  But here's the interesting thing, the new version of Doc Brown goes back with you to help, but then changes his mind.  There is actually a very powerful scene where he argues with Marty, first to not change him back, then to try to find a compromise.  That's what really got me thinking about the right way to use time travel in a story.

Releasing later this month is the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, unsurprisingly titled Final Fantasy XIII-2.  I know, creative isn't it.  Anyway, the game will apparently feature 'time paradox puzzles' which will apparently lead to 'multiple endings'.  To be honest, FFXIII did not impress me.  (Subject for another post)  And I'm worried that time travel in this is going to be a shoehorned in plot device.  Made only to either pad out the game or alternate endings that don't actually need to be yeah more padding basically.  But then Square is the same studio that made Chrono Trigger (Right?  Correct me if I screwed that up.)  A game where you had to hunt for those alternate endings dammit!  So I'll keep my fingers crossed.

The point I'm slowly rambling towards here is that, like any other literary tool, story device or set piece, time travel can be very a interesting thing.  If done well.  That's all I have to say for now, but knowing me I'll think of more later on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Speaking of Endings

Ok this is the last time I'm going to talk about this, I promise.  Although it's definitely a topic I'll be coming back to later.

One last (for now) reason DLC packs tend to bore me is because they're too easy.  This is strictly from a gameplay perspective rather than a story one.  By the time I beat the game and start on the DLC, especially any game with RPG elements or a leveling system, I'm so much more powerful than the expected difficulty that there is no longer a challenge.  I've usually reached a point where I can walk through fights that would have slaughtered me earlier.

I think I can get away with saying that the reason we, anyone really, play video games is for the challenge.  Beating that boss or solving that puzzle is rewarding because we worked for it God Dammit!  If the fight is too easy or resolved with little effort on our end, Quick Time Events but again that's a topic for another day, then we don't feel anywhere near as satisfied.  In some cases we feel cheated, or at least

By the time I hit most DLC packs there is no longer a challenge for me.  Even if I haven't found the ultimate items or the best weapons I can still waltz through situations that would have required careful planning and tactics even just a short time ago.  I've gone from playing the game, to going through the motions.  Even when the game tries to up the challenge usually it's done just by throwing out more enemies.

Guys, giving me more mooks to shotgun in the face doesn't raise the challenge.  It just makes me waste more ammo.

Why do developers do this?  Is it because they're expecting people to do the DLC packs before finishing the main game?  How does that makes sense?  For one thing, people who buy the game at launch will have beaten it (several times in most cases) long before the DLC starts getting released.  And for those like me who wait before buying game, at least in my case I'm too OCD to play DLC before beating the main game.

To wrap up my three days of rambling on about this topic, there are two things that need to happen for a DLC pack to keep my interest.  For starters the story, whether it continues from the game or has it's own self-contained story, needs to be engaging.  That's not too hard provided the people making it know how to set up a basic story structure.  And equally important is that the gameplay needs to be challenging.  Knowing nothing about video game development I'll acknowledge that this one is probably trickier to pull off.  But I don't believe it's impossible.  You know what?  This could be a good Friday Five topic for when I run out of things to say about zombies.

Yeah like that'll ever happen.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stories should also have a beginning and a middle

A follow-up to yesterday's post.

I was thinking today about when a story really manages to hook me, and usually it's in the middle.  Sometimes right in the beginning if there is a certain character or plot point that really engages me, but otherwise it's in the second act.  The characters and motivations have been established, but there is still time for the big reveal before the end.

And that's why I often find DLC so boring.  Again, as I said yesterday, the story has ended.  Everything has been resolved, why are we being given more stuff to do?  If the DLC is an epilogue it can sometimes work, like the Fallout DLC that continues the main story.  Or if it tells a new story it can be engaging.  But the problem with that is by the time I get interested in this new story, chances are it's already over.

A story will naturally have a beginning, middle and ending.  Not necessarily in that order, I've read some fantastic fiction that opens with the ending, and there are plenty of games that do the same.  But once the story has ended, what more can you add?  Or rather, what good will it do the story, the game, and the players to add new material and...gah, I'm rambling.  Let me try to clarify.

Sticking with yesterday's examples, Borderlands.  Just this afternoon I beat the final boss for one of the DLC packs, and now the game is giving me another half dozen random quests for that area.  Why?  When I finished a different DLC pack for Borderlands it had kept the additional quests mixed in with the main ones, so that I felt that extra sense of accomplishment.  Now, with these side quests, I just feel like I'm being forced to mop up.

Incidentally one of the quests is titled "Mopping Up" and the goal is to kill more enemies...that's it.  So the game is pretty much acknowledging that the only thing it wants me to do is revisit the same areas an kill the same enemies...ah Hell, we all know I'm going to do it regardless.

But that's my point (one of my points at least).  This.  Is not.  A story!  This is chores.  If you have to put DLC into a game, fine!  Christ I'm the kind of gamer who lives for this stuff!  I'm such an OCD completionist that I'll do every single mission regardless of how much or little it will benefit my gameplay.  But please, please, please at least try to make it into an interesting story!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stories should have an ending

So, I play a lot of video games.  Seriously, it's pretty much all I do in my spare time.  I don't have a huge amount of disposable income, so I only have a Playstation 3 and a few (dozen) games.  Though with that in mind I have plenty of games to play through and have even played some of them a few times.

What I typically like to do is play through a few games at a time from different genres, but sooner or later I hit a point in one of the games where I just can't put it down.  I often do the same when I find time to pick up a book.

And the story is often the reason.

I love to follow a good story.  Hell, I even follow a bad story if only to see how it ends.  But the problem I'm having with some video games that I've been playing lately is that they don't end.  I'm not talking about sequels, that's a whole separate topic.  The story ends, but now we have DLC.

There are two games that serve as perfect examples for what I'm talking about.  Fallout 3 and Borderlands.  Without going into too much detail, the games have some definite similarities in terms of gameplay, setting and style.  But the story is where they set themselves apart.

Put simply compared to Fallout. Borderlands...doesn't really have a story.  But I'm getting off topic.  When playing these games I picked up the Game of the Year Edition, so all the DLC is included.  I played the main story, beat it, and watched the endings.  Then got started on the DLC.  In Fallout, one of the DLC packs continued the main story while the other three are extra side-stories.  In Borderlands all of the DLC are side-stories.  This isn't a bad thing...

Except that it's getting boring.

Again, let me explain.  In both games I enjoyed playing the story missions and working side missions in around that to flesh out the narratives.  But even the story expansion in Fallout was falling flat.  The game was over, what more did it have to offer?  Without the drive to complete the story, there is no motivation to continue the extra mission.

Oh they're still fun absolutely.  Borderlands continues to have some hilariously colorful NPCs to liven up the game and the Fallout world will never stop being fun to run around in.  But it was more engaging when there were things to do.

It occurs to me as I write this that another perfect example of this issue is Batman:  Arkham City.  Again, I love the game, the story, the gameplay, everything.  When you start the game you look at the in-game map that shows your quests and objectives and think "Holy missions Batman!  There's a lot to do!"  Then you start doing them and before long there is nothing left.  Now the map looks as empty as the city feels.

Once the game is finished what else is there to do besides start over?  DLC to add more missions or expand the story just don't have the same draw for me that the original game does.  But that's just my rambling opinion, what's yours?

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top Five Ways for the World to End

Five Ways I’d Like to See the World End (and the Zombies that would hopefully come with it)

Apparently, from what I’ve been told, this is the year the world is going to come to an end.  Ignoring for a moment that the Mayan calendar most likely ended because they weren’t around to continue it, let’s take a look at some possible ways the world as we know it will n longer exist.

1:  Natural Disaster

This one is kind of broad, as it could be anything from forest fires to floods to asteroid impacts.  Anything that does not occur as a result of humans screwing with the natural order of things (something we’re a little too good at.)  But on the scale large enough to wipe out the majority of life on earth, I’d say at least earthquakes and tsunamis would be needed.

Call this a test run...What, too soon?

Sadly this wouldn’t really result in zombies so much as a crapton of bodies, but a man can dream can’t he?  Yes, a man can certainly dream.

2:  War

This is a pretty basic one, but mankind is very good at killing things, especially each other.  And over the years we’ve only gotten better at it.  War used to be a tiresome effort involving men stabbing, and later shooting each other one at a time.  Not so anymore.

Now we have smart bombs, dumb bombs, and satellite lasers that can decimate entire populations at a time with no fallout.

Well, maybe a little fallout.

Obviously the radiation would infuse the dead, those not flash-fried in the initial explosion that is, with a twisted unlife.  This would result in shambling hordes wandering the wastelands.  Provided you survive both the explosions and the radiation, the good news is that the undead will be easy to spot, and you won’t even need a nightlight.

3:  Socio-Economic Collapse

Yet another thing people are good at is screwing each other over, are we seeing a trend yet?  As we’re aware of, unless you live under a rock, from movements like Occupy Wall Street people in America are more than a little upset over the current spread of income and the lack of jobs.  And what happens when people are upset?  Well if it’s handled poorly it can lead down a very bad road.

Although it's considered polite to let them riot first.

For this to really end the world it would have to impact multiple countries at once, something that is unlikely even in the worst case scenario.  And again this one wouldn’t really result in zombies.  More like waves of angry, angry people only out for themselves.  Think “28 Days Later” but with less biting

4:  Supernatural

This is the one that most everyone is banking on.  The Apocolypse, The End of Days, The Second Coming…Other Religious Events I’m Not Aware Of!

Every culture has its own version of the end times but the formula is mostly the same.  World ends, the good are rewarded and the wicked punished.  Personally I just want to see the looks on the faces of people who don’t get the good ending they’re expecting.

As with others on this list we won’t be seeing any zombies.  Just gaping pits leading to the abyss and pillars of light reaching upwards, and if you don’t qualify for either of those then you’re dead anyways and/or in some version of Purgatory.

Not bad, not great but not bad.

5:  Plague

Something of a combination between War and Natural Disaster as, in all likelihood, the plague that wipes out the majority of humanity will be grown in a weapons lab.  This is the scenario I’m most hoping for.

For starters it allows for a small percentage to be immune or resistant enough to avoid the first waves of death.  After that either the dead or people who die later will be revived as zombies for the rest of the survivors to deal with.  This is the set-up that best leads into a zombie apocalypse (As seen in pretty much any zombie movie ever.)

No fallout, no explosions, no disasters.  Just you, a gun and the undead hordes looking to eat your face.

I just really like this picture.