Archive for October, 2008

Do Good Things (Fable II)

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

This (well last) weeks chosen game purchase was Fable II (apologies to Dead Space and Far Cry 2, I’ll probably skip on the former for the time being and get to the latter over Christmas).  I’ve been quietly hopeful about how good Fable was going to be since the first pieces of concept art of the castle in Barrowstone made their way on to the internet (how shallow of me), and unlike the unfaltering critics of the world, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the game.

I didn’t really take to the first Fable.  It felt far too empty, framed in the context of having recently played through Planescape: Torment (late at the time) Fable managed to get far too much arcade in my RPG.  I didn’t take to it and I gave up pretty early on.  The world wasn’t big enough, it felt too linear, it felt very simple and really it wasn’t much of a roll playing game.  You didn’t play a role, you played an archetype and there really wasn’t too much of you in the character.

I then played World of Warcraft for almost three years.

Funny how that taints the way you look at games before and after, because this time when I came to play Fable II, I adored the lengths they went to to put the arcade back in to my tedious RPGs.  Mass Effect did it last year by putting a story that I was interested in back in there and Fable II apparently did it with mini-games.  I think that this time I’m enjoying Fable for what its meant to be.  It’s brought out the Warcraft inspired power gamer in me, but alarmingly, the grinds in the game somehow remain fun (I’m looking at you, tedious manual labour jobs), the world, while lighthearted enough, feels like it has some depth and the whole package looks beautiful.

My only problem with Fable II is that the morality system feels broken.  See, when I do action/adventure/RPG-with–choice type games, I always like to play the equivalent of a paladin first time around.  Not the literal paladin class, but the “for the greater good” brooding hero type.  You know the one, most games force you to play the roll, and it always feels like the ones that don’t hope you’re going to anyway.  I guess I feel like it’s my way of pandering to the game designers.  I have no desire to be a software tester, and if the game is geared towards that character type, I tend to feel quite fulfilled playing it.  The story (where applicable) tends to feel like it works well, and you get to travel through the hero’s journey and a good time is had by all.

So I started playing Fable II with the motivation of “being as good as naturally possible”.  I was nice to everyone, spent about 3 hours emoting around town pleasing the comedicly fickle folk and spent about an hour working for the blacksmith.  I started my (currently expanding) property empire and was having a great time.  Everybody loved me.  And I really mean everybody, the villagers started following me like zombies who seemingly had nothing better to do than follow me around begging for marriage / sex / my babies / a roll in the hey and my suspension of believe was totally broken.

It appears I’d been too good.  I couldn’t really do any wrong at all.  I took a (lesbian) wife, I bought us a modest house, yet the villagers still came.  I had extramarital sex with a village in my marital house with my wife in the room.  Still adores me?  Yep.  I went into the middle of town and was very nasty to lots and lots of people.  Everyone still wanted to make out?  Sure.

I backtracked to the starting village, married a man and had a kid.  Everyone was still very happy.  Bought the entire town up and they loved me even more.  I’ve stopped short of driving the town into financial ruin for the amusement value but I feel like I’ve almost ruined the game for myself by being too good.  It seems that while the game design actively encourages you to go one way or another (despite offering a sliding scale of corruption you’re allowed whilst still being good or evil) it really doesn’t know what to do with you when you get there, and really it made me realise that Fable II failed with me in exactly the same way Fable did.  I felt disconnected from the game and the character I was supposed to inhabit and no stupid (if well programmed) virtual dog (I’m a cat person) was going to keep me there.

I love Mass Effect for the sense of morality actually having impact, and I hope Biowares recent mumbling’s about trying to maintain that sense of moral responsibility in the upcoming Old Republic game comes to fruition.  I think Lionhead need to realise that good and evil isn’t just a smile/dance or fart/angry emote before they’ll get the solid emotional connection they seem to have been aiming for since Black and White.

That said, I’m really enjoying Fable II, I’ve hardly touched on the plot and spent four full evenings engrossed in its world, being a good and righteous happy capitalist.  My property empire will be the envy of all the land and I really think they’ve got the action / RPG balance spot on this time.

Now Playing: Ulver – Lyckantropen Themes – NOFVJ0224090

Toteninsel

Monday, October 20th, 2008

One of a couple of projects I have on the go at the moment is a large digital painting.  I work exceptionally slowly when producing anything vaguely creative, but I’m quite pleased with how far it’s come currently.  A little bit of this is placeholder, and this is only a preview of the top half of the illustration.  The lower half is currently mostly white, and will likely be mirrored from the top (i.e. the lower half is upside down).

It’s a little bit cooperative, being based around a piece of music currently being demo’d by King Venus (plug).  A companion piece really, illustration influenced by audio influenced by a series of well known paintings of the Isle of the Dead.

Anyhow, I work very slowly, and slowly working on this is currently my idea of relaxation, so I should be done with it by about 2020.  I jest, hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll be comfortable enough with the lower half of the image (this is the second take on the whole thing as it is).

toten-top-preview

Click it for an ever so slightly larger version (the full size thing should be somewhere in the region of 1920×1080, which is a joy to work on on those monitors I picked up not so long ago).

Losing Direction, Or Why I Don't Understand Little Big Planet

Monday, October 20th, 2008

I’m a pretty big fan of sandbox games.  Always have been.

I was the kid that enjoyed flying around in Magic Carpet but couldn’t stand the combat (1994 me just wasn’t that interested in the quirks of early FPS aiming I guess), the kid that loved pretending that the over-world of Zelda games was infinite and I just hadn’t quite got round to checking out its extremities and I still remember my infatuation with the demo of Grand Theft Auto in 1997 (it was time limited and felt vastly different to the finished game, the change of pace changed the gameplay mechanic).  I love the sandbox, I adore Morrowind (and to a lesser degree, Oblivion), I loved killing time running about the levels of Mario 64, I loved the original Tomb Raider, Nights, anything that gives me impression that the world is infinite and worth exploring, it’s what draws me to MMOs.

With all that said, I’m not really sure about the upcoming PlayStation3 game Little Big Planet.  It’s an interesting predicament, because if anything it appear that the game is the epitome of sandbox gameplay.  A physics based platformer that…. Now here’s the thing.  I’m not really sure what Little Big Planet is really about.  I’ve read the hype (and oh god has there been hype), I’ve watched tons of videos from the (almost public) beta, but I really don’t understand what they’re trying to do with the game.  I understand that there’s a single player “story mode” that’s about 50 levels long (so we’re talking Super Mario World-esq), and I understand that the rest of the game is based around level creation and sharing, but honestly?  I just don’t get it.  I don’t think it’ll work.

As a long time PC gamer, the replayability of many of my favourite games (notably early online FPS games like Quake and Tribes, and RTS titles like the original Total Annihilation) was made by the community of hardcore devotees spending seemingly all of their free time developing mod’s and add-on’s, but I get the feeling that that kind of attitude to interactive game design has slipped by the wayside as the barrier to entry has risen.  We’ve moved from a point where the tools and the inclination for homebrew modding was there, to a world where the tools vanished, and as a result, the inclination to produce a polished add-on for a game seems to have died with them.  The PC homebrew crowd had and still has a little bit of that us-against-the-world mentality that made homebrew development so fun.

So what’re they doing with Little Big Planet?  They’re placing the tools and the caring sharing attitude right into the hands of the players.  Excellent!  I love that.  But do people really care anymore?  The 2008 console market is a vastly different place from the homebrew lands of mid-90s bedroom coding, so I’d imagine it’ll be more difficult to get gamers enthusiastic, however, creation is addictive so they’ll capture an audience that way.  Once we’re at this point however, I’m just not really sure that people will really want to play a bunch of largely mediocre 2d platform traversing levels.  I’m sure someone will do something amazing, I’ve seen some really interesting proof of concept stuff (the shadow of the colossus level that was doing the rounds a week or two ago springs to mind) however I’ve not really seen anything I’d describe as breathtaking.  Sure it’s a bit quirky and cool, but is it actually a great, compelling game?  Recent experiences with games that are based largely around user created content haven’t exactly been positive (I’m looking at you Second Life, barely a game…).

Maybe I’m missing the point.  I love 2d platform games for what they are, I’m just not sure that a game focused around disjointed downloadable experiences without any kind of special mechanic or cohesive body is really as compelling as it used to be.  I can’t see how LBP can stand up to games like Braid (as an obvious example), which actually offered something compelling and new to the genre.  Braid succeeded not because it was a platformer, but because it was clever and featured compelling narrative.  The big success stories of the last few generations of gaming (in my mind at least) have been the ones that introduce interesting narrative, the Mass Effects, the Fahrenheits / Indigo Prophecies (the first half of at least), The Longest Journeys.

I can see the joy in LBP revolving around its simplicity.  It’s a great looking game for sure, and maybe the distilled Micro Machines style fun of a console level creator are something that’s been missing from the casual market for long enough for it to be massive, but I just don’t really see the justification for the hype at the end of the day.

I hope people care enough to create something brilliant inside the sandbox Little Big Planet gives them, but I think I’ll sit on the fence until I see something really great happen before being drawn in by the hype of this one.

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As a side note, I’m working on a full sample implementation of Peer to peer networking in C# .NET 3.0+ that should be done in the next few days.

Information on how to correctly use the WCF PeerChannel in an Enterprise environment seems really lacklustre and we’ve been fighting our way to a really practical implementation at work.  I should have some sample code ready in a week or so with any luck.  We’re currently using similar code as the core of a distributed, push-based system in production, and whilst it’s had it’s quirks, they’re being ironed out in the sample.

Suffering so you don’t have to!