Party Interaction in RPGs

kotor21

Around this time every year, I get the urge to play Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Though the original, Bioware-produced game is generally considered to be the superior installment, and though I enjoyed it very much in its own right, I’ve never felt tempted to slog through that beast of an RPG ever again; I always come back to Obsidian’s sequel instead. This is largely because of the difference in writing between the two games. Drew Karpyshyn’s writing in the original is serviceable and adequate for a typical “save-the-world” story, but its much-vaunted “moral choices” are painfully black-and-white and everything else, from the love scenes to the expository background revelations, rely slavishly upon standard tropes. Chris Avellone’s writing in the sequel, however, is much more nuanced and subtle, coating everything from characters’ allegiances to the player’s moral choices in heavy shades of grey. I always find the latter an interesting read, and thanks to Avellone’s wordiness, there’s a hell of a lot of dialogue to sift through in The Sith Lords, so every winter I like to sit back and listen to my party members bitch and argue.

That’s what weird about this game: unlike a lot of party-based RPGs, your team in KotOR II actually feels like a living, breathing unit. Each individual has their own biases, secrets, and grudges, and these come out in numerous short scenes on the Ebon Hawk over the course of the game. Some of them hint at important story points or character backgrounds, some are merely comic relief, but almost none of them involve the presence of the player character. They’re just there to show that, yes, cramming twelve people into a tiny ship is going to force them to talk to each other, whether you and your dialogue wheel are there or not.

After playing KotOR II, the lack of party interaction in other RPGs became a lot more noticeable to me. Perhaps it’s there and it’s merely not as well-implemented as in KotOR II, but in some games your party members honestly do not seem to be aware of each others’ presence. You can see this a lot in the original KotOR, where your party members will often speak of themselves or the player character, but never about anyone else on the team. It’s like they’re operating in a complete vacuum, and they have no idea who the other ten strangers on the ship are. Mass Effect is a little better, since the second game has Shepard break up a few fights between specific party members, while the third game allows Shepard to eavesdrop on many conversations between party members around the Normandy, but even these are usually either a meaningless discussion of the previous mission or a tired reference to a meme spawned from one of the previous games. They do little to build upon the characters’ relationships.

The Tales of series takes its writing cues from Japanese anime culture rather than Western cinema, but its approach to character interaction isn’t much better than the average Bioware game. The games’ optional party “skits” show your party members interacting in an informal manner, but it’s usually for the purpose of showcasing example after example of strange Japanese humour. It’s awkward to watch, and these games are still a product of their translation team (though they’ve gotten much better since the early days of JRPG localization in the ’90s), but hey, at least all these party members seem to be actually aware of each other.

In the case of most of Bioware’s RPGs, the problem seems to stem from an almost fanatical desire to make each party member connect to the player character in some meaningful way. When you spend this much time making sure that each social outcast or disgraced soldier you pick up has a sob story ready to go (let’s get that dialogue wheel going!), you can bet the devs aren’t spending much time drawing up relationships between the outcasts themselves. The focus in most Western RPGs, where character creation seems to be almost mandatory these days, is on the player. Devs figure that if the player isn’t allowed to interact with their party members during a scene, their egotistical personalities will flare up and they’ll get bored.

The Bioware problem is exacerbated by the fact that sometimes your party members can die, and then they won’t be in the next game. This is an asinine design choice dressed up as the mother of all moral decisions. The problem is not that they’re dead, and that’s weighty and heavy; the problem is that sometimes that person will be around to talk to other party members, and sometimes they won’t be. If either party member is dead, the potential conversation cannot occur, and the chances of not having the conversation occur increase with the addition of other party members to the conversation (KotOR II has several convos that involve a specific group of your team), all of whom may potentially be dead. But rather than waste time scripting a conversation that many players will possibly never see, any reasonable designer would opt for not placing a conversation there at all. It’s cheaper and less of a headache than to work out the variables that must come together for that conversation to occur. As a result, if those characters are in fact alive (I like to keep all of my team alive whenever possible), they still don’t get a potentially character-building scripted conversation simply because it would’ve been pointless to insert it if there was the chance it could be missed.

I realize this is such a minor part of RPG storytelling that I’ve still managed to enjoy many games despite the lack of inter-party interaction. I suppose I feel spoiled by how well it’s used in KotOR II, and I’m frustrated by other games’ insistence on bending over backward to make the player feel like the focus of the story. My ego isn’t so fragile that I can’t bear to see how my party members are getting on in my absence. In games where you assemble an ensemble of globetrotting scoundrels, you should feel like they can relate not only to the player character, but also to each other. That’s how I like my characterization.

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Playing Games Out of Time

I don’t know what compelled me to ask for the Orange Box for Christmas in 2007. I certainly wasn’t a PC gamer at the time, but five highly acclaimed games for the price of one (plus Peggle Extreme, which was a unexpected and pleasant surprise) seemed like a great deal. Never mind that the Box was $70 CDN retail in 2007 when I can now pick it up in a Steam sale for a tenth of that price, or that my poor Acer laptop could only render Team Fortress 2 in speeds of seconds per frame; I had witnessed the madness of Portal, and I was intrigued. I felt betrayed when I opened up the box to find not a physical disc, but an unlock key for some bizarre new digital distribution platform (no points for guessing which one). Anyway, I beat Portal about five times, felt I got my $70 worth, gave up on the hard drive-melting TF2, and left one of the so-called best PC series of all time to gather virtual dust.

I didn’t touch Half-Life 2 until September 2008, and Ravenholm scared the shit out of me enough that I didn’t manage to complete the game and its two Episodes until March 2010. So I started the HL2 series four years after the first game came out, and finished it three years after the last game (so far) came out. It was kinda weird, playing a game so many other people had enjoyed for years before I had any clue what the hell a headcrab was. I have a friend who’s obsessed with the series, and he talked about the Combine and Gordon Freeman long before I got the game, so I kinda knew the general alien-invasion-dystopia plotline before I booted it up. But when finally playing the game, I still got to experience the same little things that I imagine thrilled people who bought it on day one in 2004: the meticulous detail of City 17, the terrifying TIE Fighter-esque shriek of a fast zombie, the realization that sawblade + gravity gun = fun with physics. I felt a bit of gamer shame for not having played this game a little sooner, but hey, at least it’s not as bad as not knowing Aeris dies, right?

Thing is, I’ve never played Final Fantasy VII either. The horribly mangled, MIDI-scored, cloud-saving PC re-release was $7 a few weeks ago, so I bit the bullet and decided it was my duty to play this game. I don’t know how I managed to avoid most spoilers for about fourteen years or so, but the following list sums up the entirety of my FFVII plot knowledge going into the game:

  • Aeris dies
  • The main character is named Cloud and the villain is named Sephiroth
  • There is a black guy

Laugh if you want, but because of my ignorance, playing FFVII was an incredibly fresh experience for me. It was essentially a new JRPG (which I like) with a plot that I knew next to nothing about. I was surprised, for example, by the story’s heavy environmentalist tendencies and the setting’s (well, Midgar’s, anyway) more realistic locales as opposed to fantastical castles and such. Of course, playing the game is still kinda like being thrust into a time warp, where game translations are still horrible (died on the first boss because Cloud specifically to me to attack while its scorpion tail was poised for a counterattack…bad idea), the controls don’t always work in the game’s 2.5D environments (climbing ladders is harder than it looks), the random battles are as annoying as ever and far too long, and the graphics are worse than bad: they’re unintuitive (where the hell is the door on this poorly rendered house?). But hey, I mostly play RPGs for the inventory management/character-building and the story, and so far, FFVII has treated me well in that regard.

Recent reviews have pegged Halo 4‘s story as being the best of the series, and as someone who was into the lore very early on but dropped it around the release of Halo 2, I am interested in this game. However, the only Halo game I ever completed was Halo 2, and as that was about eight years ago, I no longer have any clue about what happened in that game. I’d like to pick up the rest of the series before I attempt to play Halo 4, and if I do, chances are I’ll once again get that weird feeling that I’m doing something forbidden by playing these “classic” games for the first time so far after their release dates, so far after the rest of the world generally knows how Chief’s story goes.

That being said, I could finish these games within a month of their release and it still wouldn’t matter. It only took me three weeks to finish Mass Effect 3 after buying it on day one, and my friends still gave me shit for it because I was preventing them from ranting in a spoiler-filled manner about the supposedly lame-tastic ending.

Wii U Thoughts Revisited: Software Woes

I know I’ve already spoken at length about my disinterest in Nintendo’s new console, but with tonight being the eve of the Wii U’s release, I figured it was a topic worth revisiting. Almost six years ago to the day, I froze my ass off in a line in front of Future Shop, all for the Wii. The store wasn’t accepting preorders, so desperate gamers had to begin lining up in front of the store at 8 PM the day prior, and were required to stay in line until 12 PM the next day (it being a Sunday, the store opened late). I was only sixteen at the time, and needless to say, I felt like shit the next day after getting no sleep and braving the frigid November temperatures (it’s currently 0 degrees where I live), but I was truly caught in the grip of the hype and goddammit, I would get that console on launch day. Of course, there were specific reasons why I wanted the console so badly: Twilight Princess, possibly the best launch day killer app since Super Mario 64, and there was also Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the horizon, which at the time was less than a year away from release (several delays eventually crushed this notion). I was a fairly optimistic sixteen-year-old, but even back then I was skeptical of the motion controls; for me, getting the Wii early was important because it would allow to play killer apps immediately (Zelda) and within the near future (Smash Bros.)

The problem with the Wii U is that it has no such killer apps, either within the launch window or beyond. New Super Mario Bros. Wii U has been rightly criticized by nearly all reviewers as a predictable, typical, all-too-familiar 2D Mario experience that feels like it was only created to satisfy the inevitable demand for a Mario game at launch (though it’s still getting decent reviews, which, again, is typical of a Mario game). Nintendoland is a glorified minigame collection that deserves to be a pack-in with both versions of the system, rather than Nintendo attempting to market it as a $50 standalone game. ZombiU could be interesting, but it’s as generic as a shooter as NSMB Wii U is for a Mario game. Rayman Legends honestly looks charming as all hell, but it’s not a system-seller. Not for me, and probably not for Joe Consumer either. And the less said about the cash-in ports of Mass Effect 3, Batman: Arkham City, Ninja Gaiden III et al., the better.

If there’s little enticing me to buy the system at launch, there’s even less to look forward to in the new year. Pikmin 3 looks great, and I enjoyed the second one to a reasonable degree, so if there’s one game that could make me cave early, it’d be that one. But other than that? Nothing. No 3D Mario, no proper Zelda game. No oddball, unlikely appearances like a console version of Golden Sun, a flight-only Star Fox, or that Pokemon MMORPG everybody seems to crave. Certainly no F-Zero (where the hell has that series been?). They mentioned a Wii U version of Smash Bros. two E3s ago and haven’t mentioned it since, save for the fact that Namco’s developing it and Masahiro Sakurai didn’t work on it at all prior to this year due to his commitments to Kid Icarus: Uprising. That game is undoubtedly a system seller, but it’s likely at least two years away. That’s too far away to warrant buying a Wii U now. Some people seem to get pissed off when developers announce games far in advance of their release dates and slowly generate hype over several years (Bioshock Infinite comes to mind), but I actually like it. Letting me know what’s in the pipeline gives me something to look forward to, and based on how it looks to be shaping up, it could influence my decision to purchase a console early.

I could look past by doubts about the hardware and stand in a launch line for another Nintendo console tonight, once again allowing myself to be swept up by the hype. But I can’t overlook the fact that even if I do get the console, there is absolutely nothing out right now or in the near future that I’m dying to play. I will undoubtedly pick up a Wii U once the RPGs start coming out or Nintendo looses its heavy hitters, but currently, it’s not worth freezing my ass off in front of Future Shop.

Wreck-It Ralph: The Model of the Video Game Movie

Warning: spoilers ahoy.

There are generally two types of “video game movies”: movies adapted from video games (which are really nothing more than ports of a game’s story onto a theatre screen), and movies about video games. Examples of the former include Prince of Persia, Street Fighter, Mario Bros. and the like (all execrable), while examples of the latter include Tron and Gamer (not much better). The takeaway here is that Hollywood doesn’t have a goddamn clue how to properly represent video games in film form, which, if we’re talking about movies adapted from games, is surprising giving their success in porting comic book stories over to the cinema (and the stories there are even more convoluted). Given how cinematic games are these days (don’t Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid feel like movies?), this should be a walk in the park. Writing movies about games, however, is much harder, since a lot of technical jargon comes into play that most film directors couldn’t give two shits about. As gamers, we’re treated to ludicrous, drug-induced representations of “hacking” (which seem to usually involve flying through cyberspace itself), along with some kind of plotline involving the eradication of a virus (yeah, because video games can get infected by viruses somehow). The out-of-touch writers probably consider what’s “bad” in the world of technology that they barely understand (oh noes! my email got a virus!), then figure that since games run on those strange Nintendo computers, they can probably get viruses too. If we’re lucky and someone on the team has played a Halo game in the last ten years, we’ll hear someone say they “owned” a “noob.”

What makes Wreck-It Ralph different from those movies is that it feels like it was actually written by people who understand games. I usually cringe when watching these sorts of movies because I feel like I’m being constantly bombarded by things that are either desperate, uncool pandering to what out-of-touch Hollywood personae believe is the gamer demographic (picture your mom telling you how “l337” you are) or things that just don’t make sense. Games aren’t the fantasy free-for-all that most outsiders believe they are; they have a deeply codified set of rules, just like any other cultural phenomenon, only this particular one seems to have many more unique quirks. So when I see the Nicelanders (who live in an 8-bit arcade game reminiscent of Donkey Kong) moving in a jerky, frame-by-frame style of animation, I grin broadly. These guys get it. Rendering the Nicelanders with modern CG production values is SOP for Disney, but making them still seem like they’re still uniquely 8-bit despite lacking the defining feature of that era (ie. the pixelated appearance)? That takes skill.

Cameos from real video games featured prominently in the movie’s advertising, which probably led most believe to believe that John C. Reilly was going on an adventure with Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog. Well, most of the “easy” game references are limited to the first half hour of the movie. Any animator can put Sonic, Pac-Man, or Skrillex (??) into a movie for a cheap jolt of nostalgia, but it takes one who actually knows his history to lobby for Neff from Altered Beast or Tapper. A scene where Ralph looks through a lost-and-found chest and digs out various game treasures is clearly included for cheap game references, but I laughed in spite of myself when he pulled out the ! from Metal Gear Solid (complete with accompanying sound effect). But the parade of classic game characters ends quickly, and the movie becomes much better for it. You see, while the simple character fanservice ends, the video game references actually don’t stop; they just become much more subtle.

Fix-It Felix, Jr. has chiptuney 8-bit music, but “retro” stuff like that is a dime a dozen nowadays. Hero’s Duty, the movie’s Halo/Gears of War/Call of Duty parody, has a suitably epic orchestral soundtrack, but again, super easy to emulate. But Sugar Rush, a cutesy kart racer clearly based on Mario Kart? It has what I can only describe as “Mario Kart music.” The stuff honestly sounds like it was ripped straight from Double Dash!! I don’t know how they manage to ape the game’s soundtrack so perfectly, but it’s nothing short of amazing. The attention to detail here goes far beyond what I had expected of a so-called “video game movie.”

Upon finding himself in the nauseatingly cute Sugar Rush, Ralph groans about behind stuck in what he clearly perceives to be a kid’s game, which is kind of amusing given that would be a typical reaction from the average 25-to-35 year old straight male gamer (the game itself looks fun as all hell though, for the aforementioned Mario Kart influences). Vanellope’s secret lair within the game is essentially an unfinished level, which seems innocuous to the average viewer, but hardcore gamers will instantly recall the treasure troves of unfinished content found in Knights of the Old Republic II and countless other titles. The part that got me smiling was during Vanellope’s race against the evil King Candy (played by a hilariously effeminate Alan Tudyk) where she enters a portion of the track that has a rainbow-coloured road. It even has no walls.

Of course, Wreck-It Ralph does share some of the same tired flaws that seem to affect most video game movie writing (the viral Cybugs that threaten to “infect” every game in the arcade, Calhoun being “programmed” with a tragic past, prominent overuse/misuse of industry buzzwords like “high-definition” and “first-person shooter”). Interestingly, a few of the references, while being so vague and seemingly insignificant that they would just fly over most viewers’ heads, would actually seem overused to most hardcore gamers, such as Ralph’s Leeroy Jenkins moment in Hero’s Duty and the Konami Code (which King Candy feels the need to dictate to us as we watch him input it just in case we’re total morons). You can’t win ’em all, I guess.

At first glance, Wreck-It Ralph seems like pure fanservice, which would mark the first occasion of someone in Hollywood realizing that gamers actually like specific aspects of games such as certain characters and items. And even if they stopped there, it would still be better than just about every game movie ever made. But by the time the movie finishes, you feel like you’ve actually watched a proper movie with a storyline that, while metaphorically typical of Hollywood and Disney in particular, is given fresh life and unique circumstances thanks to its video game setting. It’s more than just a parade of famous game characters with a Toy Story coating of “what do they do when the humans aren’t around?”; it’s a solid movie that understands how games work and how characteristics unique to these games can be incorporated into a film about games. I’m surprised it’s taken us so long to get here, but it’s progress nonetheless; going forward, anyone making a movie about video games should first check how well it stacks up against Wreck-It Ralph, which is easily the new benchmark for the genre.