What Alpha Protocol Got Right

I recently picked up a discounted copy of Alpha Protocol, an “Espionage RPG” by Obsidian. I waited for it to go on discount because it generally got moderate-to-terrible reviews. (I saw a fan in an Alpha Protocol forum defending the game by exclaiming, “Alpha Protocol isn’t BAD, it’s MEDIOCRE!”) Apparently enough other players also waited for the discount to kick in before buying, as sales have been so low that Obsidian isn’t even planning to make a sequel. This disappoints me terribly, as Alpha Protocol had the potential to be one of the most important RPG series in the development of narrative gaming.

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Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space

I have a new article up, titled “Arcadian Rhythms: Gaming and Interaction in Social Space.” It’s published in Reconstruction, a peer-reviewed journal of cultural research available for free online. (And don’t be put off by the French theorist in my abstract. I’m pretty sure the piece is accessible overall.)

This article focuses on how people interact in arcades, and how social dynamics and the cultural connotations behind games influences who plays what and with whom. It’s not nominally about geeks or geek cultures, but this study did end up influencing how I thought about my dissertation research. When you get to the parts about how people insulate themselves socially, and particularly one moment in which a boy loudly proclaims upon winning a game, “I’m the One! I’m ****in’ Neo!”, you may see what I mean.

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Links: Back from the Dead Edition

I’ve just completed my first year as an assistant professor, and now face my first real summer break in goodness knows how long. I’m really excited to have some time to work on research, prepare new classes, sleep eight hours a night, and, of course, do some more blogging. I figure I’ll get back into the swing of things with some links I thought were interesting, and try to work my way back up to my usual rambling essays again in time.

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Heavy Expectations

It’s spring break, which means it is time to catch up on research—and, being a video game researcher, that means justifying the purchase of a PlayStation 3. The first game I played on the new system got me thinking of Overqualified, a series of humorous cover letters for real job openings posted to the web. Generally, the letters make writer Joey Comeau sound out of touch with reality at best, and dangerously psychotic in many cases. In particular, I’m reminded of his letter to Nintendo:

We need a new Mario game, where you rescue the princess in the first ten minutes, and for the rest of the game you try and push down that sick feeling in your stomach that she’s “damaged goods”, a concept detailed again and again in the profoundly sex negative instruction booklet, and when Luigi makes a crack about her and Bowser, you break his nose and immediately regret it. When Peach asks you, in the quiet of her mushroom castle bedroom “do you still love me?” you pretend to be asleep. You press the A button rhythmically, to control your breath, keep it even.

We need an airport simulator, where the planes carry your whole family from A to B, job to job, and dad still drinks in the shower and your older sister still has casual sex that she confides might bring back a feeling she’s certain she didn’t imagine. Where the plane touches down and you all lean forward in your seats because of inertia, and again and again someone says “I hate to fly”.

The author writes this because he thinks he will sound deranged. It might have actually gotten him a job at Quantic Dream, however, the developer of Heavy Rain.

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Being Realistic About Virtual Loot

Awhile back, my friend Kai—the web developer and DigiPen grad I mentioned in my previous post—emailed me a link. The Escapist article, “The Broken Economy Is Your Fault,” rightly points out that the economics of video game RPGs are broken. The author suggests that, unfortunately, they probably can’t be fixed. As Kai wrote, “I see his point, but I think don’t buy that you can’t have a game that’s more economically interesting without making it full of tedium.”

I’m with Kai on this one. I’ve been sitting on this post for months while I took care of some other things, but now that Mass Effect 2 has gotten me thinking more about inventory management, I figured it might be time to revisit this.

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The Very Definition of an RPG

There’s something very funny about pledging to do more blogging right before finals start at your new job as an assistant professor. Something had to take a back seat, though—and you didn’t think it would be video games, did you? Of course not. Fortunately, video games are what bring me back to blogging: I’ve just completed Mass Effect 2, and I must emerge from my cave to ramble on about it.

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Encouragement vs. Reward

Over the last several posts on storytelling in gaming I’ve written (1, 2, <a href="3, 4), I’ve discussed some ways that players might find narrative meaning in games. Sometimes this is only possible when we go looking for it; sometimes it’s possible because of the way the game was designed; and sometimes we can see how narrative engagement might be possible, but might work better if the game were designed more for it.

This post explores the last of these scenarios. I believe games can be designed in such a way that they preserve a player’s feeling of agency—allowing for emotional reactions other than what we could get purely as spectators—but also allow preserve engagement with a story by recognizing the distinction (suggested in my last post) between what games encourage players to do for narrative purposes and what games reward players for doing in the form of distinct assets or benefits in gameplay terms. Designers can and should sometimes make players want to do things for story-based reasons, not just for gameplay-based reasons.

Why make this distinction? Quite simply, the tension between these elements can lead to some fascinating and meaningful scenarios when handled well, and can completely break our sense of immersion and engagement when handled poorly. Let me give some examples.

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Encouraging Ourselves to Death

This post continues a loosely-linked series of posts (including this, this, and this) on how we can find narrative meaning in replayed games. You can re-watch a favorite DVD again and again, but it’s tricky to replay an old game and still enjoy it for the story because the enjoyment of story is so linked with the experience of being challenged and excited by the game. This leads some gamers to force artificial limitations onto ourselves just to maintain a sense of challenge in ways that preserve the story, something most games are not designed to do. In this post, I’ll discuss one such artificial limitation—”permadeath” experiments with Far Cry 2—and what allowing characters to stay dead can do for the narrative experience of a game.

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A Game of “Find the Story”

As I discussed in my previous post, games can be played with attention to appeals offered by immersion in story and appeals offered by a sense of mastery, but we tend to see more attention to the latter when in the way games are designed to be played and replayed. Once you’ve mastered the skills required to excel in a game, it can sometimes feel too boring or easy, and so we crank up the Difficulty when we want to replay it. Making enemies stronger and protagonists weaker solves the issue of maintaining the appeal of mastery, but it does nothing to address the appeal of story. The sense of your own agency in producing the story is replaced by a sense of struggling to avoid repetition, whether boring (if it’s too easy) or frustrating (if it’s too hard).

Why not make up our own difficulty adjustments and imagine our own stories, then? Why not play “hardcore” or “permadeath” style, deciding that when our protagonist dies, it stays dead? Why not reject using the best weapons and skills available to our hero? Or, if a certain degree of variation is actually built into the game—such as the ability to play in a way that disagrees with our initial inclinations, perhaps as a villain rather than a hero—why not replay that way?

In fact, many gamers do just these things—and sometimes, I’m one of them. I had originally planned just one more post in this series on blending story and mastery appeals in games, but I’m going to have to spread it out over a couple more. In this post, I’ll discuss some ways I’ve tried to spice up replays by limiting my actions according to things that might make sense in the context of a story. I’ll discuss another recently blogged experiment in the post that follows this one, focusing on the narrative potential of irreversible actions. (And I’ll probably write another post after that, too, as I actually wrote this post on the next one months ago, and have new thoughts on these matters developed since then.)

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