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Column: Diamond In The Rough

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': And Now, The Conclusion

March 13, 2009 8:00 AM |

aitd6.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom returns to Alone in the Dark to get an enhanced perspective of Siren: Blood Curse and non-episodic episodic content.]

Episodic content is becoming less and less of a joke. It’s gone from being a way to make fun of Valve’s release schedule to a clever tool for developers looking to maintain interest in their titles long after release.

When it works, episodic content can create an interesting mix of video game and television sensibility. It allows customers to pay for their entertainment in relatively small installments, and make decisions regarding the quality of the product based on smaller (and cheaper) portions of the game.

What’s interesting about companies’ approaches to episodic content is how they are and aren’t engaging players’ notions of what “episodic content” means. It’s obvious that designers want us to anticipate the next installment of episodic content, just as they want us to appreciate the smaller, easily beatable portions of their game. What they don’t often capitalize on is the baggage that comes with the term “episodic.”

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': The Next Big Thing: Video Game Character Diaries

March 3, 2009 8:00 AM |

a_med_tlj12b.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines how The Longest Journey and The Witcher create more interesting, fully realized protagonists through the use of diaries.]

To most people a “journal” is a pretty simple thing. It’s a bit like a diary, but it can range from anything to a travelogue to a collection of rambling thoughts. To people who play video games, a journal is always one thing: it’s where your quests are written down, and if you’re playing an ambitious game, it’s where you can make your own notes concerning your adventures.

This “Journal” is especially endemic to RPG’s, where it allows harried players to keep track of who they’ve accepted quests from, how many rats they’ve killed, and what kind of loot or experience they can expect as a reward. Even when games like Baldur’s Gate II feature slightly more involved quest and journal entries (that are written in the first person, perhaps), they’re still just elaborate explanations of plot points or quests.

As a result, it’s interesting to see games that treat these “journal entries” a bit like you or I might think of such things: as a places to record how your avatar feels about the things that have taken place in game. This really only works for games that feature protagonists with strong convictions or very thoroughly constructed personalities. Otherwise, who really cares what they think about the events transpiring around them?

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Mixing Albion and Stillwater

February 11, 2009 4:00 PM |

saints-row-2.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines Saints Row 2 and Fable 2, and how "great" games can be less fun than "bad" games.]

Many video games concern themselves with providing “realistic,” “immersive,” and “transparent” game experiences. In these games, the developers try to postpone the moment when the games “gaminess,” the certainty of its simulated nature, becomes unpleasantly or blatantly apparent to the player. Games employ fixed first person perspectives, transparent UI’s, hidden loading screens, and seamless transitions between gameplay and cutscene.

For some video games, these concerns are secondary to another set of concerns, namely that of entertaining the player with as many or as intricate game systems as possible. These games forgo narrative and sensory depth, and instead attempt to provide the player with such interesting and varied options that the player will be having too much fun to notice the paper thin quality of the more “stylistic touches.” And, the reasoning goes, if they do notice they’ll be having too much fun to complain.

Saints Row 2 is unapologetically in the gameplay-over-story camp, providing countless diversions, activities and options, right alongside a ludicrous story, bland environments, and highly derivative style.

Fable 2 is also focused on providing a wealth of options and activities for its players, but it also strives to create a complete, fulfilling experience from a stylistic, aesthetic approach. The world of Fable 2 is meticulously realized, brilliantly and beautifully designed, and wonderfully fleshed out with characters and voices.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Making Storytelling Look Natural

January 29, 2009 8:00 AM |

l4dpcg.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines Left 4 Dead and Mass Effect, and how the former especially leads the way in a new brand of pseudo-storytelling.]

To play a video game is often to be party to a strange chorus of grunts, yelps and insults. Characters in games are designed to react to their environments with as much "realism" and responsiveness as possible.

From the unfortunate pointedly, ethnic enemies in Drake's Fortune to the pained grunts of Big Daddies, to your teammates telling you not to shoot them, all games have hundreds of snippets of sounds in the wings, waiting for you to provoke them.

Even games that feature voiceless snarling enemies can create palpable atmosphere just by including interesting, scary, or numerous enemy and character barks. A game like Doom 3 relies heavily on such mechanisms: the groans, screams, roars and screeches that your enemies produce are all the information you’ll be provided with about their nature, aside from a few introductory cutscenes and forced expositional text documents.

Of course, there are also games that trade in verbose, incredibly context-sensitive responses. In Deus Ex, leaping on a table will elicit disapproval and derision; entering the woman's bathroom will earn you a disapproving coworker for the foreseeable future.

All of these interactions are worked out within the minor conversations and comments seen in passing through the game. Likewise, enemies in Deus Ex respond to you or what you are: a dangerous, fearsome genetically modified murderer and policeman.

But Deus Ex provides these interactions alongside traditional cutscenes. Games that don’t have cutscenes have to work even harder to get mileage out of on-the-fly, in-game narrative tools, because that’s all they have. Thus, it is not surprising that the most interesting and subtly successful practicer of this trade is Valve.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough' : Space Marines Need Dialogue Trees Too

January 16, 2009 4:00 PM |

forever4.jpg ['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom examines No One Lives Forever and other titles, and what makes their dialogue systems different from your average branching dialogue tree.]

Telling good stories in today’s games is a contentious issue. Different genres tend to approach storytelling from different points, some use CGI cutscenes and little else, some use in-engine cutscenes and even in-game cinematic moments (a la Half-Life 2), or just plain text dialogue.

Regardless of the method of delivery, the choice to be made when writing the scripts for such games is that of a single storyline or multiple story threads. A game like Final Fantasy VII has one script, on storyline, which never deviates from its set path. Other games contain key plot nodes that never change, but allow for multiple paths to each node. Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed and the Grand Theft Auto series are all practicers of this method.

Ambitious games feature multiple nodes and multiple paths, and these games require the most effort when it comes to hidden or optional content: games like Fallout 3, Deus Ex, and Mass Effect allow players to reach the same conclusion through two separate paths or different conclusions using the similar methods.

This necessarily causes a lot of trouble for game developers. Do they really want to write enough dialogue for 10 games, only to have one playthrough (which is too much for many players) encompass a fraction of their work? This is normally a problem faced by RPG and adventure game developers: they’re expected to produce convincing, branching story paths, and the trendsetters in these areas (Bethesda and BioWare are responsible for the mainstream examples of such games) are constantly upping the ante.

It’s fascinating, then, to find games that have nothing to do with RPGs, have extremely linear storylines, and yet still utilize certain branching story or script paths. Mostly I’m thinking aboutNo One Lives Forever, a game that was a stealth/action shooter through and through, yet featured long, interactive branching conversations within its cutscenes.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough' : Caring About The Prince

January 6, 2009 8:00 AM |

prince-of-persia-prodigy.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom explores the new Prince of Persia game, and why it sets a new standard for creating characters you care for.]

It’s not exactly a secret that I’m a fan of games with strong narratives, and am often willing to sacrifice a certain amount of gameplay and interface quality in the pursuit of interesting characters, stories and dialogues.

When I started playing the newest Prince of Persia, I suspected that I’d found one of those rare games that was completely willing to subject itself to the rigors of actual storytelling and narrative substance. I was correct, and had one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had playing a game.

Imagine my surprise, then, when it became apparent that most of the gaming press disagreed with me. People have criticized its emphasis of “style over substance,” a demerit that I can’t believe people are still using, seeing as it relies on some extremely problematic assumptions concerning the definitions of the words “style” and “substance.”

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': The Mutant Behind the Curtain

December 15, 2008 4:00 PM |

fallout3__poster.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Tom Cross focusing on aspects of games that stand out, for reasons good and bad. This week, Tom explores Fallout 3's strengths and weaknesses.]

Playing Fallout 3 reminds me of many of the difficulties I faced when playing Oblivion, also an open-world RPG by Bethesda, as well as many of the joys. It also makes the deficiencies of that gameplay model increasingly apparent. While Fallout 3 makes some impressive strides, in certain structural aspects it is so backward that it makes other games look revolutionary. Jedi Outcast and The Witcher take an entirely different approach to their worlds—are much less obviously “open”. And yet, their common gameplay and storytelling goals are actually more ambitious and innovative than Fallout’s.

While Fallout 3 meticulously recreates a desolate, expansive landscape that is strangely full of activity and experience, it does so by a very specific and often narrow-minded method. While most reviewers have said that Fallout 3 is one of the most vast, varied and rich games of our time, it is also possible to view it as flat and lacking in the things that actually make a game deep.

Opinion: Why Blood and Guts Make Up For A Dead Story, Characters

November 27, 2008 8:00 AM |

ds11.jpg[In this new opinion piece, writer and commentator Tom Cross examines EA Redwood Shores' Dead Space, a title he believes that 'triumphed despite itself' - here's a look at its failings and strange accomplishments.]

I've recently been thinking that too many games operate in the shadow of Aliens, especially in the atmosphere created by that movie’s characters.

So, it's with bemusement that I encounter a game that derives everything else from Ripley's world: setting, plot, enemies (after a fashion), and lines of dialogue. When you hear somebody posit the notion that somebody might want to study or preserve the game's horrific monsters, you know exactly what the writers are thinking.

Taking after Cameron, Not Scott

Many people have of course pointed out this fact since the game shipped. However, most people are focusing on how the tempo of that movie is similar to Dead Space’s gameplay. They say that this game is like Aliens, with its frantic action and small scares, and less like Alien's slow creeping dread. What they don't mention is that the story, which mixes the aforementioned movies with The Thing and a bit of clichéd religious zeal, is hackneyed beyond belief.

The game sends you from one end of the deep-space mining vessel Ishimura to another, fixing leaks, restarting generators, and basically acting like the meanest, most badass space janitor/engineer in history. Let me say, right out of the gate, that I loved this game. I thought that it was beautiful, fun, tense, and occasionally scary. I never for once thought it was original or creative (except in its depiction of zero gravity and vacuum situations, which are absolutely brilliant).

Column: Diamond in the Rough: 'If You're Going To Shoot Low, At Least Do It Right'

November 6, 2008 8:00 AM |

lotr3rd.JPG['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly updated column by Tom Cross focusing on innovations that a game makes on an old, tired aspect of game design. This week, Tom compares Jedi Knight II and LOTR: The Third Age to appreciate those relatively staid, formulaic games that "provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions."]

Some great games aren’t innovative in the slightest. These games don’t try to do anything new because they don’t want to. Instead, they take (some might say, steal) the ideas of trendsetting games that were rough around the edges, refining and tweaking them into a smoothness they lacked the first time around.

These games are often delivered to us behind the façade of established franchises or IPs, settings and fictions that we as gamers are often highly loyal to. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Final Fantasy, Mario—all of these franchises have included such entries, games that would be labeled as “competent” or “uninventive” in another setting. And indeed, it somehow seems wrong to love a game that’s really just super-competent plagiarism. Or it might just seem wrong to admit it.

Yet these games are often a place where I find solace hard to come by in other games. I can enjoy smoothly executed mechanics and gameplay tropes that I would otherwise shun for their “tiredness” or unoriginality. Simply put, these games provide a safe place from which to slowly, carefully refine video gaming tools and traditions.

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Beauty Amid the Filth

October 9, 2008 8:00 AM |

Jericho_9.jpg ['Diamond In The Rough' is a new column by Tom Cross focusing on an unusual innovation that a game makes on an old, tired aspect of game design -- one that might get overlooked, because the game is not otherwise remarkable or is hindered by major design flaws. This week, Tom explores the possibilities for meaningful and deep narratives in Clive Barker's Jericho.]

It’s often hard to say exactly why most video game stories are terrible. There are so many reasons — overwrought acting, nonexistent acting, nonexistent characters, hideously clichéd characters, and finally, settings and plots we’ve seen a million times — that when a game actually has a good script, or actors, or story, we almost don’t know what to do with it. How do you say something is good, when so much is bad, and for what reasons is it good?

One way to identify a good story (or at least slightly better than the rest of the pack) is to carefully examine its integration with the gameplay, and the integration of the story in general (and the gameplay) with the in-game implementation of the story (dialogue and other expository devices).