Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I just finished reading Tina Fey's book, Bossypants. Now, I could do the whole book review thing, and and discuss the topic of female comedy, which probably involve Ellen DeGeneres' book, and I'd probably find a way to work in Terry Jones' discussion in Douglas Adam's Starship Titanic, and the whole thing would be tied to some deeply meaningful event from my past, but... eh. If you like books by comedians, this is a very good book by a comedian. And if you like funny women, there's a lot of those things too.

That aside, there are two further things I'd to discuss. First, I not only read the book, I read it on Kindle. That's right, Kindle! Between that and my new Twitter account, I'm finally ready to join 2008. Not bad for a multimedia scholar. (It is, in fact, very bad for a multimedia scholar.) And I have to say... I don't like it. I appreciate the search feature very much, as well as the highlighting and the notes. And the adjustable font size does a very nice job of breaking up sections of text so that you don't get the same fatigue you get when staring at text on the average computer screen. As someone who spends a lot of time staring at a screen, it is a great feature.

But what really irks me is that the casualty of text-scaling is that the page number has become obsolete. Time was, I could use the page number as a measure of my dedication. "Oh, I'm 5 pages into Harry Potter, so I'm not really interested." "Look, I got 600 pages into War and Peace, and I can tell you, not much happens." "You've read the first 100 pages of Ulysses? How darling. Of course, it doesn't really start getting difficult until page 157." (I'm sure there are uses for page numbers that don't involve being literary-pretentious, but they don't come to my mind as quickly, for some reason.) Sure, Kindle has a percentage button, which is nice for the book at hand, and a location value, but neither translate to easily comparable features--I want to know when I've slogged through a 600 page tome. It's an accomplishment, damn it.

A search through the internet, however, tells me that I'm not the only one who feels this way, and that the good people at Amazon have created an updated version of Kindle that does page number as well. One problem: I don't have Kindle. What I actually have, sadly, is Kindle for PC, a freeware product that lets people try out a Kindle-like app before actually buying a Kindle. So basically, my complaints regarding the quality of this service is somewhat akin to someone complaining that the Nike shoes he found in a dumpster don't let him run much faster than he did before. (Yes, they're faster, but not *much* faster.)

Really, I should get one. Or a laptop. Or a new computer. Or something. But there's some part of me that feels I should stick with any possession I own until one of us falls off this mortal coil. And as I stare at my scratch-laden monitor and it stares at my pasty white skin, it's really a toss-up as to which one of us it'll be.

Oh right--the second thing about Tina Fey's book--I guess we'll do that tomorrow. Stay tuned!

Later Days.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Maybe Muppets vs. Jason?

I had a crossover dream last night: DuckTales vs. Aliens. The ones from the Alien movies. I can't really think of a more inappropriate mash-up.

Later Days.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Mental Crisis of Brobdingnagian Proportions

I feel that Brobdingnagian doesn't get enough parlance in the common vernacular. Also, neither do "parlance" and "vernacular." Anyway, I was thinking I should do a blog post today, but I couldn't think of a topic. Actually, I did think of a topic, but it was videogames. And since I just did a full week on a videogame, I rooted around in my head for something else. "What do I write on besides videogames," I thought.

And I couldn't think of anything.

At this time of year, I am in full research mode. I'm writing a dissertation proposal (still--sigh) on videogames. I'm reading scholarly books on videogames. I try to read at least three short articles on videogames a week. I'm auditing a graduate course on videogames this term. A month ago, I went to Ottawa to give a paper on videogames for a videogame grad conference.

But the videogames have seeped into my leisure time as well. In between reading chapters on videogames, I go to the site Rock Paper Shotgun and read 3 year old blog posts on videogames. I go to Eurogamer and browse reviews of videogames. I read webcomics about people who play videogames (Ctrl Alt Del, PvP, Penny Arcade), people who are in videogames (MegaTokyo, 8-bit Theatre, Guilded Age), and people in games that they generally make into videogames of varying quality (Order of the Stick, Erfworld, Goblins). I talk about videogames with my roommates and friends. And in my leisure time, whether it's the DS when I'm watching TV, the Xbox 360, or the computer, I play videogames.

So really, the fact that I blog about videogames isn't so surprising. What's surprising is that I find time to do anything else.

Marshall McLuhan once said that games are "extensions, not of our private but of our social selves." In my case, I think I'm covering the social selves of about six other people.

Later Days.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


....Or is it? Today, we'll decide.

Continuing where we left off: Mass Effect instituted a "wheel" system for its dialogue/moral alignment, but in doing so, made the choices somewhat binary. So, in Dragon Age II, we have a different situation. It follows the wheel format, yes, but with a difference:

An icon now appears by your selection. There's a plant or an angel sign to signify diplomatic answers, a diamond (charming) and a mask (joking) for neutral (which is an improvement over neutral = bland that they went for in previous games, though it's still the option that's most punished, by not allowing any rivalry or friendship points in most situations), and a fist or a hammer and gavel for aggressive choices. In a way, then, it's dumbing choices even further. It's not just organized by space anymore; now, you can be entirely illiterate and judge by the color of the icon. The saving grace of this option is that occasionally, there is an actual set of choices, and they're sometimes even NOT arranged in an easy good-neutral-evil pattern--you have to actually judge the outcomes of your action yourself. What a radical concept.

It seems that a lot of the game's negative sides require saving graces, and a lot of the "bonus" features cause their own headaches. Let's sum up the plus and minus: Plus: good dialogue system. Good choice system. Good expanded world. Good voice acting, for the most part.
Minus: Streamlined choices. The combat. The repetition of the same, narrow areas, over and over again (I didn't even talk about this one, but it's a big problem).

Bottom line: I enjoyed Dragon Age II. The combat system is so broken that playing on anything but easy is frustrating, and playing on easy is tedious. But as for the rest of the game--a lot of what you get out of it depends on what you put in. If you do every sidequest, every optional mission, then further choices and options spring out of them. If you don't take those chances when they appear, they're never coming back. But that's the game's fault, not the player's fault--you shouldn't have to dig really, really deep to find out a game's best. So let's hope that the next game in the franchise (Dragon Age III? Mass Effect 3?) learns from these mistakes. Because if it doesn't, I imagine what we'll get is Dragon Age III: the First Person Shooter with A Color Coded Wheel--Now without Words!

Later Days.

PS. Probably not going to do the week long feature for a long, long time, because blogging every day is actually very time-consuming and tedious. Who knew?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dragon Week 6: Pain and Pleasure

Let's look at the dialogue choice system in greater detail. The Bioware line has, as I've said before, made their mark by allowing meaningful choices to made in their game, and most of these choices come through via their dialogue system. And that's a bit of an interesting design choice in itself, as it implies that the major way we can influence events is through our speech, rather than our actions. Now, a bit of game theory: Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, in their book Rules of Play, argue that the most important thing in designing games is that the designers allow the players to make meaningful choices--choices that are both integrated (they have an effect on the game beyond its immediate moment) and discernible (the player can clearly see what effect their choice will have on the game after they choose it, and to some extent, before they can predict the effect before they choose it). How Bioware has approached meaningful play via dialogue has varied greatly over their gaming oeuvre.

Baldur's Gate 2, for example, had a very simple system. A scene occurred, and you got a selection of choices. It created the sense of meaningful play through the variety of these choices. Many were clearly NOT going to get you a desirable outcome (HINT: when a character learns her husband has just died, don't tell her to suck it up), and there was always the sense that the choices could have been different if you had chosen a different alignment at the beginning of the game. Some of it failed the integrated/discernible test, though, especially those relating to the in-game romances, when you often didn't see the outcome of your choice until hours later--or, if you inadvertently choose wrong, never.

Mass Effect took a rather different approach. It couldn't do the same "make your choice from options, and have the other characters respond" thing. Because the entire game was voice-acted, the main character would just be saying exactly what you told her/him to say over again, which is really dull if you've just read that. So, to fix that and streamline the process (thus making it more discernible and integrated as a result), they introduced the choice wheel.
The picture above shows a typical case. You, ie. Shepherd, has just had yet another alien talk at him/her, and the creature is now waiting for a response. Rather than depict the entire response, the game let's you choose your basic intent: "Can I help?" is the peaceful choice, "What's going on?" is the neutral choice, and "Only a dozen?" is the aggressive choice. Arguably, the three options are a holdover from Bioware's association with Dungeons & Dragons, where "good," "evil," and "neutral" are the three moral backgrounds your characters are allowed.

In Mass Effect, the options are labelled "Paragon" and "Renegade" rather than good and evil, but the basic thrust remains the same. Obviously, this is approach is more reductive than the previous method, as it assumes that any problem basically has three options, each with an obvious moral weight--and, since the game has tried very hard not to push a player down a path, it usually has three options with balanced results, leaving someone with the feeling that it doesn't matter. In fact, sometimes it literally doesn't matter; there's many points in Mass Effect in particular where the character you're speaking to will respond exactly the same if you're asking politely or aggressively, and even a few cases where Shepherd will act identically whether you've chosen aggressively or politely. You can't even confuse a Paragon option with a Renegade option; the paragon option is always in the top right corner, and the Renegade is always the bottom left. Essentially, you decide early on whether your character is going to be a bastard or a saint, and then blindly follow that direction to get the maximum effect.

Ah, I forgot how you obtain the maximum effect. We'll do this quickly, then. When you make significant paragon-related choices, you get paragon points. When you get enough to fill your Paragon gauge to 10%, 25%, 50% and 75%, you get bonuses to your fighting stats as well as the option to use your ability points gained during level ups to increase your Charm gauge to a new level, which gives you more Paragon conversation options while talking (a rare case where the battle and talking systems reinforce each other). And the same thing holds true for the Renegade, except s/he will have the Intimidate gauge instead of Charm. Making Paragon choices doesn't effect the Renegade gauge and vice versa, so technically, if you play enough times, you can maximize both. My point, however, is that in a single playthrough, you're more likely to make the choices that maximize your current abilities, and thus more likely to follow a single path. It then becomes less about making moral decisions, and more about making the decision most expedient to your full skill potential.

And Dragon Age II has a slightly different system altogether. But more on that tomorrow.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Friday Quotations: Money, Money, Money, Money

"When they are burning field and bush and hedge,
I'll steal you like a penny from the crowd."
--The book of repulsive women and other poems by Djuna Barnes

Technically, my post earlier today was chock full of quotations, but I'm feeling generous.

Later Days.

Dragon Week 5: Quasi-fantasy settings say thedarndest things

All right, I'll admit it: this one's going to be a bit of a cheat. When I previously said that I liked the game's dialogue choice system, a large part of that fondness came from not just the choices, but the game's dialogue. I know there are dissenting opinions, but I greatly enjoyed the game's writing, particularly in terms of the banter between my party members as we wandered around the city of Kirkwall and surrounding areas. So because I don't want to think up anything actually original, here's 500 words or so of my favorite conversational gambits:

Merrill: I heard Varric saying you were a Grey Warden.

Anders: I was.

Merrill: I met a warden once. Back in Ferelden. Duncan, I think his name was. Very odd man.

Merrill: He had a marvelous beard, though. I'd never seen one before. I thought a squirrel had grabbed him by the chin.

* * *

And a lot of it is dependent on previous choices:

If Hawke romanced Merrill but also slept with Isabela

Anders: Hawke was a fool to let you move in. You'll only betray him/her. That's all your kind can do.

Merrill: Why do you only do this to me? Are you jealous? You never get upset about Hawke and Isabela.

Anders: You can't really get jealous because someone sleeps with Isabela. It's just...understood.

Anders: She's like a side dish. She comes with the meal.

If Isabela is in the party

Isabela: Only if it's a good meal.

* * *

Merrill: Thank you very much for the help earlier, Varric!

Varric: You made it back to the Alienage in one piece, then?

Merrill: I don't know how I wound up in Darktown. There are just too many corners in Kirkwall.

Varric: Still got that ball of twine?

Merrill: I left it at my house. Don't worry! I won't get lost while we're following Hawke.

Varric: Bring it next time, Daisy. Just in case.

I had a friend complain that the idea that Merrill finds her way through the city with a ball of twine completely implausible—merchants would trip over it, people would slice it, urchins would steal it, and so forth. I sympathize with the complaint, but on the other hand, I’m not really looking for 100% realism in my elf-ridden fantasy game with dragons, dwarves, and demons.

* * *

Isabela: You have such pretty hair. What a lovely color.

Aveline: Other children used to laugh at me for having ginger hair.

Isabela: Really? Aww. I bet you were cute. Did you have pigtails?

Aveline: Sometimes.

Isabela: How precious! Little Aveline, running around the village with her flaming orange pigtails streaming behind her...

Isabela: ...and little boys all scattering and screaming for mercy as she approached.

Aveline: Shut up, whore.

* * *

Aveline: How are you so successful with men? You're not that pretty.

Isabela: Cast a wide enough net, and you're bound to catch something.

Aveline: (Laughs) At least you're willing to admit it.

Isabela: Trust me. I've heard, "Get away from me, you pirate hag!" more times than I care to count.

Aveline: Doesn't that bother you?

Isabela: Why should it? They don't know me. I know me.


Aveline: You're right.

Isabela: About?

Aveline: About knowing who you are.

Aveline: I'm the captain of the guard. I'm loyal, strong, and I don't look too bad naked.

Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you'd say...?

Aveline: Shut up, whore.

Isabela: That's my girl.

I think the Aveline/Isabela partnership is either the most complicated relationship since the Bowser/Mario team-up in Mario RPG. That, or more probably, there isn’t a single woman on the Dragon Age writing staff.

All quotations have been “borrowed” from the Dragon Age Wiki, your one-stop center for all information relating to Dragons, Ages, or any combination thereof. Later Days.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dragon Week 4: Schizo

I think I'm already running out of steam here; a 7-part series may have been a little overly ambitious. Next game gets a 3 parter.

Over the past two days, we've covered the part of the game I like the best (the choice system) and the least (the combat system). To elaborate on where I left off last time, the reason the game's combat system seems so different from the dialogue-choice aspect is that the latter is all about presenting meaningful choice--or at least, the illusion of meaningful choice. I'm left with the feeling that the choices I've made have contributed to the results, which are often multifaceted. In the combat, there's no sense of that; either your tactics worked, and you move on, or they failed, and you have to try again. I'm left with a sense that I'm playing too very different games, and when one interrupts the other, I feel resentful.

And that's the real problem: the fighting and the talking don't affect each other in a noticeable manner, except tangentially in two ways. First, and most obvious, is that the conversation choices I make occasionally decide who I will fight, and if I will fight. And if I push my companions far enough into rivalry or friendship, they will gain passive abilities that will affect their battle ability, though rarely in an obvious manner. And that's it. Since the game has removed diplomacy points and barter points that were options in previous Bioware games, I can't even say that the experience I get in battle can be used to purchase skills that grant new conversational options. The game is constantly shifting gears, and every so often, it stalls.

Granted, videogames have long attempted to fuse nonlinearity with plot, and the story/fighting dichotomy is hardly anything new; the classic space exploration game Star Control 2 had an even worse combat system, yet people persevered for the stellar story (pun not intended). And it beats the traditional videogame option, which was to provide no story options at all, and keep any nonlinearity, if it's there at all, purely in the exploration phase of things—the action and story just forces you to the end.

But there are other ways of doing things. A friend of mine played the leaked demo for the new Deus Ex game, and it may have found an alternative. (I haven’t played it myself, so this is all apocryphal.) Apparently, if you spend too much time exploring in the game during a hostage situation, the terrorist starts killing hostages. It’s a small thing, easily monitored by the computer, but it’s a clear case of action taken during the “battle” phase of a game that meaningfully affects the “story” at hand. That’s the sort of responses that I wish Dragon Age II had more of. If I spend untold hours fighting a black dragon when I've already in the middle of the quest to rescue some villagers, maybe the villagers shouldn't be waiting by the time I get back. Granted, this method has its own drawbacks, but to make choices like that so important would, I think, ultimately make my own play more meaningful to me.

Later Days.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dragon Week 3: The Good Stuff

But as much as I didn't like the game's combat system, there was something that kept me going: its story. Those familiar with videogame scholarship know that the first big debate in the field is usually characterized as narratology vs. ludology. Narratology argued that videogames should be evaluated in a similar manner as stories, or, in the argument's broader form, in a similar manner to any older form of media, from television or cinema to classic Aristotelian principles. Ludology holds that videogames should be studied first and foremost as games, which usually translates into an investigation of rules and play. I’m going to take the approach that most scholars do nowadays, which is to raise the debate and then immediately deny it. It’s particularly irrelevant in this case, because in Dragon Age II, the story *is* a game.

Since at least the 1998 Baldur’s Gate, Bioware has separated its RPGs out from the crowd by emphasizing the personal choices the player can make to direct the plot. For example, at the beginning of the game, the player chooses whether to take a job with a band of mercenaries, or a band of thieves. The former choice has you fighting a large group, whereas the latter has you coercing a merchant. The rewards for the quest aren’t that different, so the choice is fairly mild. On the other end of the scale, you have choices that range from turning a young man over to his certain death or pitting the knight order and the mage order against each other, to just saying to hell with it and seizing control of the city for yourself. I’ve argued in papers that Bioware encourages the players to adopt their own subject positions within the framework of the world they’ve set up, and that’s certainly what’s going on here. You can play at being a blunt, brutal dictator, a light peace-maker, or a flirty jokester—whatever role you want to play.

The other side of the coin is that you then have to actively pursue the story. You need to go out of your way to do sidequests and extra missions, to invest yourself in the gameworld. A lot of the story is peripheral—do you want to follow up a sidequest that has you help the knight commander out on a date? Do you care whether your elf friend manages to reconstruct a mirror that’s important to her heritage? Even simple exploration expands the game world, both in the player’s conception of it, and in the fact that little text pieces appear in your codex as you wander around, fleshing out the huge level of detail the creators have put into it. That’s what makes the combat in the game so comparatively frustrating—you either lose or win—there’s no middle ground in terms of meaningful results. It’s just something to plow through until the next real choice comes along.

(This is a photo from the date quest, in which your character has lured the male on the right here under false pretenses. Scandalous.)

Later Days.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dragon Week Part 2: What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing.

Today’s Dragon Age II subject is the element I most hated about the game: the combat system. And since that’s a good 50% more of the game in its entirety, it’s a big problem. Essentially, it boils down to this: in the game’s frequent battles, you control a squadron of four characters, but you only have direct control over one at a time. For Bioware games in general, this limitation means that, especially for harder difficulties and fights, you are either constantly cycling through characters or letting your other members die and fighting solo. The former is frustrating because it makes you feel like you’re micromanaging rather than fighting, and the latter is frustrating because it rather defeats the purpose of having a team to begin with.

Dragon Age II attempts to solve this conundrum by allowing the player to program character macros, called “tactics,” that allow you to automate characters to a certain extent. For example, I could set the character Fenris to attack anyone who is targeting my healer, or to drink a health potion when his health goes below half, or to use a Smite blow whenever he is surrounded by more than 2 enemies—or I can set him to do all three, and prioritize each option.

It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t quite work. To be honest, even after hours of play, I’m still not entirely sure if it’s because the characters don’t quite use the macros I set out for them, or if it’s because they are using them, but because of the long waits between recharges for their moves, they are never quite accessing their moves exactly when I need them to be implemented. And honestly, as long as a game gives you even the sense that it’s not doing what you told it to do, something’s gone wrong. As an example of what’s clearly not working, on many of the bosses, there’s a visual cue that they’re gearing up for an area-based attack, and you’ve got a limited window to back away. You can always run your selected character away, but there’s no macro for getting the others to avoid what is very obviously coming—and no macro to set one to attack from the rear while the other attacks from the front, to avoid both getting hit at once by a front attack. So you’re left with the micromanage or solo play.

My personal solution was to take manual control of the healer, and let the computer take care of the others. It stopped the frequent deaths, but it also sucked the fun out of the game—I wasn’t really participating in the fight, I was managing it. And when the healer could do something, I just spammed attacks. I don’t know what the solution is here. You could go the solo route, like the Bethesda Elder Scroll games, but that sacrifices the group bond that is Bioware’s hallmark. You could go into a more robust macro such as that used in Final Fantasy 12, but... well, when it comes to which games people remember, it’s a sure bet they’re not going to place FF12 over the last Bioware effort. I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t like what I gots now.

Later Days.