Commentary – Mass Effect: Looking Back, Looking Forward

In just a few weeks we’ll be seeing the third and (theoretically) final installment in Bioware’s Mass Effect series. A recently released demo gives a brief look at the story that I poked at sparingly to try to get the right balance of getting a taste and avoiding spoilers. It’ll be interesting to see how it holds up to people’s hopes and expectations.

We’re probably well past the statue of limitations, but just in case, spoilers ahoy.

The first Mass Effect (2007) was a game with a lot of big ideas and enough budget to make a decent number of them happen. The goal was to give the player an entire galaxy to explore and lots of interesting opportunities to roleplay in it. In traditional Bioware form the player joins a powerful secret society and gathers eclectic allies to bring two at a time to confront a nebulous threat of tremendous scope and possibly get hooked up with a party member. It’s the same story they always tell, but they tell it well (usually).

There’s no denying that they didn’t quite hit all the bases they wanted to. For a Bioware game it seemed kind of small at times; there were only a handful of ‘towns’ and large non-copy-pasted adventure areas. There’s a lot of side missions but an exhausting majority of them involve driving around craggy landscapes to go into near-identical buildings and shoot near-identical mercenaries.

At the same time, a lot of love went into this game. Even though you can only land on one square mile of one planet in each star system, every single planet in the game was given a neat bit of tasty flavor text. Those who enjoy crunchy sci-fi technobabble to chew on found their codex continually filling with new snacks. The moral choice system suffers at times from being forced to fit all the decisions onto a binary good/evil axis but a handful of the decisions made me put down the controller and think for a minute. The various alien worlds could have more detail, but what they do have is impressive.

There was this one time I was driving all over some craggy landscape or another, for the most part as generic as the last. Sometimes they’re blue, sometimes they’re white, sometimes there’s green dust motes around. Just for the heck of it I looked up as I crested a hill and saw a great red boiling sun hovering low in the sky. Just sat there watching it for a bit because it looked neat. I’m not 100% certain but it looked like this wasn’t just some animated image. It looked like someone had taken the time to make a realistic physics object of the swirling boiling burning gas clouds. The game is full of stuff like that, shadows cast by the game they wanted to make.

I got pretty well absorbed into Mass Effect 2 (2010), possibly due in part to three feet of snow dropping on my house every few days when I got it. Inbetween waiting for my xbox to cool off and tunneling my way out to my driveway I found a game like an oreo with really terrible stale cookies around an incredibly delicious creamy filling.

Instead of a band of heroes, this time around I filled my squad with an interesting bunch of mercenaries and socipaths. Dangerous people, but hopefully I could make them more dangerous to my enemies than to myself. The various recruitments and the side missions to secure their loyalty were my favorite part of the game, each one seasoned with interesting choices, diverse environments, and good quality Bioware storytelling. In particular the character of Jack (Courtenay Taylor) has some of the best writing and voice acting I’ve seen in a game.

While I disagree with how they got Shepard away from his old crew and ship and such I think the end result, as far as giving the story somewhere new to go with old crewmates, was pretty good.  Just think of a friend you used to see every day who moved away and then you didn’t see him at all for years.  In two years someone can come back a completely different person.  In Garrus’ case there was a stretch during his loyalty mission where I thought he might actually shoot me.

The best part of Mass Effect 2 unfortunately also serves to highlight some of its worst parts. Many good stories are told about Shepard’s crew, but on the whole everything more happens around him than to him. In part 1 he learned about the Reaper threat and stepped up to do something about it, growing from a military squad commander into the role of a heroic leader by the end of the game. In part 2 he’s in the same place at the beginning as at the end; the Reapers are still coming, the council still doesn’t want to help, and there’s still no concrete defense to be mounted.

A majority of the game’s problems can be summed up in one word: Cerberus (and if one were to add a second word, the Collectors). The weakest parts of the game are easily the beginning and ending where everything has to be contorted to shoehorn these plot elements into place. It doesn’t make sense to force the player to join an organization that in ME1 was only slight less effective than Cobra Commander, especially with the Shadow Broker already established. Same goes for some of your former crew to sign on with terrorists on the vague justification that Cerberus is composed of numerous cells and some of them aren’t so bad. Nor is it necessary to vaporise Shepard and then resurrect him with soft science magic all in the first five minutes of the game when there’s about a dozen easy ways for someone to disappear for two years in the far reaches of space.

And then there’s the ultimate goal of the Collectors; turning humans into goo to build a giant robot shaped like a human to ride inside a space squid robot makes the Matrix human battery system seem downright reasonable by contrast. The big final decision of whether to blow up the giant enemy facility choc full of extremely valuable technical data on Reaper/Collector defenses or to hand it over to the terrorists is similarly goofy.

Hypothetically, here’s how I would have run Mass Effect 2. Shepard being out of contact for awhile is still useful to the plot because it gives his former crew time to go their separate ways. While out on patrol the Normandy is ambushed by a Reaper scout ship. They barely escape but Shepard goes overboard in the fighting, presumed dead. In truth he’s recovered by agents of the Shadow Broker who manage to hold him for two years before he successfully breaks out. Jacob and Miranda are SB agents who defect (or do they?) to help Shepard escape (or to monitor him). On his way out he finds that the Broker has been busy; two years has been plenty of time to make a trail of faked evidence painting Shepard as a rogue Spectre working for the Broker. This could facilitate the setup of Shepard reluctantly using the Broker’s intel to gather a team with the end goal of either breaking free or signing on with him full time. Trade the Collectors for new and exciting robots to blow up and replace the weird illogical ‘human reaper’ with some kind of intact superweapon to study or an advanced AI to capture. Ideally something that provides a decent boss fight and also makes some kind of progress towards the eventual third act Reaper showdown. It ain’t perfect and it’s basically a find/replace trading ‘Cerberus’ to ‘Shadow Broker and ‘Collectors’ to ‘Reapers’, but I for one would rather shoot more killer space robots than annoying bug monsters.

Now, you may look at all that above and think I hated this game, and there’s plenty wrong with it, but there’s plenty right too. The sloppily handled framing device is thankfully a very small part of the experience, a majority of which I spent doing stuff I liked rather a lot. It’s a little more of an action game with rpg elements than a full rpg, but the combat engine took some big strides from one game to the next. There’s also some tougher decisions to make, especially during the loyalty missions when you don’t know for certain if your actions will jeopardize the primary mission. The final mission (right up until the finale, anyway) was also an interesting series of tactical decisions that simultaneously solved the usual rpg plothole of ‘why doesn’t my entire team fight the last boss together’.

And that brings us to part 3 coming early this March and to be honest I could kinda go either way on it. Like a lot of folks I’m likely to pick it up pretty early on simply because of the momentum of playing the first two acts and I want to see the finale. Got a fair bit of worries though.

1) Bioware telling that one story over and over again gets even more obvious when they tell it back to back with the same character. Hopefully they’ll stretch out a bit the third time around.

2) I was disappointed with how Shepard’s importance changed from ‘because he knows about the Reapers’ in ME1 to ‘because he can singlehandedly beat up the entire invading alien army’ in ME2. The premise of ME3, that Shepard is a public icon who can diplomatically (or intimidatingly) rally the galaxy to work together, is something I can get behind. The demo, however, seems to be going the ‘badass super soldier’ route in which the galaxy’s only hope is Shepard punching all the bad guys in the throat. So, we’ll see how that goes.

3) It could be quite a challenge to get a cohesive story together for the finale of a series founded on having the player make meaningful decisions and still make the dialogue all work. My Shepard isn’t your Shepard isn’t his Shepard isn’t her Shepard. I have a feeling some folks are gonna find their avatars acting out of character to try to appeal to everyone.

4) I really hope a solution to the Reaper problem comes up more complex than ‘shoot them a lot’. After establishing early on that a single Reaper can nearly decimate the main battle fleet at the Citadel, it seems like when a few hundred or thousand show up something other than a direct suicide charge is required.

5) I dunno about the rest of you but I’m looking forward to having ME3 be another season of the best tv show that never existed, Wrex & Garry: Buddy Cops.


Image credit to anniezard, who draws neat stuff about Mass Effect and other cool things.

Stairwell Philosophy – Happy Holidays

The holiday season is fast upon us. For some it means a man in a red suit. For some it means a boy in a manger. For some it means free toys. It means a lot of things to a lot of people. Yet the more I think about it, the more it seems like it means the same thing to everyone, in a way.

Roundabouts the 20th or 21st of December comes the winter solstice, the point when the Earth’s orbit and rotation and whatnot make for the longest night of the year. It’s cold and it may yet get colder, but tomorrow will be brighter as the new year dawns. Most folks fit their various celebrations in a space stretching from late November through early January with a wide variety of reasons for the season.

Christmas needs little introduction, especially in the States where its so widespread as to be celebrated even by other religions and secular folks. It’s a time to gather for friends food and fellowship, and as with most holidays it’s a good time to give gifts. For Christians it’s actually a two-parter. The four preceeding weeks are the season of Advent, a time to meditate on waiting through the long dark night for the light at the end of the tunnel, symbolic of the Jewish peoples’ long wait and preparation for a savior to re-open the way to heaven. Following right after is the big day of course, starting off twelve days of Christmas to celebrate light returning to the world.

Speaking as a Christian I think it’s a neat little parallel that Jesus preached goodwill to people from every walk of life, and the modern Christmas season seems to have a little something from many of the big name solstice celebrations. Biblical historians place Jesus’ birth sometime in the summer, but it’s celebrated around the solstice both for the above reasons and to make for an easier fit with people wanting to convert.

Rather than weigh you down with a big history lesson I’m just gonna give you the cliffnotes version. Wikipedia’s right next door for the more detailed stuff. And we’re off.

Roughly two and a half millenia ago Zoroastrianism was one of the biggest religions in the world. Around solstice time they celebrated the rebirth of the sun and the victory of Ahura Mazda (the sun and other good guys) over Ahriman (darkness, evil, etc.). 7th century Japan had a similar gig with sun goddess Amaterasu being coaxed out of her cave to restore sunlight to the world. (Bet you want to take another look at Prince of Persia ’08 and Okami now.)

In the 3rd century Roman Empire held a solstice tradition called Sol Invictus (undefeated sun), broadly covering numerous similar religious figures like the above including Elah-Gabal (Syrian), Mithras (Persian), and later Jesus. Sounds like a pretty cool idea to me, having everyone come together to each celebrate the sun’s return in their own way.

Just a little further back we have Saturnalia, choc full of gift-giving and revelry for the elite and the common man alike. Here we also saw the tradition of decorating a tree, though it wasn’t until it melded with Germanic traditions that the trees were brought indoors. Said tradition of Yule inspired more than a few modern Christmas traditions such as burning a big yule log in the fireplace, having a great big yule boar (a.k.a. Christmas ham), and singing yuletide carols (which is what’s going on when people go a-wassailing).

Pagan and wiccan festivals often revolve around revering life, love, and the natural world. From these origins we have the practices of hanging festive wreathes and decking the halls with boughs of holly. The holly in the hall, the wreath on the door, and the evergreen tree in (or out in front of) the house all have something in common; no matter how long and cold and dark the night gets life keeps on going.

It’s increasingly common knowledge that very little of what we think of as modern Christmas tradition is unique to Christianity. I for one think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A symbol can belong to many people at once and hold a unique special meaning for every one of them.

Let’s make this the last year people complain about the ‘war on Christmas’. Let’s celebrate our common traditions and join in fellowship with our fellow man, all the world waiting for the sunrise. Decorate a tree, hang a wreath, bake a big ham, swap gifts, and enjoy some fellowship via your winter holiday of choice. If you haven’t got one of your own find a friend who does and join in; can’t go wrong with friends fun and food.

Whatever your reason for the season, however you and yours want to celebrate it, happy holidays from the Paladin’s Post.

Important Stuff – National Defense Authorization Act

So there’s this bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. They hammer out a new one every year to decide the military’s budgets and responsibilities and which battleship get retired and how many thousands of wrenches to buy and all that jazz. There’s a worrisome bit in the latest one though.

A new addition authorizes the military to indefinitely and without trial detain persons suspected of terrorist acts. “Persons”, as in, including you and me and everyone. This worries me for two very large reasons: A) I don’t like the idea of saying a certain crime or any crime is so bad that you can be locked up on suspicion alone. Arrest, have a trial, then put them away for life if you want to. That’s how it’s supposed to go. B) I don’t like the idea of passing laws with a high potential for abuse and hoping the government won’t misuse it; I’m not in the habit of handing a loaded gun to anyone with worse decision-making skills than myself.

Anywho, for the curious, you can find a complete record of the senate’ yeas and nays on this bill at this link right here.  Search results on the House and Senate website are deleted automatically after 30 minutes for some reason so you’ll have to travel on your own to Senate.gov and House.gov.  Seek out section 1031 of S.1867 and section 1034 of H.R.1540 respectively.

Took a little while to hunt these down. Make good use of them.

What’s all this then?

Just wanted to pop in to say updates might get a little less frequent at the Post for awhile.  Hours are finally picking up at work, which is great for my root beer fund but not as good for writing time.  That periodic craving for tabletop RPG design is swift upon me and I find whenever I’m trying to wrangle a blog post about some game or movie I saw I’m thinking “man I wish I was working on my game right now”.  At the very least I’ll try to hammer out something semi-weekly as well as throwing something together for the end of the year.  There might even be a bit of game design blogging depending on how it goes.

As I imagine I have in common with many folks who grew up in the D&D age, I’ve been tinkering off and on with a homebrew tabletop game for, oh, forever.  Back in the day we cobbled together a version of D&D that we liked based on what one of our group remembered from that one time he looked at a 2nd edition AD&D rulebook.  Many an afternoon we’d gather ’round in someone’s living room and when someone thought of a halfway-decent adventure idea the rest of us would grab characters and off we’d go.  We ran by whatever messed up rules we decided were fun.

Given that we were practically running a fantasy homebrew anyway it wasn’t a long jump to start making whole systems from scratch.  We cobbled together elements from whatever systems we liked to emulate whatever settings we liked.  If you’ve ever looked at the timeline of insane adventures and events presented in core rule books and wondered where those ideas came from, this is where.  I’d bet a mug of fine A&W that the timeline is a record of crazy stuff that happened when the writers were poking around and testing out their toys.

For my part, I’ve always leaned more towards futuristic sci-fi than fantasy.  My first edition (which is still around here somewhere) fit entirely on a single page of a steno pad.  You could be a human, a robot, or a cyborg, and there were some prices for laser guns and a few armor options and I think a shuttle or starfighter or two.  The sort of thing someone comes up with over summer break on a steady diet of Empire Strikes Back, TNG, and Final Fantasy.  From there it mutated through influence by percentile systems and West End Games’ d6 games and I think THAC0 was even briefly on the books.

The most recent change came about somewhat recently.  I had a craving to run a zombie game and I was unfortunately having difficulty convincing people to try the excellently well-written AFMBE system.  For a lark I decided to try using the rules from my sci-fi homebrew to see how much modification would be necessary to use it with modern-day zombies.  As it turned out, the answer was ‘next to none’.  Thus my latest crazy idea in a long series of crazy ideas was to turn it towards a universal system capable of telling stories in a variety of settings.

So that’s where we stand.  General updates may become a bit less frequent, but there may be some new ones on the topic of game design as I try to finally bring this monstrosity up to playable form.  From time to time I may use the blog to think out loud or roll some ideas around so I can work on the game and give you folks something to peruse at the same time.  Stay tuned.

(Motivational posters gathered more or less at random from RPG.net’s forums.)

Writing – Because I’m evil

Storytelling 101 states that an interesting story needs a good conflict. Great stories and great characters are defined by their struggles. This can come from a social issue or a force of nature (or something both powerful and mindless enough to essentially count as one), but the more versatile (and tricker) option is to bring in an antagonist. This week I’m going to ramble on about what I think makes for a good one, and while we’re at it we might as well make a few. They’ll be designed with tabletop RPGs in mind, but you could likely fit them into a novel just as easily.

Let’s tinker up five antagonists today. Different genres, different purposes, nice and diverse so we’ll have a lot of different parts to work with.

One will be a wizard, a classic archetypical fantasy villain.

One will be the leader of a band of modern-day insurgents, well-suited to be the focus of a peacekeeper squad.

One will be a sci-fi fleet commander, leading the war effort against the protagonists.

One will be a supercriminal, a good foil for a team of crimefighters.

One will be a legendary warrior, a straight up martial challenge.

Motivation is a big part of what gives an antagonist depth. Thankfully, few people get up in the morning and think ‘how can I be more evil today’. Your antagonist needs something to bring them into conflict with the protagonist to make them struggle for what they want. For some this may be a direct and specific desire to ruin the protagonist’s day. For others they may have a particular goal or certain methods that the protagonists just can’t abide.

The wizard wants power. If only I had more power, he thinks, I could fix everything. Haven’t we all thought the same at some point? From his point of view it seems like the neighboring kingdoms can barely go a whole month without going to war over some percieved injustice or bit of dishonorable conduct. Someone with enough power could force them to stop fighting and listen to reason. If that reason just happens to come from an all-powerful dictator, well, maybe that’s just how it’ll have to be.

The insurgent wants to remove what she sees as an unlawfully occupying military force. Some of the locals might be ready to just roll over and say the war is done but she won’t stand for it. You don’t just give up on your homeland. You do what your have to do so your people can live free, no matter the cost.

The commander wants to secure his government’s foothold in this sector. He’s a career soldier who believes in serving his nation. All those resources that make a utopian lifestyle possible for loyal citizens (such as his family) have to come from somewhere. Wiser planets have in the past agreed to acccept his government’s authority and reap the benefits peacefully. If they didn’t want to come willingly, well, that’s where his fleet came in.

The supercriminal wants to get rich. Robbing banks, stealing priceless artifacts, the whole nine yards. Way better pay than working 9-5, and more exciting to boot. Sure he might have to go on the run now and then, but that’s a small price to pay to have the money to do whatever whenever.

The warrior wants a good fight. The who and the why are unimportant so long as he finds the thrill of combat, testing himself against the strongest opponents and riding the razor’s edge. Soldiers, mercenaries, adventurers, anyone who can give him a good challenge.

So we know why they do what they do. What, then, do they do? This too is an important layer on which to divide the well thought out competition from the saturday morning cartoon villain. Remember, an antagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be evil; he just needs to make the protagonist struggle for his goals. Sometimes that goal might be ‘make the antagonist stop trying to reach his goals’.

The wizard will need a lot of power if he’s gonna take over the world. Best to start small and conquer some lesser towns first out on the outskirts, lest he get the king’s army on his doorstep too soon. Plus with a good bunch of minions under his command he can round up assorted magic items to increase his power for the eventual siezing of the throne.

The insurgent wants to come out of this with a clear conscience, though she accepts that this may not be possible. The way she sees it enemy soldiers are still enemy soldiers. A little assassination here, a little bombing there, and she and her compatriots will do whatever they have to in order to drive out the invaders. Hopefully they won’t have to deal with collaborators, but she’ll do what she has to do.

The commander prefers swift use of maximum appropriate force. It might not make him many friends among the locals but breaking up any potential resistance early means no long drawn out bloody conflict later. History might paint him as a villain but the future would be more prosperous for his actions.

The supercriminal sees himself as beyond the petty antics of lesser crooks. He carries a gun, but he uses it as more of a social contract than as a weapon. He also only robs from the rich, though that’s more a practical than ethical matter; the poor don’t have giant money vaults and million-dollar artifacts to pilfer.

The warrior does whatever will get him into the next good fight. Usually there’s a good war on somewhere, but if there isn’t one handy he might go start a few. If all else fails he might even just go knock over some caravans. That’ll get someone’s attention.

Now that we have a motive and means we need an opportunity. How does the protagonist get mixed up in the antagonist’s business? If you antagonist has a direct vendetta against the protagonist then the answer is obvious; Bob wants to ruin Frank’s day. For others you’ll need to find where the paths of protagonist and antagonist cross.

The wizard’s presence may first be felt in his organization of wandering monsters into organized camps and raiding parties. It may be several encounters before the party even knows the wizard is behind it all, and from there they’ll no doubt have to find out the location and defenses of his tower so they can try to take him down. A race for magical macguffins that can enhance and/or seal away his power are also reliable tropes.

The insurgent is likely to be fighting to displace the army the players are supporting, and may even be the soldiers targeted by her efforts. The party may first hear of some malfunctions and mysterious disappearances if she wants to keep things quiet, or she might go straight in and make the message loud and clear that the war is still on.

The commander is the easiest one to pit against the party if they’re remotely connected to the military; he’s commanding the soldiers opposing the party. They could be natives of the sector he wants to conquer, or perhaps an allied military force called in to help stop him. Either way, wherever the commander establishes a foothold the party will need to go in and uproot him.

The supercriminal, if he’s as smart as he thinks he is, would plan his crimes according to local resistance. If he’s aware of the party he may plot some crimes in the areas they patrol to put them on his trail for the added thrill of escaping them. If he’s the more subtle type you could give the party a longer investigation, putting together clues to figure out the supercriminal’s identity and next heist.

The warrior could just walk right up and pick a fight with the party, but this can make things a bit too open and shut if it’s a fair fight. You might have him first appear when he’s far too powerful for them, thrashing the group and leaving them alive so they’ll train up and come back later to give him a proper battle. If they’re already strong enough for him and he just needs to get their attention he might go harassing travellers to lure them out to a location of his choosing for a good fight.

So that’s framework done for five easy antagonists, ready to be garnished with personality traits and served up your next game night. A well designed antagonist makes the story shine all the more as the conflict deepens, letting the reader or players know what’s at stake and why. Just don’t forget to make good quality protagonists as well…

(I forget where I found this.  Some old Star Wars webcomic back when Jedi Knight was big.  I think the title was something about a Mynock?  Like Drunken Mynock or Wandering Mynock or something.  At any rate, it amuses me.)

Stairwell Philosophy – Easy Mode or How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love No-Fail

They don’t make games like they used to. Back in the day you’d see the first quarter of a game about a million times and the rest only if you were lucky (or had enough time to get a good gaming zen going). We ran out of lives and got kicked back to the beginning of the whole game and we hit start and got right back in there to try again. It was the way of things and it was good.

But then came games with a new way of handling difficulty. Games with no ‘game over’ screen. Games where they just hand you the ending if you keep playing long enough. In some cases the game will effectively play itself and you just watch it like a movie. Where has the challenge gone?

Thing is, back in the day there was basically only one type of gamer to appeal to. Everyone had their genre tastes but it was pretty easy to make a game with universal appeal in a universe so small. Plus there were other good reasons to build a nice steep hill to victory. Arcade games don’t make good bank if the player can win it all on a single quarter, and stretching gameplay out with a few hours of game over screens made console game prices a little easier to justify.

Every so often you need to step back and take a look at why you do what you do. Does brutal unforgiving difficulty make this game more fun? Does it help draw you into the narrative? Does it serve some artistic purpose?

An easier difficulty setting can certainly be handy for the older gaming crowd. I for one usually play on the normal difficulty (assuming it’ll be the most balanced of the selections), but I’ll turn it down to easy if I just want to see the story or know I won’t have a lot of free time anytime soon. As real-life responsibilities build up over time I find I’d rather sacrifice some of the challenge in return for getting to see two or three levels tonight rather than playing one stage over and over and maybe having to play the same part again tomorrow night.

Another case for dialing back the difficulty of a game is accessability. Nintendo blazed a rather profitable trail with the Wii by making games with a much lower barrier to entry than was common to gaming at the time. Yet I think it’s a mistake to assume accessability and difficulty are automatically opposing forces.

Your mileage may vary, but for my part I like my difficulty best when it requires me to think. I enjoy comprehensible rules and systems, especially when an understanding of them allows one to achieve victory through superior tactics. By contrast I tend to lose interest after awhile in games whose challenge is predominately in execution, when the goal and method are quite clear and the difficulty is in performing the required actions with sufficient speed and precision. I do enjoy a good reflex challenge now and then (I have two drawers full of the games that coined the term ‘Nintendo Hard’), but I tire of them when it’s nothing but.

You can arguably have a bit of both in games like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and the various descendants of Lego Star Wars. There’s virtually no barrier to hacking your way through all of the game’s content and seeing the big finale. If you like to get all the extra shinies it’s gonna take a little more work. L.A. Noire approaches interrogations in a similar way. If you totally bugger the investigation the story will still muddle through, but if you’re dilligent in clue-hunting and good at reading people you get a better score and a more satisfying narrative.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero also straddle the line (as referenced in the title): both provide great execution-based challenges, but if you just want to rock out with your friends you can flip on the no-fail and not worry about getting kicked offstage if someone’s not getting the groove.

One might even say the same of Prince of Persia ’08, the game that inspired this ramble. Ubisoft has often toyed with weaving a game-over into the narrative. In the first Assassin’s Creed you got ‘desynchronized’ if you sucked too much, and the Prince in Sands of Time had to start his story over on occasion if he misremembered one of the hundreds of alternate timelines where he fell to his death. In both cases when the player fails to complete the game’s challenges it’s explained in such a way that the narrative can logically continue (as opposed to most games where you just die and go back to the last checkpoint because that’s how it’s always been done).

For those not in the know, in Prince of Persia ’08 there is (almost) no game over screen. Early on in the game you team up with a sidekick character who generally fixes things with magic. If you’re about to fall to your death due to flubbing a jumping puzzle sequence she teleports you to safety. Likewise if you’re fighting a boss and about to die she blasts it back and bamfs you out of the melee, though this gives it a chance to regenerate a big chunk of its health.

I’ve heard complaints that the game is too easy because you can’t lose. What’s actually going on is that failure is redefined.  There’s more than a few faults keeping this PoP from standing tall amongst its brethren, but in my book this new method of handling difficulty isn’t one of them.  It’s true that if you set the controller down the game will go on an endless cycle of the boss nearly killing you and the sidekick rescuing you for all eternity, but look at it another way.

Method a) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, die, loading screen, title screen, select load game, loading screen, select proper save file, longer loading screen, try again from the last checkpoint when the boss was at 75% health.

Method b) Fight a boss down to 10% health, make a few too many mistakes, sidekick bamfs you to safety, boss recharges to 75% health, get back in there.

You may notice one of these methods has you able to try again after a wait of maybe 3-5 seconds. The other makes you wait half a minute, maybe a full minute or two inbetween attempts. Time spent looking at loading screens and menus and reminding yourself that you’re faffing about with an electronic toy and not actually experiencing a thrilling adventure about space marines or wizards or whatever. And that’s if you’re lucky and the developers were kind with checkpoint placement. If not you’ll also have to spend who knows how long running through preceeding jumping puzzles or re-watching cutscenes or driving around town listening to repeated dialogue or whatever.

Older and wiser heads have gone into great detail at how it’s far easier to learn something you can keep trying at right away than to have to successfully compelete other tasks first, especially unrelated ones. Imagine for example you wanted to learn to play the trombone, but every time you wanted to practice it you had to go pass your driver’s ed class first. And then watch a music video that might be about trombone players, or might not. And sometimes sit staring at the trombone case for a while. Something like that.

To wrap things up, I’m hoping we’ll see more of this sort of experimentation in the future. By recognizing the differing applications of difficulty and accessibility we can create games that pose the kind of challenges that make old gamers and new want to press start to continue.

Happy Thanksgiving

I could probably rustle up some link or commentary on the impending shopping season or how a majority of the traditional Thanksgiving story is made-up fluff, but there’s plenty of other sites for that.  For myself I believe a holiday means whatever you make of it, so I’m going to make it a day of fun food and family and being thankful for all of the above.  Happy Thanksgiving from the Paladin’s Post.